The Urgent Need for Radical Courage (OPINION)

Dec 19, 2016
12:12 PM


I’m not usually at a loss for words when it comes to issues of racism, xenophobia and the daily execution of people of color with impunity, but lately I don’t know what else to say. What words? What emotions: sadness, anger, indignation, urgency? What framing? What example (there are so many examples)? What conclusion: despair, hope, faith, change, a call to heal or a call to action?

Lately I’m exhausted from the status quo that is reality—from the cliché of racism and the tired ass “fear of the other.” A racist, sexist bully will be our President. He’s in the news everyday feeding me with little bits of poison about myself and the people who look like me and who don’t look like me but who like me wear the mask of a stereotype—a perpetual Halloween costume that we can’t remove and that hides our beautiful humanity and deep burning desire for freedom, real freedom, the kind you can’t explain just feel. Our humanity subjugated by cheap latex, polyester and sloppy paint strokes that don’t even try to stay in the lines, that give only a semblance of form. Do you know what it’s like to live in a Halloween costume? And not the expensive kind that actually look legit, but the cheap kind where the accessories are painted on and the sizes are never quite right?  The fear narrative that envelopes and predefines our beautiful dark skin is the costume and no matter how hard we try, how hard we work, how much we earn, how many degrees we hold, how much we pray, we can’t take it off. So what words can I say to myself and others that will make things feel better—that will make the world make sense?

A Ph.D. and a decade of research and training in race relations and today I find myself at a loss. You would not believe how much knowledge has been produced about racial injustice and how many processes of conceptualization and re-conceptualization it is has gone through—from the industrial complex to the biopolitical complex. So do not be fooled, we know injustice and after more than 500 years of racialization, segregation, racism and racial exclusion, society knows racial oppression. People in power KNOW racial oppression and they wield that knowledge forcefully.

In between Donald Trump’s carefully orchestrated hate speeches (did you think he was just being candid?), black and brown bodies are being killed off one by one, dropping like flies. And in between Barack Obama’s condolences and carefully measured indignation (is he allowed to feel rage?), brown and black bodies are being dragged from their homes and into privately owned detention centers or into violent territories, families forever divided and destroyed. And through it all, the NRA is getting free publicity from white men with automatic rifles mowing down innocent lives in a torrent of rapid fire—forgiven and understood by a white supremacist society for they are sick with mental illness and not domestic terrorists created and coddled by white privilege. The same white, male privilege that allowed a criminal, serial liar, accused rapist, KKK-backed racist to become the next president of the United States of America.

The cheap polyester and latex are starting to melt into my real skin and I recall the words of Frantz Fanon, “I came into the world imbued with a will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.” I feel like I want to resign (give up) and let go so that maybe I can stop caring, stop feeling, stop knowing because knowledge is power but it is also pain and suffering.

In the middle of my own despair, my own pity party, my six-year-old son runs over to me and with a wide warm smiles says, “Mommy, I love everything about you.” Just like that I realize that there is someone that sees through the barricade—someone filled with fresh, pure hope, innocence and brimming courage. I awaken and remember that there are souls that see my soul and that need my soul, my strength. For him, my sweet little boy who will one day grow too big for me to protect, who will sadly be robbed of his innocence and freedom by a teacher, a store clerk, a police officer because his skin is a little too dark and his tongue a little too quick to ask, “Why?”

For him, and for his generation, I remember my responsibilities. I shake myself off and I sit down to sharpen my weapon: my courage and my voice. I work to find new words. I search for new strength to face up to a tired, old reality enveloped in a 21st century malaise—new but not new, and yet like that antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria, no longer treatable with the same tactics.

“At a time of cultural devastation, the reality a courageous person has to face up to is that one has to face up to reality in new ways” (Lear 2006:118). It’s ok to be afraid. The fight against racial injustice can be dangerous and menacing, but fear cannot extinguish the light of hope.

There cannot be hopelessness when what we need now is radical courage: to say the impossible, to fight to create something new, to remove the charred ground and float in the air until we can replace it with one that is still unknowable. We have the tools. We have the voice. We just have to find the courage to really use them—if not for us then for those who will inherit the ground when we are gone.

When I chose to become an anthropologist, I took to heart the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world,” and I believed that knowledge is power. It certainly made me feel powerful. It was how I was raised. I was raised by a Mexican dad and Chicana mom who worked their bodies thin, and who in return only asked me to study, to do what they could not, and I was given the space to go far beyond. My scholarship was undoubtedly ignited by Fanon—a man who in the early 20th century wrote about being black (not blackness as some grand theory)‚ but blackness as an everyday lived experience: being black while walking, thinking, living, breathing (or trying to breath) and the pain of misrecognition and denial of humanity.

In. The. Flesh.

Fanon called for a new humanity or human world that is predicated on resistance, and the hand-to-hand battle for freedom, for mutual humanity and for a future. He taught to me to embrace my anger and how to survive within a hyperracialized world. Today I exchange Mead’s famous phrase for my own, “Never doubt that a large group of pissed-off people of color will take back their world.” We will. We have already begun. The whitelash that is Trump’s presidential victory is only indication that our impact is real and deep.

I became a scholar and professor so that I, like Fanon, could tell my own story and inspire others like me to do the same. I believe that race and racism fundamentally shape human experience. The beautiful and strong Gloria Anzaldúa was my inspiration for change growing up. She reminded my that my ancestors were warriors: that to be a Chicana meant to inherit the strength and fight of indigenous and African ancestrados, and Mexicanos on both sides of a bloody border. Generations of warriors fighting racial oppression.

Dear Trump: This ain’t our first rodeo. As people of color, we have had generations of experience fighting racial oppression. Nothing has ever been given to us—handed over for free. Every freedom and liberty we have today, we have because we have placed our bodies in front of violent mobs, bloody water hoses and angry cowards dressed in white sheets and adorned with Border Patrol badges.

Dear Trump: Do not be fooled by your victory. We are stronger. Through these thinkers, the scholar in me was ignited by the urgency to speak truth to power, by the desire to transform the world and to create a new image of humanity where I am included as part of the enlightened and no longer as part of the wretched.

My manifestation of radical courage is driven by urgency —urgency that comes from a deeper place— beyond Trump’s bright, orange face, beyond the white hoods of the re-enlivened KKK, and beyond the freshly painted swastikas of the alt-right.

I refuse to grant them recognition. I erase their existence just as they attempt to erase mine. No. My fight, my rage, my urgency is against The Narrative—against grand discourses of fear and fabricated truth built on a solid, charred ground of white supremacy and white privilege. A Narrative through which dark-skinned bodies, the souls housed in these bodies and the brilliance housed in the brains of these bodies are tortured and shot down every second, in every space, even in the University.

Yes, the University, that grand structure of knowledge production and white-occupied Truth. This is where my rage originates and where my urgency sets up camp and gets to work —from the devastating realization that knowledge only equals power if you are white and wealthy— otherwise knowledge is pain and absolute torture.


Because nothing hurts more than having a bookcase stacked with brilliant studies published from the beginning of the 20th century through the present on racial injustice, racism, racial exclusion, discrimination, inequality —a bookcase bursting with scholarship outlining and detailing and denouncing in theory and in the flesh the social and individual impacts of racial injustice and yet nothing changes.

Here we are again demanding racial justice: shouting that Black Lives Matter, denouncing xenophobia and Islamophobia.

Here we are again watching the KKK violently mobilizing for a new Jim Crow.

Here we are at the heels of a 21st century fascist government—a government that is inciting violence against people of color and the McCarthyism surveillance of anyone who defends social justice.

All. Over. Again.

But there cannot be hopelessness when what we need now is radical courage—the courage to be angry and demand more! Reignited anger, “anger…loaded with information and energy” (Audre Lorde). I rage against a system of knowledge production that is manufactured for and by white supremacy and white privilege. I rage against The Narrative that reproduces bodies of color as primitive, criminals, worthless, outsiders, marginal and subhuman. As the mother of a child of color, as the wife of a black man, as the daughter, granddaughter, and sobrina of Mexican women, and as a skeletal structure encased in a brilliantly dark-brown skin, I rage against White Supremacy. White Truth. White Privilege.

Dear Trump: I am Nepantla. You aren’t ready for me.

Just as my soul wants to flee into my heart for protection and survival, I take back my soul and I embrace it with my voice. My voice, which has never been silenced, despite everything, whispers to my soul, “Don’t leave. Stay. I’m here and I will always defend you.” I believe that our most powerful weapon is our voice, because as painful as knowledge of injustice can be to a body oppressed, knowledge is power, but it can only be our power if we use it to challenge the narratives of oppression.

We must continue to speak out, especially when it is most difficult and most uncomfortable. Now more than ever, we must wield our knowledge like a bazooka and shoot without fear or caution—to transform the world and to create a new image of humanity where people of color are esteemed as part of the enlightened and no longer as part of the wretched.


Elizabeth Farfán-Santos is a professor of anthropology at the University of Houston. She is the author of Black Bodies, Black Rights: The Politics of Quilombolismo in Contemporary Brazil (University of Texas Press) and has also begun to publish on the denial of healthcare for undocumented immigrants in the United States.