“He worked as hard. Stayed out of trouble too. But he didn’t look it.”
Recently, Black CNN Anchor Don Lemon spoke about some tips for the Black community, which included to stop using this N word, stop sagging pants, and so on. An article written by Kimberly Foster perfectly illustrates why he literally did nothing for black people in the US, instead he continued to perpetuate oppressive stereotypes that just help to fuel racism. But something else came to mind when he spoke – if you work hard and stay out of trouble, you’ll make it.
I have trouble accepting where I am and how I got here – essentially feeling proud. I worked hard, and had to work more than twice as hard because of the color of my skin, the language I spoke, the parents I had, because of the identity I embodied. Unfortunately, in the American Caste system, I was on the opposite end of privilege. Even so, I overcame, and yet, I had trouble accepting it (read pt. I here).
Then something dawned one me when I heard Don Lemon’s rant. His ridiculous advice highlighted a reality that I had contended with since kindergarten. The phrase I heard over and over again growing up was “work hard and stay out of trouble.” Who didn’t hear that growing up? Well, it just clicked for me, that as a Latino/person of color, working hard and staying out of trouble was (and is) never enough.
I find it the most fascinating of contradictions when I hear conservative pundits, republicans, or middle class/wealthy people talk about how poor people/working class people take advantage of a welfare system. I know more people on welfare than not, and I never saw the laziness, the “taking advantage”, the leeches, none of that. I saw people working 3 jobs, doing things on the side, sacrificing their lives to survive, and most of the time, for their families. Clearly, the whole working hard and staying out of trouble was something that just wasn’t enough for the single mom working three jobs who had never even gotten a traffic ticket. Nope. And I just realized why.
For people of color, working hard and staying out of trouble is never enough. We need to work twice as hard, if not more, than our white counterparts. Furthermore, staying out of trouble for many of us isn’t about us not breaking the law, its literally about dodging the eyes of the police. Our criminality starts at birth, with evidence revealing how pervasive the school to prison pipeline is, and how race and gender play into it. For many of us, including those within my family, we are breaking the law simply by existing in a state of undocumentation – or in the case of Arizona, looking like we lack documentation. You can be a genius, but being a law abiding citizen can never be a reality because of your legal status. People of color – told again and again, by both white people and our successful brothers and sisters, that by working hard and staying out of trouble, we can be like them – we can make it. But there is a darker reality to that belief, a belief that is just not true.
Aside from being unable to stay out of trouble because of a racist criminal justice system, and that working hard means working harder, no one mentions how we need to shed our cultural, ethnic, and historical identity to be successful. And I finally figured out why I am resistant to my pride – I am resistant to letting go of my identity, the same identity that in the eyes of ‘Murica labeled me lazy and a criminal.
As Dom Lemon pointed out, stop saying this and dressing like that was more of an attack on our cultural, ethnic, and historical identities than behavior that is not conducive to success. I’m proud of the hard work I have done, I am proud of the hours I put in, the thousands of hours. What I know I can’t be proud of, or accept, is also having to conform to White ‘Murica. I can work hard and stay out of trouble, but my language, my accent, my slang, my long hair, my earring, my tattoo (forthcoming), the way I dress, my music preferences, my support of urban spoken word versus Shakespeare, my choice of foods, are all the things that are used to create an image of who in those country is supposedly lazy, a social leech, delinquent, don’t want to assimilate, reverse racists, and so on. My color-ness, my blackness, my Latinoness, are all things that are continuously used in an oppressive narrative that says my people, my community, are whats wrong with me. That is what I can’t be proud of, and something I have almost been forced to do to get ahead – not just hard work and staying out of trouble, but to let go of who I am.
In part one I expressed my fear of becoming like Don Lemon, where my success became part of a machine that oppressed my community. But now I know what else it is about me becoming part of that machine that scares me. The pre-requisite to that is me completely detaching from my identity. Before I can be part of the machine, I need to completely sacrifice to the machine who I am and not only become something else, but also make sure I destroy that identity in others.
I’m proud of my hard work, but what I’m not proud of, but ashamed of, is the instances where I sacrificed who I was because I thought it was part of working hard and staying out of trouble. I had somehow accepted the oppressive narrative and subscribed to it. Now I know why my soul hurt – it was because it was trying to tell me that by telling other people of color to just work hard and stay out of trouble, I was also telling them to not be themselves – I was telling them to sacrifice who they were to be successful.
I have spoken the words so many times, to so many younger kids, as it was spoken to me as I grew up. I did it without knowing what I was really asking. For that, I am sorry.
Now, I say to you, don’t sacrifice who you are. The pre-requisite to change, and I mean real change, so we can one day reach equity, is to acknowledge and embrace your culture, heritage, and history. By doing that, you’re fighting a system that doesn’t only effect people of color, but effects everyone.