Sometimes we are in a position where someone says something inappropriate, inconvenient, inaccurate, even an outright, offensive lie from the depths of hell! Sometimes they say these things near you when you are not the intended audience, about you to someone else when you can hear them, or directly in your face. Sometimes they fully understand the standard meaning of their words and the interpretation as you would receive it. Sometimes, they can use a word or phrase with unintended power, in the wrong context among the wrong group of people. These are statements, not conversations. The conversation requires participation from both sides and the goal (in my opinion) should be to improve understanding on both sides. Today I am writing about a particularly difficult conversation I had to have with a colleague and friend. I will point out some of what I did right and wrong (in my opinion) and share the outcome.
I was in a public area with an undergraduate friend, where I saw a fellow graduate student (older, white, american male). Conversation fell to the impending birth of our super amazing son #LeonardoDavis. I mentioned in passing (or so I thought) that because he was born in the USA he would automatically have american citizenship. The statement he made was “Oh, an anchor baby”. I was taken aback.
Why? An anchor by definition, restrains an object or entity to a certain location to either 1) prevent the movement of the object that has the ability to move itself if otherwise unencumbered or 2) to prevent the drifting of an object that would otherwise be at the whim of the elements having no agency of its own. Definition 1 implies that our child would be a burden restricting our freedom and limiting the potential of our family. Definition 2 implies that our family (culture, country) is somehow weaker than America and therefore the anchor allows us to gain stability we would not otherwise have. Another element of the connotation is that the baby is a tool, deliberately conceived for this purpose.
My immediate response:
“Actually, no. American Law states that any child born here can have American citizenship, we did not make the law.”
Him- “So you do not plan to raise him here?”
Me – “Who knows what will happen? We are both educated and if we do raise him here, we will pay taxes just like everyone else. That being said, my scholarship, like many other international students, requires I return home or leave the USA for at least two years after my program, so it is not likely.”
My friend and I then left.
I was disturbed by the interaction. I simmered. I asked myself if this was how others saw our baby, people less frank and verbally unfiltered than this guy?
A few weeks later, Leo was born and as I saw the future of navigating these conversations of our multicultural family, I resolved to have these difficult discussions. I saw the same guy later on in the same space, this time alone. I told him that the phrase “anchor baby” was inappropriate, offensive, racist in some respects and should not be used to describe anyone’s child. I told him that I was caught off guard by his use of the term but did not think he knew the true meaning of the phrase and decided to tell him directly as opposed to letting it fester. To those who know me, I used my “I am upset and not raising my voice” voice. Another friend came in and I decided to change the conversation and leave the area.
I felt less burdened. I felt I had shown him the error of his ways and I felt he is the type of person that would take the new information and adjust. The problem is, I did not have a conversation with him.
About a week later, he reached out to me via email and asked to have a talk. He indicated his respect for Alma and I, as people and for my candidness in telling him how I felt. He asked if we could meet and share a coffee or something to talk about what we both heard in the words “anchor baby”. I was happy to accept.
We met and spoke for nearly an hour. In the end, we had talked about perceptions of immigrants that contribute little to the country but take tax fed benefits; the true struggles of people who are visitors the USA and contribute significantly in various ways; illegal and undocumented immigrants and workers and their burden on the economy and their contribution to the labor force; human rights; social justice; the rights of a child; reproductive rights of women; visitors to our countries; healthcare for immigrants; jus solis and jus sanguis; anchor babies, wetbacks, niggers, chinks, and other epithets that have been used toward me and my family; the rights of the white american, the native american and what it meant to be an immigrant, invader or a native; and the pervasiveness of prejudice in today’s society, but most importantly, we had a conversation.
We now share a more holistic understanding of the other’s positionality, heritage, culture and experience. I personally feel more prepared for these difficult conversations. Now I want you, my readers to go out and have these difficult conversations. when someone offends you with words, ask them what they believe those words to mean, share with them what you get from those words. Be honest, be calm, be understanding.
Leno Davis, AA; BSc.; MSc; Husband; Father
NB: for more of the backstory, please see Anchor baby. Identifying details have been removed to protect people involved.