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Race in America: Tensions and Solidarity Across BIPOC Groups

Conversations about race in US history often focus on the central (and critically important) Black-White narrative. Yet children growing up in our multicultural democracy are increasingly interacting with others across many different racial and ethnic lines. It is a good time to strengthen our understanding of how different BIPOC groups relate to each other.

What are the roots of existing tensions among BIPOC groups? How have those groups been intentionally pitted against each other by those in power? Where do we see examples of BIPOC folks building effective coalitions and standing in solidarity with one another? And critically, how do we plant seeds of inclusivity in young BIPOC children so that they grow into racial justice advocates for ALL oppressed people? We are excited to be joined by Margo Okazawa-Rey and Soojin Pate who've made such solidarity central to their work as educators and activists.

This was the first in a series of four webinars about building strong relationships among BIPOC children. Find the second in the series here.

EmbraceRace: Hello, everyone. Or good afternoon, late afternoon could be where you are. Welcome, folks. Feel like I haven't seen you in a while, but it's good to have you here. Today is the first in a series of four webinars about tensions and solidarities between and among BIPOC communities. And by BIPOC, if you're a BIPOC, you don't have to be to be on this webinar, but by that we mean Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, Multiracial.

We're excited to be having this conversation. Today we're going to kind of look back at the origins of tensions and solidarities among groups of color. Again, these are terms that are not perfect. So, forgive me. And oftentimes those in history, they're sort of cast in Black and White, even though Indigenous people preceded Black people and White people on this land. And there are many other groups here that have always been here. So the experience of our kids is really different, it's not a Black/White experience. A lot of the experiences many of us had as kids is not a Black/White experience, right? So we need to really deal with, and as the BIPOC population grows, we need to remember that our kids need help, as a lot of us do, in sort of seeing what's happening with race, how race works across groups, and how we can be rowing the boat in the same direction, one of racial justice and solidarity. So, we're really excited to have this conversation tonight.

It's very tempting to think of those in very interpersonal terms, right? "Black people are like this, Latino folks are like that, Asian Americans are like the other thing," and to not keep sight of the big historical and structural factors that shape the way that those relationships play out interpersonally or intergroup. So, we're going to get help from our two guests in thinking about that, thinking about what we call structural factors.

Margo Okazawa Rey 360 360 px

One guest, Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey, is an educator, a writer, and a social justice activist who is most known as a founding member of the historic Black Feminist Combahee River Collective and for her transnational feminist advocacy. She works on issues of militarism, armed conflict and violence against women examined intersectionally. Margo is a Professor Emerita at San Francisco State University. Welcome. Delighted to have you.

Soojin Pate 360 360 px

And we're also really happy to joined by Dr. SooJin Pate, who is an educator, writer and DEI consultant dedicated to centering the lives and experiences of historically marginalized people. SooJin received her PhD in American studies at the University of Minnesota, specializing in comparative approaches to race and ethnic studies. A proud alum of Howard University, SooJin received her MA in English, specializing in African American and Caribbean literatures. She's also a podcaster. Her podcast is called Antiracist Parenting. Welcome, SooJin.

We are fellow travelers on that road, for sure. And as always, we start with the personal. It's always true that our guests have really personal sort of lived connection to the work that they do and the topic we're talking about.

Today, we're talking about relationships among groups of color, and I'd like to start with you, Margo. Tell us a little bit about your personal connection to this work.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Okay. Theoretically, I'm not supposed to exist. My mother is Japanese and my father's African American. He was part of the US occupation of Japan, and my mother was part of the occupied. And I was born in 1949. And theoretically, I say, because, well, here I am. And I think, you know, I didn't understand this. Of course growing up, there were various things that I had to come to understand. But I think what I have come to understand laterally in my life is that who we are and who we can become is very much rooted in our origins. And so my experience of post-war occupied Japan, being in a Biracial family, being Multicultural, actually, you know, mainstream US from the schools, African American and Japanese, and Japanese culture of a particular historic moment, right? 1949 through 1960. I was 10 years old when we moved to the States. My first language was Japanese. And my mother, I would say, was the first transnational feminist I knew. And I'll maybe get a chance to talk more about that. So that's who I am.

And one other important thing that I've come to realize later, in the mid-90s, was going to South Korea on a Fulbright, wanting to understand what Korean people learned about African American people because of the racial tensions in urban areas at that time. And what I came to understand was that Korea was an occupied place as well. At that point, there were over 100 military bases and installations, and I could speak with older generation of Korean people who had been colonized by the Japanese in Japanese. And it's one of those moments where you come to realize that on the one hand, you had been claiming kind of a marginalization as a woman of color in the US. But in this context in South Korea, I really came to understand why the category of nation matters as an analytic category and why it matters that I'm connected to the US state and US corporations. So, I'll leave it at that for now.

EmbraceRace: Thank you so much, Margo. SooJin, what is your personal connection to this work?

SooJin Pate: Yeah. Hi, everyone. My name is SooJin, and Margo and I, we actually have a shared history in the sense that my identity too is shaped by US militarism, US imperialism, US occupation of South Korea. I am a Korean adoptee. I was adopted when I was five years old, and the phenomenon of Korean adoption was a direct byproduct of US militarization during World War II and then later, the Korean War that followed. But before I share a little bit more, answering that question, I just want to first say just how honored I am to be in the company of Margo. Really, truly, I mean, I hope folks understand just how significant it is that we are in her presence.

And for those of you who don't know, I'd like to just share a little bit about why she is so significant. So, it's because of her and women of color feminists, specifically the Black feminists who were part of the Combahee River Collective during the 1960s, it's because of them that I am the person that I am today. During a time when White publishers refused to publish their work, their ideas, they had the foresight to make sure that their theories and their philosophies were published and in print form so that you and me, so that future generations would have access to their work and could learn from them. Before the webinar started, I was just sharing with Margo that ... So, I'm teaching at the University of Minnesota and I had my students read the Combahee River Collective Statement, and we've also been talking about women of color feminism and the incredible work that statement spurred. And it provided a blueprint of sorts for healing for internalized oppression, from internalized racism and sexism in my life.

So to put it simply, it's because of women of color feminists like Margo who came before me that I am the person that I am today, and who helped me to understand the significance and importance of building relationships across race. And so why is this work so important to me? Not only because of the healing aspect, you know, personally, but also the healing aspect that can take place collectively by following the lead of women of color feminists. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy ... So here now, I am evoking my intellectual and spiritual mentor, bell hooks, who just recently passed and became an ancestor. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy is the air we breathe. And because of that, it functions as the standard operating system in the United States, right? And given that, we have to come together to mobilize our collective power in order to combat and resist the multiple oppressions that we face. And not only that, we have to come together and use our collective power to envision new ways of being and living, and relating to one another without hierarchy, without oppression, without domination. And so being introduced to Black feminists, to Black scholars and thinkers during my time at Howard University, that's really what led me to commit to building solidarity with communities of color and across communities of color. And this work and commitment actually became even more salient when my daughter Saleh was born. Her dad is Black and I'm Korean and she identifies as both fully Korean and Black. So, having a daughter who embodies the beauty of cross racial affiliation also is why I'm driven and committed to this work.

We have to come together to mobilize our collective power in order to combat and resist the multiple oppressions that we face. And not only that, we have to come together and use our collective power to envision new ways of being and living, and relating to one another without hierarchy, without oppression, without domination.

SooJin Pate

Margo Okazawa-Rey: That's beautiful. Thank you. Thank you so much.

EmbraceRace: You've preempted beautifully so much of what we wanted to acknowledge too. I'll just mention two quick things. The Combahee River Statement, which Margo reminds us she did not help to author, but she was a member of the group in the, I think it came out in 1977 or so, but it's often credited with really providing the theory behind what is now known as intersectionality. I'm sure most of our audience has heard of. Identity politics, I believe was a term coined in the statement, although it has certainly different alterations now than what the group intended.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Very different.

EmbraceRace: There are so many debts that we owe to your work. If we have time, I'd love to hear, from the perspective of those years, how you think it holds up and what some of the rest of the legacy is?

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Oh, okay. Well, I don't think this was part of the questions, but I think there's several things really important to, that I'd like you all to really think about. The first thing is that when that statement was written, it was commissioned by a White academic named Zillah Eisenstein who wanted to include something from the collective in her edited volume. What makes the statement what it is, is thanks to so many at that time women's studies faculty, who used it as part of their essential reading. This is an important example of how academics can actually support and be in partnership with activists. I think that's really important because we hear the nightmare stories of how we go around ripping off communities and taking an extractivist relationship to communities.

I think this was really extraordinary. I think so first, if Zillah hadn't commissioned it and two, if women studies faculty hadn't kept assigning it years after years, it's now four decades or something, it would be sitting like so many other good works. One of the questions I think is how do we, whether you're an academic or you're a community worker, you're a parent, what you know about your children, elder care if you're doing that, how do you activate the knowledge you have? By activating, I mean, how do you use it to bring people together, have people thinking about things in a different way, et cetera. That's the first thing. The second thing I think is really important, especially for younger folks is that when we were the Combahee River Collective, we were actually, our first meeting was something like '74, '75.

We didn't start in the '60's. All of us had some relationship to movements of the '60's, but the Combahee River Collective actually started in early mid-seventies. When we were together, we could not have imagined 40 years later, 45 years later, people would still be talking about the Combahee River Collective. Part of it is, yes, the statement is really excellent. It was way ahead of its time. We were out as Black lesbians. That was just completely unheard of because in Black communities, gays and lesbians were White people's disease. Then here we are just out publicly. We were not out to make history. What we were trying to do was explain ourselves to ourselves and to really think about what was our role, given our identities and our personal experiences, what roles could we play in improving the lives of people who we considered community?

It wasn't like, okay, we're going to put this on our resume and people are going to be calling us to be on these panels 45 years later. I think there was something about that kind of intention. The intention was both personally to explain ourselves because there were no categories really at that point, and then to see how we can make a difference. Also, I want to say that the question I want to ask is, for generations after us, what's the statement you all would write? That pertains to this historic moment, given what's happening. I mean, talk about militarizing and militarization, boys with guns, all they do is shoot, right? What statement could accurately or closely represent what's happening in material terms, in emotional terms, spiritual terms, political terms in this moment?

I think that's what I'd like you all to think about. You can refer to us in a particular way, but we also were standing on shoulders of people who came before us, like Kimberlé Crenshaw stood on our shoulders. Do you know what I mean? We're always standing on somebody's shoulders and so it seems to me that part of doing this work is acknowledging that. Not just thinking, oh, we're so smart and we had the correct analysis and we came up with this brilliant statement. Some of those things are true, but we didn't operate in a vacuum in any shape or form. I'll just say, one more thing is that there will was no Black women of color studies or anything. There was women's studies, it was predominantly White. What we relied on were novels. Toni Morrison, Mary Helen Washington had a wonderful collection of short stories called Black-Eyed Susans, Nella Larsen. What was amazing about it is that those novels were written from embodied experiences. Embodied knowledge. I think that's why they have such an impact. I'll just stop at that and I could go on, but most important thing is, what's the statement you all would write now? And on whose shoulders are you standing, besides the Combahee River Collective and SooJin, you were way too generous. Thank you so much.

How do you activate the knowledge you have? By activating, I mean, how do you use it to bring people together, have people thinking about things in a different way... What's the statement you all would write now? And on whose shoulders are you standing?

Margo Okazawa-Rey

EmbraceRace: Just want to thank you so much for that. I just want to lift up your reference to sort of activate. Combahee River Collective, if I remember the origin story, that you took it from the name of an action by Harriet Tubman back in the mid 1800's where she led the rescue of several hundred enslaved people along the Combahee River in South Carolina. This idea of a political act, being a really important reference for what you were trying to do with that collecting.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: I just want to make one more important point about what you just said. That is, in our first retreat, which was by the way in Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, we had a whole conversation about what were we going to name ourselves? One person said, oh we should name ourselves, it was some name, word for a color. Literally a color. Barbara Smith was like, "Uh, no. I don't think that's such a good name. It didn't say anything." It was a color. Then she mentioned the Combahee River, Harriet Tubman, and then we all agreed that that's the name, but again, these things don't happen in a vacuum either. We had to have a conversation about how to name ourselves in a way that really reflects our intention and purposes, not just our existence.

EmbraceRace: I love also what you said about not only activating knowledge, but explaining ourselves to ourselves, which I think is, in this moment of not only increased militarization in the news and all around us, it's also a moment where history is being suppressed in schools and this, it really be behooves us as people, as parents, as caregivers to come forth with those histories and those stories and make the connections to really act, how does it speak to this moment? I do appreciate, there is, I think there has been looking back at your generation, a lot of people of our generation say, "Oh, they're the activists," and don't take up in this moment our own activism and explain this moment to ourselves. I love that. I love that call. Thank you.

I want us to talk about the tensions between BIPOC communities and the original wedges, the historical structures that created some of those. Can you speak to that?

SooJin Pate: Yeah. What you're getting at by tensions and the conflict that you're referring to, what you're getting at is the divide and conquer strategy that has been used by the ruling class by racist power to sow division among a group of people with shared interests in order to neutralize their collective power. That is the whole purpose of the divide and conquer strategy. This strategy is actually as old as the formation of this land base known as the United States. It was codified. Actually the strategy was codified after the successful multiracial rebellion, Bacon's Rebellion that took place in 1676, where indentured European servants, along with enslaved Africans, joined forces and rose up against the ruling elite planter class at that time. This coalition was so successful that the ruling class were like, "Never again! This can never happen again."

They created laws that made it illegal for White people to spend time with Black people. This was in 1701. Since 1701, it has been legislated in our laws that White people should not be with people of color. Since 1701, this divide and conquer strategy has been retooled, reshaped, repurposed, and recycled against other communities to serve the interest again of the ruling class. We saw this take place in, for example, the 1950's and 1960's, when the stereotype and miss of the "model minority" was introduced to American society for the first time. And that "model minority," the whole purpose of that stereotype, it was created to discount and discredit the real legitimate claims of racism and racial injustice against African Americans.

Since then, we see this tactic being used to drive wedges, not only between Black and Asian communities, but Mexicans now, Mexican and Asian communities and Black communities. Asian Americans now have this whole backlash against affirmative action. Asian Americans are being called up to try to suppress and eliminate affirmative action policies, which were originally created as a remedial, a remediation to historical discrimination in employment and housing, et cetera, and education. I realize I probably should stop there because I'm sure Margo has a lot more to add and can say to this, but that just gives a little bit of historical context in terms of the structural and systemic ways in which communities of color have been pitted against each other.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: I just add something to that, SooJin, I'm so glad you mentioned it. The original model minorities were the five civilized tribes. They were referred to as the five civilized tribes in the 19th century and they were compared to the savages. They were described as entrepreneurial, blah, blah, all the characteristics that the dominant groups were trying to promote, and I think that's really important to keep in mind. And then the whole Asian American model minority was really ramped. But the first model minority with those five tribes in the Southeast United States, right? So I just want to say that this model minority idea, separating the good ones from the bad ones, even within, right? Good Negros, bad Negros, whatever, right?

SooJin Pate: Yeah.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: There's always that pitting against each other. It's so important, I'm so glad you raised it.

SooJin Pate: Thanks. And that just goes to show how important it is for us to know our history and where these strategies and these stereotypes come from, again, because they're recycled, they're repurposed.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Exactly. Yeah.

Since 1701, this divide and conquer strategy has been retooled, reshaped, repurposed, and recycled against other communities to serve the interest again of the ruling class... We see this tactic being used to drive wedges, not only between Black and Asian communities, but Mexicans now, Mexican and Asian communities and Black communities.

SooJin Pate

EmbraceRace: So let's take that particular dyad of Asian-Americans and African-Americans and I want to bring it very, very much up to date and ask if the divide and conquer strategy applies to the example I'm about to give. Because as you probably know and as many of our audience members probably know, in New York very recently, in mid-January in one case and mid-February in the other, two Asian American women were killed. And at least in one case, perhaps in both, by Black identified men I believe, certainly in one case. What's interesting to me about this is I think it is widely believed that Black people have been disproportionately the perpetrators of crimes against Asian-Americans but literally yesterday, I read about a study by Janelle Wong who is a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, who actually dug into the data as much as she could on crimes against Asian Americans these last several years as we know through COVID and so on and the perpetrators and found that at least 75% of the perpetrators in anti-Asian crimes are White identified, right?

So that's the best data as far as I know that anybody knows. And so clearly there's something about where it's not just that people are making this up, there's something about the media, which attacks and which perpetrators are being shown. And we know there's a long history of media implication in perception of Black criminality, and my question to you is, is that an example of divide and conquer? How do we explain the discrepancy between what the reality is, as professor Wong tells us through her research, and what the misperception is?

SooJin Pate: Sure. Well, it's two words, White supremacy. That's why. The media, it's invested. I mean, if you think about who controls the media, it's over 90% White in terms of what news gets covered, what books get published, what music we listen to, everything that we see and hear, the people behind those creations are White people, and particularly White men. And so it is in their interests in serving White supremacy, it's in their interest to show that it's these "bad Black people that are harming Asian-Americans," even though as you just pointed out, the overwhelming majority of the perpetrators are White people. So it just continues to feed this idea that it's non-White folks who are the problems. White people are innocent and it's not their problem. It's these "bad people of color."

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Right. And I think another piece that's added to it, that the media are able to do that because of how stereotypes work so that these myths land easily on everybody because that's the stereotype. If we didn't have that stereotype, we would say wait a minute, there's something wrong here, right? It lands on us as Black people, it lands on a lot of people but it's one of those things, right? So just for an example, the thing about the stereotype is that it's a generalization, and people make lots of generalizations, but the difference between a generalization and a stereotype is that no matter how much dis-confirming evidence you present, it doesn't change the stereotype. Instead, people say, "Oh, that's an exceptional one." You've heard it. You may have even said it yourselves, right? You meaning all of us.

"Oh, all Black people eat fried chicken. Oh, but this person doesn't like it. Well, that's because maybe they're not really Black, right?" Do you know what I'm saying? I'm using a really facile example, but I want you to really think about how it's only possible for these stereotypes to land, if we have internalized the stereotypes. And this is where we have to do the work of, I think about it as composting. All the crap that we have, we can't unlearn it. I don't believe in unlearning anything, but how do we compost all the stuff that we've learned and how do we turn that compost into rich soil from which we can grow new stuff, stuff that we really want to grow?

I think about it as composting. All the crap that we have, we can't unlearn it. I don't believe in unlearning anything, but how do we compost all the stuff that we've learned and how do we turn that compost into rich soil from which we can grow new stuff, stuff that we really want to grow?

Margo Okazawa-Rey

EmbraceRace: And that is a wonderful segue, Margo, to the next question because we certainly don't want to reinforce the stereotype that relationships among different groups of color are characterized simply or even primarily by tension and conflict, right? The truth is that you guys both know you've both done a lot of work on solidarities among people of color.

Can you give us one example, perhaps one that you're personally familiar with, of such a solidarity among any groups of color and talk about what allows us to do, at least in that particular case, that kind of composting that allows us to resist the kind of structural pressures you've both talked about?

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Yeah, so I'll give two quick examples. One is an old example which is during the US war in Vietnam, Black soldiers who have a certain kind of Black consciousness, worked and organized in solidarity with people in Okinawa because Okinawa was a really important staging place for the US war in Vietnam, right? And those soldiers and those people in Okinawa knew that their interests were joined together so they organized, and you can look this up. The other example is there are individuals like Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, and whole bunch of other folks, Betita Martínez and Maria Varela who all worked in solidarity, in the case of Maria and Betita, a Latina in SNCC and the Black movement, in the case of Yuri Kochiyama also in New York, Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit. So there are these individuals who have really tried to make these connections.

And more recently, there's something called Black and Asian Feminist Solidarities, and I forget the exact name, even though I'm kind of associated with it. Young feminists making these connections and coming together and really thinking about how to make genuine important connections. And one other thing that most people don't know, when that 12 year old girl in Okinawa was raped in 1995, the men who raped them were African-American men, military. The Okinawa and feminist activists made it a point to not let that take over the point they were making, which is it isn't about the race of the people, but it is about military training, it's about the use of power, use of force and patriarchy, right? So I'll just give those three examples and there are more, we just don't hear enough about those.

SooJin Pate: A couple of things are coming to mind. One example is kind of on a larger scale, and then one example is on a very micro level, personal level. So the first example is I'm thinking about after 9/11, so post 9/11 when there was all this talk about, "We need to round up Muslims and intern them like we did the Japanese," and Asian Americans came together and they're like, "No, never again. This cannot happen." And then similarly, Japanese-Americans showed up at ICE detention camps when they were going to repurpose the internment camps that were used to imprison Japanese-Americans during World War II. They were going to use those very same barracks, very same camps to house and cage Latinx children. So they came and protested then, making sure that those camps would not be used to cage these children.

And then on a more personal level, I am in solidarity with other colleagues of color, with friends of color all the time and I'll share this one example. So there would be these faculty meetings and there was a clear pattern that when my Black female colleagues would share something, propose an idea, pitch a new agenda item, that they would be silenced, ostracized, ignored, or told that they were being too angry and to watch their tone. So what we did was we would huddle before the meetings, before these faculty meetings and they would tell me everything that they wanted to say and I would say it because of the power dynamics, because of our social identities and the different racialization between Asian Americans and African Americans within the context of workplace settings. Because of that, our White colleagues, our White faculty team members could hear ideas coming from me, were more receptive to ideas coming from me than my Black colleagues. And so that's how we were able to move through those ideas that were brought forth by the Black female faculty members.

EmbraceRace: Wow. Thank you. We really appreciate that personal example. So people talk about being an ally, being an accomplice. Margo, early on you talked about whatever your position, whether you're an academic, you're an activist, so on, what is it that you can do? What's your sphere of influence?

We ultimately want to talk about how to raise kids who know how to see moments of solidarity and create solidarity, BIPOC kids in particular, across BIPOC groups. What suggestions do you have for parents or caregivers or teachers who want to push BIPOC kids to create solidarity across racial groups?

Margo Okazawa-Rey: The DEI category I'm having problem with. And what I've started thinking about is how do we think about not diversity, inclusion, and equity, or however the correct order is, but how must we, as communities, families, institutions, really think about this idea of belonging, right? I was thinking, that would be so radical to have that be the frame because you can be included, but included in what? Included as what? Included in what?

And I wanted to share one story that has really changed me and I heard this just in December, which is that my friend Farid Mura was a Palestinian political prisoner who was released from solitary confinement. For many, many, many, many months, solitary confinement. He and I had a conversation right after he was released. I was there in Palestine and he said to me, "Margo," he said, "It's not about nationality. It's not about race. It's not about gender. It's not about any of these things." He said, "In this particular moment, you're either on the side of culture of killing or the culture of life." And by culture of killing, I'm not talking about death, I'm talking about killing, the verb where are an institution or individuals kill human beings and as a matter of fact, the planet, right? And so what if we were to think about what we're doing as putting the energy toward culture of life and shaping our families and our institutions so that we really have a sense of belonging?

And belonging can only really happen when we truly acknowledge each other, recognize one another for who we are, right? I don't want to keep being made synonymous with Combahee River Collective, right? I want you to know me, who I am now, and I want you to recognize that. So just taking that as an example, how do we teach our children to really recognize and acknowledge with whom they're in contact? Right. Because I think we start with the structural things or we only talk about the psychological things, right. And how do we put those together? So the analytic part was, "So what prevents us from recognizing and acknowledging each other?" You can talk about stereotypes versus generalization, something like that. So I'd like you all in this audience to think about belonging. Right. And think about really supporting a culture of life and not a culture of killing. That all our work and energy goes into a culture of life.

EmbraceRace: With respect to the young people in your life now or whenever, in the past, and in so far, especially if you feel you've been able to do some of that work to sort of inculcate, to socialize that young person into what your colleague called a culture of life, what are some examples of what that looks like or looked like? Or if you haven't done it, what might that look like?

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Yeah. My students would say, "Oh, she's so cheesy." Meaning me. I think at the core of all of this is really a profound sense, a profound practice, a profound way to be love and to love life. Right. Love life, and that's why we do the work we do. It is, of course, to change institutions and all that stuff, but what if the starting place were that you really loved life and you want all people to live and thrive and belong? And this goes anywhere, walking down the street, going to the supermarket, just noticing something about somebody who's tallying up your bill, "Wow, amazing eyebrows." It could be as simple as that. And I do this kind of stuff and people think I'm like *imitates a buzzing noise.* But I've come to realize that the reason I'm doing the work I'm doing is absolutely that I love life. And anybody who knows me will tell you, this is what I go around saying. Because I think at the core of it, that, for me, is what it's all about.

SooJin Pate: Yeah, Margo, you saying the phrase "culture of life, for me," it reminds me of investing in life-affirming institutions, in life-affirming practices. So what are the life-affirming institutions in our society? Like universal healthcare, that would be life-affirming. Education is life-affirming. Social services is life-affirming. What are the death-affirming institutions? Prisons, right, policing...

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Schools.

SooJin Pate: Yes. Schools too, yeah. So it just made me think of that.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Yeah. I think you're absolutely right. Yeah.

SooJin Pate: I have two suggestions about what parents can do to plant seeds. The first is that so many of us, and especially White people, live segregated lives. So the first thing I would say is, "Stop living segregated lives." There was a study that was recently shared where they found 75% of White people, to this day, in the 21st century, 75% of White people have zero friends who aren't White. Okay. So if you want your children to be anti-racist, if you want your children to fight for racial justice and to care about these issues, then you have to commit too. Children are really good at identifying hypocrisy, unfairness, and double standards. They're really good at sussing that out and pointing that out in adults.

So whatever you expect of them or desire of them, expect that for yourself. Desire that for yourself. Don't put the responsibility on schools to teach your children to care about these things or to know about this history because they're not doing it and they won't! So you really need to take the wheel as parents. It's part of your responsibility. Take the wheel, share the wheel. If you're new to this journey, then ask your child to join you along on this journey and learn together. A good place to begin is Michelle Silverthorn. She has a medium article called, "Mom, Why Don't You Have Any Black Friends?" And the subtitle is, "Before you talk to your kids about race, answer this question." And in it, she provides kind of an inventory that you can take for yourself to point out where are the places, in your lives, that is segregated so that you can be more integrated.

And then the second thing is, I'm going to quote post-colonial scholar, M. Jacqui Alexander, and she says that we need to become fluent in each other's narratives, in each other's histories. So for White people, you need to be confluent in the narratives of people of color. For people of color, we know the history and narratives of White people, right? That's what we're taught. So for us, we need to know the narratives of other communities of color. And for the rest of us, we need to be fluent in the narratives of those identities in which you don't occupy a dominant position. So, for example, if you're cis[gender], we need to become fluent in the narratives of gender-nonconforming and trans[gender] people. If you're straight, we need to become fluent in the narratives of LGBTQI folks. If you're able-bodied, we need to become fluent in the narratives of disabled people.

So to become fluent, it requires that we educate ourselves, for sure, but it also requires us, and I'm going to circle back here to what Margo began with, which is, we have to activate that knowledge that we're accruing. And how do you activate that knowledge? You build relationships. So it's not just about reading a book or two, it's about reading a lot of books and forming and building relationships with those people, implementing all the things that you've been learning from those books. One last thing, we have to be intentional and deliberate about this because our society is structured in such a way, again, especially for White people, that we are segregated, that we're living like this with blinders, in our own little bubbles. So we have to be purposeful and go out of our way to connect with people who are different from us.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Yeah. And I just want to respond quickly just to make two points. I think it's also really important that we don't create monoliths as well, right? And to think about, not just White people, but poor White people have a really different experience than White people who are among the elites, right? So in the US, especially, how must we understand class so that we middle-class people of color also have things that we can't see because of our class privilege. In other words, nobody is off the hook. Nobody is off the hook if you look at things intersectionally, like really, right?

And then the last thing. For me, the reason for knowing other people's narratives and all that stuff is not a technical project, right? For me, if we can really hear and understand other people's stories and other people's experiences, we'll really get it that our destinies are bound up together.

EmbraceRace: Linked faiths. Absolutely.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: That we are linked and it's radical self-interest. That also should really bring us together that we really do share a common destiny, whether you believe it or not.

EmbraceRace: I love that. And I love the point about not just interlocking oppressions, but interlocking privileges, right?

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Exactly. And that's important because if we don't acknowledge that, then we're not being real. Me being middle class and having a US passport, whatever, money to travel and all that is really different from a White person even who has no money, can't travel anywhere, even around the block, so to speak. Do you know what I mean? And we got to make it real, folks. We really do. Otherwise, we're going to keep spinning, right? And that is quite a part also and in relation to the institutions that shape the society.

EmbraceRace: Margo, thank you. Among the distance of your travel since the Combahee River Collective days, you confided to us, if that's the right word, that you have become a transnational feminist dance DJ. And we want to go out on a song that you're going to share with us now. I noted that, SooJin, you mentioned education as a life-affirming institution. And, Margo, you referred to schools as a life-denying institution. So I'd love to, perhaps afterwards see if we can reconcile those two perspectives just so we're clear on what we're saying and if there's agreement. But maybe we can go out with thanks.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Yeah. And thanks again, everybody. And anybody, you can hit me up, as the young people say, if you want to continue the conversation. SooJin, I would love to do that with you and it would be great. So I'll just play the song.

EmbraceRace: Is the transnational feminist dance DJ for hire?

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Not for hire, volunteer though. I will work for food.

EmbraceRace: Even better. Let's kick back and hear this.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: And, everybody, get up. *song plays*

Margo Okazawa-Rey

Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey is an educator, writer, and social justice activist, who is most known as a founding member of the historic Black feminist Combahee River Collective, and for her transnational feminist advocacy. She works on issues of militarism, armed conflict, and violence against women examined intersectionally. Margo is a Professor Emerita San Francisco State University. More about Margo >
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Soojin Pate

Dr. SooJin Pate is an educator, writer, and DEI consultant dedicated to centering the lives and experiences of historically marginalized peoples. She received her PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota, specializing in comparative approaches to race and ethnic studies. A proud alum of Howard University, SooJin received her MA in English, specializing in African American and Caribbean literatures. She’s also a podcaster. More about Soojin >
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