Some Thoughts on Social Progress for MLK Day

Several years ago, one of my Facebook friends at the time posted a status on Martin Luther King Day that derided the holiday adding it was “just a day to get off work.” At the time, I didn’t take too kindly to that sort of thing, so I called her a bigot and deleted her right then and there.

The thing is, while I can’t say that I feel like I’ve lost a close friend or anything, I can say the years have tested whether or not I think she was a bad person at heart. I no longer think that. At the time, I probably demonized an otherwise good person who held a few misguided views. Aren’t most of us otherwise good people with a few misguided views?

But that’s one of the more curious things about racism today. We’re so trained in our culture to think that it only comes from people dawning pointy white hats, skinheads, or folks ready to burn crosses that we aren’t too eager to entertain the possibility that it could actually come from our friends, neighbors, family members, etc. – but those are precisely the people it comes from the most, and precisely because it comes from them, we’re not eager to call it “racism.” That is, either we only think it’s “racism” when someone is visibly hurt, so we dismiss more subtle forms of racist statements, or we’re quick to take any form of racism and demonize the whole person who said it, as was the case with my ex-Facebook friend. Neither of these approaches are doing our culture any good, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of both at times.

And yet, I think there’s a lot of us that want to believe that today’s America isn’t still racist. But the way we often show our progress is by comparing ourselves to our past. That seems a bit of an odd way to approach the issue, doesn’t it? It’s not been uncommon for me to hear people say things like, “Well, I’m not my forefathers. I didn’t own slaves. Don’t treat me like I did.” Okay, so, we’re better because we no longer hold slaves? Well, yes. We’re better because we don’t make people drink out of separate water fountains? Well, duh, but is that really going to be our litmus test for the kind of non-racists we aim to be?

The progress we must make cannot be measured by how far we’ve come but by where we can and should go from right here, right now, simply because that’s the right direction to move in. I think that’s at the heart of MLK’s dream: the dream wasn’t about achieving a goal but about a way of living out the kinds of morals that required constant reminders and awareness of who we are and who we want to be in the face of all forms of injustice. Yes, slavery is a thing of the past. Yes, the horrific Jim Crow laws are a thing of the past. We progressed to a better place. So, I suppose, we could say, “Look how better we are from our ancestors,” decide we’re happy with how far we’ve come, and say that’s enough. Or, we can keep pushing – recognizing that so long as someone – anyone – is marginalized, there’s still work left to be done. And the work, right now, that must still be done is combating these more subtle forms of racism that go unrecognized or ignored.

The unfortunate reality is, racism is alive and thriving in America, especially in the south. In fact, in the south, it can still be blatant. I recall a student at Vanderbilt talking about her own experience of racism in the south. She felt that when it happened in the south and was often blatant and hateful, she could dismiss the person as a bigot and move on with her life with relative ease, but when it happened in, say, Chicago, in a large law firm where someone made an off-hand, stereotypical remark, she didn’t know how to respond and found it shocking.

On some small level, I can relate to this as someone who lived in a rural town in North Africa for two years where I was one of maybe five light-skinned people living within a two-hour radius. Sometimes, I had rocks thrown at me by children. Sometimes, my friends were threatened or, in a few cases, assaulted because they were women or because they were different in some way from the majority. I lived occasionally confronting assumptions about me – that I worked for the CIA or that I was extremely wealthy or that I partied and was all kinds of sexually deviant or that I hated the Middle East. Sometimes, just a few assumptions about someone we don’t know at all, or even a few generalizations based around statistics that don’t include appropriate context, can be so incredibly damaging – and that is something that continues to happen worldwide.

Racism isn’t just despising someone different from you. It’s about fear and skepticism of what is different. It’s built-in assumptions that certain groups of people are “lazy.” Or, sometimes, assumptions that they’re the “good ones” or “almost white.” It’s built into political ideals about the “welfare state.” It’s built into beliefs about crime rates and incarcerations without regard for how slanted the justice system is. And yet, when a person has these assumptions and worldviews, that doesn’t also mean that he or she hates someone of a different color or ethnicity. And so we claim we aren’t racist, we aren’t bigots – because we don’t hate anybody or because we don’t wish any violence on anyone. Have you ever noticed whenever a celebrity gets in trouble for making a racist statement, the first thing they say is, “I’m not a racist.” I keep hoping some celebrity will respond by saying, “Well, you know, sometimes I can actually be racist, and I appreciate that you’ve kept me in check here, because what I said was wrong, and I should’ve known better.” We really need to get the word “racist” out of the clouds where it’s equated with “evil” because prejudice, to change the term slightly, is something we’ve all been a part of.

What we really need to combat racism is a healthy dose of self-awareness and mindfulness – a little honesty that, at times, we’re all skeptical of (if not also scared of) what we perceive as different from ourselves. To put that another way, we are, all, a little racist. That doesn’t mean we all hate or wish violence on others, but we do need to be careful, because the things we say can contribute to or promote violence and hate-speech inadvertently.

I think back to my ex-Facebook friend. She was a racist. I don’t have any question about that. But I have been at times in my life guilty of racism, too. She isn’t a bad person, and neither am I. And I probably didn’t get anywhere with her by calling her a bigot and deleting her. But when it comes to our closer friends and family, I do think we’re in a position to say, “Are you sure you really mean what you’re saying?” When we are in a position to question their words and how hurtful those words are, we should jump on the opportunity to be their keeper, to call them into question, and to remind them – because we love them – when they are being wrong-headed. I only hope my friends and family would do the same for me. If and when they do, that I believe is living out the dream MLK envisioned.

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