A couple of months ago, I attended Crystal Marie Fleming’s talk at Marist College. It was called “How to Be Less Stupid About Race,” which is also the name of her new book.
I will never forget this particular part of her presentation. She flickered onscreen all the words many of us use on a daily basis in place of the word “racism,” such as bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, divide, less opportunity, antagonism, race and bias.
Yes, these words are in the thesaurus as synonyms for racism. Are they skimming the surface of what’s really going on? Yes. We need to call racism, racism. This may feel uncomfortable to do so because many of us have been taught that racism is “discrimination.” I have said too many times in my college classes, “In this paragraph the author is describing a time where he felt prejudice,” when I should have said, “He experienced racism.”
Today my predominantly white town sent out a time we would all gather on Monday night to spread love and create a memorial for George Floyd, titled, “A Stand Against Bigotry.” I know the people who started it have good intentions. But why not call it “A Stand Against Racism”?
Something that’s been really making me think: Last week I had a Zoom leadership class with a teaching organization I am a part of called Outreach360 with a center in Nicaragua. Four of us in the Zoom room were told to put on hats while two other women in the room didn’t have to wear a hat. These two women could talk whenever they wanted, while the rest of us in hats had to raise our hand if we wanted to speak.
The debate? We had to organize ten categories of huge problems around the world into a list of “most important to solve now” and “least important to solve now.” An impossible list? Yes. But we had to all come to a conclusion together in the timeframe of an hour.
I found myself compromising on these issues at times, but overall we stuck by each other and came away as a group with a wider perspective. Somebody was from Canada, others from America, and one woman from Nicaragua. Seeing other people’s perspectives on issues such as police brutality, gun violence, healthcare, and education was eye-opening to say the least. Instead of finding myself speaking out over others and cutting them off—something I am continually working on—I sat back and listened to all the sides and where people were coming from because I couldn’t speak freely every time I wanted to. Was it also frustrating and felt like my freedom had been taken away? Absolutely.
This simulation in class is supposed to represent what people of color experience on a daily basis. Being silenced. Feeling excluded. And “wearing a hat” as people immediately judge you based on how you look. Turning melanin into meaning = racism.
Later that day Teacher Alma from Nicaragua gave us a talk about the history of her country. She said, “We were all happy and living our lives. And then the explorers came and took everything we had.” Although she wasn’t directly talking about Black Lives Matter, hearing from a minority group about their history of oppression was staggering and necessary. Many history teachers show us history from “the side of the winners.” Those who have the most power and how they attained it. Explorers are never called racists. Conquerors are never called slave holders. We have to change how we learn history from around the world and who we learn history from.
Just like the simulation, I believe everybody has the opportunity to approach controversy with civility. We can all work toward a greater goal if we commit to collaboration and cooperation over competition or greed. We must empower each other and increase accountability to show up with full hearts instead of full judgement. We need to respect our differences because these differences are what our hopeful future is founded on.
Bryan Stevenson, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Rights Initiative, has a TEDTalk I highly encourage watching. Every time I watch it I come away with a new perspective and new learning. You may have also heard about his book Just Mercy, which discusses mass incarceration and the broken justice system, a book which was turned into a film just last year.
Some quotes from his talk:
“Somehow we can insulate ourselves from this problem. It’s not our problem. It’s not our burden. It’s not our struggle.” – How racism persists
“We have this dynamic in our country that we really don’t like to talk about our problems. We don’t like to talk about our history. And because of that, we really haven’t understood what it’s meant to do the things we’ve done historically.”
“We’re constantly creating tensions and conflicts. We have a hard time talking about race. And I believe it’s because we are unwilling to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation.”
“We love innovation. We love technology. We love creativity. We love entertainment. But ultimately those realities are shadowed by suffering. Abuse. Degradation. Marginalization. And for me, it becomes necessary to integrate the two. Because ultimately we are talking about a need to be more hopeful, more committed, more dedicated to the basic challenges of living in a complex world.”
“It’s that mind-heart connection that I believe compels us to not just be attentive to all the bright and dazzly things, but also the dark and difficult things.”
“We cannot be fully evolved human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity.”
Something that also stuck with me is that Bryan Stevenson used to just sit in on talks between Rosa Parks and two other women who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. All he would do is listen. And learn from these leaders to become the leader he is today. We all need to listen more. To those who are being silenced every day for their skin color. We have the power to change our systems of violence and marginalization.
Bryan Stevenson calls for us to “do the right thing when it’s difficult.” To embrace suffering and talk about suffering openly and then act. Because we can no longer sit back and say “this is not our problem.”
This is learning to change patterns, systems, and ways of teaching ourselves and others. Racism is racism. We must remember to listen to each other. Acknowledge privilege. Use privilege to act instead of staying silent. Ask questions. Words are easy, but truth is in action. Awareness is power. And remember, we are all human.