It’s one thing to underscore the vast contributions immigrants have made to the United States of America. It’s another to completely erase the egregious history of slavery while benefiting from it. Rapper Pitbull demonstrated such a faux pas last week at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
It was there that Telemundo held its 2017 Latin American Music Awards, where “Mr. 305” himself was honored with the prestigious Dick Clark Achievement Award.
As the audience cheered, Pitbull quieted them until their voices simmered into a soft hush. After taking a theatrical pause, he belted out a speech about living life to the fullest, and he went on to pay tribute to those devastated by the hurricanes in Florida, Houston and Puerto Rico and even “those souls in Las Vegas.”
And then, as he was wrapping up his speech, he said: “I want you to remember one thing before I leave here, because I want this to go all over the world. Guys, don’t ever forget that immigrants built the United States of America!”
For those of us who are black and indigenous, that declaration snatched our narrative, our wigs and our edges—all in one foul swoop. At that moment, everyone present should have risen up, gathered all their belongings, made a clean exit and left him to have all the seats in the building.
While I understand what he meant to convey, what he said completely erased the struggles and contributions of enslaved and indigenous people. Immigrants have contributed immeasurable diversity, beauty and culture to our nation, but that doesn’t mean they built it.
Hearing white people and immigrants at times take credit for the accomplishments of black people becomes overwhelmingly triggering. Whether it’s through cultural appropriation or the exploitation of our labor during “America” season 1, this country wouldn’t be as wealthy as it is without the abuse and misuse of black bodies. It’s as if black people gave America a multitrillion-dollar loan with no interest, and nearly 400 years later, it hasn’t repaid us a single red cent. We’re not even paid the respect we deserve. If anything, America acts as though black and indigenous people are indebted.
Xenophobia is violent and deadly and poses a threat to progress, and the oppression faced by immigrants is real. However, just because immigrants experience discrimination similar to black people’s doesn’t mean they’re entitled to take credit for building America while dismissing the burden forced on enslaved and indigenous people.
Immigrants come to the United States with hopes, dreams and aspirations of partaking in the freedom, liberties and quality of life that America has to offer. They want their fill of the overflowing abundance that the United States possesses, in contrast with other nations.
We must never forget that the prosperity immigrants are attracted to was achieved by the free labor of black slaves who were whipped raw as they toiled in the fields with the shattered bones of indigenous people crunching under the balls of their feet.
Allow me to make this irrevocably clear: If black people hadn’t been here to do the work that white people wouldn’t, there wouldn’t be an “American dream” to pursue. Pitbull has made enough money with and off of black people to understand why such a misattribution disrespects our ancestry. Doing so is the epitome of anti-blackness because it strips us of our narrative and contributes to our displacement.
Just because someone is a person of color doesn’t mean he or she can’t engage in anti-blackness. A person also doesn’t necessarily need to be racist in order to be an agent of anti-blackness. Their intentionality doesn’t negate the reality of an offense; nor does it mitigate the harm. Anti-blackness is deeply embedded in our beliefs, perceptions, attitudes and interpretations of what it means to be an American.
Our Constitution wasn’t written for black and indigenous people. We were deemed slaves, savages and property. America is still a young nation, and we have our work cut out for us in eradicating its oppressive founding culture. Today, being an American is about boundless potential, bravery, heart and courage. We don’t wait for opportunities to present themselves; we take initiative and create them ourselves. I believe that immigrants have demonstrated those values more than most people born in the U.S.
For that reason, I have and will always stand with them in solidarity. I’ve taken to the streets and marched with them as well as with undocumented people to defend Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, while also challenging the horrific Muslim ban that Donald Trump’s administration has been aggressively pursuing. Immigrants are hardworking, passionate and such an integral link within America’s infrastructure.
That said, black people need immigrants to stand with them in solidarity and avoid perpetrating anti-blackness while adopting white supremacy as a means of assimilation into American culture. Immigrants are powerful enough without having to challenge, diminish or appropriate the experiences of black and indigenous people. This is why the powers that be are counting on us to be divided. Divide and conquer has always been the name of the game.
Why are we licking our plates clean at an “all you can eat” buffet? America’s prosperity would disappear—hell, wouldn’t even exist—without black, brown and indigenous people. That was the message Pitbull failed to succinctly articulate. Our united efforts and contributions make us an indestructible force.
It’s imperative that we unify and that we learn to respect our differences. The members of my family fight, argue and drag one another until skin breaks and wigs are askew; but at the end of the day, we’re still family. Our love and respect for one another supersedes any conflict or disagreement. As communities of color, we need to be able to ask one another for accountability without enlisting in the oppression Olympics. The immigrant experience has its challenges, yet they’re vastly different from those facing descendants of slaves.
Pitbull’s proclamation that immigrants built America suggests that black people were hauled to America like livestock; raped, beaten, tortured and enslaved, of our own volition. Black people aren’t immigrants, and we quite literally built America—even the White House from which Trump devises his plots.
Pitbull was wrong for tailoring history as he would his flashy suits. His statement insensitively pandered to his audience while erasing the struggles of black people. Immigrants have made innumerable contributions to American culture. Pitbull could have referenced those without stealing historical truths from black people.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Ashlee Marie Preston is a 2017 honoree of The Root 100.