“The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others.” -James Baldwin
I am overwhelmed by sadness and anger. But I am also driven by hope and inspiration. The latter is derived from the heroism of black and brown activists and thinkers who have risked and given their lives to help our country, even when it was, by and large, not willing to help them in return.
I am a white man, and, thus, in this society, I am a privileged man. On a daily basis I take for granted privileges of personal safety, of respect, of not needing to justify the value of my life to others. There are very few, if any, harmful stereotypes that lead to my being pre-judged in social interactions or encounters with authority figures. I have never been in fear for my life due to the color of my skin and others’ reactions based on my race. I have the privilege to ignore my skin color, to forget my race. If I choose, I can remain unaware of racism as a pressing problem because it does not come for me each day; it does not seek me out, daily, in my life, work and relationships.
In “Nobody Knows My Name,” James Baldwin writes, “one can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours.”
Knowing my social position, I try to embrace Baldwin’s words and confront my privileges, as I’m doing here. This is an act of confrontation in order to better understand what has led to our current crisis, one with roots in the very foundations of our nation’s history. It is facing the privilege of being white in America that reminds me of the unbounded need for greater empathy for the harassed, wounded and murdered, who are not afforded these same privileges.
But what to do with this recognition? I don’t have an exhaustive answer to the problems that face us (indeed, to think one does have all the answers is, explicitly or implicitly, a pretty good mark of privilege). Part of the response, though, is to listen, to resist the inclination to speak first and, instead, to commit oneself deeply to hearing and understanding the testimony of people of color. In my own experience, this listening has come through reading narratives on race in America (from black thinkers ranging from Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to Toni Morrison and Angela Davis, among others). But, more intimately, it has come from listening to my friends, colleagues and students of color discuss growing up and living black and brown in America and, in turn, reflecting on how to be an effective ally. When they speak, I listen, and I learn.
Also, part of the response is to question. Asking questions – the penetrating questions, the sometimes uncomfortable questions about racism, privilege, personal responsibility and more – can be as important as having all the answers. Why? Because questions open up novel ways of seeing and interpreting the world and our own experiences. And, in the end, we can’t address what we can’t see, we can’t change what we can’t imagine being different.
And, finally, no matter what comes, the response is to avoid apathy. This is part of what Dr. King meant in his critique of the “white moderate,” that person who, even if well meaning, doesn’t support the need for change now. Of course, no single person can solve all issues relating to racism. To start by this standard alone is to set oneself up for failure. But, as King notes, “no American can afford to be apathetic about the problem of racial injustice.” Rather, “the racial problem will be solved in America to the degree that every American considers himself personally confronted with it…the problem of injustice is his problem; it is his problem because it is America’s problem.”
Confront your privilege, recognize racism and racial injustice as your problem, take action and listen to others, especially to black and brown voices. There is never a wrong time to do the right thing and, so, the time to act is now. I’ll do the same with you.
Michael D. Burroughs is the director of the Kegley Institute of Ethics and an associate professor of philosophy at Cal State Bakersfield. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed are his own.