"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."
- Anais Nin
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Passages are a funny thing to consider.
One soul leaves this world.
Certain lives may never intersect or overlap, yet one may still impact the other.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, five years before I was born. He didn’t know my parents, and they - young white people getting their start in the world - surely felt their lives in New England were worlds removed from his death in Memphis. They wanted a kind, gentle world for their family, so they appreciated Dr. King’s words. They may have nodded, hoped, said a prayer, even shed a tear or two. And then they moved on.
That is white privilege.
To agree, to hope, to pray and even to work for a better world - all in the absence of fear.
It’s an odd thing to try to understand. As a white, middle-class female, it’s not something I asked for. But there it is.
I remember being in elementary school and learning about the assassination of Dr. King. I remember going home terrified that my own father - an intelligent, eloquent man who never hesitated to stand up for what he felt was right - would suffer a similar fate. While clearly the intent of the lesson had been to illustrate our nation’s history of racial inequality and the impact of the civil rights movement, I’d somehow missed the crucial part. My young brain couldn’t grasp the inane notion that skin color could have anything to do with hatred. What I’d gleaned was that using one’s words to help others in this world could get a person killed. What I’d felt was that such a world was surely insane, and terrifyingly unpredictable.
In time, I came to understand that my father, a white male, had the best armor possible. This only amplified my belief that the world was an insane, terrifyingly unpredictable place. As a child, I was certain my father was a great person - but I knew it had nothing to do with his gender or skin color. It was because he was smart, kind, funny, and pretty much always carried candy for his children. What sort of idiocy had been law in our country long enough that adults didn’t get what was so clear to a child?
My father told me about the Florida courthouse where he first practiced law. Technically, Jim Crow laws were done for, but right there in the courthouse, next to the scales of justice, the words “WHITE” and “COLORED” remained inscribed in stone above the drinking fountains.
And people still used the fountains that matched their skin color.
How sad, how silly, I would like to say now. I would like to look back and shake my head at the insanity of the past, gratefully beyond it. Yet 2014 proved that the racial divide in this nation remains far from bridged. There is quite a bit that is sad, yet nothing that is silly, about that.
I don’t believe this means we are doomed. I sometimes think this nation’s past is so painful, we almost viscerally need to believe we’re done with it. It hurts too damn much to consider the ways we might have benefited from an ugliness with which we disagree, or the times our behavior may have been guided by unfair instincts. Still, we might do better to acknowledge it, to own up to the way prejudice can seep into the marrow and infect generations. To look it in the face and say: I will not let you infect my children.
My daily experience with people is that they are generally good and kind. I believe we are capable of bringing that goodness and kindness to our every interaction. Call me Pollyanna, but I cannot read or hear the words of Dr. King without thinking he is still the key, and his dream is still possible.
I hope and pray 2015 is the year we each commit in our hearts to being done with drawing superficial lines.
That we work at treating each other gently.
That we take a moment before we speak, before we act.
That we remember that each of us is not the flesh and bone structure we see on the outside; it is the soul within.
With love and gratitude for the life, lessons, and memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.