Surviving Respectability

September 13, 2021

Does citizenship embolden vigilantism? What role does the naturalization of an individual play in the facilitation of aggression, resistance, and witnessing? In the following conversation, guest editors Germane Barnes (GB) and Shawhin Roudbari (SR) speak with social justice advocate and political strategist Krystina François (KF), Executive Director of the Office of New Americans of Miami-Dade, on the impact of immigration and vigilantism. The conversation addresses issues of the census as a spatial mechanism, the assimilation of identity, border patrol, and the ability to hold space in locations otherwise unwelcoming. Krystina explains the ramifications of a self-identified post-racial society and anti-Black incidents. How might ethnicities police each other to gain acceptance within the larger system of cultural respectability? How might individuals’ police themselves and what are the results of these interactions?


SR: How did you get involved with Law for Black Lives and the Office for New Americans?

KF: In November of 2016, I was four years into my own consulting firm. I was working in a whole bunch of different spaces, from capacity building to immigration and the women’s movement. Then Donald Trump won the presidential election and I was really angry, because I always had a critique of the anti-Blackness that was unleashed under the Obama years. I saw this coming and folks were not really doing anything to stop it.

At the same time, we have all these super viral police killings happening. You have Trayvon Martin, you have Tamir Rice, you have all these instances where the post-racial utopia is clearly a myth, and you see that, even when you have Black folks in leadership, the systemic issues of devaluing Black lives are still actualized.

A friend of mine passed along information about Law for Black Lives, which was really born out of Ferguson, MO. It started as an informal network of lawyers mobilizing across the country to address issues of racial injustice. It is not just police killings per se, but also policies regarding clean water in Flint and the codification of gentrification and community.

One of the first things we did was go on a listening tour for a year. We went to eighteen states. We developed a framework around identifying the key issues that people on the ground are fighting at the local level, state level, or nationally, then trying to find means to connect them. For example, if people in Louisiana and people in Michigan are both working on water rights, how do we link them so that we can develop some legal framework to do the lawsuits and to do the impact litigation? Take the example of what happened to the Little Farm mobile home community in Little Haiti in Miami. A new development, Magic City, is being placed there. It basically displaced all these folks that are in mobile home units, knowing that it is one of the very few places that have affordable housing in the Miami-Dade County. There is only a handful of mobile home parks left in the Miami-Dade County, because they have all been sold to developers to build mixed-use high-rises, you know, “live, work, play” developments.

While the legal network members were not exclusively Black, they were predominantly people of color and all the organizations that they are working with on the ground are Black lead. It is rooted in queer Black feminism as a theory of change.

I was there for about two years and then resigned to run the Office of New Americans, because for the past nine years I have also been working in the immigration space, really pushing for more awareness around redefining what citizenship is. Not just having your US passport and getting sworn in, but how folks are actively engaged as citizens. It starts by changing their immigration status and the civic engagement continuum as well as addressing the disproportionate blockages to accessing citizenship for Black immigrants, especially in a place like Miami. Florida has the largest population of Black immigrants in the country. I had consulted on the creation of the Office of New Americans because of my work in the immigrant rights movement. This office was born out of immigrant rights organizing around the role of municipal government/governance and local citizenship was a full circle moment for me to be able to do that.

SR: Can you tell us more about the ways that Black immigrants in the US encounter anti-Black violence here?

KF: It is definitely an underrepresented narrative. I am a first-generation American. Both of my parents are Haitian, although my mom came here when she was six and has a Queen’s accent and is Americanized in a way. My dad came after medical school and married my mom. He had more of the traditional immigrant experience. I always grew up with a Black immigrant narrative and perspective, because that was my lived experience in terms of navigating spaces.

There are two things that I think of in this context of being super hyper aware of your body and moving through space: assimilation and surveillance. One is arriving from a predominantly Black country and then being the only Black person in spaces, having to self-police, determine how you interact and present yourself: “This is why I talk like this.”

What are the different survival mechanisms? When I am in the space of immigrant integration, how can immigrants immerse themselves into their new home and society in a way that they can survive? There is a survival mechanism, and then thrive. What are the things they can adapt to and do for them to succeed and achieve the American dream—knowing that really the American Dream is assimilating into white supremacy?

You may still be in a Black or Brown body, but actually, the goals, how you move, and your perception of other people are from this very white supremacist lens because they are telling you, “This is what it means to be an American,” which erases Black and Indigenous folks that are in the United States and their history.

But you also get reminded quickly that you are Black. You have to balance this. “They told me if I was a straight-A student and I was super polite and I dressed a certain way that I would be fine, because I’m not like those people.” But then, you also have the random vigilante. And this frame that you are speaking about, who is surveilling you as you go through a store, as you try to buy things, as you try to get access to capital to buy a house or open a bank account, or all these things… They don’t prepare you for that. You have lived your whole life being Black and it has never been a question. However, you experience Blackness in a whole new way when you get to the US. I can only speak from the Caribbean perspective, where there is a very clear class system that can have a correlation with skin color, but not always. Whereas here [in the US], at the end of the day, no matter how much money you have, you are still Black.

SR: Maybe we are hearing a distinction between self-policing, vigilante policing, and state policing. Can you speak to whether or not this is a difference?

KF: All three things are definitely happening. Depending on where you are geographically and depending on whether you are in a public space versus a private space versus an academic space, there is a difference. The self-policing—the moving through space—I think that is what I have expounded on the most. This is a mix of both vigilante and state. Florida, Michigan, Maine, and Hawaii are the only states where 100% of the state is a “border zone.” That means that the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the right to stop you and is actively patrolling the 100-mile “border zone.” The border being the entire state. They can stop you. This is independent of local collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They are constitution-less zones. You give up your constitutional right to free movement and the right to not be stopped and questioned.

You have this sense that you need to have your papers with you, you have to be prepared. A lot of organizers educate folks to have a contact number in your pocket, to make sure they have their green card. What does that mean for their citizens and the residents if they get stopped? In a place like Florida, they don’t know an immigrant versus a US-born person so anybody and everybody is allowed to be stopped, monitored, and reported on. It can happen if you see folks hanging out in a parking lot—particularly at a Home Depot, at a bus stop, or in certain neighborhoods—or you see someone not speaking English or, in the Florida context, not speaking Spanish. Then it’s like, “Oh, my antenna is up, and I now get to surveil you and I get to interact with you in a whole different way.” We see that in places like Florida, where we have high concentrations of wealth and a whole economy of domestic workers. It is not to say that folks don’t have an immigration status. They may have work authorization, but that is a fear tactic. It is not like they are deportable; it is threatening you with deportability. The only protection against deportation is to become a US citizen, which is why it is my politic to get as many people to be citizens as possible so that is not a tool that can be used against them.

GB: You mentioned, “anybody and everybody can be monitored and reported.” Who are the people that are doing the monitoring? Who are the people that are doing the reporting? And what does that do to the individuals who are being monitored and reported? How do they internalize those things? We wonder if there is more that we can dig into on the ways fear operates. We hadn’t thought about it explicitly until the tail end of what you are saying. We are thinking about ways people legitimize police behaviors. People say, “Well, the police are afraid and, if we want to reduce the killings of Black people at the hands of police, let’s do things so the police are less afraid.” There are these perverse ways that fear gets used as an anti-racist strategy, but there are legitimate ways that fear operates. Are there other kinds of thoughts around fear and its role in immigrant integration?

KF: The reality is that there is fear of being poor, fear of being marginalized, fear of being monitored, fear of being controlled, and I think this year there is another layer of body autonomy in a whole different way. Who gets to say they are not going to wear a mask versus doesn’t? Who gets to feel the consequences of that decision and who doesn’t? They are Black people and immigrants. Your grocery worker can’t decide not to wear a mask.

There are a hundred Offices like mine across the country in different municipalities. I have a list of all the cities, big and small, across the country that are thinking about these things and how can immigrants, not just survive but thrive. We are thinking about what local governments can do to institute things in the public and private sector to make that happen.

This issue of being in a constant state of fear is also ironic. This is another thread. The constant state of fear that people are living in is ironic because that is why folks are leaving [their home countries before migrating to the US]. Immigrants are leaving because of that. They are risking and giving up everything. Whether or not you were coming here with money, you are giving up privileged access to things, your family, and friends. You are starting over whether you have some savings or not. You are basically starting from scratch. And society says it is okay for you to be monitored and it is okay for there to be consequences.

This sense that folks are constantly monitoring, who the other is, whether that is Black folks, whether they are immigrants, whether they are folks with different gender expression… we are always on the lookout for those that don’t belong. You are leaving fear to be in fear, which is mind blowing to me. Being hyper vigilant and being super conscious of how you are moving is the personal impact.

GB: Continuing this thread—survival versus thriving—there was a line in there where you said, “I’m not that type of person.”

KF: Mm-hmm. I knew you would write that one.

GB: What does that mean in regard to survival versus thriving?

KF: I talk a lot about respectability and I think both African American folks and Black immigrant folks think that, to a certain extent, class is my way out of racism. That, if only I wear the thing, sound like this, I am non-threatening to the whites, I achieve this degree, and I have all the bench markers for success that are laid out by white supremacy, then people will forget I am Black. If I am not those things, then it turns into the lazy Black narrative. It is either you are lazy, or you are violent. It’s one of those things.

There is this really antiquated idea of what a successful Black person looks like. Folks are trying to get their kids to be that prototype successful Black person and not that other thing. I would actually argue that most Gen Z and millennial Black immigrants who are first generation assimilate into an African American identity, which is very interesting.

That survive versus thrive framework has been the media’s depiction of Black people. Black Lives Matter has also changed this. The perception of the Watts riots and the perception of the uprisings of this summer are completely different now. In 2020, an interesting conversation that has been happening in intergenerational dialogue within the Black immigrant community is, “What I am seeing on the streets of every major city in June is what I left. What I left in my home country of mass protests, police violence against protesters. Not intractable change. Not seeing the demands being met. Shit being on fire.”

One of the things that radicalized me was living in Haiti during our last coup. There was mass mobilization, burning things, and a new president. People left that instability for the stability and security of the United States to then see that it is the same. You don’t get the change that you are asking for.

GB: There are a couple things that you said that are really interesting and that we want to tease out. One of them is this idea of assimilation, but not wanting to assimilate to the wrong culture. How is that framed as an immigrant who wants to be seen as the good immigrant versus a bad immigrant? We see that play out in Miami where Cuban Americans who may identify or get as close to whiteness as possible don’t align themselves with darker skin or even lower socioeconomically transient white, Latinos. That there is a hierarchy. Whether it is informal or formal, both might identify as white, but there is a clear separation between economic mobility and political mobility. When it comes to policing these things, who gets to police them as well as this idea of surviving, approachability, and respectability, how does that work when the policeman or the vigilante is an immigrant and they are policing other immigrants?

KF: That is Florida in a nutshell. And that hierarchy in and of itself is anti-Black but shows up in a place like Texas, Arizona, California, Florida, where you have multiple generations that have migrated here. White-passing or more established immigrants’ relationship to other immigrants is very narrow. There is no solidarity across immigrants. And it is because there is a division around race and class. You can be Indigenous, Black, or white, or a mix of the above as a Latinx person. And there is a very rigid social system in Latin America, based on those lines of color, race, and economic status.

Immigrants are quick to assimilate into whiteness because when they were first met with xenophobia, they never want to feel this again. “I am going to do everything I can to make sure that me and my family never experience this again.” That is particularly the narrative of Cubans in Florida. The first wave of Cubans were legitimate plantation owners, captains of industry who had been to the US, had multiple degrees, and were coming with hundreds of thousands of dollars. A plantation owner from Cuba and a plantation owner in Georgia have way more in common than a Cuban who owns the factory and a Cuban who was working in the factory. And that doesn’t get erased.

The inequalities and over-policing you experience in Miami is different because we are all ‘people of color.’ It feels different. Look at banking. Look at the tech industry. All of these leaders are self-identified white Latinos. On one hand, people say, “Miami is so diverse.” It is still white folks that are dominating things, maintaining a social hierarchy, and still perpetuating white supremacy.

GB: As a non-professional of the built environment, as someone who is an immigrant, as a woman, as someone who is Black, your spatial occupation is wrought with terror. How do you experience space?

KF: I have always been aware of how I occupy space. I am assessing safety. I ask myself, “Are there sufficient exits? Is this space built for me? Are people going to look at me like I don’t belong here?” I also think about walkability [because] I am from New York. I have been in predominantly white spaces basically my entire life. I also have curated a very diverse friend group across gender expression, class, and race. It is a balance.

I intentionally insert myself into spaces that are not meant for me. I am intentionally in that space, because I should be, and I think that is how I approach space: like I should be here. Over time, I have stopped making myself small in those spaces. The last two years have definitely changed me. I am unapologetical in this space and I am unapologetically taking up space and not in a combative way.

While I am conscious of my safety, I intentionally put myself in places where I can make people uncomfortable, make people question why I am the only person like me in this room, and still I insert my perspective.

And my perspective on the consequence or impact of vigilantism is not just being criminalized and having a negative interaction with the police, but it is also an issue of immigration enforcement, which can get you deported. Criminalization and immigration enforcement are one and the same.

Practitioners should be partnering with grassroots organizations who are doing the work. Do your research. Do something about the structural issue. There are people doing this work and they need you just as much as you need them.