February is Black History Month, which has special meaning this year coming as it does on the heels of nationwide protests against racism and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. We interviewed Monica, a former Beautiful Day intern and a Junior at Providence College about her journey. Monica is a Burundian refugee who came to this country 13 years ago from a refugee camp in Tanzania where she was born. She is active in Black Lives Matter and the fight for racial justice.
Rebecca: Where did your social activism come from?
Monica: It comes from three places. First, I saw police brutality in the refugee camp in Tanzania. We had a curfew and if you weren't in inside by that time, they would beat you to where your friends and family couldn't recognize you. Then, after we got to the US, I saw that this kind of thing was going on here too. One day, my older brother was walking home from school and was stopped by the police for no reason. I guess they thought he was stealing or something. They took his backpack and searched it before letting him go. That's not something that would happen to any white teenager. And the third thing is I'm a Christian and the main message is to serve others and to love your neighbor as yourself. I couldn't just sit back and do nothing.
Rebecca: What are some of the things you've done?
Monica: It started in high school. I noticed that during history class we weren't being taught about black history. They just skimmed through it - even slavery. Like one week of "Black History." And that struck a nerve. Me and my friends, we talked to the teachers and then the head of school. He was hesitant, but we were passionate and all about taking action. And we started a morning gathering of the whole school where we would tell one fact about black history or about Africa or even Asia because there were a lot of international students at my school.
And then in my Junior year, I started a club called "Hear Me,
Hear You" that met to talk about what we faced as black students in a predominantly white school. It was like a comfort zone for everyone to express our feelings and viewpoints. Everyone was invited. A lot of international students, some white kids, even teachers came. The club is still in existence and they go to conferences and keep issues about race in the forefront.
Rebecca: What kinds of issues did you talk about at the club?
Monica: Like when I went with my friends into the community around the high school, people would stare at me like they'd never seen a black person before. And then I realized that maybe they hadn't. This is the 21st century, but there are places all over this country where only white people live, and the only black people they see are on TV. White people really need to see black people. That's one of the reasons why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important.
Rebecca: How are you involved in Black Lives Matter?
Monica: My brother and I go to events: rallies at the State House and meetings in our communities. And I talk constantly to the young people in my life, like my three younger siblings, cousins and their friends, especially in the car when I'm driving them to school. I like to work little by little. If I impact one person, then they can talk to their connections and word spreads. My cousins and siblings get tired of hearing me talk about it, but that's okay. It's sinking in.
Rebecca: Black Lives Matter is mostly focused on confronting racism and violence toward African Americans. It seems that black refugees haven't really been part of the national conversation. Does this bother you, considering the ways that refugees of color have been mistreated and denigrated in this country, particularly over the last four years?
Monica: Not really.
Rebecca: Why not?
Monica: Because I see the big picture. Black Lives Matter is not just based in America. It’s about racial justice all over the world.
Rebecca: I can see how Black Lives Matter could be important in countries like Western Europe with white majorities. But what about in Africa? How is the Black Lives Matter movement relevant in countries where almost everyone is black?
Monica: Most people don't realize that ideas about black people in Africa were heavily influenced by the Europeans who colonized those countries. Many black people in Africa believe that blacks are inferior to whites. They've internalized it. Even though colonial rule is over, it's the way they were taught. They learned to expect that white people would always have power over them. And there are black refugees living in the US who still believe this as well. Black Lives Matter can teach black people to take that power back for themselves; to see that they're not inferior to white people.
Rebecca: So here in the US, you see Black Lives Matter as taking on racism in an American context. And as a world movement, it will fight racism within each country's unique historical context.
Monica: That's right. Like you saw what happened in Nigeria recently. People were protesting peacefully against police brutality and the police came out to fight them with guns and tanks! There's no one there to police the police. Police brutality needs to be fought differently in Nigeria than here in America because of its different history. Here in America, with its history of slavery, racism needs to be fought in its own unique way.