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History Has its Eyes on You

24 February 2023:

When I was in the 6th grade, I received an entry level introduction to the Holocaust inflicted on Jewish people by Nazi Germany. We learned about Adolf Hitler, the Nazi's, millions of Jewish people being murdered and Anne Frank. The lesson was more matter of fact in communicating that this horror occurred in the world. Our teacher did a good job of sharing the lesson and allowing us students to ask questions. Of everything she shared with us that day, what stayed with me the most was the question she asked us on how do we think something like this happened? Many of us 6th graders responded with the evilness of Adolf Hitler or the corruption and blind followership of the Nazi's. They were 'bad people' we thought. While there were elements of some truth to this, my teacher shared how the answer was more complex than that and was something much larger. All of us looked at her puzzled then she said, "It was the people. The people of Germany played the biggest role in allowing this to happen." We all sat back puzzled and curious and she explained further. She shared how after WWI Germany experienced great losses and were looking for someone to blame. Jewish people became their scapegoat. Anti-Jew sentiment started for years before the actual murders occurred. Many people participated in it or stood by and said nothing. Then as Jewish people lost jobs and were rounded up, the people said nothing again. Finally, as the Jews who had been the German people's neighbors, fellow employees, countrymen, and more, were murdered, many German people looked the other way (as nothing was happening to them personally) or denied that it was happening.

My teacher closed with emphasizing the importance of standing up for other people and standing up for what we know is right- for TRUTH. I left that lesson with a mix of emotions but mostly with a profound desire to be someone who could recognize an injustice when it's happening rather than be blind to it; I wanted to have the courage to stand up and fight against it when the time called.

During my undergraduate years at Sacramento State University, one of the elective courses I took was an Ethnic Studies class titled, "Genocide and Holocaust Studies." I had never seen a class like that and thought it would be interesting so I took it. Day one the professor walked in. She was a short, thin, dark skinned black woman with high cheek bones and was soft spoken with a South African accent. Everyone of us was judging her (at least, that was from my perspective). While the majority of us in the class were black or people of color, I don't think a lot of us had seen many African people before. As the professor was writing something on the board, one student mumbled to another student, "I wonder if she speaks using the clicking sounds like them Africans do." Then laughed. "You are talking about Xhosa" the professor said, while saying some words that clicked. All of us were left in shock. She checked that kid quick! The professor then introduced herself and shared her credentials. She told us her name was Dr. Boatamo Mosupyoe, how she earned a PhD from UC Berkeley, knew 11 different languages (Xhosa being one of them) and was originally from South Africa, a country that has a history of apartheid. She was extremely personal and shared how her husband and three year old son were murdered right in front of her while living in the country.

After the introductions and asking us our reasons for enrolling in the course, she asked us what we knew about genocide, mass killings and Holocaust. Us students engaged in discussion on this topic with her then she concluded by explaining the definitions of each. She then went on to explain that the Holocaust in Nazi Germany against the Jewish people is covered extensively in our American education and so for this course we will not be covering that one. We will be be covering the other genocides that happen all over the world and how every continent has experienced at least one of them. In the days that followed Dr. Mosupyoe deconstructed the genocide process. She explained that EVERY genocide follows the following steps:

"The first step is Identification. Identifying a feature on someone else. It can be anything, like identifying someone wears glasses. Next is Dehumanization. You provide a dehumanizing quality to all people who wear glasses such as, 'all people who wear glasses are bad. They are Vermin. They are cockroaches'. Next is Isolation. You take all the people with glasses, round them up and place them somewhere separate from the others. The next step is Extermination. After the people with glasses have been identified, dehumanized, and isolated it makes it easier for society to commit crimes against them that lead to their extermination; as they are no longer seen as people but less than human. The final step is Denial. EVERY Genocide known to mankind responds with denying what happened."

We studied genocides around the world. The Turkish Muslims inflicting a genocide on the Christian Armenians, the genocide in Australia with the Aborigines, Cambodia, Rwanda, South America, even the genocide here at home with the Native Americans. In all of these studies, what stood out to me the most were the features that created the difference in the "identification" stage of genocide. In Rwanda, it was between the Hutu and the Tutsi. Biologically and physically, the people look the same and share a history with one another. They both shared the same Christian beliefs. The only difference between the two groups of people was height. The Hutu people were a little bit shorter and stockier than the taller Tutsi people leading to the Hutu seeing them as a threat. The Hutu would say, "cut down the tall trees" or "stomp out the cockroaches" in reference to the Tutsi people. This type of rhetoric created a growing prejudice of the Tutsi people across the nation and ultimately led to the Hutu committing genocide against the Tutsi people. This wasn't something that happened over night. But literally a feature such as a difference in height despite everything else being the same, was enough to nearly exterminate over 500,000 Tutsi people. Studying the genocides of the world showed me how a difference in religion, geography, skin color and other simple features was enough to attempt to remove an entire group of people from existence.

When the insurrection on the U.S. capital occurred on 6 Jan, I was not surprised at all. There had been so much anti-immigrant rhetoric and discrediting of voters by criticism of "iIlegal votes" from states where the majority population was not white people, or specifically, white conservatives that any outcome that was not in alignment with this groups desire could activate some kind of response. This type of rhetoric had been occurring for years. "Build the wall" I remember hearing in 2015, with this being the solution to "solve" the border security issue on the southern U.S./Mexico border. "They're taking our jobs" I heard many Americans of different complexions say in reference to Mexicans and other immigrants south of the U.S. However, this viewpoint didn't seem to acknowledge the shared history of the U.S./Mexico border. How it was common for people from Mexico to work in the U.S. during the day or a season, then return home to their families that night or when the season ended. The Americans PREFFERED hiring Mexican migrant workers as they could pay them for a significantly cheaper wage. Michael's grandpa (who is Mexican American and his family is from Mexico) even shared with me about his time working as a migrant worker and how traveling during the crop seasons was a part of the migrant worker lifestyle. For one of my assignments for my masters course, I decided to find out what the truth was regarding U.S. border security. Will a wall along the U.S. Mexico border improve challenges with illegal immigration? Was what I was seeking to answer. What I found was interesting. The majority of illegal immigration was due to expired visa's of immigrants who are already in the country. Therefore an actual wall would one, be extremely costly and would need more of a technical surveillance system to monitor and track illegal border traffic rather than a physical wall. And two, the physical wall would not address the illegal immigration issue as most "illegals" enter the country a different way.

While I lived in San Antonio some of the Airmen in my Sq would periodically go to these safe houses that provided refuge of children who were separated from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border. The Airmen, who were also Spanish linguists, would sing happy birthday to the kids who had birthdays and would practice their Spanish speaking skills. There were a lot of kids. I asked one of the Airmen who led the event, "Why are all of these kids here? Where are there parents?" She said to me, "their parents drop them off at the border....they wait here until they can be connected with them or a family member." I was so confused. To this day I still have a lot of confusion on this situation. A few years later I saw the repeated news footage of immigrant children in cages and being intentionally separated from their parents with no means of being reunited again. I wondered, "were the safe houses a way to avoid something like this?"

In the beginning of 2018 I attended the Squadron Officer School (SOS) which is a six week Professional Military Education (PME) course for Captain's held at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery Alabama. A few weeks into the course, the government shut down after congress failed to make a decision regarding one of the legislative bills. All Capt's enrolled in the course were informed that if the governement didn't make a decision by the afternoon, we were all going to be sent home with an incomplete and would need to retake the course. Many of the follow-on classes had been booked out so re-enrollment for a new class date was indefinite. As a baby Capt, I had four years to become PME complete to satisfy the requirement for a promotion to Major, so this wasn't a big worry for me. While more senior Capt's, this was their final shot and needed the course to be competitive. As my class mates and I returned to the classroom, watched the news and awaited a decision, many people had feelings on the situation. There was frustration with congress for failing to make a decision on the budget. Concern of what we would need to do in order to get PME credit. There was also criticism of the democratic party who appeared to be the barrier to reaching a decision. One comment by one of my peers that stayed with me was, "I don't understand how people can care more about illegals than their own citizens." The votes were casts, Senator McCain made his historic decision to not vote in alignment with his party, a decision was made on the budget and we returned to business as usual.

But discussion in the classroom was something I couldn't shake. My peer referred to recipients of Obamacare, some of whom were immigrants and possibly undocumented as "illegals." I thought to myself, "is this how we refer to people who seek refuge here in America? Have we Americans forgotten who the true Indigenous of this country are and how everyone else arrived here? Are any one of us in a position to IDENTIFY and further DEHUMANIZE another human beings by viewing them as, and calling them "ILLEGAL"?

I would share my experiences and personal perspectives (like what I described above) to the class, during our daily academic discussions. We talked about many relevant issues of the time and controversial subjects. Whenever subjects touched any part of "culture" or "race" I often felt alone in my perspective or even sharing. Everyone in the class appeared to be white with the exception of one Colombian American Capt and one Filipino American Capt. While they too were ethnic minorities, they didn't share their experience on race in class and many times I wondered why. My Filipino classmate met up with me out of class and shared with me some of his experiences and perspectives on things privately. He disagreed with some of the positions our classmates held and it was comforting knowing that I wasn't alone, especially when it came to immigration matters which was a hot topic at the time. While I would have appreciated him sharing his view publicly with the class, it was nice to know I had some support even if it was in private. While I did have a few positive experiences at SOS and made some friends that I still stay in touch with today, my overall experience at the PME course drained me as I constantly felt like I didn't contribute anything that was valued by the institution or people there, and my experiences and point of view were often a minority. Back then I thought something was wrong with me, but now know that the insecurities I had with myself and the environment I was in, heavily contributed to me becoming a shrunken version of myself.

In 2020 I witnessed something I had never seen before. Immediately following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. I would see white people--specifically some of my white female peers in and out of the Air Force call out this injustice. I saw them address how wrong this was on social media platforms I saw them having conversations with family members, even parents educating them that the lives of black people matter too and that these murders along with other racist behaviors were an injustice. I couldn't believe what was happening. It was like I had kept my head down, grinding at work to one day be in a position to have a voice and influence that was heard and then I just happened to look up and both White and Asian people were starting to make the change on my behalf. I was SO used to the white and asian people in my circles staying silent and not saying or doing anything unless they saw me say or do something. Or say or do nothing at all. I was shocked and felt a mustard seed of hope. I thought to myself, "are they finally seeing this? Is it possible to not be the only one in my circle standing up against issues that impact black or other marginalized people? Will others stand up against it too?"

After being approached by one of my Squadron leaders to lead a conversation about race following the murder of George Floyd I asked some of my AF officer peers in the internship with me, what their thoughts were. They OVERWHELMINGLY agreed there was a need for this. They opened up about things I didnt even know they thought. One of my peers, a fellow white Capt asked, "how can we help?" I asked for clarity as I didn't know what they meant. "How can who help? Who are you referring to?" I asked. They responded, "Us. The white people. How can we white people, help stop racism and things like this from happening?" I thought deeply about their question. I caught myself almost falling into the trap of thinking that I can provide an answer for all black people which is far from true. I reached out to another minority officer and asked for some feedback. Their response, "Do white people not know they have privilege?" We both reached an epiphany. "Maybe they really do not know or see the privilege they have... we really need to have these conversations."

That was over two years ago. The conversations with the Squadron came and went. I learned so much from them. I gained so much perspective from them on how race, gender and many elements of diversity affect our experience in the world and how there's not necessarily a "right or wrong" but only what's true. And that perspective on truth can be different from where you stand and what skin you are in. Another major lesson I learned is that racism and its effects is not my responsibilty to fix. As passionate as I am about it as I have been deeply affected by it and continue to see others like me to include my family and others I care for impacted, I now know that I alone am not in the position of power to change this. Under the system of white supremacy, white people, particularly white men are the ones placed on top and with the most power and influence. Of course there is levels to this, but in comparison to everyone else, under white supremacy which is still very much alive in America and around the globe, white men are at the top. I have spent the past 2 years attempting to make myself available for every conversation, offer my perspective, encourage, educate when asked, be a supportive team member all with the belief that if I do these things, those with the power will help lift up others and fight to eradicate systems that are causing harm and oppressing others. That act of eradication can be something as simple as sharing a vulnerabilty with a team to expose that they too are human and require growth as well. Or it could be speaking up on issues, being present and engaged in difficult conversations, acquiring education on issues, placing themselves in situations where they can be exposed in order to grow from it, lift others up, the list is infinite and goes on. But what I have learned is that I can not undue a system that benefits something or someone, that I am not. Only the people who have the most to benefit from it, can do that.

So until those who stand to benefit the most from those systems decide to do the work within and beyond to eradicate the poison that white supremacy has created, the best I can do is no longer allow myself to be run down by it. Or fool myself believing that martyring myself for a cause will lead to a solution. I MUST practice self care. I must know my TRUE self and not what I've been conditioned to believe in systems that were not designed to include my history or worth. I must know that my whole purpose in life is NOT to convince the concious and unconcious of men and white people that I am not 3/5 a human but a FULL human, and deserve to be treated as such. Despite what I've been told, I don't have anything to prove to anyone. All I must do is live authentically to me. Develop the courage to do this. And if that authenticity leads to promotions and influence on a larger scale then it was meant for me. It wasn't a hand out, or me stealing a spot that someone else deserved-- but it was for me. Or, if it leads to a smaller life of more humility but significant intention, then that was meant to be.

One of my favorite tracks from the Lin-Manuel Miranda's play "Hamilton" is a song sung by the character George Washington. In the play, Washington mentors a young ambitious Hamilton and shares with him about the many mistakes he has made in his life and career as a General Officer. Rather than masquerading in the pedestal image of the "pride of Mount Vernon," or "the leader of eloquence and elegance" that his men perceived him as, Washington chooses to be honest and vulnerable with him Hamilton. He shares his shame stories. Washington further explains how he lies awake at night thinking about the responsibility he has and trajectory he is setting for this new world and the pressure that puts on him. In the song he says, "Let me tell you what I wish I'd known. When I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control who lives, who dies, WHO TELLS YOUR STORY.... I know that we can win. I know that greatness lies in you. Just remember from here on in....History has its eyes on you."

History has its eyes on YOU. On each of US. We don't get a choice of who writes our story when we are gone and in some ways, while we are still living. In knowing this, what is the story that you want to be told about you?

*Photo is from the Jewish Holocaust Museum in D.C. this is displayed as one comes close to exiting the museum.


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