In our June dialogue, we convened white female and gender minority racial justice activists to examine personal and political histories of immigration to this country, and to generate steps for action, engagement and dialogue with other white people towards contributing to the inspiring momentum of the immigrant justice movement. It was fantastic for the White Noise Collective to be joined by special guest, organizer and facilitator extraordinaire Dara Silverman of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), who led us through a three-part process of familial exploration on a timeline of US history, expression of values and stakes white people may have in immigrant justice, and concrete practice with role playing conversations. SURJ is a national network of white people committed to racial justice, originally organized in 2009 to begin to explore ways that white individuals could step up to the challenge of confronting the contemporary manifestations of racism across the US. SURJ’s focus is on reaching white people who are already in motion and have political analysis, but may be unsure where to go, to engage more deeply in racial justice campaigns. In 2013, SURJ committed to a campaign focused on (im)migrant justice.
This piece is offered to share the insights and potentially helpful frames, strategies and talking points that emerged from this collaborative process. Acknowledging that skill-building capacity is a muscle to use and practice, we are all strengthened by political community that takes action together.
Where Do We Come From As White People: Fighting the United States of Amnesia
In her condensed and powerful essay “Raícism: Rootedness as Spiritual and Political Practice” (Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity), Aurora Levins Morales makes blazingly evident the necessity for the practice of what she terms raícism (from raíces or roots), rooting ourselves in the concrete histories of our people(s), to bear witness to “our specific, contradictory, historical identities in relationship to one another”. As an ongoing practice of accountability, which makes power structures and our agency within them more visible and tangible, she states, “Mapping the specificity of our ethnicity also reveals hidden relationships. European Americans in this country need to find out in relationship to whom they became white.” The work of individual and collective memory for people of European descent/dissent, can be a particular type of swimming upstream in US dominant culture, where the politics of forgetting has allowed white people to not recognize the construction of whiteness, as the true “melting pot” of European ethnicities, and defined against the necessary Other in a system, country and economy built on racism. As Cornel West explains, “Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be “white”– they would be Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and other engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity.” To see the diversity of family immigration stories, class circumstances, as well as recurring themes across generations, and their direct connections to landmark American policies over “300 years of affirmative action” that increasingly solidified a system of white supremacy, dissolved cross-race class solidarities and erased Old World identities, ethnic markers, legacies. Assimilation is not looking back, “making it” within the unequal opportunity race of the American meritocracy dream.
We began with a timeline on the dry erase board from 1700-2000, and had short conversations about what we each know about our family’s immigration history. What were the aids, blocks, and benefits? Writing these on three different colors of post-its, we placed them on the timeline and stood back together. Themes of poverty and consolidation of wealth stood out. Within our small group, we had ancestors who came to the US as aristocrats and as indentured servants, who came in the 1700s and as recently as a generation ago. All became white. In the context of this timeline, we see how access to land with the Homestead Act (1862) and the Federal Housing Administration (1934) offering low interest for first time home buyers, contributed to intergenerational asset-building and structural (unearned) advantage. Class mobility, assimilation and the creation of race and white identity to divide and conquer class bonds and shared interests and power, all came into sharp relief. It was fascinating to witness how common themes of intergenerational trauma, alcoholism, assigned identities (such as who was considered more or less intelligent) and belonging/not belonging were among our small sample of individual histories, pointing to larger phenomena that continue to shape the present, uphold structures of inequity, and live intimately within us. What are the parts that get invisibilized or don’t get talked about in daylight or at the dinner table? What mythologies of wealth exist in our families to explain how they achieved what they did? This exploration could have gone on for much longer, and should and will, as we work to make history personal and visible in the present, connecting to immigrant justice issues and conditions from our lineages of intertwined oppression and privilege.
One additional excellent tool to make these histories come alive and see with greater clarity the (dis)connections in our ancestors’ conditions of immigration and today’s brutal realities is the Entry Denied interactive teaching tool. Would your grandmother or grandfather be denied entry today? As this site says, “Millions of Americans have grown up with a defining family immigration story. But while our families may have endured hardship coming to America, the simple fact is that most of our immigration stories would not be possible at all under today’s immigration laws.”
As Levins Morales offers, “Questions about our place within the megastructures of racism become intimate and carry personality. It becomes possible to see the choices we make right now as extensions of those inherited ones, and to choose more courageously as a result.”
White People Have Multiple Stakes in Immigration Justice
As we moved into the second part of the evening, a discussion of how to engage and mobilize others, one participant raised an important question, why do white people need to “have a stake”? Is that a hook? Merely instrumental? An appeal to enlightened self-interest? Do we assume that identifying stakes are necessary because justice is not, in itself, compelling and urgent enough? Keeping this critique close, but acknowledging the racist propaganda of dominant media frames that we are contending with, we generated various stakes, issues or values that could be a bridge to other white people – could mobilize different forms of caring, open hearts, stimulate minds, and spark and stoke action.
As a partial list-in-progress, we created this in hopes of contributing to the proliferating interpersonal and national conversations taking place around (im)migrant justice:
- Militarization – people are both caged out and caged in by borders; we don’t want to live with militarized borders, as they are and increasingly so
- How are the economic effects on other countries made invisible? Policies of the US, multinational corporations and free trade agreements (such as NAFTA)?
- What are personal effects of immigration policies in my/your/our family history? What causes a family to migrate away from home?
- Forgetting (histories of becoming white) and invisibilizing (structural racism) work in tandem
- Militarized and rigid borders lead to traumatization and breaking apart of families. For an excellent groundbreaking report on this widespread reality, see the Applied Research Center’s: Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System, with key findings and policy recommendations
- We don’t want to value money over people
- Undocumented labor may depress wages in certain historically working class jobs/industries sectors (sensitive issue to raise as this may get spun into reinforcing the right-wing refrain of immigrants taking jobs) – valuing and documenting everyone’s work leads to greater value and greater working class power
- We need health care workers to be at their best, yet the reality is that wages and standards are so low – not being cared for can compromise care labor
- Our standard of living is dependent on a constant flow of immigration/movement across borders
- More just immigration and direct paths to citizenship means more people paying into Social Security system
- Immigration is changing the demographics of the south, with polls showing that immigrants vote progressive and if enabled and supported to vote – the entire south could swing to left – greatly shifting the needle of the entire country
- Just as our family belongs here, we believe all families belong here
- Relationships are forced apart because of immigration policies
- Redefining and reclaiming “family values” and American values
- Christian values, love thy neighbor as thyself
- Stolen land, stolen bodies, stolen souls – histories of white supremacy
- Controlling, surveilling and policing bodies – does and can carry over into white communities
- Think of all the people in your life
- National wins around climate require involvement with and mobilization of undocumented Latino communities, who are generally in favor of more radical climate change policies, presenting lucid analyses, and stark insights from climate refugees
Listening is a Big Part of Organizing
Think of someone – which of these statements or ideas would resonate with them? Is there a way to humanize this issue or connect it to someone they know? What do they care about? One of the key points we kept returning to is that asking questions is always a helpful strategy, as is a stance of sincere curiosity, as we remember that the goal is not to win someone over, but to engage a conversation around this issue, and trust that the next step can arise. How do we work on our own defenses that may get triggered, and return to a question to re-open the channel of transformative communication? This is a practice and is very much ongoing. We will not “get it all right” or “have all the answers” (watch out, white socialization!) in one conversation. By having a different interaction, how does the environment start to change?
In the words of Ella Baker: “each one, teach one”.
Organizations and Campaigns
We Belong Together: Women For Common Sense Immigration Reform
National Domestic Workers’ Alliance
Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association, Caring Homes and Just Workplaces
Voice of Art: Migration is Beautiful
UndocuBus: No Papers, No Fear