A recent event to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr started with the U.S. national anthem, sung by an amazing young African American gentleman. It was followed by a beautiful song I had not heard before, but I continued to stand up with over 1500 other people. Next day at work, I mentioned how I was blown away by her singing, as I could feel pain, energy, hope and faith all at once. An African American coworker told me that it was “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I was mildly embarrassed.
I work in the field of racial equity and social justice at the government level. How could have I not known about the African American National Anthem? Unfortunately, this is not the only instance where I have felt uninformed, and subsequently, uncomfortable.
When I came to the United States in my final year of college, I chose two African American history courses as my electives. I felt the need to expand my limited knowledge about slavery, but learned so much more about the entirety of African American experiences in the United States. My school in Nepal had books printed by the Oxford University Press. My understanding of the western world was wealth, knowledge, justice, and kindness (almost all aid workers I had seen were white Europeans). The powerful people of these great countries were all white. I saw black and brown faces only on the news and movies, depicted as criminals, or sometimes on United Nations posters. Unbeknownst to my parents, I was raised with strongly fictitious ideas about race in the U.S., and I was born only 31 years ago.
I cannot speak for all, but many new Americans have not had an opportunity to be adequately informed of the complexities of race and culture in the U.S. Our parents have very little understanding of politics, racism, injustice, inequality, and other areas of social concerns in here. They are often unable to fathom their own experience of prejudice and discrimination in their new community. Even if they wanted to learn and engage, the opportunities are difficult to access, particularly in their dominant language. So, they often defer to strengthening their own cultural community. Hence, many new Americans of color, like me, are unable to relate to an experience of other people of color that are born and raised in the US-culture. We experience stereotype-limitation when we assume our inability to have a shared experience with another person of color limits our ability to do this work.
Coming from a culture of a mistrust of government, political trauma, and warfare circumstances, it is particularly challenging for us to establish a trusted connection with our government. My parents still have not fully understood how I have aligned my passion for equity, justice and service as a government employee, and not as an aid worker. Nonetheless, I am here, and I am thankful to be in an environment where I can be curious, and comfortable to say I don’t know what I don’t know.
Immigrant and refugee employees bring a wealth of unique experiences and background as government employees. Some of us are very knowledgeable and can relate to the experiences of a wide range of racially diverse communities we serve. Some of us are doing our best to learn and create opportunities for others to learn. Some of us have experienced a traumatic past. Some have witnessed or heard of that past. Yet, we are all here, as advocates of social justice and racial equity. We have committed ourselves to go on this difficult journey. We must create space for each other to experience what we have never experienced, while feeling connected and belonged. Hence, I challenge us all to experience the unknown, and to embrace the discomfort that may come with it.
Manisha currently works as a Senior Policy Analyst for the City of Tacoma Office of Equity and Human Rights. She has also founded “First Generation Professionals,” a group of New or First Generation Americans dedicated to supporting each other, and mentoring young people who are first generation or new Americans. She can be reached at email@example.com.