Diana Umana

Diana Umana is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where she studied Biomedical Engineering. She resides in Yonkers, NY and currently does work in immigrant advocacy.

work Immigration advocate location_on New York, NY
Respectability politics Allyship Consciousness raising Protest tactics

Diana, do you wanna tell me a little about yourself?

I graduated from Columbia University last year and then I was working in consulting. I left that job at the end of January of this year [2015] and ever since then i’ve been just kind of like soul searching, in limbo…It’s been a pretty weird time for me, but it’s been cool because I’ve been able to do more activities that are more pertinent to what I actually like, to what I’m more passionate about.

Were you a part of any of the social justice communities at Columbia?

I was not. It’s kinda sad, I didn’t really get onto the social justice train until after I graduated. I actually tried to avoid everything, entirely…But I didn’t personally get involved because I’ve always been a little bit afraid of venturing into that. I was always just like “I’m here for you guys, moral support, but I’m not gonna get into adventures with you.” But luckily I have a lot of woke friends…I think the more you’re aware of what’s happening in the world, especially in this country, you kind of just realize, “I need to actually be more interested in this at the very least.”

Have you gotten into more activism since graduation, or have you just been learning?

Learning, lots of dialogue—I just feel like, it takes a lot of stamina to be involved in this. Learning about it, discussing it, you know, living as a Black person in the United States, this is—I don’t necessarily feel like there’s a cloud of oppression upon me, but when you hear about a person getting killed walking down the street, that’s really hard to come to terms with. Especially, having a Black brother, who’s really tall, and isn’t always aware, it’s like, “you gotta be careful, because you never know what’s gonna happen to you!” And that’s scary. I think part of it is I don’t really know how to get involved.

What do you think scares you about it?

I’ve always been a non-confrontational person. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like drama. If you’re talking about racism to people, tempers get really high, people get really emotional about it. Reasonably so, but it always pisses me off when people who don’t experience racism are like, “well, I’ve had Black people be racist towards me too” and I’m like “when? White person, when?” It’s just so frustrating. It feels like a personal attack, especially when you have people who aren’t of color trying to shut people of color down. I’m just like, I’m washing my hands off of this, I’m walking away, I’m leaving it alone. The people who have the emotional ability to deal with it, deal with it—I just can’t.

It’s not an evidence issue, it’s an empathy issue.

It was kind of like an onslaught of news last fall [2014]…What did you experience when that was happening?

When I heard the Eric Garner case, I expected everybody to be in unison about it, like, “that guy was wrong, the policeman needed to be prosecuted.” But then you have people who’re like “that’s what you get for selling loosies on the street” or “that’s what he gets for resisting.” And I’m like, there are actual people who think this? Okay! That is so problematic!…

Living this thing for me, is like, people are being willfully ignorant. These are the facts, this is what happened. People are like “oh they shoot if there’s no body cameras.” Okay, now you have them, people still wanna contest the evidence. It’s not an evidence issue, it’s an empathy issue.

What reactions did you encounter to the more disruptive direct actions that happened? What did you think of them?

You know, there were people that were like, “do they have to like, block the subway?” And I was like, “would you pay attention otherwise?” I’m sorry that your commute was inconvenienced. We’re talking about somebody who got killed for having a little bit too much melanin. Like, really? So, I just feel like, again, people wanna complain, but you need to put it into perspective. Somebody lost their son, their father, their brother, because of being Black, and here are you are being upset because you have to take the N train as opposed to the 2. Sorry! But not really.

I mean, listen, Martin [Luther King] literally had to march through the streets for how many tens of thousands of people to get it. People go, “Black people used to behave, in peaceful protests” and I’m like, “and y’all still shot Martin.”…It doesn’t matter whether you’re militant, whether you’re peaceful. You know what, whether you’re a Malcolm [X] or a Martin you’re still prone to being killed. It doesn’t matter whether you’re militant, whether you’re peaceful. People always wanna make excuses, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.

I’ve always kind of been ambivalent when it comes to respectability politics. I remember when Bernie Sanders’ campaign was being interrupted by the Black Lives Matter movement, I was like “what in god’s name are you doing. Why are you doing this. I don’t understand. Bernie’s like, really cool, he’s an ally, what are you doing.” I was really upset. And I had a couple of friends that were like, “well you know what, if that’s what it takes to get the point across, then it’s okay.” And I’m like, where is the line? Or is there a line? And it makes me think, too, like okay, am I being that person saying “well you can do everything but this.” And what does that say about me, and what I think is most important when it comes to civil rights?

Whether you’re a Malcolm or a Martin you’re still prone to being killed.

And the funny thing was, he was really upset about it too, and really defensive, but he came around! And the following week, or I think the following day, he posted on his official website the things he wanted to do in terms of changing race relations. And then following that, he hires a Black woman onto his council. You know what, I can’t even be mad, because, no one got hurt—maybe his feelings got hurt, his ego got hurt, but at the end of the day, it opened his eyes to what he needed to do. And that’s someone who is an ally who still learned something…

What do you think about white allyship?

What I love is the allies who, even if they do feel uncomfortable, they’ll be willing to engage in conversations. I feel like it’s one thing for Black people to shut down because they’re overwhelmed, but when white people do it, I’m like, what’re you overwhelmed about? You’re not experiencing any of this, you’re just watching it from the sidelines…you’re like the towel boy, why’re you tired? You’re not the quarterback; I don’t understand.

It’s crazy to me! There definitely have been a lot of allies willing to engage in conversation and reflection. I just feel like it’s very hard for them to acknowledge that they have an internalized racism, and it’s not their fault—it’s about society, it’s about how they’re raised, it’s about what they see in the media. A lot of that gets internalized, and you have to check yourself, you have to check your privilege…

White people need to be willing to stop being so defensive, to put their feelings on a backburner, look within, and be willing to engage. And it’s obviously very easy to get riled up, it’s very easy to get emotional. And it’s an emotional thing— we’re talking about people’s lives so we should be emotionally invested in that. But … don’t let your ego get in the way. Accept that there’s a lot you don’t know or understand and listen to those who do. Empathy is key here.

Somebody lost their son, their father, their brother, because of being Black, and here are you are being upset because you have to take the N train as opposed to the 2.

Everyone wants to think, “oh I’m a good person, I can’t be racist—” but that’s not really how this works…America was founded upon racism. That’s the foundation. White dudes came in and thought, “you know what, we’re gonna wipe out the brown people that are here, we’re gonna get darker brown people to rebuild what we want.” It’s just so intrinsic to this country’s history and existence. It’s deeper than most people are willing to admit.

Yeah. In this failure of respectability politics, where do we even go? What are we supposed to do, if everything we’re supposed to do still hasn’t worked?

Everyone’s just like, “just behave,” and you do that, but it doesn’t matter because it’s not a behavioral issue, it’s a mentality issue, and Black people are just not the problem.

What do you see as the goals of the movement?

I think the problem that Black Lives Matter is trying to address is a policy issue — racism is something that’s intrinsic to American society and culture, but there have to be government implementations to stop what’s happening. A big thing has to do with racial profiling…

It’s about holding people accountable on the federal level. When it comes to hate crimes or race-related shootings, it’s so much more difficult to prove in a court of law—people are just like, “well, how do you know, how do you know,”—and it just comes to a point where someone’s walking down the street in a hoodie, and you feel so threatened that you get out of a car when police told you to stay in [as in the George Zimmerman case]… what do you mean “how do we know”? How do you not know? What else could it have been the provocation for that?

Black Lives Matter is doing a really great job of raising awareness, saying “hey this is what’s happening.” But there need to be policies put in place.