So how do we recognize our blind spots? It begins by understanding what makes you different, by embracing those traits. Only then can you begin to appreciate what makes other special.
And I remember when this hit me, it was a couple months after that I had found out boyfriend for prom and made a group of friends and practically forgotten about Fatima, until everybody signed on to participate in this talent show for charity. You needed to offer a talent for auction and it seemed like everybody had something special to offer.
Some kids were going to play the violin, others were going to recite a theater monologue. And I remember thinking we don’t practice talents like these back home. But I was determined to find something value.
So the day the talent show comes and I get up onstage with my little boom box and put it on the side and I press play and a song by my favorite emerging artist Shakira comes up and I go: ‘whenever, wherever, we’re meant to be together’. And I said my name is Mariana and I’m going to auction a dance class and it seems like the whole school raised their hand to bid. My dance class really stood out from like the tenth violin class offer that day.
And going back to my dorm room, I didn’t feel different, I felt really special. And that’s when I started thinking about Fatima, a person that I had failed to see as special when I first met her. She was from the Middle East, just like Shakira’s family was from the Middle East, she could have probably taught me a thing or two about belly dancing had I been opened to it.
Now I want you all to take that sticker that was given to you at the beginning of our session today where you wrote down what makes you special. And I want you to look at it. If you’re watching at home, take a piece of paper and write down what makes you different. You may feel guarded when you look at it, maybe even a little ashamed, maybe even proud. But you need to begin to embrace it. Remember it is the first step in appreciating what makes other special.
When I went back home to Venezuela, I began to understand how these experiences were changing me, being able to speak different languages, to navigate all these different people and places. It gave me a unique sensibility. I was finally beginning to understand the importance of putting myself in other people’s shoes. And that is a big part of the reason why I decided to become a journalist, especially being from part of the world that is often labeled the backyard, the illegal aliens, third-world, the others, I wanted to do something to change that.
It was right around the time, however, when the Venezuelan government shut down the biggest television station in our country. Censorship was growing and my dad came up to me once again and said: “How are you going to be a journalist here? You have to leave.” And that’s when it hit me. That’s what he had been preparing me for. That is what the future held for me.
So in 2008, I packed my bags and I came to the United States without a return ticket this time. I was painfully aware that a 24 years old I was becoming a refugee of sorts, an immigrant, the other, once again and now for good. I was able to come on a scholarship to study journalism and I remember when they gave me my first assignment to cover the historic election of President Barack Obama, and I felt so lucky, so hopeful. I was like yes this is it. I’ve come to post-racial America where the notion of us and them is being eroded and will probably be eradicated in my lifetime. Boy, was I wrong, right?
Why didn’t Barack Obama’s presidency alleviate racial tensions in our country? Why do some people still feel threatened by immigrants, LGBTQ and minority groups who are just trying to find a space in this United States that should be for all of us? I didn’t have the answers back then.
But on November 8, 2016 when Donald Trump became our president, it became clear that a large part of the electorate sees them as the others, some see people coming to take their jobs or potential terrorists who speak a different language. Meanwhile minority groups often times just see hatred, intolerance and narrow-mindedness on the other side.
It’s like we’re stuck in these bubbles that nobody wants to burst. And the only way to do it, the only way to get out of it is to realize that being different also means thinking differently. It takes courage to show respect. In the words of Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you have to say but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.”
Failing to see anything good on the other side makes a dialogue impossible. Without a dialogue we will keep repeating the same mistakes because we will not learn anything note. I covered the 2016 election for NBC News. It was my first big assignment in this mainstream network where I had crossed over from Spanish television and I wanted to do something different. I watched election results with undocumented families, few thought of sharing that moment with people who weren’t citizens but actually stood the most to lose that night.