by Katie Breslin
Although my family has lived in the coal region for three generations, they have always been very proud of our heritage as immigrants. Whether it’s how we celebrated mass and where (including church picnics) or what food we ate at family gatherings, my family, both the Irish and the Italian sides, made it easy for me to have a cultural identity that was connected to places I’ve never been to.
I was a sophomore in high school when the city of Hazleton passed one of the first anti-immigrant city ordinances in the country, the Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IIRA). The ordinance made it illegal to rent to or hire undocumented immigrants and made English the official language of Hazleton. I remember seeing camera crews in Hazleton and hearing national news stories about the ordinance. In time, the IIRA led the way for other anti-immigrant bills and ordinances and put Hazleton center stage in the national conversation around immigrant rights.
As people were debating the IIRA, I remember how, as a high school student, I initially had a hard time empathizing with the lived experiences of people affected by this law. I couldn’t see how this ordinance would hurt the growing immigrant community in Hazleton. That angle just didn’t jive with my own experience. I asked myself questions like: Why wouldn’t someone just wait in line to get proper immigration paperwork? How much money is the city wasting by making sure documents are in multiple languages? I didn’t understand how it could be painful to live in a city that not only allowed this rhetoric, but also promoted it. I remember thinking that the city needed unity; but at the time, my vision of unity simply involved finding common ground – in other words, I thought unity would happen once “they” adopted “our” way of life.
That same year, one of my teachers organized a class debate. The topic was, “Should English be the official language of Hazleton?” Reading different accounts of how the ordinance was affecting the immigrant community and speaking to my peers about their thoughts and experiences turned out to be a useful exercise for me. I started to recognize my own thought process. I began to see how my views were isolated to my own head. I realized my initial reaction was both limited and dangerous. That’s when I realized that this ordinance was not a way for the city to save money and be safer; it was a way to make others feel like outsiders in our community.
As embarrassing as it is to say, this was the first time in my life that I started thinking critically about modern racism. Having had the privilege of living life as a white woman, racism in my experience was limited to blatantly racist comments made by older people, excused because they lived “during another time.” The assumption was that by celebrating black history in February, we were doing our part.
But let’s be real about it: We don’t just check a box indicating whether we are ‘racist’ or ‘not.’ If that were the case, we’d be hard pressed to find a single racist in a society that is still plagued by racial inequality. Even many of today’s hate groups deny the racist label. I prefer to think of racism as a spectrum of awareness of our biases and actions. We often equate racism with hate, but it is also about being unable to empathize or recognize the humanity of another person, not knowing or understanding how our own actions can affect someone else’s life.
To this day I often think about how I didn’t have conversations around race and privilege with my friends in high school and how I was so ready to embrace an “I don’t see color” view of the world. It was a view, I now realize, that would make me feel less guilty and less racist, but that, in actuality, was just a way to avoid confronting racism’s ugly reality. Ignorance was bliss: It felt better seeing my position in the world as “just the way things are” rather than as the product of a racial system built over centuries.
I moved to Washington D.C. in August of 2009, near the beginning of the Obama administration to attend college. During those four years and since, I have been fortunate enough to watch the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, and I participated in the movement for immigration reform legislation. I learned about intersectionality and why it’s important to see policy through different perspectives and identities, including my own – that of a white, working class woman from the Pennsylvania Coal Region. I’ve been lucky to be around amazing activists who I’ve learned from and who continue to challenge me to grow into a better advocate. To be sure, D.C. has its problems and is by no means immune from racism. Yet I’ve relished being in a space where improving oneself and improving society are embraced.
The trouble is, while having moved away sometimes feels like an escape, I also carry with me a lingering sense that I ran away from the responsibilities I have to my hometown. In my work, I was often referring to examples of how anti-immigration policies caused racial tension in my home community, but here I was, 200 miles from home, not doing anything about it. Awakened again – indeed, continuing to grow – I am now convinced that this needs to change. I owe so much to the coal region, from my scrappiness to my willingness to speak out against injustice without fear. I’m committed to pushing my former neighbors and myself to think critically about and recognize racism and other biases we may have. I hope you’ll join me.