Let’s get uncomfortable, shall we?
We are six days removed from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual birthdate, and today marks the national holiday celebrated in his name.
This is the day many people will extol the values of a man who was assassinated more than 50 years ago, rewriting history about how this great man was revered and beloved.
Dr. King was revered and beloved — he was also reviled and hated. And people who lived their lives then, and now, on the wrong side of history, will forever quote his words about dreaming his “little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” without once acknowledging their complicity in making sure that more than 50 years later, that dream still hasn’t come true.
Despite the proclamations of a post-racial America after President Barack Obama was elected to the highest office in the land, the ensuing backlash of virulent racism from the supporters and apologists of the next occupant, have made one thing crystal clear: we still have not overcome.
We can call the gleeful hatred and cruelty spreading throughout this country patriotism, nationalism, or white supremacy. But we can’t celebrate Dr. King’s legacy while turning a blind eye to what’s going on right under our noses.
So let’s talk some hurtful truths. Because as Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better.”
Already, the hair on the back of your neck is starting to rise. You’re feeling that anger that comes when you’re being accused of some wrong that you may (or may not) have knowledge of, but certainly don’t condone or participate in, and you don’t want to be held accountable for the sins of others.
But you also can’t fathom what it’s like to be discriminated against unless you put on a pair of unfamiliar shoes. So let’s do that — but let’s wear them to a familiar place.
Let’s imagine you’re in a grocery store. It’s a nice store, the prices are good, the food is fresh, and it’s clean and well kept. You go to the deli counter and pull a number and wait in line. There are only a couple of people ahead of you, so you know the wait won’t be too long.
And then, when your number comes up, the butcher looks at you, then calls the number after yours. No worries, it’s a mistake, and you tell him.
But wait. He glares at you and says, “wait your turn.” Now you’re confused, but you don’t want to make waves, so you wait until he serves the next one. But then the next, and the next are served as you hold up your ticket.
Well, you could just go to another store, but your time is short and you don’t want to have to start shopping all over again. It would mean putting everything back, or leaving the full cart and walking out.
You’re getting angrier and angrier. Meanwhile, you have friends who have come in, said hello, and then proceeded to get their service ahead of you.
When you try to explain what’s going on, they look at you blankly and say, “oh that would never happen. You must be mistaken.” Or, they turn it on you. “What did you do wrong?”
Now steam is coming out of your ears, you ask to see the manager and your frustration has reached the boiling point. And the manager says to you, “just wait your turn. You people always want special rights.”
Think about it. If you’re at that deli counter, what is your recourse? Or maybe it’s a job that you thought you had clinched over the phone, but you got a weird look and suddenly the position was filled when you came in for a face-to-face interview. How about the vacant apartment that mysteriously became unavailable when you showed up, cash deposit and references in hand?
And all the while, other well-meaning, yet totally oblivious people (some may even think they’re your friends) are telling you that this can’t be happening to you, because it has never happened to them.
You’re trying to stay positive, but you know when you’re being gaslighted. And because some of the people who claim not to see it are those you thought you could trust, you become even angrier, and more depressed.
Now take off those shoes that belong to people of a different race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation or socioeconomic group.
If it feels good to put your own shoes of oblivious privilege back on, you’ve totally missed the point.
On today’s national holiday that commemorates the sacrifices of a preacher and civil rights activist who didn’t live to see his 40th birthday, ask yourself if you have been one of those who walk around in a parallel universe where your skin color (or religion, or sexual orientation) is considered the default and everyone else is “the other.”
You can continue to tell yourself that we’re all equal and that people are treated badly because they deserve it, or are inferior to you — or you can start having painfully honest and extremely uncomfortable conversations that will ultimately make things better for everyone.
In other words, you can be part of the solution — or choose to remain part of the problem.