As we observe a day in celebration and thanksgiving of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m thinking about what it means to live in racial justice, and seek the sort of equality among people of all ethnicities that Rev. Dr. King dreamed of.
I grew up in and have returned to live in Vermont, which is the second-whitest state in the United States, according to the 2010 census (behind only Maine). White-only Vermonters make up 94.3% of the state’s population. I love my state, but it’s not exactly a hub of diversity.
This leads me to ask how one can practice racial justice and equality in a predominantly monochromatic environment. Here are three ways I think we can begin.
1. Education. Growing up in Vermont and with very liberal parents, I didn’t encounter racism very often, if at all. On the one hand, there’s something innocent and lovely about that– to a certain point. Unfortunately, it also made me pretty oblivious to racism as a young adult and even now. I was shocked when I put together that my traveling companion in college (an Afro-Caribbean woman) and I were being treated differently. Only took me an entire day to figure that out. In Berlin. Where literally everyone was white. Just a couple of years ago, there was a tremendous controversy about a Photoshopped picture of the White House with watermelons on the lawn. I had no idea that this was a racial stereotype (I still don’t understand, or really care to, what in the world watermelons have to do with African American people). My point is that my lack of exposure to racism and stereotypes leaves me oblivious to the point of ignorance when it comes to racism around me. In order to confront something, you have to know it’s there.
I try to remedy my own ignorance by listening to my sisters and brothers from communities of color, and hearing the stories they tell, and by examining my own prejudices and assumptions. More importantly, and more in my control, I work hard to have conversations with my daughter and raise her awareness of racial injustice. Clearly, we’re starting small with the almost-seven-year-old, but finding and lifting the teachable moments will, I hope, help her be better informed than I am.
2. Lift role models (not tokens). Teaching kids especially about people they can look up to is important, and here I was on better footing growing up. My biggest hero was (and still is) the man of the day himself, Rev. Dr. King, whom I admire for his passion for justice, self-sacrifice, and pioneering spirit. I have also always emulated his in my mind perfect relationship between faith and politics and his powerful preaching and public speaking. Rev. Dr. King (I always use the Reverend there) is one of my inspirations to be a pastor and a preacher, and I keep his picture in my office to remind me, not of racial justice or civil rights, but of prophetic preaching and living one’s convictions. But there have been other role models in my life, and are many in my kids’ lives, who are people of color, and to whose example we aspire because they are magnificent people, not because they are magnificent people of color. From friends of the family to Sunday school teachers (to presidents), role models who happen to be persons of color– and who are patient enough to deal with the blundering questions of children and more sheltered adults– can teach more about racial justice and equality than anyone or anything else.
3. Confront any injustice, prejudice, or stereotype. In the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, we tell jokes about people from the town of Hardwick. I can’t tell you why exactly, but people from Hardwick become the punchline of every “redneck” joke or story about stupidity. And I bought into it. Why not? Everyone else was doing it. But this mentality is used to explain racism too. I honestly believe that, in the absence of a significant ethinic minority against whom to discriminate, we as humans wil find some category, any category, to label as inferior, make the brunt of jokes, and where we can, strip of dignity and rights. It’s a sad truth about us. Fortunately, I think the converse is also true: whenever we learn to confront stereotypes and prejudices and injustices against anyone, we become better able to confront them overall.
There’s a long way to go, individually and as a society, when it comes to living with justice and equality for all people. I know I am far from there. But today of all days, I have hope.