Today we meet with Ana Cecilia Peréz (she-her-ella), an independent consultant and change maker, and also a REACH grantee partner. Read on to hear Ana’s reflections on confronting racism within herself and developing a practice of courageous vulnerability. Read the full interview here.
“I do racial equity work because my life depends on it. I literally would not be able to survive in this society, if I did not do the work I do. Through doing racial equity work we can decolonize and indigenize and create a different way of being together. We can change the culture and the structures of oppression. I believe in a future where everyone belongs and is treated with dignity, racism is the biggest impediment to this future. So, I live, work and experience joy everyday to make this future a reality.”
[Image description: Ana smiling into the camera in front of a green, leafy background. She is wearing silver hoop earrings and a black blazer and top.]
In July, you published this incredible piece that originally appeared in Yes! Magazine, “As Non-Black POC, We Need to Address Anti-Blackness.” You open the piece by sharing a very personal experience you had with confronting anti-Blackness within yourself. What led you to write this piece?
Ana: It’s impossible for any of us to exist outside the framework and the structure of white supremacy, so I, a Native, queer and cis gender person, enact white supremacy because that’s all that I’ve always been trained in. I was educated in this country, I watch TV, I walk outside my door – therefore I am constantly being trained to enact white supremacy culture. Our whole society is constructed on racism and anti-Blackness, so therefore I’ve internalized ways of being that center whiteness and enact white supremacist behaviors. I have to practice everyday for me to be aware of it. For instance, when I feel moved to act at the first moment a disagreement or a conflict arises, I have to stop myself and ask: Am I behaving from a sense of urgency in this moment— am I trying to create a quick fix to avoid being uncomfortable? Can this wait until tomorrow? Is anyone gonna die if I don’t do that thing right now? I cannot help it, but everything that I am and do is informed by anti-Blackness and Native erasure and white supremacy culture.
Writing that article was my way of calling in other people of color into this difficult conversation because I often feel like we get lumped into one big group and we don’t understand the particularities of each of our own experiences and how that informs the way that racism was enacted on us and how we replicate oppression. For me it was really important to say, what are the particular ways that Black people have been impacted by racism in this country? And what are the ways that I—out of my awareness—continue to replicate those behaviors that are not supporting true allyship and true solidarity across our communities? That was the impetus for writing the article I wrote.
I often say, if we could think our way out of racism or anti-Blackness, we would have done it already. There is plenty of evidence of the impact of race in our country and plenty of ideas and strategies to build equity. Yet the will needed to sustain the work to build equity is not there. To end racism we must shift our hearts. My work leads with my heart, I aim to model courageous vulnerability, which I believe is the most important skill needed not just to end racism but to build bridges across our differences to build the world we need. I can make myself vulnerable and expose the ugliness that lives in me because anti-Blackness or Native erasure is ugly. Consciously, it’s something that I don’t want to be associated with yet it lives in me. And so by exposing that ugly part of myself, I am challenging habits of perfectionism, which is yet another white supremacist behavior. We live in a culture of performance and appearance. I want to show that I got it together, that I know what I’m doing. I never want to accept that I make mistakes. That, right? And so all of those ways of being maintain a culture of white supremacy and dominance. So what if, instead of that we expose our hearts to each other and accept our growing edges and rather than defend say, “You’re right. How could I not be engaged in anti-Blackness, since I was trained to value whiteness and to degenerate Black and Native culture and contributions since I gained consciousness?” From the time I wrote that article there’s been other times where other people have called me in and said “Look at the way that you’re making that decision. Are you really bringing your Black colleagues fully in? How could you create more space to center the needs of Black people on the team?”
So decolonizing ourselves out of anti-Blackness is not something that we can do once a month. It’s something we must do every day and courageous vulnerability is the practice that can get us there.
Courageous vulnerability is a way of being that requires me to be whole, have deep self-knowledge and the discipline to regulate my internal and external reactions. Courageous vulnerability is something I aim for, yet I am not often able to do. It is a practice. Courageous vulnerability is done in the context of relationships – first to myself and then others. It is something I choose to practice to further the whole and to care for the sacred thread that bonds us all together.
What is the work for POC in dismantling white supremacy/anti-blackness?
Ana: One of the biggest contributions that non-Black POC people can bring is understanding our own cultural rootedness and what we can offer from our cultural perspectives to enrich the whole versus buying into whiteness and dominant culture. The reason why I do a lot of work with my community as Latinx people is because white folks are counting on us being the next group that will augment their numbers. And so, I sit up at night literally worrying about the future. Is the future of our country going to be a Ted Cruz future or and an AOC future? We, non-Black POC, have to make a choice. Will we bring our cultural strengths, resiliency and values or will we be seduced to assimilate into whiteness?
What if we kept our strengths and then started to look at what’s happening in this country, particularly around anti-Blackness and Native erasure and said, “What else is possible?” We have the opportunity to broaden the possibility for a multi-racial future, only if we are seduced by whiteness.
We have so much work to do. As immigrants, we have a responsibility to understand the history of how Black and Native people were racialized to build this country into a capitalist settler nation. We have a responsibility to be in connection to the Native people whose land we occupy because whether we’re good occupiers and freedom fighters, we’re still occupying land. And we’re still every day benefiting from Black labor, so part of unlearning anti-Blackness is learning Black brilliance and Black contributions.
Please briefly describe your work leading the Decolonizing Race project? What are 1-2 key lessons you’ve gained from this work?
Ana: Decolonizing Race was born out of our work with Latino Racial Equity Project. [With the] Latino Racial Equity Project we really wanted to look at how anti-Blackness and Native erasure is impacting the ways that Latinx people see each other. One of the biggest impacts of colonization is that Latinx people think of themselves as Latino but not native. Yet most of us are at least 50% native, many of us grew up in what has survived of our indigenous cultures and languages, yet we don’t see or value our own indigeneity. British and Spanish colonization played out differently. Cast to the Spanish matter greatly. Native erasure was carried out not just through genocide but ideology. If you ask most Latinx folks their race they are likely to tell you their country of birth and if you push they will say they are mestizo(mixed race). And more enslaved Africans were brought to Latin America and the Caribbean than the US. Now fast forward, you get 60 million Latinx people in the US who are racially diverse—they’re Black, they’re Native, they’re mixed race, they’re Asian, they’re Arab. And Latinx people are replicating anti-Blackness, pushing Black Latinx people out of the community because they don’t see them as Latinx.
Aspiring to whiteness is the norm in large parts of our community and to challenge this I created the Latino Racial Equity Project. As I was telling people, ‘we’re doing this work to decolonize Latinx people,’ other folks said, ‘wait, we want to have those conversations.’ And so Decolonizing Race (DR) was born. DR aims to understand how colonization has impacted the different branches of the human family but it is also a space to build resiliency and to grow cultural strengths that has kept us alive to dream up a future free from oppression.
[Image description: Illustration of a green tree on a blue background with branches that represent each race/ethnicity of humanity. Each branch ends in a leaf shaped like a star that details the experience of that race or ethnicity.]
What are 1-2 lessons you’ve learned through this project?
Ana Perez: One of the lessons and challenges [from Decolonizing Race] that has emerged is that we don’t have alternative ways to be in leadership together. I became the director and we selected two other folks to be part of a leadership team. I fell into the habit of scarcity and urgency and made decisions without involving the team. So in the next 10 months we’re going to take it slow and give that a little time to breathe. We are re-imagining and redoing our leadership structure, so now, instead of being a pyramid with three people at the top, we’re looking into other ways to collectively hold power and leadership. And the pairs are turning to the work with their individual branches and we’re taking in the big lessons that are emerging. The biggest lesson we have learned so far is that unless you develop new forms of leadership and also practices to support those structures, you’re going to fall back into a hierarchical and white dominant leadership model and practices.
Another key lesson is to create spaces for live feedback [that] is constant and ongoing so that people can bring forward challenging feedback more consistently. Challenges and habits will emerge, so how are we creating systems and practices so that when things do emerge, we can bring them forward and slow down to address them.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Ana Perez: The last thing I do want to say is that I’m not an expert in anti-Blackness. I am an expert in [messing] up, and because I make mistakes, I grow. What I share is the product of my mistakes and what I’ve learned from them. I don’t think any of us can arrive because we’re constantly arriving and learning and deepening. It’s important to me for people to know that I’m just a partner in practice. Maybe you can see me as having made the mistakes before you do.
What We Read, Listened to, and Watched This Month.
Racism Has Always Been Part of the Asian American Experience. The Atlantic. Providing clarity and context of the racism undergirding the Aisan-American experience in America, this article also asks us to imagine a world with a more nuanced understanding of the complex and sticky issues of racism. Linking the historical exclusion of Asians and Blacks, we are invited to acknowledge the reality of our history and its allegiance to white supremacy, in order to chart a new way forward. [15M Read]
Policing in America. Throughline Podcast. Black Americans being victimized and killed by the police is an epidemic. As the trial of Derek Chauvin plays out, it’s a truth and a trauma many people in the US and around the world are again witnessing first hand. But this tension between African American communities and the police has existed for centuries. This week, the origins of policing in the United States and how those origins put violent control of Black Americans at the heart of the system. [67M Listen]
Ted Talk: Why Corporate Diversity Programs Fail – and How Small Tweaks Can Have Big Impact. Focus of the talk is on DEI, as opposed to racial justice, with an emphasis on corporate America, yet the quick and clear data-based solutions offered are useful for all industries. Companies in the US spend billions of dollars each year on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, but subtle (and not so subtle) workplace biases often cost these initiatives — and the people they’re meant to help — big time by undermining their goals. DEI expert Joan C. Williams identifies five common patterns of bias that cause these programs to fail — and offers a data-driven approach to pinpoint where things go wrong and how to make progress instead. [17M Listen]