Erasing People of Color


Artwork titled The Struggle for Justice featuring a Native American. Picture taken at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC by Erin Okuno

By Erin Okuno

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A few weeks ago, I messaged my friend Kirk to ask about a meeting we had both been in. I wanted to hear his thoughts and just to catch up a bit. He’s always thinking some deep thoughts about race, racism,  colonization, and other profundities. When I first met Kirk he was working in the business industry and I wondered how he could be a race and social justice scholar and daylighting (opposite of moonlighting) as a business person. I was confused by that identity mashup. I have a brain block/bias that he could be a business person reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, be unapologetic in his views of race, and be successful in the business world. Kirk challenges my assumptions and I appreciate him doing so. At the end of our message exchange, he said he was thinking about the erasure of Black people and left it at that. We didn’t have time to go deeper and he left that thought rolling around in my head. It got me thinking about how society systematically erases people of color.

I want to acknowledge Kirk started this thought as the erasure of Black people, and I’m adapting the thought to the erasure of people of color for this blog post. I’m shifting the topic to people of color because I can’t write authentically or do justice to the erasure of African American and Black people and do not want to do more harm in overstepping. I welcome thoughts on the erasure of Black and African Americans, and other people of color so we can learn together, email to share your thoughts.

How People of Color are Erased

I’ll admit I live and work in a bubble of people of color. My cozy bubble is pretty great, it feeds me well. I can ignore or at least have stronger defense and tolerance for white nonsense because I see pocs all around me — we are doing our thing being amazing, behaving badly, and just being ordinary. When I step out of my bubble I face the reality that people of color are systematically erased, sometimes intentionally sometimes because people don’t stop to think and act differently.

Historically, erasure happened as white people colonized and took over what we now call the United States. My kid and I share a read-aloud book most nights. I chose the Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich. The series follows Omakayas, an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Native American) as a young girl and her family as she grows up and her family is forced to leave their ancestral home – a forced migration that erased them from the place they had established as home since time immemorial. While this story is historical fiction I share it because the experience of reading it makes real an episode of history few are taught. Many other Indigenous People were erased through diseases introduced by colonizers, their languages erased through being forced to speak English, boarding schools or religion erased many indigenous ways. These practices were systematically put into place to take and remove barriers for those in power.

In a more modern example, gentrification is an erasure of people of color. In my twenty-ish years living in Seattle, I’ve seen people of color leaving Seattle for other cities. Neighborhoods that were home to African Americans and immigrants and refugees are now gentrified with only shreds of reminders of who made those neighborhoods what they were. The Central District of Seattle was once a thriving African American neighborhood. Today few African Americans live there, displaced by high real estate prices.

Trump’s talk of building a wall along the US-Mexico border is feeding the fuel of erasing Mexicans and other brown people from the US. A few months ago Trump’s travel-ban stopping people from primarily Muslim countries from entering the US was another attempt to erase and eliminate people of color from the country.

Erased on Paper

The previous examples are physical removals and in some cases extermination of people of color. Our systems also erase people in other ways. Just today I was emailing with a government agency asking why they aren’t tracking race data on a project they just launched. They argued they don’t want to over-collect information especially data connected to race, which I understand, and I argued back if they aren’t tracking race data they don’t know who they aren’t hearing from. Their data collection system is online, which favors white, middle class, and requires English literacy and computer access. This small form of ignoring race has bigger consequences for erasing people of color from the project. If they were centering people of color they probably would have also created pathways for data collection more welcomed and favored by people of color, or at the least track survey returns so they could do targeted outreach along the way. When we aren’t paying attention to race it is easy to fall into habits that lead to systemic racism.

I’ve written before about how poc history isn’t included in history books, or if it is it is told through a perspective of a white author. In TV and media whiteness prevails and pocs are relegated to bit and minor roles. Dylan Morrison (I believe a white male) took several popular movies and edited them down showing just where pocs are speaking, the movies are considerably shorter.

How to Un-Erase

Ensuring pocs aren’t erased is easy, but it takes intention and calling out systems when we see it happening. As an example, a few years ago, I was sitting in a presentation listening to an esteemed professor talk about employment-data. His slide deck was fabulous and super interesting, I was soaking in the data and processing what I was learning. Yet at some point, I notice the datasets were missing Native American statistics. During the break, I handed him a note asking why Native Americans weren’t included. He followed up with me later that day and said the line in the note that made him pause said: “Not including Native Americans makes them invisible.” Data invisibility leads to missing people of color and not seeking out solutions to helping them be more visible.

Un-erasing pocs also means acknowledging our histories and recognizing the historical traumas that brought us to our current situations. Doing this helps to explain the current context and we understand our current communities of color more completely.

We must train ourselves to see people of color and to see pocs everywhere we go. We are here and we are here to stay. We now need to ensure we are counted, present, and able to speak up for ourselves.

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