If I may, allow me to tell the story of my wake-up call.
I was never one for politics growing up. Like many, I saw our options as two sides of the same coin, though not necessarily in a bad way. Having grown up around a mixed bag of right-leaning immigrants who’d fled oppressive leftist dictatorships and left-leaning immigrants who earnestly believed in the power and the duty of government, instilled in me a sense that everyone was ultimately after the same goal: to be a better version of themselves and to do better for others. Oh, the naiveté of youth.
Unfortunately for my burgeoning sense of optimism, I was also a kid who liked gathering information, figuring out why people think the way they do, how and why history leads us to the present moment. So as my nerdy self wound a path through college and grad school, certain things inevitably came into clearer focus. I moved to Mexico City for my undergrad work and majored in Spanish literature, so much of my coursework those first few years was on Latin American history and culture. I had always been a curious kid and a dedicated student but nothing in my American education had come close to describing the true horrors of the Conquista or the colonialism that followed. At the same time I was reading first-hand accounts of the pillaging and murder of so-called “savages,” I was also reading native religious texts and stories, learning about the depth of the cultures and the knowledge lost. History is written by the victors (or so the saying goes), and that meant that even faced with the clear inconsistency of a people so rich in traditions and history being labeled and treated as brutes, the narrative leaned towards absolution for the sins of the colonizer; after all, they were merely “saving” these people, rescuing them from their inferior existence and into the clearly superior one where white men call the shots. The one we’re still grappling with today — and the one too many people still defend.
Back in the States, I didn’t take a class on race and its societal implications until law school where, again, I got a glimpse at how the sausage of our “democracy” was made. Spoiler alert: It was on the backs of Black folks, Indigenous folks, immigrant folks. That wasn’t exactly news, of course, but learning these truths again, this time through the lens of the law and its complicity in reinforcing and uplifting oppressive systems, stirred something up in me. And then Trayvon Martin. And then Michael Brown. And then Black Lives Matter. It seemed as if a lot of folks were finally ready to acknowledge the deadly realities that many in our country have never had the privilege of ignoring.
And then Donald Trump.
This is all a great source of shame for me now, because it speaks to the tremendous privilege that I had enjoyed until then, but it wasn’t until that day — the day after Trump’s election — that I actually felt the full weight of my otherness. As I sat in my car unable to stop from crying, suspicious of every person I saw going about their business as if the entire world hadn’t just caved in, it suddenly struck me how many people hate us. It was the weight of that hatred, and the fear of it, really, that finally and permanently woke me up. As I mentioned, I grew up surrounded by immigrant families that looked and sounded like mine. Miami has a lot (a lot!) of racial reckoning to do, but for the majority of its Latinx population, it’s a lovely little bubble. And in that little bubble, I developed a mocking disdain for anyone who dared try to Other me. In the years after leaving my hometown, any racism I might have experienced, whether overt or subtle, really just rolled right off of me. Racists were pitiable, even laughable characters not worthy of my energy. Rarely did I give them a second thought. And then on November 9, 2016, I hit that wall, the wall that reminded me that actually, no, they aren’t funny, they are dangerous and, what’s more, they are powerful. For myself and for my daughter and especially for every single person who does not have the resources that I have to defend and protect themselves, I swore and I swear that I will never again ignore what I know.
I’ve been thinking about all of this this week as I’ve noticed a whole lot of talk about wokeness and its dangers. Not much new there, of course; the political right loves to complain about what they call “cancel culture” and the left’s apparent need to come down hard on anyone who refuses to cave to “political correctness,” or as some of us like to call it, basic human decency. But what struck me this week (though I hesitate to say it surprised me), is that this new outrage is mostly coming from some very prominent figures on the left, starting with James Carville, the Democratic political strategist, who in an interview with Vox recently referred to wokeness as “faculty lounge politics.” That predictably launched a whole slew of Yep-Yep-I-Agree op-eds and response pieces from fellow Democrats and more than a few opportunistic Republicans who feel that this is apparently THE problem with the party today.
In many ways, as I read or hear this new round of politicos rail against wokeness, what I’m really seeing is merely a regurgitation of the same tired old arguments against another one of their buzz phrases, “identity politics”; the idea being that we should shift focus away from the things that make us different, and instead redirect our energies towards what unites us. And sure, this country is in desperate need of unity; who can deny that? But when the things that make a lot of us different (our skin color, our accent, our gender identity) are also the things that get us killed, pardon me if I’m hesitant to move the spotlight away from that reality to make room for your kumbayas.
This criticism also reeks of anti-intellectualism, another move straight out of the Republican handbook. Carville’s reference to the “faculty lounge” suggests that wokeness is an act of elitism, a manifestation of all our Critical Race Theory and Gender Studies courses. And to some extent, for some of us, it certainly is. But what’s wrong with that? The anti-woke crusaders seem to imply that adopting the language of our textbooks, the dialect of our research, somehow means that we are now incapable of talking or relating to “normal” people. Dummies, we ARE the “normal” people. And I promise you I don’t talk to you the way I talk to my people back home. It’s called code-switching, and we know how to do it better than anyone. You might say we’re the experts, so work on your arguments ‘cause these ain’t them.
Look, I’m no strategist. I fully conceded there may be some truth in these critiques and that we may need to listen to some of them if our goal is to win elections. But for a lot of us, winning elections is secondary and only in service to protecting ourselves, our families, and our loved ones. And in that context, when it comes to deciding whether or not to temper my own “wokeness” for the comfort of others, I’m gonna do like Toni Morrison, “I’m gonna stay out here on the margin, and let the center look for me.”
Martha E. Menendez, Esq. is the Bernstein Senior Fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic.