The exploration of our identity is a journey that every human being takes throughout their entire lifetime. Finding who we are and what our purpose in life is may not be a linear process for many of us, and what questions we ask within this exploration may be different for everyone. The process of finding our identity in the fight for social justice can be just as complicated.
Does my race make me who I am?
What do I fight for? Who do I fight with?
What is my purpose as a biracial person within the movement? How do I change the world amidst so many reasons to fight for it?
We live in a time in which racial inequities that have existed in our country since its colonization are now at the center of our culture. This is not because racism is new to this nation. It is because these issues are being documented, put in front of our eyes every day and are now on the table for every family to have dialogue. It is because communities of color have been fighting to bring these issues into the national narrative for a long time, and people are finally talking about them.
We are not just simply talking about race. We are talking about how to create a liberated and equitable society for all people, and today we are often talking about how to dismantle the systems of institutional racism that create unconscionable disparities, poverty and violence against black communities. We cannot understand this pain unless we have lived it, but we are at the point that most Americans now feel it and want to change it.
With the urgency of the issues facing black communities today and the complexity of self-identity, those of us who do not identify as black, non-black people of color and white allies often find ourselves in unique spaces in the movement. Sadly there is injustice in Black, Latinx and Native American communities every day.
How do we stand in solidarity within our capacity without contributing to the erasure of injustice that simultaneously happens every day? This requires us to step up when called on, and to step back when it is not our time to take up space. This requires us to demonstrate respect and love, not appropriation and exploitation. Knowing how to be a good ally is difficult and requires a deep analysis of oppression, privilege and power.
Like many others who find themselves in this space, I have committed much of my life to fighting as an individual in solidarity with other issues. Lately I have asked myself if I’m being effective, if I am doing enough and what I can do to help my people.
Lately I have found myself asking these questions a lot and talking to many non-black people of color, Asian friends and family about these issues. Coincidentally today I find myself called on to step up for my Asian community facing an urgent crisis.
Eight Cambodian Minnesotan refugees face unjust deportation and are currently being detained by Immigration Customs Enforcement. These are important members of our community with family, friends and neighbors.
These are people with church members who will have to find someone to fill in their role at mass this Sunday while they sit in a cell.
These are Cambodian refugees being threatened with deportation from the same government whose reckless militarization created the war, genocide and Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975 that displaced these individuals from their home in the first place. Now that government is attempting to send them back to the land they fled.
I spoke to Vichet Chhuon, a professor at the University of Minnesota, about the families and the historical context to these unjust acts.
“The immediate need is to keep those families that are detained off a plane to Cambodia. The larger fight is to fix former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 immigration bill and say that we need to bring back discretion in these cases. The US government is playing politics with people’s lives,” Vichet said.
Laws passed in 1996 and 2002 allow individuals with legal residence to be deported due to past felonies, even if they occurred before the legislation. In the past a family could make an argument of severe economic and emotional hardship to prevent deportation. There was some semblance of pragmatic assessment of an individual’s reform from their past behavior and their current contribution to society. After 9/11 these laws became more rigid, and families are being torn apart.
Vichet and I talked about the legal and moral implications of the issue. “This violates many different moral principles. These people served their time, and many cases were dismissed. One person was charged for breaking a window. Another had a small amount of ecstasy, and the court found that this individual had intent to distribute, giving them a harsh felony sentence. Many of those charged live in poverty and could not afford an attorney so were given these charges largely in part due to lack of proper legal representation.”
The vast system of criminal injustice has labeled these refugees as lifelong criminals who are not only without a place to call home, but now are being threatened to return to a land that no longer accepts them, putting them in further harm and separating them from their loved ones.
“We need to push Governor Dayton to pardon these individuals,” Vichet stated as an immediate call to action.
Although rare, a governor does have this power and Governor Dayton has the opportunity to see this as an act of injustice and to pardon the eight Cambodian refugees. In 2010 Qing Hong Wu was facing deportation when New York Gov. David Paterson pardoned his case. Wu traveled to the U.S. from China at the age of 5 and, after engaging in street crimes in his youth, became an IT executive. The governor made the decision to pardon Wu due to “the harsh inequity and rigidity of immigration laws.”
Every day there are laws passed without our awareness that are devastating families.
Everyday there’s a fight to be fought. Find yours.
The family members of the Cambodian Minnesotan families will meet with Minnesota senators on 5 p.m.–8 p.m. Oct. 20 at The Humphrey School of Public Affairs. There will also be a screening of “Sentenced Home” a film on unjust deportation and a discussion with advocate groups on how to support the campaign.