Reclaiming Our Identity

Written by Jason Acosta

On June 22, 2020

“But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors or ‘sub-oppressors.’ The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped…This does not necessarily mean that the oppressed are unaware that they are downtrodden. But their perception of themselves as oppressed is impaired by their submersion in the reality of oppression.” — Passage taken from Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

Who am I? The very question that many of us are on the quest to answer. This question on a surface level sounds pretty simple, but to accurately answer this question it requires us to deeply reflect and travel through a self-exploration journey. How can a question that sounds so simple, be so nuanced that it forces us to continuously revisit? This question requires us to interrogate years of thinking in which some cases we may come to the realization that we are not who we thought we were after so many years. This is not to suggest we have been living a lie our entire lives, but rather to suggest there is so much more to who we are or who we have been taught we are. Can you imagine internalizing years of false realities, narratives, and published text about who we are just to find out that much of it may not be true? As a result, you are left in a state of curiosity struggling to respond to the question, who am I?

At the tender age of 28, I continuously find myself thinking about the importance of identity. I find myself thinking about the words of Paulo Freire as I am now working to unpack 28 years of oppression and dominant culture that has flooded my mind with misleading narratives and inaccurate depictions of who I am. In other words, I am decolonizing my identity. After so many years, I wonder why I never truly learned about people who looked like me, or why understanding the history of the many identities I possess was so difficult. During my adolescent years, I had so many questions about my environment, my education, my community, and my family. I struggled to wrap my mind around why stories about anyone who ever looked like me or came from my community were always negatively highlighted. The only time I saw myself reflected in the spotlight was when the media created a visual representation of such degrading imagery of who they believed I was. But, why was this happening?

Recently, I came across a post that highlighted statistics across different categories: 96% of US governors identify as white, 91% of the US presidential cabinet identifies as white, 93% of people who determine which TV shows we watch are white, 85% of the people who determine what news is covered are white, 82% of our teacher force is white, and 84% of full-time college professors are white (originally seen on formationapp; statistics pulled from 2016 -2017 data and taken from White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo). Lastly, a recent study of NYC public schools found that 80% of textbooks utilized in K-8 curriculum are written by white authors while 84% of the student body is made up of students of color (A Report from the NYC Coalition For Educational Justice). These are just a few statistics I highlighted here.

So if white folks are overrepresented in many of the spaces that have influence over my humanity, the likelihood of internalizing an oppressed identity is extremely high as they seem to control all aspects of development: write textbooks used in our classrooms, write policy, control our police force, and teach us. Human nature tells us that we are all inherently bias, so if all aspects of decision-making and influence are led by the same group of people then we can accurately predict that there are going to be fallacies and one-sided narratives created by these decision makers (also known as dominant culture; white folks listed above) about particular groups of people (Researchers Find Everyone Has a Bias Blind Spot).We can predict that the people on the receiving end of the decisions made will be harmed, often times the result of unintended consequences by well-intentioned people. This process also contributes to the conditioning of marginalized groups as ideologies are forced upon us that we simply do not want or need.

Therefore, I argue that understanding and recognizing the absolute power of dominant culture and its influence is the first step to decolonizing our identities. Sometimes dominant culture is so powerful that we adopt notions of Eurocentric ideology and further perpetuate systems of oppression without realizing it. However, it only makes sense that I may not fully know who I am. I would go as far as to say dominant culture implemented structures that prevented me from knowing the true power of my own history. Hence, why I never learned about it. But why is this? I offer that it is because as “We know our true history; we know our power.” We will become more powerful than those in power want us to be.

So how do we engage in the process of decolonizing our identities? First, we recognize the power of dominant culture and oppression. Then, we interrogate our own thoughts, identities, and understanding of how we view the world. We spend time researching and learning about our culture, our heritage, and our environment. We then take an ancestry test to know where our ancestors come from and our lineage of amazing people. Then we can start to answer the question who am I? And continue the journey to liberation.

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