I haven’t written a post on my blog for a while – not since my mother died in August. Since then I’ve wanted to post several times, but I didn’t know how to start again given my loss and grief. I think that writing for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day might be a way for me to start talking again.
My mom died on August 6. Three days after she died, Police Officer Darren Johnson shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. A few weeks earlier, Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo strangled Eric Garner to death in Staten Island, NY. Through the shadow of my grief, I began to see other grief: grief of the families of these men, a nation reeling from hurt and insult, and the grievances of so many of my peers on social media. In the wake of grand jury decisions not to indict Johnson and Pantaleo in November and December, the grief and shock slammed again.
Both of these cases (Brown/Johnson and Garner/Pantaleo) hit a national nerve. It angered many people to see justice applied so unevenly to people of different racial and economic backgrounds. The cases also exposed something very ugly about America. It’s like when you’re in a lush forest and you pick up a rock to discover hundreds of creepy crawly bugs underneath, making you revile in disgust. These cases lifted the rock and exposed our corruption. The problem of injustice in our social fabric is real, and we’re standing right on top of it. It’s just that many of us choose to keep the rock where it is.
In the days following both grand jury decisions, many of my friends expressed their outrage, disgust, anger, sadness, and distress on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. On these networks, my friends of color spoke out mostly. What worried me was the silence of so many of my White friends. Why were they so quiet? Were they not outraged, as I was, that justice was so skewed? Were they not perturbed to see endemic social and economic inequality perpetuated and then played out on a grand scale on our national news stage? Did they say, “Ah well, that’s too bad. What can you do?” Or did they just choose to look the other way?
I don’t have an answer to these questions. But what I gained from asking myself about it is some awareness: awareness that as a White male of significant privilege, I am usually blind to injustice that goes on around me because for my entire life, I have taken advantage of a situation of privilege that was handed to me. I rarely have to ask to receive respect, and I am always given the benefit of doubt.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering, “Wow – it took you a long time to realize that. How ignorant can you be?” right? Unfortunately it’s true. It took me a very long time to realize that I am ridiculously privileged. This is why:
We were taught in school that everything is okay with America. It was the dominant mindset that everyone reaffirmed to me as I grew up, and it’s been my default mode of thought for the majority of my life. In my very White town with my all White teachers and mostly White student body, we studied American history. We spent a lot of time learning about slavery and why it was evil. We also spent a lot of time learning about racial injustice in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. We even discussed the Trail of Tears, the internment of Japanese people during WWII, and the plight of Mexican migrant workers. We understood that inequality is a horrible thing. Units of history and English classes were devoted to the Civil Rights Movement, and we talked a lot about Martin Luther King Jr., and even about Malcolm X.
But you know what? That’s where we stopped. Those people and events were in the past; we were living in a present that was somehow different. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was observed for the first time in January 1986 – that’s when I was in first grade. I always got the feeling that the reason Martin Luther King Jr. got his own national holiday was because he had somehow won equality for America, and that America was better now. The logic then continued that we students (being Northerners and born after King’s assassination) were entirely blameless for past injustice. The intolerance, the bondage, the killings of the past had nothing to do with us. Case closed. What’s even more, I thought, my ancestors had come through Ellis Island. They always lived in the North. They had nothing to do with oppression. The America I knew was now an equal society where each person received equal access to all opportunities. Like Jesus, Dr. King had died for our past sins, and removed the blight of racism from our nation.
I am ashamed to say that I actually believed this… not that I thought about it much at all. I can’t say that my peers or my parents really had much to say about Dr. King. There was a feeling of distance from him simply because he was Black. That’s how much race immediately classifies an issue. We (White people) didn’t want to be invited to the table for a holiday that didn’t feel like it was about us.
That’s where we are so very wrong. It is about us. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is so very much about White people, and more specifically, about the discrepancy between privilege and access. Dr. King’s message spanned beyond the dialectic of Black and White. His call was just as much about economic inequality as it was about racial inequality. Dr. King day is about contemplating inequality in all its forms (racial, economic, gender, sexual orientation, generational, disability, etc.), and then making a commitment to do something positive about it. It just so happens that White people are on the privileged end of the inequality spectrum. And that means that those of us with the most privilege are the most responsible to address it.
So for this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’m asking all my friends to join me in remembering the life of a national hero. We honor him for showing us a dream of equality, and we carry on his legacy by acknowledging that we have a long way to go.
And to my fellow White people: Don’t look the other way. Look at the injustice. It’s our problem, too.
P.S. Did you know that four states officially honor Robert E. Lee on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr.? Those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Virginia.