Last night, I was a panelist on the A.C.T.O.R. (A Continuing Talk on Race) open discussion series, hosted by Busboys and Poets as a community service. It provides the opportunity for people to come together and speak openly and honestly about issues of race. The intent is that each person walks away from the discussion feeling something: challenged, educated, uncomfortable, enlightened, refreshed, reassured and hopefully inspired and moved to action! Each month there is a new topic for discussion.
This Month’s Topic: Celebrating Women’s History Month
With the recent successful campaigns of many women in the last election and Kamala Harris announcing her intention to run for President, we discussed the importance of having these voices heard on every level of politics. How can we continue to expand the representation of women of color in all realms? What is the historical context for these success stories?
The moderator was the iconic economist, former college president and political commentator, Dr. Julianne Malveaux. Below is an interview with Dr. Malveaux who has long been recognized for her progressive and insightful observations. She is a labor economist, noted author, and colorful commentator. Julianne Malveaux has been described by Dr. Cornel West as “the most iconoclastic public intellectual in the country.” Her contributions to the public dialogue on issues such as race, culture, gender, and their economic impacts are shaping public opinion in 21st century America.
Dr. Malveaux’s popular writing has appeared in USA Today, Black Issues in Higher Education, Ms. Magazine, Essence Magazine, and the Progressive. Her weekly columns appeared for more than a decade (1990-2003) in newspapers across the country including the Los Angeles Times, Charlotte Observer, New Orleans Tribune, Detroit Free Press, and San Francisco Examiner. She has hosted television and radio programs, and appeared widely as a commentator on networks, including CNN, BET, PBS, NBC, ABC, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, C-SPAN, and others
On the panel, as well, was a wonderful spirit I had the pleasure of meeting, Vy Vu.
Vy Vu is a Vietnamese artist, educator, and organizer based in Washington, D.C. They use their arts as a tool to uplift collective voices and shift power to communities. Vy works with a variety of mediums such as painting, printmaking, digital illustration, and sculpture, tailoring their artistry to fit the needs of different communities. They hope to offer a different perspective on art as a communal process that helps communities heal, celebrate and reclaim their identities in the face of injustice. Vy believes in creating and organizing with intention, spiritual groundedness, humbleness, and mutual accountability.
Vy got a B.A. degree in English and Studio Art from the College of Wooster in Ohio. They currently work full-time as a Sex Educator and Youth Organizer for a local non-profit, do freelance visual art as a side hustle, and serve as a Leader at The Sanctuaries, D.C. Some of Vy’s most recent works include: creating mobilization art for 2019 Women’s March; live creating and speaking at 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions: Justice Assembly; 2018 Reimagining Interfaith: Keynote Panel; and 2017 PICO Prophetic Resistance Summit: Reorganizing Faith Movements Panel.
Our discussion centered on the ways that inter-cultural views about African-Americans has impacted race relations in the United States. I acknowledged that there are very distinct ways that some Black people from other countries perceive Black people who are born in this country as descendants of enslaved people. Some of those perceptions for some include believing that those of us born here are lazy or not as smart or not taking advantage of our opportunities. I am not guessing about this. I have facilitated trainings and dialogues between groups where this viewpoint is shared and discussed. There are people who I love who hold this problematic viewpoint and have told me, “but, you’re different” and I have been told by those who hold this viewpoint to not always focus on race and inequality and just work on being my best. Talking about this and acknowledging this is not being anti-immigrant and is not creating divisiveness. Divisiveness occurs when we do not process this and cultivate spaces to acknowledge how our experiences influence the ways we inadvertently contribute narratives that falsely castigate a population of people. Many of the experiences of and efforts by Black descendants of enslaved people in this country have shaped the laws and cultural institutions that impact the lives of all a black people in this country, regardless of country of origin. Yet, this very fact is rarely acknowledged in the greater scope of discussions regarding advocacy efforts by Black people on behalf of Black people in efforts to create a country and world that works for everyone.
Cultural identity matters.
It matters because it influences the way we interact with people, make choices, such as voting, and how we show up in the world. Culture is not simply race. It is generational sometimes. It is tradition and rituals, learning practices, the way we prepare food, the ways we treat our old and our young. However, we have watered down our understanding of and exploration of the impact of cultural identity by sticking solely to skin color. This does us a disservice.
As news abounds about Kamala Harris’ heritage as a descendant of immigrants and not Black people descended from people who were enslaved in this country, as people ruminate on Obama and his heritage as a son of a white mother and Kenyan father, the legitimacy of a conversation about the impact of culture and heritage on politics requires an honest appraisal and space for us to examine what it is we believe, why do we believe what we do, and how do these beliefs impact the greater world.