I speak three different languages and I was culturally competent before I even knew the terminology for that skill. I have a Juris Doctorate, lived and traveled abroad for nearly three years, and have worked in immigrants’ rights as well other forms of civil rights. Yet, I am the “brown grandbaby” that Tom Brokaw, in his appearance on Meet the Press, said GOP supporters fear. I am the result of the “intermarriage that’s going on and the cultures that are conflicting with each other” that he cited as an issue with Hispanics in America. My mother is an El Salvadoran immigrant with only a fourth-grade education, and my white father is a born-and-raised Ohioan with a college degree. So I’m curious to explore: what is it about me that creates so much fear?
I believe the answer lies in a conversation not about assimilation, but about white supremacy and the need to uphold systems of white supremacy. If we look deeper, we see that ideas about assimilation are really ideas about how to control black and brown bodies. It’s not a new conversation. In fact, the earliest immigration policies were really a test of how “white” brown people could be. Those who failed the test were barred from immigrating.
The racist sentiment providing the foundation for early immigration laws is reflected in two Supreme Court cases, U.S. v. Thind and Ozawa v. U.S. In both of these cases, the naturalization of two immigrants depended on whether they could be classified as white. One author, John Tehranian, noted how the court decisions helped establish a test for whiteness comprised of two parts: “adoption of white values and his personal dramaturgy of whiteness….and the assimilation of his ethnic group into the core Western European, Christian tradition as evidence of his whiteness.” Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? We really have not come very far in the conversation on assimilation. The acceptability of brown people in this country is still hinging on how well we perform whiteness.
So for me, in a conversation about assimilation, I’m more interested in questioning what many people seem to take for granted: that we need to assimilate at all. My question is why do brown people need to assimilate? James Baldwin once posed a similar question: “The question you gotta ask yourself –the question the white population has to ask itself—is why was it necessary to have a Negro in the first place.” Both of these questions are an invitation to unpack white supremacy and all its intricacies. Only then will one understand why my existence is so threatening to GOP supporters and even white liberals like Tom Brokaw.
To start, we need to look at why, historically, division was so important. In 1676, Bacon’s rebellion organized white frontiersmen, enslaved people, indentured servants, and Native Americans against the colony of Virginia. This expression of unity was the greatest fear of white supremacists profiting from slavery. So to prevent a rebellion from happening again, those same white elites gave poor whites land, allowed them to testify in court and enter into contracts, and provided jobs on slave patrol. In effect, poor whites were “assimilated.” The same method was later used to assimilate the Irish, the Germans, and the Italians to keep them from joining together in labor unions with black workers.
The fear of two cultures coming together, as my parents made possible, is not really fear about “cultures that are conflicting with each other.” It is a fear that some whites may, like my father did, break rank and thus disrupt the systems. It is a fear of the possibilities, the potential, the magic that can happen when two seemingly divided cultures come together and create something beautiful. I am proof of that magic. I move fluidly between cultures and can see from various pivot points of American’s racial divide while also maintaining a global view of exploitation and oppression. I bridge gaps between people and with my Spanish and French can communicate with the better part of people living in the Americas and Africa.
But it’s not just my ability to connect groups of people that causes fear. It is that I am very certain of who I am and I will resist ‘assimilation’ – which is just another word for ‘white supremacy.’ I will resist the systems that seek to benefit whites and oppress people of color. I will resist the idea that there is something wrong with a certain language, culture, or skin color. And even scarier for white supremacy is that as a “brown grandbaby” I often can pass as white.
So in thinking about why my existence is a threat, it is clear that my body and my being break down the structures of the systems of white supremacy that have been so carefully constructed and maintained. I am not white or brown. I am both and neither. It is this interdependence and this lack of separation that whiteness seeks to deny in order to maintain its power. To imagine a system, an organism if you will, that is made up of both parts, so that each is indiscernible from the other, is a threat. I am that system and organism. I am a reason to believe in a different way. So yes, I agree Tom, GOP supporters should fear me.