Xavier Cavazos believes this country is long overdue for a frank conversation about race relations. But until Americans agree to confront our uncomfortable past, the healing cannot begin.
The only way we can distance ourselves from our nation’s original sin of slavery, the CWU English lecturer argues, is if we address the issue head-on.
“Before we can fix the problem, we have to name the problem,” said Cavazos, who has been at the forefront of the social justice movement in Ellensburg since arriving on campus in 2015.
“Our nation was started 400-plus years ago by enslaving a free people,” he added. “We need to have a true reckoning about that. To me, that is the real problem in America right now.”
By continuing to paint over how this country was built—and trying to move on as though slavery never happened—Cavazos fears American society will remain divided along racial lines.
“When we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I believe we are merely acknowledging that ‘slavery happened,’” said Cavazos, who played an active role in last summer’s protests that followed the death of an unarmed Black man in police custody. “But a lot of people don’t see it that way.”
While he was encouraged this spring to see former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin convicted for the murder of George Floyd, Cavazos still feels like the momentum for Black Lives Matter (BLM) has waned after months of nationwide protests in 2020.
“Last summer gave Americans a chance to gather together for a common purpose, which was great,” he said. “But I’d say we’re already moving back to the way it was before. If we think racism is over and stop working to dismantle it, the backlash to BLM will be even stronger.”
Give Everyone a Voice
Through his efforts to address race relations in Ellensburg and around the state, Cavazos has come to recognize the importance of engaging people from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds—especially White people who feel threatened or disillusioned by recent social justice movements.
He understands there is significant resistance to the BLM message in Kittitas County, but he is confident he can find common ground without pushing the other side further away. Most importantly, he says people on both sides of the issue need to listen.
“What I’ve come to realize is that there’s a large percentage of disenfranchised Americans who have lost hope,” Cavazos said about many of today’s conservatives. “They don’t feel like they’re being heard—and, in many cases, they aren’t. The number-one thing we, as educators and advocates of color, need to do is listen to those points of view, even if we don’t agree. That’s the only way we’re ever going to understand each other.”
For example, despite his political differences with childhood friends from conservative-leaning Moses Lake, Cavazos has maintained close relationships with them by focusing on shared interests. The same is true with his students and colleagues at Central.
“We have to find the issues we have in common instead of fighting over things that may or may not materialize,” he said. “We can make a difference by leaning into our communities and taking time to listen to one another.”
Shifting the Conversation
Bridging that divide has long been a passion for Cavazos and his colleagues in the Africana and Black Studies program, where he is an affiliated faculty member.
Upon joining the Central faculty six years ago, he began working with longtime English Professor Bobby Cummings on a study abroad program to Havana, Cuba. Fifteen students also made the 2016 trip, which was designed to open the travelers’ eyes to the differences of projecting “Blackness” in Cuba and in the U.S.
“Cuba has a very strong Afro-Cuban culture where the people can be true to themselves and their heritage, rather than having to deny it to fit a set of ideals—like Black America has always had to do,” Cavazos said.
“When Africans were enslaved and brought to America, they were forced to forget their music, their language, their religion, their culture—all of the things that made up their identity. They also had to suppress their ability to feel proud about who they were. But in Cuba, it’s not that way at all. That was a very eye-opening experience for our students.”
The Cuba trip forced the students and faculty to ask themselves, “Why is it so different here, and what hasn’t been addressed back home?” The easy answer, Cavazos believes, is America’s fear of confronting our past.
“Going back more than 400 years to Jamestown, we dehumanized Africans who were brought here as slaves, and that became part of our identity in this country,” he said. “Even though some things have changed over time, the idea that ‘slavery was OK’ is embedded in who we are.
“So, to me, the question isn’t, ‘is there still racism in America?’ The real question is, ‘how could there not be racism in America?’”
Inspiring Others to Change
That’s a reality Cavazos and his friends at Central—such as Cummings and Chuck Reasons—have been studying for years. Reasons, a Law and Justice professor who also teaches for Africana and Black Studies, said that if anyone can break through that wall of denial, it’s Cavazos.
“There’s a collective amnesia about what happened over the past 400-plus years, and we tend to have a very selective memory,” said Reasons, who has worked alongside Cavazos on a number of social justice initiatives.
“That’s what we’re addressing right now as a country, and Xavier has been very effective in exposing that history and how it relates to our current realities. As a person of color, he has even more influence in these areas—not just with the faculty, but also with his students.”’
Reasons noted that while Cavazos has become a familiar figure on campus and in the community, his reach goes far beyond Central Washington.
Cavazos now serves on the board of Humanities Washington and has built a network of allies across the state who work together to address issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Xavier is well known beyond the Central campus because of his leadership and outreach on issues like race relations,” Reasons said. “He has made so many connections over the years, and he’s done a great job of broadening the minds of CWU students and faculty. I really admire him for that.”
Discovering A True Identity
Cavazos, 50, said that as a Mexican-American youth in the 1970s and 80s, he never saw himself in the idealized characters portrayed on TV and in the movies. Thus, he made himself small in the communities he grew up in so he could be seen as part of the mainstream.
“That wasn’t me, so in order for me to exist in those spaces, I had to make myself invisible,” he said. “When I was younger, I constructed my whole persona after strong, White males. But, over time, I had to let those identities disappear in order to reemerge.”
Cavazos remembers unwittingly following the American male ideal that was created for him by popular culture. He said his experiences are similar to other marginalized people who must let their true identities disappear so they can be accepted in today’s society.
After his own life journey, Cavazos wants to encourage others in the CWU community to be proud of who they are—and continue pursuing change.
“If you want to be a part of change, being aware isn’t enough,” he said. “You have to work to dismantle those feelings within yourself. If you can do that, you will realize how good it feels.”