Having attended a community MLK Day celebration and listened to several radio programs today, I’m more convinced than ever that we’re missing the point about the meaning of Dr. King.
One student, to his credit, spoke of Dr. King’s opposition to discrimination and linked that to what he saw as injustice in our present day health care system. No one should be discriminated against – and everyone has a right to access health care. Right on! This young man got the point. But, sadly, he’s the only young person I heard today who spoke of justice or attempted to connect Dr. King’s legacy to current day justice issues. I heard several other middle and high school students say things like, “No one wanted to resist Jim Crow until Dr. King gave them inspiration,” or “He opened the doors for hope and then people walked through.”
Check out this article by the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University about applying systems thinking to race equity work. It is a great overview of how important it is to think about race, racism and undoing racism systematically. Otherewise, we run the risk of reinforcing the very thing we are trying to undo, or even making things worse!
You know what they say—the glass is either half full or half empty, depending on your perspective. Well, I say it’s both! And the empty part has a residue, splashed up from the full part of the glass, so it’s not completely empty after all. All of this comes to mind as I mark the 10th anniversary since I was in a car accident that left me with permanent, chronic pain. This is the first time I’ve thought about how to mark the occasion. On one hand, there’s cause for great celebration. I’m alive and so are the two of my three sons who were with me that day. My husband has not spent the last ten years raising our youngest son alone. Hallelujah! The accident paved the way for us to buy a home and move our kids from three school systems into one. That’s been good for us all! And, I’ve had to adjust my understanding of what I’m physically capable of doing. That’s where the half-empty part starts to matter.
The American economy wasn’t created in a race-blind way and the current recession isn’t race-blind in its impacts. It stands to reason, then, that we won’t get out of the current recession fairly without paying attention to the impact of race as we create solutions.
Listen to this summary of an Applied Research Center report on the issues of race, recession, and recovery.
I’ve never been much of a feminist. In the crucible of my political coming of age, I internalized a strong message. I could either be a ‘race woman,’ devoting myself to improving the conditions of black people, or I could ally myself with bourgeois white feminists. There were no other choices, and clearly only one was acceptable. A small group of female African American seminary students was working out a ‘wymist’ theory that took gender, race and poverty seriously but I didn’t take them seriously at the time. I constructed my identity primarily around race. Like many African American women who’ve played a prominent role in the struggle for freedom and justice, I would advocate for the community as a whole—no particular emphasis on women. Focusing on women, and especially highlighting sexism and misogyny within the black community, was an especially hard row that I didn’t want to hoe.
As a black woman in America, I know a lot about racism and white privilege. I am aware of privileges I enjoy by way of other aspects of my identity—education (graduate level), language (‘standard English’ speaker), able-bodiedness (relatively, speaking), citizenship (American). I’ve always fashioned my sense of Americanness after DuBois’s notion of ‘two-ness.’ I am black in America. That makes me American, but it makes me a “other” American who is set apart from Americanness because so much of Americanness means whiteness. When the attacks of September 11th happened, I didn’t feel like part of the “us” that was under attack. This is my country, but not completely, down to the core of my being.
Even so, I recognize certain things that are very American about me. Take my general stance that most things can be changed; that with enough energy, resources, brainpower, commitment “it can be done.” I recognize that point of view as a privilege that not everyone can partake.
I recognize the privilege of holding that little blue passport in the context of international travel. And, I know I have the privilege of freedom from scrutiny and discrimination in civic and economic processes like registering to vote or applying for a job, loan, or college.
But, there’s an even more basic privilege that I rarely consider. I carry shame and grief at the realization that I have done precious little to leverage or neutralize it. My American lifestyle and the privileges I enjoy are a direct function of genocide. On one level I’ve always known this. There were people here before the European settlers arrived. The Mashpee Wampanoag’s even helped some of them survive and learn to live here. And their repayment? Near obliteration and more than 350 years before the U.S. government would deign to recognize them as an official tribe. The unmitigated gall!
I’m ashamed of my smug progressive stance. Of course Native peoples have been oppressed and I call Columbus Day a Day of Mourning. Yet, I know so little of the history and I’ve been so unengaged in the struggle for justice for Native peoples. I’m only getting outraged in a very visceral way as I ingest spoonfuls of history. (Thanks PBS for “We Shall Remain“!) And, just as I’ve been told white people sometimes feel when they first really confront the reality of their privilege, I’m unsure what to do with the outrage and how to live inside the reality that every day my life is made possible by what has been taken from other people. It’s one thing to understand it in the abstract—to know that we’d need four planets for the entire world population to live the way we do. It’s another to know I that literally grew up on land in Massachusetts that was taken by force from people who initially acted in compassion and good faith. And that was repeated “from sea to shining sea.” And, now we’re back to the two-ness. The people who did that were not my people. And, yet, what they did accrues to my benefit daily.