On April 7, 2021, the members of the East Alabama chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice discussed the meaning of allyship and the many forms it can take. The presentation from that meeting is available here.
Talking about racial justice cannot happen without taking account of whiteness and white privilege. Naming whiteness, describing how it operates in people’s lives, and examining how its benefits shape perceptions of the world is difficult work. It needs to start with what Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz calls “archaeology of the self” – a deep analysis of personal experiences, upbringing, and early encounters with difference. I gave this presentation to the members of East Alabama chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice on September 14 2020 to guide participants through a self-reflection on how socialization forces have affected their perceptions of difference. This presentation also invites them to explore how naming those influences opens up opportunities for creating change.
On July 29th, 2016, I became a US citizen. The immigration officer presiding over the ceremony said that this would be a second birthday for everyone taking the oath that day. “Except on this birthday you won’t get any older,” she chuckled out a worn-out joke. Perhaps it was a second birthday. But it was also a moment of death. Something inside of you dies when you raise your right hand and, choking on tears, mumble “I pledge allegiance…”
For several weeks before the oath, I would choke up any time when I tried to practice it. On the day of the ceremony, I told myself not to cry. When stubborn tears were streaming down my face, I told myself not to lose control. When sobs shook my body, all I could tell myself was to cry as quietly as possible not to get kicked out of the courtroom. Thankfully, I was not the only one crying. Everyone who came to the front to share their experiences of becoming a US citizen had to reach out for the tissues handed to them by the immigration officer. Quiet sobs from the audience assured them that we were in this sea of tears together.
Many people beam with pride when they look at crying immigrants. “They are so happy to become the citizens of this great country that they cannot contain their joy.” For many people, it is the case.
It was not for me.
For many years, I was torn by the aggressive US imperialism, US hypocrisy called “democracy,” and the endless injustice I saw around me. Injustice drowned in compulsive consumerism, political complacency, and deep divisions. “Divided States of America” is how I called the US to myself.
For many years, I could not imagine myself pledging allegiance to the country that used drones to bomb unsuspecting civilians in its “War on Terror.” I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that invaded Iraq under the false premises of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and sent it into the abyss of violence and disorder. I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that supported a violent conflict in Syria that displaced millions of people, caused a refugee crisis in Europe, and then turned a blind eye on thousands of civilian deaths. I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that was training rebels that were turning over to ISIS. The unstoppable violence against so many countries – and I am only writing about some of the conflicts of the last 15 years – made it hard for me to say that I could identify myself as a US citizen.
I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that has the highest incarceration rates in the world, that has the highest rates of deaths from gun violence and yet does nothing to change this situation, that has such high levels of police brutality against people of color that #BlackLivesMatter protests now take place not only in LA and DC but also in London and Sydney. I could not imagine pledging allegiance to one of the richest countries that also has one of the highest child poverty rates in the world and one of the most unequal educational systems among the developed nations.
How did I end up in that courtroom then? In the fall of 2015 and early 2016, I watched Bernie Sanders’ campaign and listened to his message of equality, justice, and peace. For the first time in my life, I could imagine pledging allegiance to this country. It was not the US I saw; it was the US that this man envisioned. Call me naïve if you want, but for me, it was truly a future to believe in. His words gave me hope, faith, and courage. Three days before my citizenship oath, Bernie Sanders moved that the convention suspends its rules and nominates Hillary Clinton for the President of the United States. The email leaks that emerged only days before the convention made it clear that there was little justice in the primaries and in the final selection of the presidential nominee. It broke my heart to see Sanders’ supporters silenced during the convention and ignored by the mainstream media in its aftermath.
When I cried during the ceremony, I cried over these injustices. “The land of the free and the home of the brave” sounded like a sarcastic commentary on so many of this summer’s events.
But I also cried over the injustices that brought me here in the first place.
In that courtroom, more than anywhere else in the world, I felt most acutely how much I have been robbed of the opportunities to have a life and a home in the place where I was born. The desperate poverty that my family, my neighborhood, and, with the exception of a few criminals, the rest of Ukraine (and most recently Russia) slid into, is hard to put in words. The part of town where I grew up used to house the workers from nearby factories and plants. With the shutdown of all industries, the levels of unemployment, poverty, crime, alcoholism, and drug abuse spiked up to unprecedented levels. The spread of AIDS reached alarming rates. Friends from school were dying from overdoses and from getting shot by fellow gang members. None of this was a part of life of this community in years prior to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In the decade that followed the collapse, my mother was proud that once a day we still had a meal with some meat in it. Other families we knew could no longer afford even that. When I started university, I started working. I earned my own money and was proud that I could buy my own clothes. I was a proud owner of one pair of pants, one skirt, and two tops. I also had a pair of jeans and two summer dresses. That’s what a good life was like.
Amidst all of this, like many other citizens of the former USSR, I dreamed of this place called America. What did I know about it? Only what I saw in soap operas like “Santa Barbara” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Only what I read in Stephen King’s and Danielle Steel’s novels. Only what I learned at the university as an English major, memorizing basic facts about the US government, economy, history, political system, and literature (which made studying for the citizenship exam significantly easier, by the way). But apart from that, I knew very little.
The little I did know was just enough to dream of coming here.
Six months after I arrived in the US as an exchange student, I watched in disbelief George W. Bush announce the beginning of the “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and the US jets drop bombs on Baghdad. Incredulous, I listened to Americans around me cheer for this unjustifiable act of violence. I just turned 20. My American Dream began to turn sour.
In years since then, I learned how the US imposed the doctrine of “shock therapy” on the former USSR and destroyed the economies of most countries in that region. The introduction of market mechanisms into the countries that were not prepared for capitalism created uncontrollable levels of corruption and ultimately led to the emergence of oligarchic states where most people have few rights and few protections. Through arguments with a political scientist at an American university, I learned that the poverty that I grew up in was not an accident of history, but rather an orchestrated attempt to ensure that Russia and the former USSR could not come back to power. No matter how homesick I felt through most of my life, I have had no home to return to. All that was left of my home was the rubble from the US ambition to dominate the world.
As I sat in that courtroom, crying, I thought not of all the opportunities that this citizenship made possible for me, but of all the injustices that robbed me of a good life elsewhere.
The arrival of the blue passport with my face and my name in it sealed the deal. The passport made me realize that what died in me in that courtroom was the hope to belong and to have a place I could gladly call home. Perhaps exile is the only home I will ever have. But it also reminded me that being a US citizen means that now I have the right to take the position of critique and speak up against the injustices I see. Now, no one can tell me to go back home to my country when I voice concerns over the US foreign and domestic policies. This citizenship, along with the state of permanent exile, gives me the right to speak truth to power and to engage in the struggle for a more equal, just, and peaceful world to come.
It was a hot evening. We walked in downtown Phoenix under the rumbling noise of a huge helicopter. Several blocks down and around and we joined other people, groups of people, who were headed to the same event.
The facebook announcement said that it would be a vigil for Philando Castile and Altron Sterling. On the way there, I thought, “Should we have brought flowers? One for each of the murdered men? Red carnations, maybe?” When we approached the crowd, I saw people holding candles. That seemed like a much better idea.
We joined a crowd that was marching down one of the streets chanting.
What do we want?
When do we want it?
Black Lives Matter.
Black Lives Matter.
There were those who led the chants until their voices went hoarse. Someone else would pick up right where they lost the last bit of their vocal cords’ power and they would carry on. There were those screamed at the top of their lungs. And those whose lips were moving silently as if their chant was a prayer. A prayer for the black and brown men and women who have died of injustice and violence that no human should face.
There were police around us. Watching us from blocked intersections, watching us on bikes on sidewalks, watching us from the chopper above.
We marched. We chanted. We stopped. We held our hands up in the air and chanted more.
Some folks were carrying signs. Smart, I thought. Better have one ready for the next time.
Let black people live.
Love black people.
Black Lives Matter.
Stop violence against black people.
My favorite was a quote from bell hooks that a tall white guy carried above his head:
All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity.
Nothing in that march was ugly.
In fact, everything about it was beautiful. There were black folks, brown folks, and white folks. There were black mothers with black children. There were white mothers with black children. There was a white man holding hands with a black woman. There was a white woman holding hands with a black woman. There were several women with their heads covered. There were elderly. There were disabled.
But mostly it was women. A lot of women. I caught myself thinking that it was mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and girlfriends whose female bodies marched to protect the male bodies of their loved ones.
Everyone was courteous and kind. We stood together and marched tog
ether as one. Asking for justice, peace, and an end to violence. We did it in love.
At one intersection, I heard a woman behind me whisper, “Thank you, Jesus, that you have kept us safe. Hallelujah that this is peaceful. Thank you, Jesus. Lord Jesus, keep us safe.”
I turned around and smiled. She smiled back.
I started saying that I noticed how we were all looking up to check the roofs, we were all looking around to check whether we are safe.
We kept walking.
There was a moment when a policeman was trying to say something from a side of the street. But he was twenty or thirty feet away. I tried to listen but could not hear. I asked others what he was saying. “Probably that we should all just go home,” a woman smiled at me.
All of a sudden, there was a chopper flying towards us with its spotlight directed at us. Loud deafening noise and blinding light.
Seconds later, the crowd turned around in panic. Folks were running back screaming. A woman fell on the ground and it took a minute or two for someone to help her up. We rushed to the side of a building that had a protrusion covering us from the street.
We paused there. What is happening?
Everyone’s eyes wide with fear.
Someone whispered in horror, “Tear gas.”
Someone else turned to a friend, “I could smell it. We need to get out.”
There was a moment or two where there was calmness. Camera crew were filming ahead of them from the middle of the road. Some folks got out onto the road to see down the street. We were at the end of the procession and did not know what happened to those who were ahead of us.
Some people were screaming for children, friends, and loved ones that they lost during the commotion. Someone sighed in relief, spotting a familiar face. Someone else rushed around asking if anyone saw the person they came with.
And then panic again. More people screaming and running back.
One woman was telling folks to turn away, go away, head out.
We ducked away in an alley and walked away.
White privilege means you don’t have to fear being stopped by a cop once you turn away from the street where the march was.
Near us were folks who were telling each other, “Be safe. Be safe.” The very black and brown men and women for the sake of whose lives we were just chanting and whispering our prayers.
As we were making our way to our car, three choppers were circling above and pointing their spotlights at the remaining protesters.
Twitter exploded: “Phoenix rally. Pepper gas sprayed. Tear gas deployed. Police in riot gear stopping protesters. Rubber bullets shot.”
More beauty from amazing souls who tweeted their prayers for protesters’ safety.
More ugliness from those who tweeted that those childish protesters should just go home, that they should not block the highway because “my friend is coming to see me,” and thanking the police for the uncalled-for acts of violence.
The act of state violence against those who are protesting violence broke my heart. I was shaking in anger against the fear that we have to live with and against the perpetuation of the very injustice that we were trying to protest. Peacefully, kindly, lovingly.
But the worst acts of violence are the acts of those who put their privilege, their comfort, and their bigotry above all else. They are not just remaining in silence on the sidelines protecting the status quo. They are actively and aggressively condoning the violence imposed on fellow human beings.
We have forgotten how to be human together.