As a part of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington DC, the town of Wellfleet hosted different events during the month of January 2013 to celebrate. The Wellfleet United Methodist Church (WUMC) organized two dialogues for its mostly white residents of about the Civil Rights movement: it’s making and it’s legacy. NIAAS was invited to co-facilitate these discussions. After talking with some of the NIAAS’ core group members, I agreed to co-facilitate the dialogues with my husband, Federico Carmona, the church’s pastor.
Even though the audience was not our usual target group – people of color – I thought the dialogues could be a good educational experience for me and for them. Why? Because I am an immigrant in this country. I have read, watched movies and documentaries about slavery in the U.S., civil rights struggles, freedom stories, etc. I’ve tried to relate to my African American sisters and brothers through my own struggles as a woman and immigrant of color. Sometimes, though, it has been hard for me to understand the most profound human realities of the African American experience. Through my work with NIAAS, I have learned a lot from the perspective of African Americans about their struggles for freedom, equality, self-worth and justice. It has been so hard for me to hear their stories of racism that prevail even until today. But these dialogues presented to me with the opportunity to learn directly from white people for their own experience and perspective on this.
As an immigrant, my relationship with white people is different because I don’t bring with me the same kind pain and suffering from generations of racial discrimination that has filled African Americans hearts and souls.
We watched a few clips from documentaries made about the civil rights movement and then had some discussion. Some participants cried during the screening, feeling “ashamed” they said about the images of the violence and anger of whites directed at black people. Some reacted by saying they “need to know more” and they want to be more aware of the past and present; others connected the civil rights struggles to other movements like gay rights, immigrant rights, and women’s rights.
But I began to understand why, even now, the pain is still so deep in people’s hearts; why the “good intentions” of white people are often unwelcomed.
Even though NIAAS was not created to deal with white racism and privilege, I believe that to have a movement that can really create social change, we need to open spaces for dialogues like this. I believe that they can lead us to a more human based understanding. There is so much education, consciousness raising and willingness to understand that we all are human beings, we all deserve the best for ourselves and our families and that what hurts one, hurts all.
NIAAS’ mission is about relationship and solidarity building. What I saw and learned in Wellfleet from these dialogues represents what is going on in the cities and neighborhoods all over the world. People must be willing to take the time address the root causes of our oppression and allow themselves to be vulnerable so that, in the process, we can actually transform our humanity.