THE BLOG
03/04/2014 01:54 pm ET Updated May 04, 2014

Keeping Brothers Close and Dreams Closer: On Lupita's Validation and Obama's Initiative

Win McNamee via Getty Images

In her acceptance speech for the Best Supporting Actress in a feature film, Lupita Nyong'o, concluded her moving address by stating to children around the world: "No matter where you are from, your dreams are all valid." (Emphasis mine.) This declaration can be read as critical modification of the maxim "Your dreams will come true." This ideal is constantly reproduced as American, and wrongly as universal; however, Nyong'o's subtlety reframes that narrative in a more revolutionary light. How could we account for the aspirations of the oppressed? Are their dreams of a new world where their lives and experiences are celebrated and reproduced not privy to that belief? Does their hard work actually pay off? In stating the devastatingly optimistic belief that simply by having dreams they will come true, erases the disparity in social mobility and other inequalities. Instead of the trite minimizing of their dreams deferred, Nyong'o offers a new ideal: Your dreams are valid. Validating dreams is a transformative work and can motivate for personal and political change. President Obama's new initiative "My Brother's Keeper" attempts to create a similar kind of change.

The initiative is framed as a way to reproduce programs that bolster the success of young "men of color" across the countries seeing as disparities of livelihood, health and education particularly affect "men of color." Before continuing, I must state that the White House's use of the term "men of color" seems to ignore young men of Indigenous American, Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islanders from marginalization. Nowhere in the White House statements offer any data on how inequalities affect their lived experiences thus my discomfort in using the term "men of color" in this way; however, the initiative does accurately present facts on disparities in young Black and Latino men's lives in comparison to their white counterparts.

Back to My Brother's Keeper: There is potential for positive work to happen with such widespread, top-down (vaguely institutional), support for valuing the life of young Black and Latino men; however, we cannot see this as a win, or benchmark of social change. As any critical work of social action must include the question, "Where are the women?" Even in their descriptions of the disparities there are staggering disadvantages for Black and Latino women. Who will "keep them?" The focus on young men reproduces masculinity and patriarchal concepts of manhood that place them in opposition to women. This initiative falls into larger canons of race-based social movements that erase the work and need for women. Before even considering the potential benefits of this initiative, we can read it as a violent erasure to communities of color outside of Black and Latino, and erasure to the women, and ultimately queer and trans* members, of those communities. So what good will this initiative do?

Based on the programs cited, My Brother's Keeper will be a new way of maintaining and institutionalizing young Black and Latino boys into systems that have been proven ineffective for them. What President Obama appears to be offering is an aspiration to be a Black man like himself. Ignoring histories and contemporary accounts, this frame makes his journey of exceptional success seem attainable. That is not to say I have not benefitted from some of the same privileges he has, but to claim education as an indicator of his or my life's value erases the value of any life of color not afforded the luxury of education. Not that it signifies actual social change. Making sure more Black and Latino men go to college will not stop them from being fetishized for their athletic ability or quota-filling potential. It will not protect them from White fear emboldened by guns on street corners. It will not erase minstrel-like narratives reproduced in media. "My Brother's Keeper" frames education and jobs, as the way to equality and that is simply not the case.

We've seen that no amount of celebrity or acclaim can prevent from racial profiling, and that the value of Black and Latino life or the life of any person of color. At best, this initiative leans toward a false hope of respectability. My Brother's Keeper reproduces the your "dreams will come true" narrative only with the caveat, "if you work for it" or, more specifically, if "we" work for it. What we need to teach all children -- especially children of color, boy, girl, queer -- is that their dreams are valid and have the acquisition of those dreams be their goal with full knowledge of the in which they live. That is not to lower their standards, but to not let the inequalities of the world we live in make them feel unequal.

To make our nation reach its "full potential," we need to unlearn the American Dream and do more than create mediocre policy for some men of color. We need to teach validation despite of situation and histories of revolution. If we want to keep our brother's close, we need to keep our sisters, our kin and our minds and dream closer. In the words of James Baldwin: "It is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind."

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