I’ve been thinking about history. The work of Martin Luther King, Jr. is history; his life and his death are black-and-white pictures and lines of text in schoolbooks children read, as remote for them as World War Two or the Mesozoic. That’s natural, of course. Jewish organizations expend a lot of energy on Holocaust remembrance because it is human nature to move on, to dilute the past as we do so, so that we look back at images reflected like ripples on water. So MLK has a day on the calendar. As he should.
But it wasn’t actually that long ago that he was murdered, shot down because he wanted brown-skinned people to have the same rights and opportunities as white people. Think about that–killed in cold blood because he didn’t think anyone should have to drink from a “colored” fountain, use a “colored” entrance, struggle to find a polling place, or sit in the back of the bus.
In 2016, the Oscar nominations have overlooked the work of African Americans in the film industry. There is talk of a boycott. I am torn between supporting a boycott and hoping that brown people show up and make speeches that make everyone wriggle in their seats. In my heart, I don’t care about the Oscars issue, because I long ago tired of all these wealthy people having televised self-congratulatory events at which they receive thousands of dollars worth of gifts, just for breathing. They believe they do important work (listen to their impassioned speeches!)–and they do, as far as we need the arts. We need these expressions of beauty, of political and social rebellion, these records of culture. But I can’t help feeling that most of the people in the shiny outfits have lost sight of the real work of this world, of the way non-famous, non-wealthy people live and struggle.
The exclusion of brown-skinned people from the Oscars, though, has made me wonder about the way that racism persists. How does it go on and on in this country, when so many of us believe it is wrong-headed, see ourselves as “not racist,” have a diverse group of friends? What is the mechanism that keeps it alive?
First, there are plenty of openly racist Americans–just read any comment thread on the internet. But the rest of us, those who acknowledge privilege, examine our own thinking, edit our speech, I think we are the people responsible for the fact that police kill black people at an alarming rate, for the jails being full of brown faces, for the schools in certain neighborhoods facing challenges they cannot hope to meet.
Think about it carefully, white people and Jews. Just privately, just in your own head. What would your life look like right now if at every turn, African Americans had had an equal shot–at getting the same attention (quality and quantity) from your kindergarten teacher, at getting into the specialized high school / college / graduate school you went to, at securing the job you have now, or the promotion you earned last year? How would your life look right now if the jails were not full of black men, or if whites guilty of the same crimes were also in jail? How would your neighborhood be different if there never was another side of the tracks?
Now, just to yourself, imagine all of that has happened, there really is this sort of equality. Maybe that makes you uncomfortable, because maybe you wouldn’t have gone to that school or won that position. I am not suggesting you didn’t work hard to get where you are; I am only saying the deck was stacked in your favor all along, as compared to others.
No doubt I am being too simplistic. Not long ago, though, I had the opportunity to see what happens when even the most liberal person is forced to see his privilege. It is different when someone points it out to you–much more icky than when you think of it on your own. Such a person is very quick to cut ties with the source of his discomfort. Even those of us who truly believe in equality are maybe not so ready to give up the enormous power that comes with being light of skin. Look at how stupid and crazy that sounds! And yet there it is. I know for sure the color of my skin has served me well, even if it’s just how I get treated in a store. Twenty years ago, I enjoyed the privileges of being an attractive young person. I don’t think I feel guilty about how I have been treated. Should I? Maybe. I’m really not sure. But it does make me feel uncomfortable in my own skin to consider how my world would look if all the systemic racism were gone.
And that’s why it doesn’t go away. Because quite simply, if you’ve always been handed the bigger slice of pie, what will motivate you to give that up? Your sense of fairness? On this blog, I have in the past written about belief, and how difficult I find it–I would like to believe in a God, if only for the strength this belief appears to give people of faith. But now I wonder if belief isn’t actually pretty easy. I believe people should be treated equally, without regard to race, religion, gender, sexuality, hair color, you name it. What practice do I engage in to support that belief?
It’s not enough to recognize your advantages. You must actively work to level the playing field, and you must do it not because of the way it makes you feel, and not because of how it makes you look to others, but because it is right. It is only right.