I have this backlog of This American Life podcasts that I'm working through, and today I listened to show #383, "Origin Story." It's all good, but the last act is relevant this week (and always, but): it starts at 48:45 and is about eight minutes long, and it's about a seven-year-old boy whose parents met in a refugee camp in Tanzania and who came with his family to the U.S. two years ago. He starts having trouble in school, difficulties at home; and when a girl on the playground asks his name, he says, "I don't know." Shortly thereafter he decides that his name is John (his middle name), not Igey (his first name); and he says he wants to live with the white reporter who's doing a series of articles about his family, in case he forgets how to speak to his mom in Swahili (he's learning English the fastest of anyone in his family); and he starts pointing at rich white people on TV and saying "that's me"; and he starts saying that he's "from" America . . .
. . . and my heart just broke, because all I could think was, this is what it's like to be something other than white in America. Not everyone experiences the same intensity, but you might learn to hate yourself, or you might feel not really American because people keep telling you that you're not or that your stories aren't worthy of being told or that your life has to be erased or that you don't exist, or you might get convinced that since you ought to be white, you actually are white.
The segment ends with the child gradually returning to using his first name, saying that he's from the Congo (his nationality), and acknowledging his time in the refugee camp. I really really wish that this small boy will never experience this alienation and self-doubt again, that from now on he will always be strong and secure and confident in his chosen identity. (He's seven!) I want that to be true. And I want all that for SteelyKid more than I can say.
So: this is why I talk about race and racism, despite the cost of anger, and why I have a big stack of books and printouts to further educate myself, and why anti-racism efforts matter. Am I optimistic that what we do will make enough of a difference? I really don't know. Sometimes the little victories, and even the big ones, get lost in the day-to-day grind of yet another example of pervasive, institutional, structural racism. But it's not a project I can give up in the long run.