thoughts on Martin Luther King Day

When I was a little girl, I learned about racism and prejudice. I heard about slavery and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, and I was deeply reassured to know that those awful times were in our nation’s past. I had this idea that because we had made better laws, because schools were integrated, because we knew not to use certain hateful words, that we had fixed racism.

This idea was perpetuated by my schools and community. We celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. and his triumph over segregation and those awful racists. America was a great “melting pot” where all people were welcome as part of the community. And, as I sang in Sunday School, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red, brown, yellow, black, and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

It never once occurred to me as a child that racism could still exist in America in the 1990s.

It was fairly easy for me, with my white skin, to ignore racism, because it wasn’t happening to me. It was there, of course. I just didn’t see it.

When I was a little girl, I also learned about sexism. I learned that women weren’t always allowed to vote, that colleges had prohibited female students, and that people used to think women weren’t as smart or capable as men. Naturally, these things had also been solved: by the passage of the 19th Amendment and Title IX, for instance. We read about Marie Curie and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Earhart. I was sure that men and women were equals now, that sexism was over and done with.

I quickly learned that this was not the case. In 9th Grade Honors English, I heard the other girls talking about how “boys don’t want to date smart girls, so you have to play dumb.” When I was a teenager walking down the street, I would hear catcalls directed at me. I noticed that loud, assertive boys were “leaders,” but loud, assertive girls were “bossy.”

It was not easy for me, as a girl and then a woman, to ignore sexism, because it was happening to me. I saw it all around me.

When modern-day racism was first pointed out to me, I balked. There could not be racism anymore because I did not see it. But, as more and more people of color told their stories, I began to realize that there must be something I wasn’t seeing. So I started to look, to find out if I could see what they saw.

What I saw was deeply troubling.

A few years ago, I was out shopping. I made my purchases and headed to the exit, where an employee was checking receipts against the items in bags. Ahead of me, a Latina woman was stopped and her receipt was examined as the employee peered into the loaded cart. Next, a black man paused as the employee scrutinized his shopping. I walked forward, and the employee said, “Oh, I don’t need to see your receipt.” That was racism, though I didn’t realize it in the moment. The way that employee behaved said that the people of color were potential shoplifters, but the white woman was a paying customer.

Racism is not just about anecdotes and individuals, though. It’s about all the ways in which people of color are treated worse than whites for no reason but their skin tone. For a thorough discussion of systemic racism, I highly recommend Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I began to see that even if I wasn’t doing or saying racist things, I am complicit in racism whenever I let a racist joke or comment go by without a word. I am complicit when in my home state, Iowa, black men are incarcerated at 13 times the rate of white men, but somehow that doesn’t lead to statewide protest or reform.

The trouble with prejudice and privilege is that it is much easier to see what affects us negatively than to see what affects us positively. I can rattle off the advantages of being a man in this country in a way that I am only beginning to see the advantages of being white. My eyes are not accustomed to seeing my own privileges.

The first step to any change is to see why change is needed. I am often embarrassed or uncomfortable when I am faced with the realities of racism in America, but I will not let that stop me from seeing. I am learning to see with new eyes, and what I see is sobering. White Americans cannot continue congratulating ourselves for ending segregation and confuse that with ending racism any more than men can congratulate themselves for extending women the right to vote and confuse that with ending sexism. As Dr. King put it, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Right now, I am learning to see racism. It is a small step, and an important step. Will you take it with me? It is not the only step on the journey, but it is the step I’m on right now. Will you share the journey with me? Together, we can learn to see with new eyes and walk together into that Promised Land where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

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