Citizen Guilt and the Struggle to Find My Voice as a Citizen Ally

When I was approached to start a blog for this series, I was hesitant. What do I have to say? Is my voice that important?

I have spent the past five years of my life as an ally to the undocumented community. I mentored undocumented high school and college students, helping them find their voice so that they can empower themselves. I participated in community-based organizing with undocumented and citizen individuals working together to pass pro-immigrant legislation like the DREAM Act. As an academic, I have done research on undocumented young adults, centering voices that have been marginalized within the academy. My intention was always to empower the undocumented community, a community that I am committed and connected to, regardless of my citizenship status.

My work has been fulfilling, but frustrating. I was, and often still am, unsure of how I should participate and when I should speak. As a second-generation Latina, I occupy multiple marginal social positions - I am simultaneously privileged as a citizen and marginalized as a woman of color. As a woman of color I knew that I hated it when those in positions of privilege spoke for me and I was determined not to commit similar transgressions with my citizenship privilege. Knowing what I did not want to do, I focused on helping those who are undocumented raise their voices and empower themselves. And so far this is what the DREAM Act movement has focused on.

As part of this, I began silencing myself. This became apparent when I participated in a training for mainly undocumented immigrant youth. All of the other trainers were undocumented and introduced themselves with what was then the new rallying call of the undocumented student movement, "My name is.... And I am undocumented and unafraid!" When I was asked to introduced myself, I stumbled. There was no formula for me to use. No pre-set means to explain why I was in this space or cared about these issues. Confused, I tried to explain my feelings to one of my undocumented friends and was disregarded. A few days later I was interviewing a citizen ally for one of my research projects; she haltingly confessed amidst tears that she felt guilty for never doing enough. I realized that I too was feeling guilty for feeling upset after the training. Participating in these spaces and talking to many citizen allies in both my research and community work, I have realized that we are plagued by citizen guilt.

I have citizen guilt. I'm not sure when I got it, but I feel guilty for having a privilege that I didn't choose to have. I try to remind myself that citizenship is a privilege and a power, and that I need to use it to create positive change. And then the more I think about it, I begin to feel guilty for feeling guilty about being in a position of privilege. And the cycle continues until I tell myself that my feelings and experiences aren't as important; that I am not the one being marginalized. And so I silence myself. I tell myself that I don't have a story.

This is ironic because I am constantly telling the students I mentor and the people I interview that they have a voice and that their story matters. That everyone has a story to tell and a valuable perspective. And until now I have been unable to take my own advice.

Attempting to center the undocumented voices, others have been silenced. The sad part is that usually this is accomplished in the name of empowerment. But who said that we need to silence some in order to empower others? If anything, this is counterproductive since feeling invalidated only serves to prevent participation.

We know that coalitions fuel stronger and more effective social movements. The trick is building coalitions that can simultaneously empower and validate the stories of all involved individuals, regardless of their social position. In hopes of working towards this, I have decided to write this column as step down the path of embracing my own voice. I am shedding the burden of my citizen guilt as it has kept me from participating fully, sharing my voice, and empowering myself and others in my communities.

Despite this determination, I struggled for weeks to write these few words; thoughts which have haunted my mind for years but which I have never committed to paper out of fear, guilt, and confusion. Luckily I have found a few key people, both citizen and undocumented, with whom I can share and processes these feelings. Speaking openly has helped us come to terms with ourselves and our differing legal statuses. I am convinced now that with conversation comes understanding.

Without spaces to understand and validate our selves, our pasts, and our feelings, we blame individuals, not larger social institutions, for the inequality we face. On some level, most of us are experiencing some sort of marginalization. While we may not be able to feel or know each other's struggles, we can understand and sympathize by reflecting on our own experiences with both privileged and marginalized social positions. Creating spaces to shed our guilt and confront our differences will help us build stronger coalitions for social justice and equality.