The latest installment in the Drop the I-Word campaign’s “I Am…” storytelling project comes from Michaelynn Hawk. Our perspective at Drop the I-Word is that the dehumanization of immigrants impacts everyone and we must all take part in protecting human dignity. Hawk’s testimony shows us that throughout history, words have helped create the toxic environments that ultimately lead to hatred and, sometimes, violence. That’s already been the case in several high-profile hate crimes, including the murder of 25-year-old Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez. History’s filled similar stories, and Hawk clearly lays out the critical question before us: Which side of history do we want to be on?
For the “I Am…” storytelling project, people from all walks of life relate experiences, demand respect and reject criminalizing language about immigrants. Stories are gathered in collaboration with our campaign partners. We are grateful to the Alliance for a Just Society for connecting us with Hawk.
I live in Butte, Montana, and I work for Indian People’s Action as a community organizer. We organize people to address the systemic economic and social inequities that impact their lives most. When I first moved here 15 years ago, mostly Irish Catholics lived in the area. Today, more African American and Native American families have moved into our community, making it more diverse. This country has always been in transformation.
When Christopher Columbus came to what we call America, Native Americans were already here. The stories vary by nation, but we have resisted the same oppression, demonization and marginalization. When stories about Native Americans have been told by hateful people they have depicted us as stupid and menacing, using slurs such as, “squaws,” “savages,” “redskins,” and “prairie nigger.” This type of language is so damaging to how a community perceives itself and how it is perceived by others. It strips us of our humanity and makes way for shameful policies and violence. We should not tolerate anyone being called by any pejorative term or treated as less than human. It’s not enough to know our history, but we must apply what we learn too. People want to continue a legacy of hate and call immigrants “illegals.” By this logic, Native Americans could call the first settlers “illegals.” But I believe it is morally wrong to call anyone “illegal.” It’s morally wrong to allow dangerous, racially charged language to hurt any group of people. This is a form of racial profiling that hurts us all. This country, this land was given to us by our creator. We all have a right to be here.
Like everyone, I value my family and the time we share. Every year, both my immediate and extended family get together to celebrate Christmas and other holidays. I find it difficult to think of how families are torn apart in immigrant communities. The term “illegal” is used to separate families and takes no notice of what immigrants have sacrificed to come to this country and build a life.
Using the word “illegal” also makes it easier for police to racially profile immigrants and not see them as people. Racism and racial profiling also concern me, because I know people with brown skin are targeted. It’s something that impacts Native Americans in Montana, and specifically my six boys. My own son is stopped for no good reason by the police and profiled because he is young, male, brown-skinned and Native. Structural racism can be a barrier to quality of life. In Hardin, ambulance service has been “slow to show” when it comes to serving Native American families. This is a serious issue and people have died. Regardless of which communities are targeted, racial profiling is dangerous in all its forms. How we treat people says a lot about who we are. As a society, we need to learn from shameful historical mistakes. I am a witness to history in the making, and I believe we can communicate values of dignity and love for all humankind. We owe it to ourselves and our future generations.