In a powerful conversation about his National Book Award-winning book, Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi made a striking point about the importance of treating people like individuals. When we don’t, we lose sight of their humanity–imperfect, complex beings with potential–and lose touch with ours, a perfect concoction for the proliferation of racist ideas.
Dr. Kendi’s point hit home for me in various ways particularly with regard to a realization I had about two years ago.
I grew up with a Peruvian mother and Dominican father. My Peruvian side is predominately of Incan and Spanish heritage and my Dominican side is predominately of African and Spanish heritage. While there was a sense of connection being latino immigrants living in the Bronx in the 70s, my parents’ getting together was problematic for my mother’s side of the family and seemingly beneficial for my father’s side at the time. It may not have been solely driven by anti-blackness, but it certainly was an integral factor.
I picked up on that tension very early on while also absorbing the cultural messaging around me: there is a hierarchical order to life where humans on the lighter end of the spectrum are superior and on the darker end, inferior. Eurocentricity, white supremacy and anti-blackness prevailed in covert and overt ways from my personal family engagement (with both sides), 80s American media and entertainment to the novelas and various latino media and entertainment I would soak up as a child. By the time I was five, I was very aware of and had internalized this idea of there being a hierarchical order to humanity based on race as well as where I stood in this order based on this idea. It wasn’t on the superior end by virtue of my blackness, and it seemed to me that being around latinos, I would never forget it. Latinos (and to a certain extent, mestizos in particular) became associated with suffering.
It wasn’t until I went to a predominately black junior high school that I was exposed to a consciousness where blackness wasn’t a problem, but something to take pride in. I was enamored by this validation as it was the first time I didn’t feel inferior due to my blackness. I felt protected from the pain of inferiority. Black people became associated with safety, and with that safety, I felt more empowered. The juxtaposition between my experience prior to junior high and after generated the belief of latinos = suffering and I started becoming more guarded when in latino settings.
I then attended a predominately white Quaker high school that challenged the idea of hierarchy altogether. I was exposed, day and night as a boarder, to white people that consciously rejected the very premise that rendered them superior. It was a culture that championed the idea of there being light, no more, no less, in everyone, and it was one under which I flourished when I embraced it. Even though I saw white supremacy as a threat, I couldn’t and didn’t see white people as a threat because of this experience.
At the time, however, I couldn’t fully let go of hierarchy, and as such, I couldn’t let go of the myth of inferiority/superiority or the memory of the pain that came with where I believed I stood on that scale. It continued to haunt me and my perceiving latinos as a threat to my empowerment persisted. The more it persisted, the more I saw evidence of it. And the more I saw evidence of it, the more it persisted. I felt the intense need to brace myself for feeling the pain of anti-blackness and white supremacy when in predominately latino spaces to the point I decided to avoid them significantly outside of a school setting as I entered college.
Much to my surprise, I started a longstanding relationship with a first-generation mestizo Chicano from South Central LA in college. I entered this relationship with a little hesitation, partly due to his mestizo background and what that meant to me, but there was a curiosity there for me that superseded the reluctance. And while I’d love to say that it was what undid my perception of latinos being a threat, that was far from true in my initial experience.
When I moved to LA, I found myself in mestizo latino land. I was surrounded with his Mexican and Chicano family and friends, and was smacked with a familiar painful dose of anti-blackness and white supremacy. Interestingly enough, this particular brand of anti-blackness wasn’t completely rooted in the idea of black inferiority. To the contrary, this brand of anti-blackness arose in part from seeing themselves as victimized by black people in the hood.
While this certainly added an interesting layer to this web of lies, it still triggered in me the painful childhood memory of anti-blackness and white supremacy and latinos continued being a threat to my empowerment in my mind. For years I proceeded with avoidance, abstaining from predominantly latino spaces when possible and when not possible, trying to control the conversation or situation so that it didn’t lead to anti-blackness and white supremacy. And when I could not control the conversation or situation from going there, I’d resort to emotional force, wanting to make them feel inferior for believing in inferiority/superiority.
But around two years ago, I started to feel intensely compromised by doing this. I felt a strong sense of tip-toeing around life for fear of dealing with the pain of inferiority. I felt the strain on my relationships due to my underestimating and overestimating the consciousness and character of individuals. I felt my world becoming smaller the more I eliminated the possibility of connection with individuals. The detriment to my self actualization that came from perceiving latinos as a threat to my empowerment became palpable and too much to bear.
By this point in my life, I had consciously explored beliefs and the role they play in creating our individual and collective realities, and started to see power and empowerment through a different lens. Power didn’t have to be enmeshed with comparison, competition, superiority or dominance, nor did we need to go outside of ourselves to find it or get it; it’s something inherent to all of us. The more I developed a bone-deep belief that we all possess inherent power, potential and worthiness, the more I was able to let go of the belief of superiority and inferiority within myself and unhook from validation outside of myself.
The pain of inferiority could no longer loom or run the show. The desire for connection with myself, others and life became stronger than the fear of feeling the pain of inferiority. This opened the door to my taking more risks so to speak and taking on the practice of treating people as individuals.
In doing so I’ve been able to actually see many latino individuals who champion and embody the same consciousness I do. Whenever I am faced with anti-blackness and white supremacy by latino individuals, it no longer carries the same charge and I am better able to stand in and share my truth without attachment or manipulation. I’ve been able to see the tremendous influence culture and society has on an individual’s way of viewing and experiencing life yet also see that they don’t completely tell an individual’s whole story. I am able to see that there are individuals who are aligned with my consciousness and those that aren’t, and that seeing them as mere sociocultural derivatives with no ability to view and experience life beyond their social programming is inaccurate according to this consciousness. I’ve also been able to see individuals evolve in their consciousness which has emboldened my belief in transformation.
I’ve realized that this practice of treating people as individuals was made simpler once I truly understood what power and empowerment meant. Assigning “safety” and “suffering” to individuals, let alone a group of individuals started to seem like I was putting my power on the line, making it conditional when I know that’s not the truth. It also started to seem like I was stripping individuals of their humanity, looking at them as caricatures that fall into a “safety” or “suffering” category, and limiting my potential for connection on all levels.
I’ve also realized that despite drawing limiting beliefs about groups of people and safety/suffering, I needed to feel a sense of safety, no matter where it was coming from, to self-actualize at that time in my life. I see that at a core level, I knew a hierarchical order to life wasn’t the truth and that it was no mistake I ended up in a junior high and high school that opened me up to a different consciousness. I see how that curiosity which pulled me toward a decades-long relationship with someone from what I perceived as a threat to my empowerment was also my core self’s way of pulling me toward fully understanding and experiencing the power I hold. And I see how with this inherent sense of power and empowerment, I am better able to see people for who they really are–imperfect, complex beings with potential–and treat them that way.