It was once said by Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Since the racially charged brutality that took place last year in Ferguson, Miss. was brought to light, I have been awakened to an understanding of our deeply racist American history and current reality, a matter that, as a white woman, I had never been forced to grapple with before. As instances of racial oppression materialized in the senseless killings of black young men and women, my heart has continued to break and soul has continued to become enraged at the ways in which people of color are systematically oppressed due the uncontrollable nature of their skin. In my frustration, I began to read anything I could on about our current state of American racial affairs, as well as take a class on the “philosophy of race and racism.” The more I learned and became disgusted, the more I developed a passion for ending structural racism. All the while, I questioned whether or not I had any authority to stand up against racial injustice, when I had no lived experience of racism. Until recently, I was deeply insecure about my ability to be an advocate and ally.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Washington D.C., which is an annual commemoration of the martyrs of El Salvador where members of the Jesuit family gather to learn about instances of injustice and meet with legislators to combat the issues of our time.
While there, I had the opportunity to speak with a young man named Brendan Underwood, a senior at Saint Louis University High School in Saint Louis, Miss. Brendan spoke of his deeply personal connection to the murder of Michael Brown, since he lives just three miles from where his death took place. Brendan said that before Michael Brown’s killing, although he lived the woes of racism as a young black man everyday, he was not yet enraged. After Michael Brown’s death, however, Brendan woke up. He was just a year younger than Michael when he was killed. He saw his brother and young cousins in Michael’s eyes, and knew that the proximity of his murder could have taken one of his family members’ lives just as easily. So Brendan got mad. He started studying. He began to speak to his classmates about changing the tides of inequality, and even started a student organization that aimed at student allyship. In a strange way, our stories were similar. He and I had instances of clarity, his of course more glaring than mine, and wanted to desperately to act on our anger. Brendan encouraged me to act as an ally, and for the first time, I felt confident in being an activist against racial inequality. Filled with a newfound hope, I couldn’t wait to tell my JCU peers about my new confidence. I was disappointed by their response.
In order to address my wishes with the group, I piggybacked off of one of the conference’s keynote speakers, Maureen O’Connell, who was a white, female academic who spoke on racial inequality in higher education. I identified with her disgust for how black men and women are being mistreated in the country, and her rage affirmed my own. I found that none of my counterparts shared my anger, which disturbed me, considering those who attend this conference were supposed to be the most radical activists of our institution. All of them white, they shirked their participation in the system because they “cared about real things” and were “hurt by her address” because “not all whites are part of this [racism].” Although I am sure all of them agreed that people of color and minorities are marginalized and that racial injustice is alive and well, they recoiled at the thought that they were participants in the oppression, or that it was our duty, as members of the oppressive race, to be on the front lines of protest. I was once told by a wise friend that just because you don’t experience something, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. As white young people, we are unknowing beneficiaries of racism. There is inherent privilege in living in a body that isn’t questioned, assumed to be violent and dangerous, and a body that is considered to matter so much, that it is protected at the expense of minority body. I was disapointed to the point of grief in my peers. And although I know that I have been told that I feel things more deeply than the average person, I felt my intuition was right on this one. Neutrality, when it comes to injustice, is siding with oppression. No matter your age, level of education or background, your heart should tell you that caucasian folks need not be defended in this circumstance. There is a deeply famous remark by Martin Niemöller that goes as follows, one that I feel speaks to the circumstance at hand. “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Friends, it is time to feel every man and woman’s injustice as our own. Let’s get better together.