by Michelle Kiang
I first began thinking critically about oppression after taking my first American Studies class in college, Mixed Race America – a class that opened my eyes to the tragic whiteness of the world and legitimized my experiences as a mixed woman, experiences I thought were “just in my head.”
I would call home after class and tell my Venezuelan mother about what I had learned, mixing terms in English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Like an elaborate dance, I would jumble over words and my mom would quickly correct me “Capitalismo” “Racismo” “Sexismo” and tell me, “keep going.” “Mami, slavery has existed longer than anything else for Black people in the Americas,” and “Mami, I didn’t learn anything about Indigenous peoples in school, there is so much left out,” and “Mami, hay gente mezclada como yo…” There are mixed people like me//There are people mixed like me.
As my mom nodded and agreed on the phone to all these big words I didn’t know in Spanish, I realized that, in her own way, my mother already knew much about all the things I was talking about. When I talked about the violence of capitalism, she told me about growing up poor in Venezuela with nowhere to live, when I told her about misogyny, she told me about the countless men who let everyone down, destroyed everything and harmed everyone in the way of their anger and disappointment.
My politics and activism, it seems, are legitimized by big words, by a liberal arts diploma, by knowing the names bell hooks, Michel Foucault, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and Gloria Anzaldua (despite the fact that I’ve only read some of their essays), and by my fluency in English. The truth is, radical politics have historically been a part of marginalized existence. Access to academic resources and the guidance of experts definitely did help in shaping my racial consciousness, but racial consciousness itself does not, has never, and should never belong to the elite, it isn’t something to own or have, it is not a status symbol, it is a reflection on one’s existence and what is just and unjust.
My mother’s life experiences have informed her deep understanding of oppression, and what it means to be oppressed, without the big words, without knowing who the fuck Foucault is, without white people liking her status updates, but rather with her own life. I became interested in calling out all the racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic bullshit around me because my anger at my oppression was legitimized by my books and by my mother. I started thinking, “Oh, I am allowed to feel this way” and started talking about it. The goal of social justice is to share and legitimize the experiences of people who, like my mother, have much more to teach the world about social justice than they are ever given credit for.
Social justice isn’t about being cool or telling everyone who you’ve read, it’s about people’s experiences being legitimized, it’s about learning from everyone, and self-empowerment. Mixed Race America gave me a language to talk about feelings that had existed all along – feelings of loneliness and anger from being told I’m only in the advanced class because I’m “half-Asian” since being Latina means I’m half-dumb, from being called a wetback on OkCupid by a stranger, from being the only brown girl in a classroom full of white people – and being able to do something about it.
My mother and I are growing and learning everyday about what it means to find justice in our lives. One day, I was talking about violence and abuse in Latinx communities and how we all needed to hold ourselves and our families accountable. She was quiet for a while, then she told me, “You know it’s hard for me to accept all these things sometimes, because I accepted things how they were and that’s how I learned how to be, but I am listening, it’ll take me some time, but I am learning.” My mother, who has never encountered “safe space guidelines,” already knew the first and most important thing to remember when you are learning about social justice.