I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Martin Luther King, Jr.
My parents, whose first language was Spanish, only spoke to us in English. Their hope was that we wouldn’t experience the ridicule they did for having accents. They hoped that having less of an accent would help level the playing field for us. They didn’t tell me outright that “proper” English is unaccented English. But they didn’t have to. I have known how my accent has created an uneven playing field for my life. I have felt the shame that comes with not speaking a word correctly and I have known how my thoughts, efforts, and fortitude are insufficient in creating level ground with my coworkers and friends. Mom and Dad didn’t have to tell me my verbal expression put me at a disadvantage; I experience the hate of my speech in this volunteer advocacy work, as much as I did in the paid professional world.
Coming face to face with structural racism is painful. The often times hidden interdependence between perpetuating inequities and appealing to racist tendencies props up the very structure that well-intentioned people reject at face value. Whether the perching of character upon a loft of self-righteous values: what I am and the way I act because of my privilege is best for all; or whether embracing an ethnic class’s cadence and enunciation as measure of what is a desirable norm: my way of speaking because of my privileged upbringing, is best for all; structural racism is the fiber within the walls that keep some out and create a seemingly safe and comfortable haven for others. Not seeing systemic inequities does not make them less real. It only makes them more beneficial and more comfortable for some, and less beneficial and less comfortable for others.
My parents were not just ridiculed for having an accent. In elementary school, nuns who “educated” them whipped children caught speaking their native tongue on the playground. When relaxing and having fun with their siblings, friends, and cousins, they couldn’t let a “wrong” word slip off their tongue even though that language, those words, and those expressions were the language, words, and expressions that formed the thoughts in their small minds from the very beginning of their life on Earth. On that playground, my parents watched their young playmates’ brown bodies beaten into submission. They themselves were beaten as their playmates looked on. They understood the message that came with every wincing strike against the bodies of young innocent children. They understood the message and they felt the hate of their small brown bodies and they tried to understand the hate of the language and expression that flows through brown minds and rolls off our tongues. They never wanted their children to feel the pain of a whip for expressing their thoughts “improperly.” Little did they know that the inequitable structure would not go away in their children’s lifetimes, or even in their children’s children’s lifetime.
Maybe future generations of brown children will know a place where they will be judged for the content of their character rather than the cadence of the words when thoughts and expressions from their brown minds roll off their tongues. Maybe someday love of thought and character will displace hate of free thinking and its ensuing speech.
Maybe someday can begin here and now…maybe…
Working for a more inclusive, truly representative democracy,