In solidarity with undocumented youth coming out across the country, IYJL organizer and ally comes out.
Over the last year, I have witnessed numerous brave young people come out as undocumented. Some at large public gatherings, some in small intimate groups, some 1 on 1. Each time I have been amazed by the strength and courage that was presented to me. After listening to these stories, I have become absolutely convinced of the power of stories to create change. So I’m sharing my own story in the hopes that it will help others understand the importance of becoming an ally.
When I was three years old, my mother left my abusive father and moved me and my brother to my grandparents farm in Flintville, Wisconsin. Growing up bi-racial in a small white town was difficult. I remember the way that the neighbors looked down on my mother – or assumed that my brother and I were adopted.
When I entered the Pulaski School District, I remember being confused and angry at being different. I disliked being singled out every every MLK day. I hated not knowing what to tell my brother when he was confronted with racial slurs at school – I hated not knowing what to tell myself. I remember always feeling angry.
My mother tried to compensate for my disconnection from other people of color. I remember going to the Brown County Library for presentations on Kwanzaa and attending minority- focused summer programs in Green Bay and Milwaukee. It never really worked. But even if my mother could not teach me how to grow up black in a white community, with the love of my family, I was able to make it through high school.
Then, during my sophomore year in college, I heard about an incident that occurred at my old high school. A 16 year old black student had assaulted a white classmate after a history of racial insults by the white student. The black student was now facing expulsion after the school police liaison recommended that the student be charged with battery. It was a story that I could identify with and I decided I needed to speak at the expulsion trial.
I wanted to tell him not to let them convince him that he was just an angry violent person – to not let them marginalize him, to not to believe that it was all his fault. That he was not a bad person. I wanted to tell the school that they failed in their responsibility. That this happened because of every teacher that ignored a racial slur, because of every parent that filled their child with hate and bigotry, and every school administrator that turned a blind eye to the racial antagonism and tension that they knew existed. I wanted to be there for this student the way I wished somebody who understood my situation would have been there for me.
But on the night of the trial I sat in my car in my parents driveway and I couldn’t start the car. I couldn’t bring myself to go down the driveway, to go to the school district building to say what I wanted so badly to say. Instead I sat in my car and cried. I was afraid. After countless confrontations with rednecks and bigots growing up I thought I had gotten over this, but I couldn’t even get out of the driveway. After two hours, the trial now over, I got out of my car and walked back inside – ashamed at not being the person that I thought I was. I never told anybody that I was planning on speaking at the hearing, but I had disappointed myself. In the car, I told myself that I was scared because I had two younger brothers still in the school system and that speaking might cause difficulties for them. But looking back at it now, I feel ashamed that I used my family as an excuse for not acting. It was my family that had taught me that you don’t have values, you live them. It was My mother that taught me that you need to speak, that you can’t let them hurt you and keep quiet about it. You need to go to the PTA meetings, you need to confront teachers at conferences and you need to keep pushing – that you can’t just take it.
A couple months later, there was an anti-immigrant ordinance that was trying to be passed by the Green Bay City Council. But this time I didn’t just sit at home. I attended the hearing and I was shocked by the bigotry and racism that I witnessed at this hearing. It was the same fear, the same ignorance, the same hatred that I had grown up with. And this time, I wasn’t going to just sit in my car. This time I was going to be involved, this time I was going to the active and do something about it.
After Green Bay passed that hateful ordinance. I signed up for a month to do humanitarian aid on the US/Mexico border. And what I saw during that experience changed me. It made me realize the responsibility that I have to act on what I witness. And when you see injustice, it is your responsibility to speak out against it. And if you don’t’ – if you sit in your car if you stay silent you are helping the forces of hate you are helping the forces of injustice. And that you are hurting yourself by not speaking out.
What I want to say more than anything else is that, as an ally, you need to speak out. If you don’t, not only do you hurt the person being unjustly treated, but you hurt yourself as well. You wound yourself. And that when you act, when you go to meetings, when you speak out, you can heal yourself, and by healing yourself you help heal the world. But you have to be ally and you have to be unafraid about it and you have to be unapologetic.