Taking Up the Challenge
Defining moments in childhood — piercing, sometimes heart-wrenching memories of transformative events that shaped history — mark many of our lives and our understanding of our world. For my children, that will likely be the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. I think it’s safe to say the world was forever changed that morning. For me, April 4, 1968, is one of those “I can remember it like yesterday” flashbacks. I was upstairs when I heard my mother scream. I raced downstairs to find her sobbing in front of our television, where the grainy footage of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. played on the black-and-white screen. Frightened, I asked her what had happened and she replied, “A very great and important man just died.” At nine years old, I couldn’t begin to understand the significance of Dr. King’s life or his death; I think I am only truly beginning to comprehend this event 50 years later.
Each January I struggle with our nation’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day. I think of my father’s annual grumbling about the full parking lot at church thanks to what he called the “Easter onlies” who would show up once a year, presumably to hedge their bets on a seat in heaven. My internal debate as the third Monday of January approaches is believing that every day should be MLK Day, and every day we should feel, think, speak, and act with the awareness we have on this particular date — yet I, and others, continually fall short.
I grew up in a small Midwestern town. There were no black people in my school or neighborhood. I attended a small New England college, which was similarly homogeneous in demographics and thought. I recently shared with an SWS parent how ill equipped and ignorant I sometimes feel engaging in conversations about racism, equity, and diversity. She challenged me to examine whether I am reading only things that please me, or only light-skinned authors, or authors with the same sexual orientation, or authors from the same country as I am. She encouraged me to observe my words and actions, and to be curious about what others think and say. And she cautioned me to be ready to have the world that I thought I lived in change before my eyes. With this challenge, she handed me a list of resources (some of which I have shared here) that would bring new perspectives, offer new insights, and — I have since learned — fill me with sadness, shame, guilt, and anger. Which is exactly what she intended.
I have made my way through much of her list, and discovered additional new writers and speakers as well. I’d like to share some of my reflections, with the hope that something might resonate for you.
- Change in our community and country must begin with individuals opening their hearts. We must develop self-knowledge about our own values — what will you stand up for? Where do you give in or turn the other way?
- We need to stop denying racism. When our reality is too ugly, we deny it. The racism we see today is not new or exceptional — it is part of our country’s heritage and history since its inception nearly 250 years ago.
- There is no such thing as color-blindness — we must see color, face it squarely, embrace it, and be “color brave.” The first step to solving a problem is increased awareness. We cannot feel empathy for what we do not see.
- We should move toward our discomfort, not away. Look at the people around you, and invite people into your life who don’t look, talk, or think like you. It’s about making real connections, which can feel scary and uncomfortable.
- We must speak up and take action. When you witness racism or bias, say something – even, and especially, when it comes from someone you love. A racist is not who a person is; racism is what a person is saying and doing. And loving someone is helping them to be their best possible self, even when doing so is difficult and uncomfortable.
In her TED talk on overcoming bias, Vernā Meyers offers, “biases are the stories we make up about people before we know who they are.” Martin Luther King believed, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they can’t communicate with each other, and they can’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
I’d like to encourage all of us to take up the challenge that I was presented — to step out of my comfort zone, move toward what and who I don’t know, and hold out the possibility of changing our world. If every day is to be MLK Day, it must begin in the heart of each one of us.
Published in the Chalkboard from 1/17/18.