Today we celebrate the life, the achievements, and the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King’s dream was for “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” to be given equal rights, equal treatment under the law, and equal opportunity. So mission accomplished, right?
Hardly. Our society may have done away with the overt racism of the Civil Rights era, but anyone who can genuinely declare that people of color are afforded the same treatment as us white folks, clearly haven’t picked up a newspaper, visited corporate America, or stepped foot into an inner city public school.
What’s a white girl from the suburbs got to do with Dr. King? Well…. everything.
Let’s back up. Racism, sexism, ageism… what does that -ism at the end mean to you? It’s not a good thing, right? It’s derogatory. Prejudging. Presuming that because of someone’s race/ gender/ age, they are less than.
We have evolved slightly since August 28, 1963 when Dr. King stood before thousands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Overt displays of racism and hatred are (typically) condemned or punishable in this country. But what about the less overt? The unconscious? Unintentional racial bias?
The oppression of Dr. King’s era was rooted in power. Specifically, white power. Well, here we are in 2013 and who has the power? Ironically, a black president is hours away from being inaugurated for his second term as President of the United States, but I’d argue that white Americans still have the upper-hand (read: power) in our society. Disagree? Google Fortune 500 CEOs or members of Congress or top grossing movies of 2012 and count how many people of color you see.
In her article, The Roots of Racism, Raina Kelley mentions the effects that cultural stereotypes play on our subconscious. Think about how various cultures are portrayed in our media: Black= criminal, Latino= illegal immigrant, Asian= whiz… the list goes on. At what point do we internalize these negative stereotypes and believe them as truth?
Back to the white girl in the suburbs.
Here’s the thing: people of color know all too well about unconscious racism and the disparity between black and white in this country. They live it. They see it. They feel it. But it’s not their fight. It’s mine. As a white American, I’M the one who needs to engage in thoughtful dialogue with my peers and examine my own biases. I’M the one who needs to pull my white brothers and sisters aside and point out their blindspots. I’M the one who needs to confront my unconscious racism and that of my white friends and family.
Some of my best friends are black…we’re all just people underneath…I don’t see skin color… there’s an array of racial platitudes that we throw around. Do we say these things because they’re true or to make ourselves believe that they’re true?
On this January 21, I recognize the legacy of Dr. King. May his words resonate. May his spirit challenge us to explore our own beliefs. May his words prove prophetic.