What Race am I?

And other difficult questions for new Americans

All images from bknation.org

Discussing issues of race, power and privilege with our clients is challenging.

Even filling out a simple Equal Employment Opportunity or Self-Identification form is problematic for someone who does not understand our racialized system. It is often easier (and necessary) to fill the form out ourselves and move on the next job placement.

These interconnected topics are difficult for us to discuss with our closest colleagues, let alone with new Americans facing many other pressing needs.

Refugees often experience a startling transition from living in very defined communities to suddenly being immersed in a society that is sometimes hostile to black and brown bodies.

I once met with an Oromo man who had just been racially profiled by the police while he was walking his daughter to school. The look on his face was exasperation and fear, as he asked me why he was handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car. He was a new arrival with limited English ability, and mexicanI did not even know where to start the conversation. “A mistaken identity,” I said, all the while knowing that it was more complicated than I was prepared to address.

Many new Americans from more monochromatic places are curious about the diverse racial landscape of the United States. We are often asked questions like:

  • What race am I?
  • Why do black Americans speak with an accent?
  • Why are all the Asian kids sitting together in the cafeteria?
  • Why do all of my co-workers speak Spanish?

Most organizations seem unequipped or reluctant to discuss complicated issues like race and identity. We often take the safe route of colorblindness, rather than equipping our clients to deal with their racialized communities and workplaces. Our primary focus is to meet the immediate needs of our clients, and we often simply don’t have time.

For whatever reason, addressing issues of race, power and prejudice is seldom a high priority. It is a mistake to try nothing at all.

muslimEach year, clients lose job opportunities because of misplaced racial commentary or nuanced misunderstandings. We need to do better to equip our clients with simple and practical tools to help them negotiate the realities of a workforce where everyone is a little prejudiced.

Refugees themselves contribute their own sets of racial stereotypes. As new immigrants from various backgrounds, they build and break stereotypes every day. I often remind myself of the worldviews and implicit biases that shape my client interactions.

Unfortunately, racial hierarchies are both a social construct and a daily reality. Discussing these issues in a safe space empowers our clients to better navigate work and life in the U.S.

Click here to download powerpoint slides and an exercise adapted from a viral BuzzFeed article with facilitator notes that can be used to help spark a larger conversation on power and privilege.

While not intended to specifically address racial identity, this tool could open up more pointed discussions on the intersection of race, gender, ability, ageism etc. when used in asiancultural orientation or job readiness classes. Participants throw wads of paper into a bin from different distances in the room, highlighting the concept that some people have more inherent power than others based on a variety of factors.

This might also be a helpful tool to initiate great discussions and self-awareness among your staff.

What is your agency doing to walk refugees through their understanding of race and privilege? Please share your ideas and thoughts in the comment section.

stephen johnsonStephen Johnson is the Early Employment Specialist at IRIS- Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services in New Haven, Connecticut. He has 5 years of experience working with refugee communities and is a proud member of Higher’s Peer Advisory Network.

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