In February, the Tucson YAVs were asked to lead a worship service. The topic for that Sunday was “Dismantling Structural Racism.” I felt vastly under prepared and uncomfortable to be standing in front of people talking about racism. But as I thought of what I wanted to say and worked with fellow YAVs to flesh out the service, I chose to embrace this discomfort.
I am still feeling discomfort. Talking about race is hard and I am constantly worried I am going to mess up. Race discussions force me to face the systematic injustice happening all around me every day. It makes me not be able to ignore the pain, fear, injustice that is what our society is built upon.
Below is what I wrote and for that sermon on Dismantling Structural Racism. It feels especially pressing this week as we have heard of another black man being murdered by police and the protests that turned to riots because of more police violence. My heart hurts.
I hope you read this. But before you continue reading, I have one request. If you have yet to listen to the voice of a black person on the current happenings of police brutality and protests, close my blog right now and read from someone who lives under the oppression of white supremacy every second of every day. Black voices matter more than mine. This video is a great place to start.
It is easy to question Why should we be so wrapped up in these issues of racism? There are other issues to fight for as well. So why is Dismantling Structural Racism a key part of the Matthew 25 vision? Why should we care more about issues of race than issues of the environment, or women’s rights or LGBTQ inclusion?
While it can be easy to fall into these ideas, I have to remind myself that racial discrimination is much farther reaching than other forms of prejudice. All others are impacted by race and ideas of white supremacy.
For example, I am a woman. I am queer. Both of these identities have given me my own experiences of prejudice. But I carry both of these identities with the intersection of white skin, which carries many privileges independently of the others.
As a woman, I experience all the way too common things like getting nervous going places on my own at night or anxiety about being in solo in close proximity with a male stranger. I get told how to dress and act and judged for not falling into the mold that our white supremacy society set for us.
Since working at CHRPA, my womanhood has been an ever more pressing issue because I am working in a male-dominated field where strangers frequently tell me their unsolicited opinions on women doing manual labor. Additionally, while home for Christmas, I had to have a conversation with my grandmother to convince her that my daily physical work isn’t “ruining my ovaries” and hear her concerns about me not being able to have a family in the future. One of my brothers, who also does a labor intensive job, has never had to be questioned on if he will still be able to have a family later in life due to his work now.
While I am able to find some of these encounters and conversations amusing in hindsight, I hate that I have to invest time and energy navigating people’s opinions of my identity. Time an energy that straight people and men get to spend in other ways if they choose to. I am tired of educating people about queer and women’s rights, just like many other queers and women are.
The weight of this exhaustion really hit me when I was questioning why we were being asked to talk about race today. Our YAV coordinator Alison responded by asking us “well who do you think should be talking about it?” I didn’t have an answer.
Someone more qualified? Someone who knows what they are talking about? I certainly don’t know what I am talking about.
As a white person, I benefit from so many privileges. I don’t have to put in extra time and energy to wonder how my race plays a role in my everyday life and interactions. I don’t have to think daily about ways to talk about white privilege.
This energy that we don’t have to spend on those thoughts and conversations allow us the privilege to devote our time and energy to other things. We get to choose how to use this time. One option is to give that energy to fighting the racist structures all around us. To up ending white supremacy. To having the hard conversations because non-white people have been doing all the work for far too long. It is time we join them. Not to do it for them, but to be present with them in this struggle.
Additionally, our privilege gives us more power. We have more of a say as white people. That is how this system of white supremacy works. White people have more sway with elected officials and have a greater chance of being elected to those offices. White people can stand up against these systems with less of a fear of being attacked by law enforcement or imprisoned. White people speaking up in a group is considered a protest while frequently black people speaking up in a group is considered a riot.
There is a double standard and as white people we can use that to work toward ending structural racism.
I don’t want that to be read as supporting the ideas of white saviorism. I don’t think that white people should be leading this fight. We are not able to lead the resistance when we don’t experience oppression. But we should be present, and using the stance that we have as people of privilege to advance the fight to more people.
Similarly, I feel called by the idea of “doing for the least of these” as Jesus said. Just becasue I am queer and a woman, I dont’ get to step back from the issues of race by thinking that I have my own battles to fight. There is an intersectionality to oppression where I hold more privilege as a white woman than a black woman does. We both experience sexism but in vastly different ways.
For example, while I do worry about my safety, I get to worry less about it than women of color. 4 out of 5 Indigenous women experience violence and they have a 10% greater chance of being murdered than the national average. Additionally, if I experience violence, I have a much higher chance of law enforcement actually caring than the murdered indigenous women do. This is a huge issue in our country that too many people aren’t talking about. If you don’t know about this crisis, I strongly encourage you to read more about it here.
But these acts of violence, the difference in treatment between us as White people versus the treatment of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) isn’t how it is supposed to be. Ephesians 2 says: 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.
God makes things new. Our creator made us as one human body, one community. But the history of the human race has defiled the plan by our creator. If our goal as a church is to be like Christ, then we have to do this reconciling work too.
I have spent the last couple weeks asking “Why are we talking about this at church? Why me? Am I qualified for this? Aren’t there better people to be talking about this than me? What do I know?”
But if not us then who? Who should be talking about this? Cause BIPOC are tired of talking about this. They have been fighting this oppression from white people for centuries. They think about white supremacy every day. Because they can’t not think about it. As white people, we are comfortable sitting in the world that has been built to favor white skin.
To be a Church engaged in the world and to reconcile all human beings as God’s creation, we need to get comfortable challenging the ideas of white supremacy. Comfortable speaking up for the oppressed. Because if we aren’t speaking up for the oppressed, then we are standing in silence with the oppressors, and I no longer feel that I can stand for that as a person of faith.
Why us? Why are we as white people talking about this? Because we have the power, time, and energy to do something about it. So we need to be talking to our neighbors, our representatives, our families about these issues of injustice against our black and brown siblings in Christ. We need to be sitting and learning from black, indigenous and people of color. Most importantly, we need to do something. Something to make the reconciliation that Jesus called for a reality.
A good resource of where to start: 75 things white people can do for racial justice
Feeling awkward about talking about race? Me too. Nadia Bolz Webber has good things to say about that.
You will get to a point one day, where this won’t be so hard, it won’t hurt so much.
This is what Margo Cowan, a woman who has been engaged with activism for over 45 years, told me as I walked her files into court last fall. It was my second week on the job, and in a plan to get to know me better, she asked how I liked my work with Keep Tucson Together. KTT is a new work placement for the TBYAVS, and it has been a lot of learning and growing for all involved. I went in knowing nothing about law or immigration. I also knew that I didn’t have the best boundaries when it came to work. That I have trouble separating areas of my life and not getting too focused on one thing that I forget other things around me. I knew going into, that this year was going to hold a lot of growth.
Keep Tucson Together is an organization that strives to offer free legal services to undocumented families in Tucson that cannot afford a lawyer to represent them in immigration court. The organization started in 2011, helping people submit their DACA and citizenship applications. However, now, there is a growing need to defend people in deportation proceedings as cases that were closed 5 years ago are being reopened and more and more people are getting stopped for traffic violations and then deported. This year has brought me a constant awareness of the ways in which our government uses tactics of oppression to further instill racism fear into society.
My first week on the job we discussed the importance of an A# or an alien #. The government refers to our clients not as people, but as aliens, and instead of going through the trouble of learning names, ICE assigns them #’s. My second week on the job, I attended my first Thursday night clinic and sat in on our team’s meetings with clients. I heard second hand through a translator the stories of people seeking political asylum, I heard of families whose son or sister or parent had gotten detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt one afternoon and ICE was called because the driver didn’t have papers. The following Monday, I relived those stories again and again as I entered them into our database and then sent them by email to our lawyers and teams so that these folks could get help.
Many emails came back with further questions, lawyers looking for more information that made this plea for asylum unique compared to the dozen that they heard earlier in the month. The first few emails, made me angry, why should it matter- why are we forcing people to relive their trauma’s? IF they were from Europe would we be needing as much information?
When Margo told me at the end of my second week that I would one day build up a shell and that this work wouldn’t affect me, I didn’t believe her. How could I ever get used to these stories and become numb to all of the tears and panic that came into our office every day? In my first month with KTT I began to see through lawyer and volunteer interactions, through emails, the “numbness” that Margo was hinting at. However, I still wasn’t sure that becoming “numb” was possible for me. I did not see the value in it.
Thirty-six weeks later, I am now beginning to unpack what she was saying that day. This numbness doesn’t mean the work no longer affects you, it’s that it doesn’t paralyze you. I began to understand that even though our lawyers and volunteers weren’t visibly distressed each time a new client’s story was heard, they still feel each one. Instead of getting upset and shutting down when I hear these stories, I now get angry when the 27th person comes to the clinic or calls us to explain their situation. I am angry because 27 people shouldn’t have to call in one day for a lawyer. They should not be sitting in a detention facility waiting to have their story heard. A story that 8 times out of ten, involves a loved one they know or themselves fleeing death threats after being kidnapped or harassed by a cartel.
Two minutes before I got up to tell this story, I was replying to a comment on a Facebook post for the Justice for All campaign. I told you— it’s hard to put work aside! This campaign is fighting to create a public defenders office in Pima County strictly for folks in immigration court. To alleviate the workload that nonprofits like Keep Tucson Together are facing when taking on 700+ cases at a time. The saying, you have a right to an attorney and if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you, does not apply to non-citizens. Because in the eyes of Americans, if you are not a citizen you are not a person, you are an alien, why should you get a lawyer?
I am channeling anger tonight because I have had to tell the 9th person on Facebook for the 27th time that to get here “legally” amounts to more than having money and waiting two weeks for a passport or visa. I am angry because no matter how many ways it gets said, some people still struggle to connect the dots. And it’s not their fault, the system that we play into has caused us to be this way, to feel this way- or really, to not feel at all. But, how can I share my thoughts about what I am learning at the border when people are too built into their systems to listen. What happens when everyone plays into this “numb” feeling and a person’s life becomes a case instead of a story.
I now get angry instead of sad and in this current situation where KTT has 53 clients in ICE custody, in detention, awaiting infection, my blood is boiling and I challenge why more people’s do not. I am disgusted that our first question isn’t how can we help people who need help it’s, well are they here legally? When our second question isn’t how do we fix this, it’s how dangerous are these people? I am angry because I question how long social justice initiatives will have to keep fighting. I am angry now because some days, I wish I could live in Margo’s advice and be numb to the stories. To have this unawareness that friends, family, and Facebook strangers do. I am angry because as I am wishing for one day where I don’t have to be engulfed by work and immigration, I am also scared of becoming numb. It scares me to think that when this YAV year ends I will have the option not to think about the folks sitting in detention or being harassed by our government systems. It scares me to recognize the continuous battle in fighting the privilege to “numb out” and the challenge that comes with also taking time for self-care.
As we approach week 44, the end of our YAV year, and possibly the end of my time in Tucson, I get scared of leaving all I have learned behind and turning back to “numbing out”. People’s stories should not have to go on display in order for us to understand their situation. Yet, I have been given the gift this year of true vulnerability in the clients I work with and a few friends I hold dear. Their vulnerability should not go unnoticed. They are “Rock Stars” as Margo often says– and in a world that is threatening to dim their light, their stories need to be heard. The lesson that this year has taught me and the feelings that I am left with are that we can’t numb out and get used to these stories. As tempting as it is, we can’t take the easy way out and avoid seeing these people as people. Because if we do that, the system won’t change, people won’t change. As scared as I am for this YAV year to end, that does not mean the learning ends. We live in a world that will always offer one more story.