I don’t think that there are enough people who truly understand the struggle. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of struggles out there, and each of them are equally important. There are families in the world without access to clean water. There are women and girls who are limited in their access to any kind of quality education. There are indigenous people who are being stripped of their lands and who disproportionately bear the brunt of climate change. There are people living in war-torn countries with no relief in sight. There are people who are moving to safer places with the hopes that they can start over with a better life, all while mourning the homes they’ve left behind. There are people who are denied access to public spaces due to designs that do not take into account their physical needs. There are people who have little access to medical care. There are people who fear for their welfare when they walk down the street. There are people who do not have access to healthy, whole foods, or the facilities to properly store and prepare them. There are people who want to work and take care of their families (or themselves) and are not afforded the opportunity to do so. People who are incarcerated for crimes of circumstance, and people who are not allowed to dedicate their lives to the ones that they love. There are people who are killed for practicing their religions. There are people who are always told that they have enough, even if it isn’t true, just so that some can have more. There are people who are treated as if their differences are more important than the fact that they are human.
All of these struggles come from either hate, or indifference, neither of which are okay. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to talk about the struggle for people of color in the United States to have a truly legitimate opportunity to fully participate in society.
A lot of times well-meaning friends and acquaintances make the argument for “not seeing color” or “more love instead of hate” but they may not always recognize their privileges or the fact that in a lot of instances, the deck is stacked in their favor. Fact of the matter is, people get really upset when privilege is pointed out to them. They make any argument against a marginalized person in order to ease the idea that they are working toward the same goal. Many times, it’s just to end the uncomfortable conversation, and keep themselves in a cocoon of not “doing anything wrong” or “doing anything to contribute to” someone else’s pain. This is a mistake.
By saying these things to a person of color, you are telling them that their experiences do not matter. You are telling them that their reality is a fabrication of their imaginations rather than a truth stemming from a system that is designed to keep them down. It does not acknowledge the fact that everyone starts from a different place in life, and we should all be given not only the opportunity to reach a better place, but also the resources in order to get there. That’s targeted universalism in it’s most simple, un-nuanced form.
I’m always talking about race and opportunity. It’s just that important to the conversation that we need to have. Race matters. It shouldn’t, but it does. It does because for thousands of years some groups have been putting down others and barring them from opportunity on the basis of skin color. It’s been going on so long that most people don’t notice it anymore (that’s implicit bias for you). What many of us don’t realize, is that it is taught.
Some like to say that children don’t see color. This isn’t true. Children don’t see that color or race matter until they are taught it. It’s not like anyone sits down in a classroom and is shown slide after slide why color matters. But it’s taught in different ways. It’s taught when someone compliments a fair skinned child but not a darker skinned child. It’s taught when someone turns up their nose at a food that is unfamiliar to them and makes a negative comment on how it looks and smells. It’s taught by disciplining a child for behavior that is not uncharacteristic for any child, but letting it go for another child who exhibits the same behavior. Children pick up on a lot of things, and this is some of the first lessons that they learn as they grow.
Soon enough, it starts to snowball, and a child of color may realize that their experiences are not only fundamentally different from their white counterparts, but they are also taught that it is also their fault.
A child who cannot participate in extracurricular activities due to a lack of money or supervision is not the child’s fault. Perhaps their parents are being paid only sixty six cents for every dollar that their white counterpart makes. Maybe a child cannot participate at the local swimming pool because it is not accessible for them and their caregivers to use it. Maybe a child has to eat all of their meals at school because a parent has to choose between keeping a roof over their heads or a nutritious meal. Perhaps the parks are littered with glass with stinky asphalt instead of grass. Perhaps the library is closed due to funding so a child cannot work on their homework. Perhaps a child must be present at important meetings in order to translate for a family member. A parent can’t get a loan to start their own business because the bank won’t lend the money. The last of a tax refund is spent on back rent or a last minute car repair. The bus stops running after a certain hour, so a parent has to walk to work, because the only place they can afford to live is on the outskirts of town, if not several cities over.
Often the solutions to these problems are: get a better job, get an education, cook a decent meal, just don’t go to the park, buy a house instead of rent, buy books instead of going to the library, learn English, save your money to start a business, get a better car, move to a better neighborhood. Solutions that appear so obvious to the uninitiated, not realizing that the system is not set up for everyone to succeed. If these solutions were so easy to have, then no one would be in any of these situations.
People who don’t understand like to comfort themselves with the idea that if someone just “made the right choices” that none of these problems would exist. If someone were just to pull up their pants, get a better job, move to a nice house, go to college, eat healthy foods, exercise, and invest their money, then they too can be a success. Some people like to believe that success is a checklist that can be accomplished one-by-one in a particular order to alleviate most problems. That’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works. People like to look at the exceptions to the rule and blame everyone else for not being the exception.
I am not without certain privileges. I have running water, and a small kitchen to prepare foods. I have my health, and my family is together. I have an education and I read a lot. But none of these leave me completely immune to the reality of being a person of color in the United States. I still break into a cold sweat when I’m going 24 in a 25 mph zone when I see a police officer in my periphery. I still worry about lead paint and asbestos in the neighborhood. I still pray that my Black husband comes home safe every night. I still worry about my brothers and sisters with food insecurity and mounting debt. I still worry what I would do if I had no clean running water like our brothers and sisters in Flint. I am still preoccupied with the housing crises my colleagues are experiencing, and understanding that many of us are usually one paycheck away from having the rug pulled from underneath us.
Today, I challenge you to check your privilege. Today I challenge you to really listen to others when they talk about inequality and social justice. Today I challenge you to suppress your urge to “be right” and get defensive. I challenge you to pay attention to what is really happening to your friends who may not look exactly like you.