Five types of statements on race made by refugee and immigrant families and how to respond

A conversation template for children of refugees and immigrants on how to dismantle anti-Blackness in our families and communities

The founding story of the United States of America cannot be separated from racism. Since its founding, the United States of America has created many rules and systems to fully embed a racial hierarchy not only into its economic, legal, cultural, and social systems, but also into the consciousness of its citizens.

The refugees and immigrants who arrived in the United States in the past several decades came into a country that was already running a robust and complex system of racial hierarchies. Most of the refugees and immigrants do not fully understand the historical context of these hierarchies, primarily because they are too busy learning the rules just to survive. However, this lack of understanding is often exploited by White Supremacy to increase anti-Blackness in non-Black refugee and immigrant communities.

I have summarized common statements on race made by refugee and immigrant families into five major categories, and I am offering frameworks on how to respond.

A painted activism power fist in black ink on a multicolored brick wall
Photo source: shutterstock

1. “We made it.”

Example: “We had to leave [our home country] with nothing, and when we first arrived here, life was really hard and no one helped us. We worked hard to finally get to where we are today. We don’t need to help others (i.e. Black people).”

Framework for responding:

  • Validate their experience: What happened in our home country was not ok, and it is the result of neocolonial, neoliberal, and imperialist policies. [I recommend that you include specific facts of what happened in your home country]. What happened to you after you arrived in the U.S. was also not ok. This country did not and does not provide our communities with access to physical and mental health care or to dignified work with a living wage. The experience of displacement through migration includes being cut off from our food, our language, our ancestors, and our communities. I recognized what you had to go through was incredibly painful.
  • Connect fundamental systems of oppression: The system of injustice that destroyed our homeland and that views our lives as refugees and immigrants as disposable is the same system of injustice that views Black lives as disposable. People in power want our communities to fight each other so that we lose sight on the actual enemy: those in power. They don’t want us to unite and fight White Supremacy and racial capitalism because they want to keep their power.
  • Solidarity is the only answer: The only way we can challenge these big systems of injustice is if we united in solidarity. One example I like is the story of ethnic studies. In the late 1960s, students at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley formed the “Third World Liberation Front,” a coalition comprised of the Black Student Union, the Latin American Student Organization, the Filipino American Collegiate Endeavor, the Asian American Political Alliance, and El Renacimiento, a Mexican American student organization. This multi-racial coalition of students went on strike, faced police brutality, and demanded that their university curricula include their histories and reflect their communities. The fact that there are departments for Black Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicanx Studies, etc. on many college campuses today is due to these students’ efforts.

2. “We earned it.”

Example: “We have been good citizens, so we don’t have trouble with the police. They must have done something wrong to get the police involved.”

Framework for responding:

  • Separate legality from morality: While our schools and the mainstream media tell us that laws help us to discern the difference between right and wrong, they in fact do not. Legal frameworks are not set up to distinguish moral behaviors from amoral behaviors; they are set up to protect the rights and properties of those in power. Slavery was legal but not moral. Apartheid was legal but not moral. Repressive governments murdering political opponents is legal but not moral. In the United States, many laws were written to fundamentally control Black and Brown bodies. For example, laws that prohibit loitering, which is simply hanging out in a public space for an extended time, are typically used to fine or arrest folkx in Black and Brown neighborhoods and are not enforced in white neighborhoods.
  • Historical context of policing in the U.S.: In this country, the police force evolved from slave patrols, and the entire police and prison industrial complex is rooted in the fundamental purpose of controlling Black and Brown bodies.
  • Concrete examples: If you think Black people have done something wrong to get the police involved, what about Breonna Taylor who was sleeping, or Stephon Clark who was in his own backyard holding his own cell phone?

3. “It’s not our problem.”

Example: “Racism is a Black vs. white problem. We don’t need to be involved.”

Framework for responding:

  • Racism in the U.S. is hierarchical: Even though dominant narratives frame racism as a Black vs. white issue, it is actually systemic and hierarchical and affects all of us.
  • It benefits those in power to have us opt out: Historically, those in power have never voluntarily given up their power to benefit those who were marginalized. Power has only shifted when communities organized to fight. When we opt out, we protect the status quo. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” (Desmond Tutu)
  • They didn’t opt out on us: There are many more examples of big changes achieved through inter-racial solidarity. In 1965, the Hart-Cellar Act (aka the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965) was passed that abolished earlier national origin quota restrictions, which severely limited the ability of many communities, including Asian American communities, to grow. Part of the reason the 1965 act was signed into law was because of civil rights leaders like Dr. MLK who advocated for it. Dr. King recognized that national origin quotas were based on the same racist systems that oppressed Black people. While our struggles are not the same, it is important to recognize that our varied experiences of oppression are fundamentally rooted in the same systems of oppression. Some people might say, “Black civil rights leaders fought for us, so we owe it to them.” I personally don’t like to frame it that way because I don’t believe that we will make advances on the long road to justice and liberation by keeping score and trading favors between communities. I believe that we will only achieve wins when we root our fight in our shared humanity, when we deeply understand that our lives and fates are intertwined, that our struggles are bound up together, and we fight together in love and solidarity.

4. “Don’t risk it.”

Example: “Protests are too dangerous. I want you to stay home and be safe.”

Framework for responding:

  • I am taking precautions: Because you should! COVID-19 is not yet under control, and it is important to wear face coverings. Smart phones have a lot of tracking and valuable information, and it is important to put them on airplane mode and to turn off fingerprint or face ID access. Violence from the police is very real, and it is important to have an emergency plan. Be prepared to engage in direct action. Follow the leadership of Black activists and organizations that have experience with direct action. Share your plan with your family.
  • In addition to or instead of protests, I am taking other actions: Utilize this as an opportunity to share with your family and community other possibilities for engaging in anti-racism work.

5. “Things will never change.”

Example: “Racism will never end. You are just too young and idealistic. You will grow out of this phase.”

Framework for responding:

  • Affirm the vastness of this task: Yes, the fight is hard and the road to justice and liberation is long.
  • Look to history: We have achieved wins, and we can look to our movement ancestors for inspiration. When we achieved wins through solidarity, these wins have benefited all of us. Historically, we have only achieved wins when we united together to fight, not when we threw our hands up in the air at the vastness of the problem.
  • This work is inter-generational: And we need hopeful folks of all ages in this fight.

I hope these frameworks are useful as a starting point. Remember, the road is long. Racism will not be dismantled overnight just as people’s long-held beliefs do not change overnight. Keep having those conversations. Keep doing the work.

Social justice educator | Storyteller | Informed and inspired by indigenous activists, grassroots community leaders, and intersectional movement ancestors

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