New Year’s Day is my favorite holiday. It’s a time of year when I reflect and set goals for the future. I believe that engaging in radical vulnerability—opening myself up to hard truths about myself—is the first step to healing, which allows me to work authentically with others across our differences and truths so that we can achieve a world where human rights are recognized, protected and celebrated.
I asked myself hard questions as 2018 came to a close: What have I done for social justice? Have I moved the needle? Or have I stayed in my proverbial “lane”? In an act of radical vulnerability, I am sharing what I realized: I have failed to fully show up for immigrant justice.
Human rights are global. Man-made geographic borders and concepts around citizenship only create the conditions to other our human siblings. Any institution that was created via imperialism, colonization, genocide and slavery is something we should divest from. But at the end of 2018, as I lived in my queer black femme body, I couldn’t deny my positional privilege as an American citizen.
It’s time for me to admit that I haven’t been utilizing my privilege to really show up for immigrants and those fighting for immigrant rights and justice. I have watched quietly from the sidelines and shown my support in the most “slacktivist” ways—saying I support immigrant justice on social media, but then moving on to another social justice issue that feels more comfortable to me. I know that if my activism doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable, then I’m not trying hard enough; being uncomfortable means I am challenging myself in new ways. Not all of our social justice work should be uncomfortable, but if I am serious about liberation, I need to do the hard work of transformation and not merely transaction.
For too long, I’ve unknowingly—or been unwilling to admit—that I have been a social justice advocate working towards liberation in tiers: me first, you second, then everyone else. I have been so focused on black queer feminist liberation, which is necessary and urgent, that I have been missing opportunities to actually achieve collective liberation with all the people who don’t share my identities.
Identity politics matter, but they can’t be the sole vehicle of activism. After engaging in an arduous process of personal interrogation and introspection, I realized that part of my issue was misplaced jealousy.
I wish I could trace my journey to the U.S. As a black woman, my history was taken away from me when my ancestors were taken against their will and forced to come here as property. They were not seen as full human beings. It still hurts. It’s still painful. I am not over it. But through my unpacking process, I realized that I had let my personal pain create a barrier between myself and those who immigrated to the U.S.—assuming that because they may know their country of origin, they were somehow more positively connected to their heritage.
That, of course, was a logical fallacy. There is no one immigration story, and real life is stories are complex. Focusing on what I don’t have—connection to my country of origin—got in the way of recognizing that the same institutional systems—white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, capitalism, state violence—oppress both ancestors of slaves and immigrants.
My focus is now clearer: It’s my responsibility to resist these structures, alongside those most affected, so that we can create new systems that allow us to live free and well.
What now? How can I overcome my guilt, shame and embarrassment and show up for folks who I will surely make mistakes in front of? I know that I have a long way to go. I have been on the other side of this situation. Because of my personal identities, I often have white folks ask me how to show up for racial justice; straight people ask me how to show up for LGBTQ liberation; masculine presenting folks ask me how to support feminist ideology and practice. My initial reaction is a big sigh, and a look to my right and left to see if there is anyone else can field the inquiry, before I offer a list of books to read and a quick list of things to just stop doing. The most important lesson that I teach is to do the hard work of unlearning stereotypes—and to do it with someone who is not from the affected community, because their job is to not relive their trauma for your education.
As a U.S. citizen, I am an ally in the immigrant justice movement. It’s on me to study the history of the movement and divest from institutions that harm the liberation of all immigrants. It’s on me to show up early and stay late. It’s on me to ensure that those directly affected have all that they need to show up and do the work. It’s on me to go back to my comfortable movement spaces and fight for the inclusion of my allied communities’ space as a bridge when I am able.
My liberation is tied up with the liberation of immigrants. I will not be free until all others are free. If I continue to deny my need to show up for immigrant justice, I will never achieve black liberation. As long as immigrants are denied access to health care, living wages, freedom from violence and human dignity, my people will too be denied access to the same things. What’s even more important is that my people are also your people and your people are my people. The separation that exists between my communities and communities of immigrants isn’t real—it was intentionally created to separate us from one another, to control us and our interactions.
I’m making a public commitment to embark on a transformational immigrant justice allyship journey this year. Our collective liberation is too important for me to not show up. I invite you to join me.
We start by asking ourselves one question: What will we do for collective liberation?
Candace Bond-Theriault is the policy counsel at the National LGBTQ Taskforce.