What Is Your First Memory on Race?

I was orphaned and began my new life with my sister’s family in Phoenix the summer I turned seven. I was sent to a school of predominately white children.

“So, what are you anyway?” I recall being asked at school.

“I’m a girl, what are you?” I once snarled back at a classmate.

He went on to compare my skin to the mud he threw at me at recess. This act of aggression was a rarity, subtly was the norm.

In those first months and year, my thick accent and Brown skin made me stand out. I was one of less than a dozen children of color at that school.

I was “different” than these children. I had, until that point, grown up in a small mining town in Arizona, where I was one of many Mexican-American children.

This place was so foreign and Phoenix was so much larger and less friendly than the Arizona I knew and understood.

I knew profound loss. I was not one of them, yet. I learned to make a space for myself, to make friendships that last until today.

In the years that followed, I was called “a good Mexican” or “not like the rest of them” by students and teachers alike. Somehow this was seen as a compliment. My sister taught me early that to be perceived as good enough “by them,” I had to work harder, speak clearer, be better.

I saw this play out in school, on the nightly news when we would knowingly glance to each other, secretly hoping that the wrongdoer being described was anything but Mexican.

I once went shopping with my sister — who I viewed as virtually a superhero — and she was questioned by a store clerk when picking out a scarf for work.

“Sorry, dear, but THAT is really expensive; maybe you want to look at these instead,” the clerk said.

My sister bought that stupid scarf just to show that she could.

These acts of exclusion made me feel so lost. It took years for me to reassemble myself and then take my place in the world as a Chicana.

These are some of my first memories around race, ethnicity and identity.

What are yours? When was the last time that you actually sat with your neighbors and strangers and unpacked yourpain around race?

On April 29, as part of a national call to action held annually since 2010, led primarily by the YWCA USA, thousands of people in the US are taking a Stand Against Racism at over 750 locations in 44 states and the District of Columbia.

They will share their stories as I have mine.

I live in Arizona, where race and immigration string together so succinctly. We are encouraging and conducting bilingual conversations around the Pledge Against Racism. We are opening our conversation with a simple question: “What was your first memory of race?”

At last year’s event, I had the opportunity to listen to my neighbors reveal stories in which they recalled those searing moments when they, or people they cared about, first recognized or were singled out as “different” — or in the case of many, including myself, Brown.

In sharing, I further realized this compounded pain inextricably has affected my view of the world and my seemingly precarious place within it. Those experiences yielded an unwavering yearning for justice and the need to facilitate a place of belonging for all. It brought me, eventually, to this YWCA community, where I work.

Throughout the country and in other communities, many neighbors will engage in conversations to look at how structural and institutional racism is working in the lives of girls of color. These are conversations that need to happen and often.

We invite you to host or attend a conversation in your community.

In Southern Arizona, the Coalition for Racial Justice — composed of the Tucson Urban League, YWCA of Southern Arizona, NAACP of Tucson, the Black Women’s Taskforce and the Center for Community Dialogue, a program of Our Family Services — believes that we must bring people together, face-to-face and engage in meaningful conversations around structural and institutionalized racism.

This year marks 48 years since the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. In that last year, King’s message rang out to illustrate the connections between the struggles of Memphis’ sanitation workers who bore the signs “I AM A MAN,” to the war in Vietnam and the recognition of the plight of working people throughout the US. King was articulating what is now known as intersectionality.

The realization that we all come to community as a sum of many parts, and further, that our identity marks the way that we interact with and engage in oppression.

Since King’s passing, movements have emerged to recognize that people enter into political struggle and community life as more than women, men, workers, queer, able or poor. We carry our histories, realities, lived experiences of racism, sexism, loss and many oppressions into the room with us when we sit together; but we must sit together. Undoubtedly, many feel that the time for conversation about race have taken place and we must now act.

These conversations are critical towards moving together, because in revealing our pain and truth, we can also listen deeply and engage with that of others, and that is where change can occur. Real, transformative, painful and messy change begins with truth telling and conversation. Thus, we must create these spaces for listening and learning from one another.

We must have spaces and ways of sitting together. Community spaces are vastly underrated in times of electronic connection. While we have greater access to knowledge and each other in an ever-shrinking world, what is often forgotten is the real person with family, emotions, hurts, hopes and dreams on the other side of the screen. We easily forget this when clicking a mouse or hitting send. We carry that forgetfulness of humanity into the world.

Reconnect and get real, because as King reminded all of us in a speech on that last fateful night in Memphis,

Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.

That was true in 1968, and it remains true today.