An incomplete and over-simplified view of our immigration system

Image result for border wall

I’ve been seeing many opinions rooted in misinformation and outright lies about the U.S. immigration system lately — which isn’t entirely the fault of those sharing the opinions. Mainstream media has rarely offered any clarity on how our system currently functions. I’ve taken *several* college- and graduate-level courses on immigration, and it wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally started to see the forest through the trees with regard to our incoherent system. Even a lot of the academic research out there is based on horribly distorted statistical analysis. So this is my attempt to break it down a bit for anyone interested (some sources at the end, but be aware that I also include my own conclusions and opinions). Someone please correct me if I over-simplify anything; as a disclaimer, I am not a policy expert on these topics, and I’m definitely going to leave out important details in my attempt to make this (kind of) short and readable.

For reference, LPR = legal permanent resident, aka “Green Card” holder.

Legal Immigration

  1. Many say “I’m fine with immigration, as long as people come here LEGALLY” — but what does that mean in practice? There are four main methods of gaining LPR status in the U.S.:

(A) Family-based. Spouses, parents, and children under age 21 of U.S. citizens can usually become LPRs fairly quickly (this is an example of me over-simplifying). Other relatives like citizens’ adult children or siblings, and spouses or dependent children of LPRs, are lower-priority.

(B) Employment-based. About 100,000 individuals with extraordinary abilities or professional degrees were admitted in 2009, as well as wealthy investors.

(C) Diversity program. I’ll come back to this one.

(D) Humanitarian. Refugees and asylum-seekers can become LPRs after a very rigorous and often long vetting process.

In addition, we give temporary visas to visitors (about 75% of all temp visas), as well as to students, temp workers, and a few others.

  1. No single agency is responsible for implementing our immigration policy. DHS, DOS, DOJ, DOL, HHS, and ED are all involved. Without a centralized agency overseeing implementation and regulation, comprehensive immigration reform is always going to be difficult to achieve.
  1. We’ve never clearly articulated our goal for legal immigration. Do we want to admit only those who are academically or professionally successful? Those willing to pay a high fee? Those in immediate danger? Those willing to wait the longest? Those from certain countries? Those willing to invest in our economy? Those who can provide a certain skill for a limited amount of time, and then get out?
  1. Canada does a better job at #3 (though it doesn’t have a perfect system by any means). You could visit right now, start an application, and take the “quiz” to find out if you’re eligible to migrate. Degrees, years of work experience, country of origin, age, language proficiency, etc. are assigned various point values, and the threshold needed for migration is adjusted based on needs related to the economy, skill sets, and diversity. If an applicant found they weren’t quite eligible, some basic addition and subtraction could help them determine whether a couple more years of work experience, for example, would get them over the threshold.
  1. More on 1(A) – family visa wait times can extend up to 19 years. Filipino and Mexican families that legally applied in the 1980’s weren’t admitted until the year 2000, and that trend hasn’t really changed since.

Also, individuals living in the U.S. who want to help their relatives immigrate must sign an affidavit agreeing to pay back public assistance should their relatives receive it.

  1. More on 1(B) – accredited investors with assets over $1M who plan to invest in a U.S. enterprise and create 10+ jobs can get LPR status.
  1. Going back to 1(C) – the diversity program accounts for only about 5% of all legal admissions in a given year, and is essentially a lottery system. Every country has the same annual cap on number of migrants regardless of population size or migration demand. Those born in any territory that has sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the previous five years are completely ineligible. So if you’re from almost any Central American or Asian country, your chances of quicklygetting LPR status are about the same as winning the actual lottery (me oversimplifying again…but only a little bit).
  1. And going back to 1(D) – I’d argue our responses to humanitarian crises are generally slow and cruel. Exhibit A: Syrian crisis 2011-present. Exhibit B: Central American children in 2014. Exhibit C: Jews fleeing persecution in WWII. The list goes on.

Unauthorized Immigration

Now onto “illegal immigration.” I don’t like that phrase, because no human being is illegal. Just like I’m not an “illegal citizen” because I sped all the way home on the PA Turnpike last weekend, a person is not an “illegal immigrant” because they crossed the border without legal authorization or overstayed their visa.

  1. There are about 11 million unauthorized migrants living in the U.S. right now, though migration estimates have been net zero for the past few years (i.e. just as many people are leaving as arriving). Unauthorized migrants account for about 3% of the U.S. population, and 28% of all foreign-born.
  1. Most unauthorized migrants living in the U.S. overstayed their temporary visas, rather than sneaking across the border.
  1. It is a logical fallacy that “immigrants are stealing our jobs.” Even in the tumultuous economic year of 2009, there were roughly twice as many foreign-born employees as unemployed natives. So, there aren’t enough unemployed natives to fill jobs hypothetically vacated by foreign-born workers.

Also, immigrants interact with the economy in more ways than simply receiving wages. They buy goods and services in the same way all citizens do, and contribute to their local communities. In economics-speak, the presence of more laborers pushes consumer demand curves outward.

  1. Immigrants are concentrated on the two ends of the wage spectrum — they are competing with very low-wage and high-wage workers for jobs.

As a side-note because my annoyance with this topic is running high, unauthorized workers aren’t stealing manufacturing jobs. Automation is.

  1. It is untrue that immigrants do jobs natives won’t do. Pay me $10,000 an hour and I’ll clean a septic tank for a week. Immigrant-intensive services like housekeeping and gardening are more expensive and are associated with higher wages in cities with small immigrant populations.
  1. Most unauthorized immigrants still pay taxes — many of them at higher rates than the top 1%. More than half are property owners, subjecting them to property tax. It is common for unauthorized workers to use SSNs of deceased citizens on W4 and other forms, which means they pay income and Social Security taxes through paycheck deductions without reaping SS benefits. There isn’t really a system in place to stop this, besides E-Verify in some states. Unauthorized and temporary migrants are ineligible for most federal benefits.

*Note: I’ll spare y’all the nerdy econometrics and labor econ models for numbers 11 thru 13, but DM me if you want them.*


  1. Since 9/11, nearly twice as many Americans have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics, and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.
  1. “Sanctuary cities” experience significantly lower rates of all types of crime.

Detention and Deportation

  1. There are already border walls covering much of the U.S.-Mexico border. I’m not going to delve into how conceptually, financially, practically, and legally irresponsible the administration’s border wall plan is, because plenty of indigenous activists, economists, and others have already done so.
  1. U.S. immigration courts currently face a backlog of over 520,000 cases.
  1. Our detention system for unauthorized immigrants has always been morally reprehensible. Too often, people are detained following minor traffic violations. DACA authorization does not necessarily protect people from detention. Last week, ICE detained a domestic abuse victim at a Texas courthouse, which should be illegal on numerous counts. ICE raids in the past few weeks alone have resulted in almost 700 detainees facing possible deportation. Investigative journalists have uncovered horrific and routine abuses in private immigrant detention centers.

As a side note, Obama deported more people than any other president.

Recent Policy Changes

  1. Long rant made even longer, 45’s assertion that immigrants make up a large portion of those receiving public assistance is a blatant lie. Immigrant families are lesslikely to receive food benefits than other households. In FY 2015, non-citizens made up only 9% of people receiving cash aid (and LPRs and refugees only become eligible after waiting periods of six months to five years). Some immigrants never become eligible for cash aid, Medicaid, or CHIP because of strict eligibility criteria and individual states’ laws.
  1. Immigration law hasn’t changed yet, but Dept. of Homeland Security is becoming much more aggressive about deportation enforcement. The memos released yesterday (2/21) indicate that pretty much every unauthorized immigrant is now a deportation priority, not just criminals; this includes parents of citizen children and people with strong community ties. Nicholas Kristof astutely noted that we would be outraged if some foreign country was separating citizen children from their American parents.

ICE, border patrol, and even local police can now take in anyone they think could be a “risk to public safety or national security” — a recipe for racial profiling. These new policies are going to be a disaster for due process, not to mention very expensive to enforce.


As a final tangent: if you care at all about reducing global poverty, economists who study the potential economic effects of completely open borders worldwide estimate 67%-147% gains in World GDP. To put that in context, the removal of barriers to merchandise trade would probably increase world GDP by 0.3%-4.1%. I’m not exactly proposing we remove all barriers to labor mobility, but it’s interesting to think about.

In conclusion, our current immigration policy relies on the logic that measures like heavy patrols, deportations, and a border wall will deter potential unauthorized immigrants and effectively reduce the number already here. In my view, these attempts at deterrence produce too many side effects like ethnic nationalism, human rights abuses, surveillance, and fiscal waste. I’d argue it makes much more sense to first provide better legal pathways for immigration and see how the need for enforcement drops.

Also, I think it’s just the right thing to do. Migrating anywhere is not easy — foreign arrivals are usually people who sacrifice a lot and are eager to contribute. Immigrants make our country great.


Much of this information summarizes things I learned in lectures by economics and sociology professors at Wake Forest and Carnegie Mellon Universities.

[1] Congressional Budget Office Based on Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2009 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (August 2010).



[6] USCIS: EB-5 Investor Program

[9] Pew Hispanic Center.





[17] NPR Planet Money podcast;







We’re awed by the odd
But now bizarre befalls us,
The groaning echoes of sorrows
We thought we’d buried deep.
In mourning our hearts confide,
Action and weariness collide
While history seems to rhyme
And the slippery slope gets steep.

30 Day Poetry Challenge

1. Write a poem where each line starts with a letter from your first name (an acrostic). It can be about anything, but it should not be about you or your name.

Eventually thoughts don’t float, they flurry
Moving confusion through confined space,
Mind’s a snow globe that’s been shaken…
A gentle hand will let them lilt and settle.

2. Who was the last person you texted? Write a five line poem to that person.

It’s sad that tragedy can unite us
when acquaintance is part 1 of the relay
and we haven’t even passed the baton yet.
Before we start on blood sweat and tears
maybe we should get drinks first.

3. Find the nearest book. Turn to page 8. Use the first ten full words on the page in a poem. You may use them in any order, anywhere in the poem.

Book of Mormon (yes, really — the script was the closest book on my shelf. I was a theatre minor).
Page 8: “The most important time of a Mormon kid’s life is” [his mission].


I seem to recall they couldn’t elect a Mormon
because bigotry runs deeper than religion,
though godless exclamations resonate
as long as the shouter claims “Christian…”
Keep building those oppressive idols.
Pulsing heart of meritocracy
bleeds out in due time
when the most important lesson of life is
Liberation vs. Status Quo Preservation —
tick tock, time to destroy the world?
Don’t worry bout us. The kids are alright.

4. Write a haiku. They’re usually about nature, but yours can be about anything.

Oily rain pummels
Winter creaks, ease the pressure
Now there are potholes.

5. Write a three line poem about lemons without using the following words: lemon, yellow, round, fruit, citrus, tart, juicy, peel, and sour.

Lips squish, eyes squint, drool dribbles, teeth bite
“I swear it tastes good,” wedged-open mouth winces —
Since when did I care about enamel’s plight?

6. Write a poem of any length incorporating every word from your latest Facebook status.

Post: “The problem with acting resilient means that people assume time erases your hurts. It doesn’t get easier; it just gets more familiar.”

It doesn’t get easier,
the choices between paths
forked by sinister dead ends and
perforated by concrete blooms.
These winding roads assume no travelers.
These indignant trails bear no footprints
though they remember the passage of the resilient.
Time erases their problems — or maybe history does that —
hurts preserved in memory but painted
in vivid color whenever called to mind.
It just gets more familiar.

7. Take a walk until you find a tree you identify with, then write a poem using the tree as a metaphor for yourself or your life.



Roots are hidden, but I’m surely a transplant.
Nobody’s altruistic enough to stand sentinel here
where artificial shade confuses the ground
and there’s no way to tell how distant the sky is.
Rain only nourishes instability
and sunlight boosts ego with nothing to show for it.
When existing structures edge out my roots,
who cares if I grow tall?
Height won’t matter when spring comes
and blossoms replace twigs as the story.


8. Write a cinquain on an object nearby.

red, kanekalon
frizzing, curling, wilting
useless to me now

9. Quickly jot down four verbs, four adjectives, and four nouns. Write a poem using all 12 words.

Drown, live, linger, siphon
Long, caffeinated, fragile, drowsy
Magic, descent, cinnamon, queen

Silence is descent into madness
but we should try to linger there.
We must drown all traces of
caffeinated sorrow and passion
in cinnamon and chamomile —
Long live the drowsy shadow self
who siphons unslept nights
through tunnel vision,
the kaleidoscope that lines up
fragile fragments into power.
Rest easy, Queen,
in the morning there’s magic to do.

10. Pick a one line song lyric to serve as an epigraph to your poem. Then, write the poem to accompany it.

“You’re free but in your mind, your freedom’s in a bind” — Janelle Monae, “Many Moons”

We have built cities of counterfeit equality
and pretend the foundation isn’t quicksand.
Ignorance really is bliss when you believe
that all lives matter and we bleed the same color
and oppression isn’t a breathing allegory.

In these cities live the monsters that
wear friendly masks and whisper compliments
meant to make all free in love and war.
I’m forced to sign treaties in invisible ink.

My body is a nation, and this sovereignty is mine.
I’m reclaiming it by planting poppies
in the deep furrows you plowed on stolen land —
“Ni la tierra ni las mujeres somos territorio de conquista”

ni la tierra

11. Write a list poem.

Here’s insomnia poem No. 2,804
Not that I want to be a bore
But maybe you’d understand my pain
If I listed the things in my nighttime brain:
Recipes, homework, data entry,
Embarrassing tales from elementary,
Management science, strange film clips,
Insanity, feet, jalapeno chips,
Nightmare interviews, job anxiety,
Everything I hate about society,
Seagulls, long walks, annoying voices,
People’s questionable life choices,
Facebook, travel, TED talks, welfare,
Fashion, podcasts, serenity prayer,
Musicals, baggage, coconut oil,
Situations that make blood boil,
Revolution, grudges, DST,
The toil I go through for this degree,
Hiking, aliens, patriotism,
Monsters, Wasi’chu, “reverse racism,”
Revolution, robots, Navy SEAL,
Growing hatred for instant oatmeal,
Tattoos, feminists, the friend veto,
And my craving for a great burrito.
Not just sad things keep me up at night —
This dumb crap worsens my plight.
Unless I can stop being so whack,
I’ll remain a sluggish, tired maniac.

12. Tell your life story in 6 words.

Stumbling around, looking for questions first.

13. Write a short poem that a child would like.

Sorry, I Don’t Like Cats

I think there are monsters under my bed
and I wish they would disappear.
If we have to get rid of them instead,
we’ll need a plan and good gear.

You get some helmets, I’ll grab a bat.
Oh no! I can’t take the suspense!
But look, no monsters…only the cat!
Monster? Cat? Hmm..makes sense…

14. Write a bad poem, make it as lousy as you can, do everything wrong, let yourself be awful.

The Timebug

Time crawls by,
some insect I can’t crush underfoot
nor even pinch between my fingers
without it wailing and
stinging me back.
Clearly a lost cause, I retreat
and poke at it with a long stick.
The longer I observe it, the more
I feel that it’s observing me.
Am I also hideous in its eyes?
Does it wish to trample me, squish me,
mash me, diminish me?
Maybe it could if it tried.

15. Post a poem (written by someone else) that you love (for any reason).

poemby Honduran poet Indira Flamenco.

16. Respond to the poem you posted yesterday with a poem of your own.

The soul of the world speaks many languages,
but revolution rarely televised
is written without subtitles for deaf audiences.
When distant winds carry wails of despair
we close our eyes and let empathy hold them there,
at arm’s length because solidarity is
a commitment.
We nevertheless weave hope on this loom
of struggle, of victory, of chaos, of dignity.
“The people united will never be defeated”
though chances offered aren’t seized.
Courage is the diet of resistance.
Joy is the sustenance of the fight.
We ask God if our prayers are heard and
She responds: “I don’t get distracted.”

17. Write a poem that employs a rhyme scheme.

(I’m going to cop-out here and post a poem I wrote in September 2001 because
1. this challenge is making me very tired, and
2. I was a much better poet at age 9 than I am now.)

Darkness and Flame

How could darkness follow the flame
without its black growing old?
And who could the fire harshly blame
for not following its power, cold?

Or who could light follow by chance
without being seen —
for the speechless night has yet a word
inside its throat, so mean.

Light exists inside darkness cruel,
for the flame has but a chance:
could darkness be the midnight fuel
for the oncoming day, a dance?

Could darkness die away
from one flame alone?
Die away by the break of day,
and flame become life’s throne?

Dedicated to Robert P. Northcott

18. Write a poem without any end rhyme, only internal rhyme.

When the sonder sparks, I glance in wonder
at those who believe the golden past is beholden
to prophesies of dire descent into hellfire —
the past’s memory is gilded treachery.

Lord, please bless this newly created mess.
We’re digesting the same filth we’re protesting,
filing empty petitions against permanent conditions.
This void will just deepen as we hunt our demons.

19. Imagine yourself doing any household task/chore, then write a poem using what you’ve imagined as an extended metaphor for writing.

Writing is Cleaning the Bathroom

You can arrive with a bucket of tools
but it will never turn out as planned.
Better to not prepare and expect the worst.
Hair in the drain won’t vanish by wishing.

Monotonous spraying, wiping, arms aching
and finger-cloth teams circling grime away.
That one spot actually needs baking soda
while sweeping the floor takes minutes.

I smell like chemicals. Back hurts.
But it’s done.
Guests are impressed, look, I can adult.
So I’ve won?

20. Write a narrative poem detailing a specific childhood memory.

We were rolling on carpet one soggy fall morning,
Me making the little bro my usual pawn,
When all of a sudden, with no kind of warning,
Dad switched the vacuum cleaner on.

We didn’t get up, letting come what may
So Dad yelled out over the noise:
“You’d better move out of the way,
There’s fire under here, so pick up your toys.”

“FIRE?!?!” we screeched, jumping to action
As we imagined our stuff going up in flame.
I’m sure Dad got much satisfaction
From this hilarious parenting game.

Little did he know I believed till age ten
That underneath each vacuum was fire —
The ruse was evidently lasting bait
Because actors are convincing liars.

21. Choose one of the poems you’ve already written and posted as part of this challenge and re-order it in some way. You could rearrange the lines or stanzas or even words in a line. Think of it as a puzzle!

Insomnia poem –> herbal tea poem

Long live the Queen of chamomile
who drowns fragile fragments of cinnamon
and lingers in the silence of caffeinated sorrow.
Her shadow self siphons passion through unslept nights.
Drowsy tunnel vision powers magic, but
the kaleidoscope of morning will bring
traces of descent into madness.
Rest easy.
22. What is the first car you bought/drove/remember? Write a poem about it.


An Ode to the Ghettomobile

1MSGO70, ill-advised license plate reads;
lil engine that could barely make 45.
I was master of restarting when
it stalled in the middle of a left turn,
of patiently waiting with numb fingers
between pumps on the gas pedal on
chilly, stubborn mornings.
Please start.
Freeway driving not allowed, unless it was
Dad coasting us along Monterey Rd. at 55
to pick up live crickets for frogs and toads.
Childhood errands turned into my own
independence when a car older than me
became my freedom from school buses.
Wiping fogged windshield down with
soggy pink towel,
tapping sticky ceiling where tan lining
had been torn away,
opening the door in drive-thru lanes
because the window wouldn’t roll down.
Nothing else was broken,
it just never existed —
backseat shoulder straps on seat belts,
right-hand side mirror,
The upholstery was coated with
laughing memories and my dog Jasper’s hair.
The picture still teases a smile to my lips.
This vessel carried my youth.

23. Write a seven line poem that begins with “it’s true that fresh air is good for the body” (from Frank O’Hara’s poem “Ave Maria”) and ends with “this is our body” (from Gary Snyder’s “The Bath”). 

It’s true that fresh air is good for the body.
We as walkers don’t pace lightly,
inhaling all the argon of millenniums past
and revitalizing our cells with the remnants of stars.
The tapestry of our collective energy
twists onward through root and ocean.
This is our body.

24. Write a poem that’s different in some way from anything you’ve ever written. Take a chance! Be wild!

Cliche, cliche…white suburban dreams

All things grow with love,
like the flowers of tomorrow
that are the seeds of yesterday.
As delicate as roses
and as pure as snow,
we break new ground,
caught between a rock and a hard place.
All the branches of the tree of life
extend outwards into the clouds
that have silver linings.
Come hell or high water,
we are careful to not
put all of our eggs in one basket
because, just one drop in the bucket,
we want to bring small change
to our world.
We’re little fish in a big pond,
yet our fountains of energy
enable us to be free as birds.
We will be
the change we wish to see in the world.

25. Write a poem that includes all of the following words: pistachio, ink, pebble, weather, varnish.

Pacific Grove

Even moody weather cannot tarnish
this place where grandparents celebrate
anniversaries and my skin still remembers
skulking on all fours across slippery rock.

Ink waves of indigo push pistachio foam
onto shore that is more pebble than sand,
more cliff than beach, more stone than slope.
Sea salt is varnish painted on clammy feet.

The sky’s brow furrows over Lovers Point
and kelp-scented air pierces nostrils
like darts thrown through churning fog.
Cloudy California is beautiful too.

26. Gather some magazines/catalogs you don’t mind cutting up and spend ten minutes flipping through them looking for words/sentences that spark your interest. Cut out the words as you go, and (at the end of the ten minutes) arrange the words to form a cut-out poem.

FullSizeRender (7)


27. Begin with the title “The Poem I’d Never Write.” Then, write that poem.

The Poem I’d Never Write

4:06 am, and my fingers itch to type out
words I should never think, let alone write.
A letter too ironic to make real
even if its sentences never breathe
and its intentions collect dust.

Naive footprints of separately walked paths
are more than just worlds apart —
handwritten and watercolor memories seep
into the wrinkles of time and hibernate there.
“Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.”

28. Visit a virtual art gallery and look around until you find a piece that intrigues you. Write a poem inspired by the artwork.

(I actually visited a real art gallery today, by total coincidence. It was the “Empowerment” gallery at Future Tenant, showcasing art made by Carnegie Mellon students about sexual assault.)

FullSizeRender (6)


We have a problem.
A masculinity problem.
A power and control problem.
An entitlement problem.
A problem that reigns king
with armies so large that all
opposing warriors need protection.
We shouldn’t need it.
Our armor is invisible
to hungering eyes,
our ferocity transparent
to controlling stares,
our latent anxiety obvious
to predatory glances.
Awareness is our only salvation.
In solitude we murmur
“come upstairs and I’ll
show you where all my…
where my demons hide from you”
and nurse our wounds in
We have a problem.
A trust problem.
A misplaced blame problem.
An empathy problem.
Kick us when we’re down;
yell words in echo chambers
that aren’t really empty.
Privilege is the draft exemption
that frees them from
going to battle.
But it’s only a deferment.
Sooner or later,
the vicious cycle will
ensnare us all.
Caring is our only remedy.
Is it really so hard to say
“I believe you?”


(Lyrics from “Lost and Found,” by Lianne La Havas)
(Picture from Pittsburgh Slutwalk, which took place earlier today)

29. Briefly research a poetic form of your choice and write a poem according to the rules of that particular form. 

Tanka Poem

Spring makes me restless
When will finals be over
I don’t deserve warmth
Because I procrastinate
Writing poems, not coding.

30. Write a poem employing extended metaphor to illustrate the experience of the last 30 days.

My mind is a garden overflowing with foliage,
and I haven’t had time to prune in awhile.
I pay homage to the reckless weeds
as they’re torn by root from loose soil,
some resisting and some coming freely.
The snarling brambles prick and draw blood
on their way out. Should’ve worn gloves.

Now I remember why I don’t garden.
Pollen shaken loose dances to gain
loud signs of attention. Sneeze away.

Maybe with time this thumb will turn green
and neatly planted rows of vegetable
and flower will bud forth harmonious.
Springtime dreams are distant, though, in winter.
The untamed field holds its own beauty…
the poppy and daisy don’t need tending.
With flower beds, let come what may.


This challenge was very interesting. The last time I wrote this much poetry in such a short time period was 3rd or 4th grade. Writing so many poems back-to-back made me realize which motifs I tend to fall back on, and which stylistic requirements make me produce crappy poems (there are definitely some in here). Most importantly, though, I learned that I’m most creative and produce the best results when given seemingly tougher challenges, like “write a poem using only these words” or “write a poem of this exact length.” I’m not particularly useful or exemplary in completing open-ended tasks, but can be extra creative given strict parameters. I will definitely apply this knowledge to my career and life planning as I continue to grow and analyze my strengths. This challenge was kind of exhausting, but very fun! I encourage others to do it too! 

White Guilt: Discomfort Is a Good Thing

Let me start by saying there isn’t a single sentence in this post that is new or revolutionary. My intention is not to try to “give voice to the voiceless,” as claiming that marginalized people are voiceless is patently untrue. I guess I’m trying to “give ears to the earless.” I’m writing only because I happen to have a small platform. It’s not one I deserve, but that’s part of how privilege works. So here we are.

And there it is, that dreaded “p” word, from which we as white people derive much of our defensiveness and guilt. We get defensive because acknowledging our role in a system that perpetuates systemic injustice is uncomfortable. We feel guilty because our privileges free us from experiencing what our neighbors do every day. Certainly it would be easier to declare that all lives matter and accuse people of playing the “race card” (as if there could be such a thing). Our perceived liberalism absolves us. Acting colorblind tricks us into thinking we’re making progress. We believe in the ghosts of our past but not in the monsters of our present.

We must acknowledge our complicity. It’s not about our personal gratification of being on the “right side of history.” It is about affirming that black lives matter. It’s embarrassing that this phrase is still a subject of debate. It’s embarrassing that such a well-organized and necessary network receives so much derision. It’s embarrassing that while black people and other people of color are being brutalized and killed every day, we choose to ignore the movement for the sake of our comfort, or to loudly declare our white guilt over the voices of those people demanding justice. This is selfish. This is distracting. This is missing the point.

White discomfort is one of the smaller objectives of many protests. Protests demand that petitions be heard, attention be granted, and visibility be restored. It is illogical and bigoted to tell marginalized people where, when, and how to protest. On the other hand, protesters do not need our tears as futile penance for our collective guilt. Shrilly proclaiming our privilege and echoing what black people have been saying for centuries further robs marginalized people of their agency. Silence is violent, but dominating the narrative is violent, too.

So, what to do? Fighting white supremacy while avoiding cultural appropriation can be risky business. I know this very well – I’m a white member of a Divine 9 (historically Black Greek) sorority, plus I have made more mistakes as an “activist” than I care to admit. I don’t have all (or even most of) the answers. White identity development is a lifelong task. Individualism is very compatible with the dominant ideology of rugged Americanism and the myth of meritocracy, which is part of why generalizations that arise in discourses about race repel people whom are not yet comfortable acknowledging group status. And, as white guilt grows, we want to reject our contribution to whiteness and the oppression it perpetuates.

We must own our discomfort. We must love it, cherish it, and thank it for helping us think harder about how we respond to injustice.

We must never, ever center conversations around our whiteness so as to distract and rob black people of their opportunities to speak.

We must not rely on people of color to educate us about the structural violence that contributes to police killings, residential segregation, achievement gaps, gentrification, uneven representation, the prison-industrial complex, etc. Become better acquainted with Google and your local library.

We must not whitesplain – meaning we must not use our knowledge to act superior or think we are so progressive and arrived. There is always much, much more to discover. We must accept that we will never “arrive.”

We must acknowledge that we are racist – always have been, always will be. Again, we must not force others to dwell on this admission. We must not become more absorbed in our selfish guilt than in fighting the injustices we see.

We must redefine our language of obligation and ethics.

We must elevate empathy above all else and listen far more than we speak.

We must organize in our own communities. SNCC, the Black Panthers, and other civil rights groups have encouraged white people to do just this. We can create reading groups, call out racist jokes at school and in the workplace, and stand up to those who promote white supremacy.

We must make our primary task engaging fellow white people in the private, un-alluring, uncomfortable conversations that will earn us no accolades and will perhaps lose us friends. We must confront anti-blackness and defensiveness as it spews from the mouths of our family members, colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances.

We must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

It is easy to become cynical, thinking that the status quo will remain and that there is no place for us in the fight for change. But we can do better. Some discomfort is good, but we should not let white guilt consume us.

Note: The photo at the top of this page is posted satirically. White people, don’t do stuff like that.


4:53 am

Look into my mind and you’ll see
a garden there.
Look harder and you may see
Universes just keep spinning when
the night renders me
a child;
dizziness is cleverness only if you
turn it upside down.
Then again,
rearranging shadows in the dark
might seem like poetry
to those who think restlessness is art.

People often assume that as a white female, I don’t have to deal with racism. And they’re right — I don’t.


Somebody recently told me that this picture, originally part of the #ITooAmWakeForest campaign (which you can find here:, was incorporated into an article somebody published on the website Total Sorority Move. I wasn’t able to track down the article myself, so it’s possible that it was moved or deleted. The sign I’m holding in the picture reads, “I’ve been asked: ‘Are you a transfer?’ ‘Are you albino?’ ‘Are you lonely?’ Because it’s ‘crazy’ I would want to join a black sorority instead of a white one.” Yes, I have really been asked those things at Wake Forest.

A year and a half after crossing Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in spring 2013, it still strikes me as odd how much fascination and interest is generated simply by my membership in a historically black sorority. I knew long before I joined that I would receive a wide variety of responses, but some of the comments I’ve heard at the PWI that is Wake Forest University have ranged from hilarious to absurd. Several friends and acquaintances have posted this photo on social media; many comments expressed support, some fellow NPHC members expressed discontent over my decision to join (which I can acknowledge and respect), and some comments read more along the lines of “shame on this girl for joining a n**ger sorority.”

At Wake Forest, my white privilege buys me the “opportunity” to hear the uncensored opinions of some of my peers who assume I’ll agree with them. For example, last March somebody began making small-talk with me while we were waiting outside our classroom. He noticed a nearby flyer for the upcoming Town Hall Meeting about University Police treatment of minority students — a flyer on which I was listed as an organizer/contact person — and said, “can you believe this? People just always want to talk about race. Like, we’re a top 25 university…clearly we’re smart enough to move beyond all that.” From my collective experiences in the past year alone pertaining to being a white member of a historically black sorority on this campus, reading dozens of testimonials about police mistreatment of minority students, witnessing sickening instances of cultural appropriation condoned by student organizations, seeing unabashedly racist posts on Yik Yak, participating in fluffy “academic” discussions about race relations in which professors affirm meaningless comments, and simply overhearing rude comments being made about me and those I care about, I can say that nearly everything about my Wake Forest experience stands in perfect contrast to that student’s sentiments.

While race topics are now more open to public discussion at Wake than they were a year ago, major problems exist in the mere formulation of discussion opportunities. Many students in the white majority look to students whom identify under a minority status to teach them about race topics, which places an undue onus on the minority students. Other students belonging to the majority avoid the discussion altogether, recoiling from any chance that they might be called racist. Others remain apathetic and refuse to acknowledge that racism exists at all, or that, heaven forbid, it could exist on their college campus. Meanwhile, some minority students are met with pacification attempts or inappropriate invitations to express their thoughts. This is done in a desperate attempt to reach that ever-elusive ideal of “inclusion.”

Having a seat at the table is not the same as having a voice. After all, it was not long ago that it was customary for American children to be seen and not heard at the dinner table. Under the pretense that modern laws and institutions reflect our sacred phrase “all men are created equal,” we often assume that seating brown, black, gay, and female bodies around some symbolic table is the same as inviting them to speak. Easier said than done. Even when they do speak, and others at the table pretend to listen, polite nods and buttery phrases like “hmm we will consider it, thank you for your input” suffice as enough consolation that they’re making an effort to be inclusive. Ethnic salience in this format is just a numbers game. The polite nods are followed by statements about unity, the common good, mutual security, true mission, progress — all of which create the sugar that helps the medicine go down. Even in the midst of discussion about racism, the conversation is always brought back to the majority — its defenses, its intentions, its comfort level, its wants, its needs. So goes the process of objectification: the winner is he who makes his world seem necessary. To me, anyway, it is blatantly clear which people remain in the lead.

Movement, INC.

Media is both the agent of entertainment and the pornography of grief.
Babblers build wide platforms for the ramblers to stand on and the complacent to hide under,
the slacktivists to paint with distracting images that glorify the shouters
who give credit where credit is not, should not, can not ever be due.
Do we like being citizens of this modern-day Babylon?
We strive to be “citizens of the world” but a world without borders is one
we don’t understand.
Stamps in a passport are earned through time and introspection,
but images and cliches and context-less phrases confound
understanding reached by experience-based design.
The comedy of errors may be paused but never muted;
we mutilate our own existence by denying our power
to change the system when we don’t want to and to
aid our regression when we do.
Excuses of good intentions can be blinding.
In absence of consciousness, our projections will speak for us.