It’s Time to Talk About It: The Dangers of Not Engaging in Conversations about Politics

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Photo credit via journalism.org

For anyone who has ever cringed when asked their opinion on what the Latinx community thinks about a political issue, you are not alone. 

It’s normal to feel uneasy about engaging in political discussions given the violent times we live in. While it might be easier to simply say ´I have no idea,´ and stay silent, it might be time to reconsider burying your head in the sand as the presidential election approaches. 

It’s time to get political and speak our minds about the future of our country during this election period, no matter how uncomfortable and awkward it gets; those heart-racing, blood-boiling, and sweaty-palmed feelings and all. To quote the Latin writer, Publilius Syrus, a Syrian slave who was taken to Italy and used his wit to ultimately free himself once said: “I have often regretted my speech, but never my silence.”

While it can be frustrating to continually step in the role of educator on all things Hispanic, Caribbean, Latinx, or Latin-American, etc. for the seemingly ignorant, it is essential to approach these moments of political tension with grace and positivity. 

Political conversations are an opportunity to instruct and inspire others, who did not grow up like you did, on how you think things should be. Instead of always hearing their opinion and accepting their rhetoric, give them some food for thought.

That’s what women like the acclaimed essayist and journalist Michelle García were taught. García, a Soros Equality fellow with Open Society Foundations, is also a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Democracy on the Line: Trumpism and the Latino Predicament.  

I spoke to García about a recent report she did for PRI´s “The World” which discusses how a good percentage of the 32 million Latinos eligible to vote in this year’s elections often feel a sense “not belonging” in our nation’s political conversations.

This feeling of alienation may be what is holding us back from talking about what we as Latinas need from our country, and could ultimately harm us and future generations. 

In her article “As Election Day Nears, It’s Not Just About Winning the Latino Vote. It’s About Making a Real Connection,” García reports that many U.S. Latinos are taught that their standing in this country’s social fabric is limited and beneath that of others, even for people whose roots run generations deep. 

She points out that although Latinos possess a strong American identity, researchers have found Latinos have a lower sense of belonging than whites, but slightly higher than Blacks. 

I asked García what she thought the dangers of not engaging in conversations about politics were, and she highlighted that we Latinas are involved in discussions about politics all the time, even if we aren’t aware of it. 

She refers also to the fact that Latinas make 54 cents to a white man’s dollar, compared with white women who earn 79 and black women who earn 62 cents on that dollar. 

“That’s a conversation about politics happening in your purse,” says García.

Then she goes on and explains the fact that Latinas a huge percentage who are self-employed or business owners are one of the largest groups who don´t have health insurance in the U.S. 

“And that’s a life and death political conversation happening,” she adds. 

In García´s opinion, everything depends on whether Latinas decide to use their voice to influence the outcome of our political future or not. And the danger she sees is that if we don’t start talking about politics and voting, those conversations will continue to be about us, but without us. 

“Even more, and this is very important, absence allows others to define you. You, your choices, your needs are decided by others and often they draw on ´common sense´ that are really just nicely wrapped stereotypes.”

For those who feel like “the other” or are not politicized this topic matters a great deal. Because if these people don´t speak up or show up on election day it means that President Trump’s mission to cast out Latinos as being less than fully American will have been accomplished. 

 

Talking Politics in a Minefield Called the Workplace

There is no doubt that the heated conversations about race happening today were nearly unimaginable five to ten years ago. 

These conversations are happening in high-risk places like the workplace and in our classrooms where not everyone sees things eye to eye. And when emotions run high, your political views can rub someone the wrong way and your academic performance, income or career aspirations can take a hit. 

But these days, the idea of not engaging in conversations about politics at work seems to contradict the popular notion of bringing your “whole self” to the workplace. 

Even Human Resources professionals believe that making the office a politics-free zone would be nearly impossible to do. Finding that balance between allowing workers to have a voice and restricting political conversations at the workplace is definitely an issue HR and managers are grappling with these days. 

A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association on politics in the workplace found that at least 1 in 10 American workers have experienced stress from recent political discussions at work. 

But it’s important to know the boundaries of political expression at work. We don’t want to cross the line with coworkers and lose our jobs. When you do engage in political talk, take a deep breath before starting. Learn to speak by managing your emotions because it will help you manage your career and your sanity in the long run. 

In a thoughtful essay published in Medium by Sonya Jackson, an African-American woman who has spent over 25 years working in large companies, she warns: “It’s important to consider whether your comments, questions or opinions, could be misconstrued as harassment, bullying, or intimidation.”

“Second, freedom of speech is your constitutional right, however, most people aren’t aware it does not apply in most workplaces. The First Amendment protects you from the government when you say something outrageous, but your employer can sever your employment for saying something (anything) inappropriate.” 

For Jackson the best way to survive political discussions in the tense climate of the workplace is by playing the long game, biting her tongue, and not commenting at different moments of her long career. “That’s a walk people who are marginalized often take,” says Jackson. 

This dance of belonging and not belonging, speaking up or not speaking becomes maddening to one´s soul living in this country. Ultimately, it´s about walking right into the fire and knowing that your vote and voice count.

“But really, what we’re talking about is you, what part of yourself do you lose, do you hide, do you sacrifice, by not engaging. We cannot present our whole selves to the world without a voice. We cannot hold our heads high when we silence ourselves. By not engaging, we tell the world that we don’t matter, that our voice doesn’t matter, and we tell it to ourselves,” adds García.

The Power is in Her Hands

Right now Latinos are projected to be the largest non-white ethnic group in the 2020 election. And when it comes to elections, if you are Latina you are, by definition, a force. Not only do Latinas show up, but they also bring their people. They organize, they’re influencers.

Even more, ten years ago, there was no Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) who ran a maverick campaign as an outsider to unseat one of the most influential Democrats in the House of Representatives,” says García. “There was no Lina Hidalgo who launched her own independent campaign to become a judge of Harris County, which includes Houston, now overseeing the county’s response to COVID-19. 

“Did they ask for permission? No. And I bring them up because they both ran campaigns based on what they heard from their community. Agree or disagree, the point here is, they listened to people who spoke up.”

She brings up the name of yet another fierce woman who spoke up loud and clear: Jovita Idár, a journalist, activist, and feminist from Laredo Texas who wrote newspaper columns denouncing injustice and racist brutality and who faced down the Texas Rangers.  

In the early 20th century, Idár wrote, “The modern woman recognizes her need to contribute to the development of her community.” These words are as true then as they are right now.