I wrote this piece last Martin Luther King Day as I reflected on the significance of this man’s sacrifice, and the implications his work has for me as a white person decades later. My sentiments are similar to last year’s, but perhaps even more impassioned with the well-known tragedies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and with not-so-publicized tragedies that continue in my own neighborhood. I’m still listening, still praying, still fighting because there’s still a dream to be realized.
I still get goosebumps every time I read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech”. My heart starts racing as his conclusion approaches, and I feel the lump forming in my throat. Tears well in my eyes when I read the words:
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Even though I’m alone in my home re-reading these familiar words, I want to stand up and shout in agreement. I long for the day when our nation has justice, equality, and unity.
But we aren’t there yet.
As I read and re-read impassioned words of Dr. King, I am reminded that we are still so very far from the goals of justice, equality, and unity. I don’t need to read his speech to be reminded of that. I need only to drive around the streets of my city to see that the majority of renovated neighborhoods are owned by white people, and the projects inhabited primarily by black people. I need only to look at test scores in our local school system to see that white students are achieving higher test scores than their peers of color. I need only to look at the prison statistics and see that black Americans are 5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans and Hispanic Americans are 2 times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans.
I need only to step outside my door and talk with my neighbor across the street who carries great hostility toward me because people the same color as me have oppressed, mistreated, and abused her for generations.
Where I grew up, in the Northern United States, racism existed in subtle statements and secrecy. I’m better at identifying it now. It is ugly and present. But here, in the Southern United States, where I now make my home, racism is glaring. There are confederate flags hanging in yards and decorating the bumpers of cars. People say things that are downright nauseating. The racial tensions in the south are palpable.
I’ve studied privilege and power, I’m cognizant of my stereotypes, and I’ve dedicated my life to pursuing justice. Racism is a justice issue.
And I want to talk about it.
But to be honest, sometimes I’m scared to talk about it.
Because I’m afraid to say the wrong thing, or perhaps the right thing but in the wrong way.
I’ve done that in the past, and it didn’t go so well.
And so I’ve stayed more quiet than I should out of slight paralysis, fear, and embarrassment. I’ve been fighting a quiet fight for justice in my work, my church, and my community. I’ve been quietly watching my Black and Hispanic friends and co-workers for signals, trying to learn about their stories, working to observe how I can join this fight effectively.
But I still feel powerless as to what to do about my power.
And then this week, I read a blog that convicted me about my voice and racism in America. The author petitions white bloggers to stop avoiding the topic of racism. She says, “Put the power of your privilege to work and speak up. Don’t let the internet be void of your voice on this topic and don’t allow yourself to have distorted views of black people or racial reconciliation for fear of letting your ignorance show.”
I reread her blog several times with wide eyes. Here I am, a woman who claims to be addressing issues of justice and mercy through writing, and yet I’m avoiding this topic because I’m a little scared, because I don’t want things to get awkward, because I don’t want to say something wrong.
The truth is, I’m not sure where my voice fits in the chorus of racial reconciliation. But I know I want to be part of the chorus. I’m ok with not getting a solo, or even having a microphone, but I love this song, and I want to sing it.
I read these words from Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, and I wonder, what kind of white person am I?
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…
I had hoped that the white moderate would see this. Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much. I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too small in quantity, but they are big in quality.”
I pray I am the white person that has grasped the need for justice and who is committed to the cause.
To my friends whose skin is a different color than mine, I want you to know that I’m in this chorus with you. I know that my song isn’t anything like your song. I know that it’s different for me to join this fighting chorus, because it’s a choice for me, and it isn’t for you. I know that I don’t know much of anything, but I do know that I’m not ok with the way things are.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
(MLK, Letter From Birmingham Jail)