Author Archive | Vanessa Downs

Are you an American?

What makes you American? Is it simply the fact that you were born here in America, or legally became a citizen? I think the answer is far more complicated. Does being American mean that you pay taxes? Is it a sense of duty to your country? Alternatively, is it simply just an indescribable inner part of you? Being “American” is an amalgamation of so many things beyond just being born within the United States. In fact, for many, being born in the U.S. is hardly a defining characteristic at all. What makes you American is one of the questions Jose Antonio Vargas seeks to answer in his film, Documented. Furthermore, Vargas wants to show viewers that “illegal immigrants” are not faceless and nameless, but human beings like everyone else.

Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize winning, American journalist who also happens to be an undocumented citizen. Vargas has been living in the United States illegally since he was 12. Vargas considers himself a law abiding, tax paying, and productive member of American society. He decided to make Documented in order to show the face of undocumented America, chronicle his own experiences after coming out as “illegal,” and to show that there is no clear path to citizenship for these undocumented citizens, citizens that have been “American” for years. According to Vargas, the system that allows for legal immigration is broken, and needs to be changed.

Documented follows Vargas as he comes out as an “illegal” immigrant, shows his work with “Dreamers,” or supporters of the Dream Act, as well as chronicles his journey to reconnect with his mother. This film is best for the citizen with limited knowledge on immigration, because the film opens viewer’s eyes to the perils of immigration and gives a face to what is often treated as an abstract issue. Since I consider myself more progressive when it comes to immigration and immigration reform, I was excited to watch this film. However, despite my open-mindedness, there were many concepts and ideas Vargas discussed that had just never occurred to me. For example, Vargas raises the question of what is the connotation behind calling someone an “illegal.” For me, and I am sure others, when you think of an “illegal” immigrant the image of a person of Hispanic decent pops into your head. This is certainly the face the media has put to the term “illegal” immigrant, especially here in California. However, Vargas brings to light the fact that a large portion of “illegal” immigrants come from Asian countries, African countries, and, surprisingly, European countries as well. While this is not a mind-blowing piece of information, it needed to be said because this is an aspect of immigration that is easily ignored in light of the more local concern of Mexican immigrants. Furthermore, Vargas pushes for the term “undocumented” rather than “illegal,” because of the negative connotation that “illegal” carries. For many of the undocumented citizens living in the United States, they consider themselves American. The “undocumented” have lived in America for years, and while here, have graduated high school, found jobs, and pay taxes. Essentially, they are American. They are good people who do not deserve to be dehumanized and treated negatively with the term, “illegal.” Vargas also takes a closer look at the process for legal immigration to discuss how it is a flawed system that has people waiting for decades to immigrate legally to America, and offers no clear path to citizenship for those that have been here for years.

It is because of both the personable nature of the film, and it’s inclusion of little mentioned facts that makes Documented a must watch, regardless of your stance on immigration. Documented puts a face to the process, and makes it easy to become just a little more informed on an issue that is currently a hot topic within our American culture. So, the next time you define yourself as an American, take a moment to think of what it really means, because maybe then we can change the way our culture thinks of undocumented citizens.

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The Ebola Outbreak: Finding our Selflessness

Many of us know all too well the sound of one of our parent’s voices when we have done something disappointingly bad: you should be ashamed of yourself! We all know the feeling, and it isn’t good. Now, as the 2014 year begins to wind down and come to a close, I am going to have to call us ALL out. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

“Wait, what did we do?”

Well, to start with, we gave in to the fear mongering of the mainstream news networks and our own selfish behavior. More importantly, it is about what we did not do. We failed to care enough about the Ebola victims in Africa. Ebola was not even on our radar until it was in our own country, further emphasizing the self centeredness of the American citizen. While we got excited over trivial matters like celebrity baby bumps, and focused an irrational hatred toward our president over his latest supposed misstep, people were dieing. If it was not for the threat to our own personal well-being and security, we would have continued to ignore the problem.

Since March, when the outbreak first began in Africa, over 3,000 people have died. 3,000 men, women, and children. Some have lost entire families to the Ebola virus.

This woman is mourning the loss of her sister. The scene is tragic, but unfortunately, it is all too common. At one Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia, an average of two people die each day. This is astounding, especially when we consider the ONE death in the U.S. that we have chosen to focus on. However, beyond numbers and statistics, I look to the woman in the photo to remind me that these deaths are not an abstract piece of data, but actual human beings.

Yet, despite how devastating the situation has become in Africa, what we have become more and more concerned with is this idea of “How will it affect us?” As a nation, Ebola is a growing fear. Our news networks are constantly following the spread of the virus within the United States. Rachel Maddow, a popular cable news show host, recently discussed how underprepared we are IF we have an outbreak in this country, further encouraging the fear of our own demise that has been growing within us. Even in hospitals, the warning signs for the virus cannot be missed. Hospitals should be discussing how the virus spreads in order to educate the public, in addition to advertising symptoms. Becoming educated about Ebola can help lessen the fear. However,this is not the case. Between our news networks and our medical professionals, you cannot get away from the encouragement to be afraid of Ebola, and we are giving into it. While caring for our own health and protecting the health of our nation is important, instead of giving into the fear these concerns produce, we should be concerned with the people who have been hit the hardest. We should be looking to Africa to help the people, and to also stop the spread of the virus from its epicenter. Not only would helping the people at the origin be the selfless thing to do, it would also be the most logical. If we are afraid of Ebola’s influence spreading, then we need to stop it at its inception. It has taken far too long to reach this realization.

Nearly six months after the World Health Organization (WHO) learned of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa,…[world leaders realized] that the battle against the virus was being lost. As of early September, with more than 1,800 confirmed Ebola deaths in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, there was still no coordinated global response… But it’s not at all clear that this belated muscular response will be enough to quell the epidemic before it takes tens of thousands of lives. (Achenbach, et al.)

As a nation, we are too concerned with ourselves, and collectively we have allowed this situation to get out of control. Our inactivity with regards to aid speaks volumes about us as a country. Is it not the responsibility of those who are in a position of success to help those who are not? If we take action now, we can set a positive example for national charity that will not be forgotten . Otherwise, when this all comes to an end, we will look back and say, “We could have prevented so much death, had we just acted sooner and with intensity.” Then, our example will be one of failure. The time to act was yesterday, but we can make up for it with an action today. Otherwise, we are just as responsible for the rising death toll as the virus itself.

What can we do? Well, first we should all strive to be a little more selfless. Do not give into the fears that our local news networks, hospitals, and our society are cultivating; instead, remember those who are hurting the most. The vast majority of us are worrying about Ebola from within the comfort of a system filled with the best hospitals, sanitation systems , clean water, and our immediate access to health care. The threat is relatively far away compared to those who are living with the daily reality of this lethal illness and the death toll it leaves in its wake. So, while we are well, write to your congressional representative asking for them to take action. Voice your opinion and help spread the word that this is not about us who have yet to feel the effects of Ebola, but about those who already have. Finally, give to charities that you feel will help stymie the spread of Ebola, like Doctors Without Borders or Samaritan’s Purse. And above all, this is not the time to be selfish. If we looked to help those who have been affected in Africa with the same intensity in which we fear the virus’s penetration of American soil, we would be able to stop Ebola. We could stop its spread, and stop the death toll from rising any higher. Then, another mother could live to raise her child, another husband could live to see his wife, and another family could live to see better days.

Achenbach, Joel, et al. “Out of Control: How the World’s Health Organizations Failed to Stop the Ebola Disaster.” The Washington Post. 4 October 2014. Web. 23 October 2014.

Kleeman, Sophie. “One Powerful Illustration Shows Exactly What’s Wrong With How the West Talks About Ebola.” World.Mic. October, 2014. Web. 18 October 2014.

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Breaking The Cycle

Dear Citizens,

With the recent fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18 year old from Ferguson, Missouri, and the brutal beating of Marlene Pinnock on the side of a Los Angeles freeway, one begins to wonder if police brutality is not unusual, as we previously thought, but has instead become the new social norm.  But, what if the relationship between police officers and people who happen to have a skin color other than white, has always been strained, and American citizens are just beginning to be made aware of this fact on a large scale? Social media has certainly made us all more aware that discrimination against minority groups continues to occur.  However, if we look into our own lives, I am sure we can all recall a moment where we were made aware of discrimination.

I remember when a coworker once told me about his experience with the police. Steve was thin, soft spoken, and Black. He told me that whenever he was pulled over while driving, regardless of the reason, he would roll his window down, remove the keys from the ignition, and raise his hands in the air, just so there would be no confusion when the officer approached his car window. Confusion? What sort of confusion could there be surrounding a traffic stop? Apparently, there was room for a lot. Steve’s experience, and that of many other minorities, raises many questions about our culture. How and why does this sort of discrimination still exist? Have we become caught up in a cycle that continuously perpetuates the oppression of minority groups through police violence and brutality? Bobbie Harro discusses these cycles of oppression in her text, “The Cycle of Socialization.” Harro writes that we are socialized from birth to subscribe to a specific set of social and cultural rules.  If we happen to be a member of a group that benefits from these social rules, “we may not notice that [the rules] aren’t fair. If we are members of the groups that are penalized by the rules, we may have a constant feeling of discomfort” (Harro).  My coworker Steve knows what it feels like to be a member of a group that is penalized by the “rules;” he feels the effects of racism in even the most mundane situations.

Unfortunately, a cycle in which police officers  use excessive force, or take unnecessary violent action in a situation, has been created in our society, and it became “normal” when we were no longer surprised to hear stories of police brutality on the news. Our reaction has instead become one of grim disappointment.  Harro writes that in situations like this, “it is easiest to do nothing, and simply allow the perpetuation of the status quo” (Harro). However, we cannot simply do nothing.  By continuing to participate in the cycle, with our silence confirming our participation, we “reinforce stereotypes, collude in our own demise, and perpetuate the system of oppression” (Harro).  No one person should live in a society that oppresses him or her. Michael Brown, Marlene Pinnock and my coworker were, and are, unfortunately, participants in a cycle in which they are the oppressed. Whether justified or not, should an unarmed, 18 year old boy have to die during an altercation with an officer? Was there something else the officer could have done to deescalate the situation before he decided to shoot to kill? Something needs to change, but what?

The first step in breaking this cycle, or any cycle, is to break the silence. We must begin to speak out against the things that we feel are corrupt.  As Harro states, “Our silence is consent” (Harro). We cannot simply sit back any longer. We cannot remain passive participants in a culture that demands activity. We must at least speak up and voice our concerns, even in the small, or seemingly innocent situations.  For example, next time someone makes a racist, or a derogatory joke about any social group, speak up. Tell them that what they are saying is inappropriate because these jokes say, “It’s okay to dislike or make fun of this group of people. Their feelings do not matter. Essentially, they do not matter.” When we perpetuate the idea that a particular group of people does not matter, we end up with situations like that in Ferguson. While you may not be able to convince the joke teller to change, you may be able to break the cycle for someone else. Maya Angelou once said, “ the plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstream.” Maya Angelou is right, and racism in the form of a “joke” is just one of many seemingly innocuous ways we continue to allow racism to be a part of our  cultural and personal “bloodstream.”

I have two friends, a couple, who took their son to the zoo. Laughingly, my friend recounted a situation that happened with her son and husband.  Some Mexican landscapers were working near an exhibit they were observing. Her husband said, “Look, and there you can see the Mexican in his natural habitat.”  I was horrified, and said so. She said, “No, it’s okay, we are Mexican, we can say those things.” No, you cannot. The rest of the day, every time their son saw a Mexican, he would mimic what his father had said. Through a joke, their son was being conditioned to believe that Mexicans are landscapers, and not only that, but that they are also like animals in a zoo.  This one joke had dehumanized a human being in the eyes of a child. You can see how the cycle of racism is perpetuated with the telling of a joke. Now, a young child, on some level, believes that an entire race of people is less than human. Had someone in the vicinity said something then, letting them know that the joke was inappropriate, what would have happened? Would the cycle have been broken? Maybe. Maybe a young boy would learn a lesson from a brave stranger who decided to speak up.  We should all strive to be that brave, because then maybe situations like the one in Ferguson will cease to occur.

Harro, Bobbie. The Cycle of Socialization. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print

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