MLK Day: Celebrate with Peace

The conversation around Martin Luther King Jr. tends to stop with race. The popular understanding of his contributions, cultivated in public schools, Black History Month, and text books say two things:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and peace loving man who brought equality to Black Americans through the Civil Rights Movement
  2. His work is complete today

Pieces of the first statement is true: Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and peace loving man, but he did not bring about equality. We do not live in a post-racial world when people of color are murdered by police, murdered by white supremacists like Dylann Roof, when people of color are imprisoned and treated as criminals.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy, we must understand three very different truths than what we are taught:

  1. We have much to do to continue Martin Luther King’s work through active nonviolent, anti-racist lives where we do not allow ourselves to be divided by color lines
  2. Martin Luther King spoke out against more than racial injustice

He fought for an end to poverty for people of all races. And he understood that race and war and poverty are intertwined. At the time of his speech: “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (1967), the United States government spent approximately ten times more killing enemy soldiers than they did helping poor people. As he said further along in the speech:

I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

War becomes a matter of race because:

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

The issue is the same today. We continue to send poor people–vulnerable people of all races–to fight overseas, when they are not guaranteed basic liberties in their own neighborhoods. One of the increasing number of Americans who cannot afford a college education? Through programs like the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) the military pays for your schooling and you join the military then as an officer. Our government and our military continue to exploit poor communities by denying them the basic right to education, and then (in one of many examples) paying for said education through an easy point of recruitment. Students become fodder for the war machine and are too busy learning military training to become politically active on college campuses.

To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy we must stand against poverty in all its forms and against war and military recruitment. Only then can we march forward to equality.

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Coloring While White

I was at an event at my college, hosted by the South Asian students association, the Black Student Association, and the Muslim Student Association and they had whole tables of pictures to color, most of which were of women of color. There was a brilliant picture of Princess Jasmine, from Disney’s Aladdin, waving a flag that read:

nobody’s free until everyone is free!

And when I went to color her in, I had to stop and think and remember to reach for a brown crayon to color her skin. I had never thought of this micro aggression against people of color before, but it’s so obvious now that I think about it. As a person perceived as white and benefiting daily from white privilege, regardless of how I choose to identify, even things like crayons cater to me. I can reach into a Crayola crayon box and pull out a “flesh” colored crayon, which tells me, even as a child, that this is the natural color of a person’s skin.

flesh

I feel oblivious and ashamed that I never noticed that until last week. But until we notice and address the micro-aggressions against people of color, we’ll never move beyond them to address the blatant issues of racism. Because, nobody’s free until everyone is free and nobody’s free while we ignore white privilege.

The Positive Language of Feminism

Nearly a month into 2015, but it’s not too late to add a New Year’s resolution. This year, I will be a positive feminist and use my language to uplift women.

I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in my speech this past year: when speaking about feminism, social justice or human rights I fall into the category of one who sees some of the problems but frames my responses from a negative outlook. Instead of saying “Women’s voices have been devalued by patriarchal culture,” I say, “Women are told their voices don’t matter and that we’ll never matter.”

The difference is in the tense. It is true that women’s voices have been devalued in the past, and that in the present women still struggle to be heard, but that does not mean WE’LL NEVER MATTER. If I frame our current struggle as a losing cause I keep my self down, I keep others down and surround myself with the fear that nothing I can do or say will matter because the past=the present=the future.

Not true.

In a conversation with a group of women of color at my university the other day, many of them spoke about how their mothers and female role models never told them that they were worth less as women. Looking at my own background, my mother never told me that I was worth less for my sex. I was telling myself this lie because to be a feminist and to be a part of feminist culture and debate means to drop into a fist fight and always keep your arms up for defense. You will be attacked.

Maybe I wanted a lost cause. Maybe it felt good to rant in absolute statements that said negative words like NEVER.

But feminism is not a lost cause.

With your arms up you are also on the offensive and you choose how you fight. This year, I choose to fight with positive language. Women’s voices are valued. Women’s voices are valued because I value them. And I am not alone.

When  I was home in CT for winter break I met up with a friend I’ve known since elementary school. The year before we both went off to college we were both afraid of the word feminism and wouldn’t listen to a mutual friend begin to question the patriarchy. We only meet up once or twice a year, and in 2013 we sat in Barnes and Noble and laughed at the articles in Seventeen Magazine for its portrayal of young girls as sex objects in a heteronormative world. I was a feminist then but was too afraid to say so to my friend and she was a feminist, but was too afraid to say so to me.

This year, I followed her facebook page as she posted about Ferguson and the fight for human rights across differences in race, sex, gender and sexuality. When we met up this year, she told me that as a creative writing major, “I’m tired of reading stories by and about men.” Wow, did I understand the feeling! Finally, we came together as the feminists were always terrified to be, but we lifted each other up through our bravery. Feminism is a positive language to make positive change and connect individuals for a more just and peaceful world of equality.

In 2015, I will be a positive feminist.

You Know Your Country’s Racist When…

Though this sounds like the opening to a bad joke, or a top ten list you might scan through to get a quick laugh, I think it’s time people stopped laughing at racism. Even people who still admit racism exists won’t always stand up to stop it, or will laugh along with the crowd. I’m just as guilty of this myself, but my experience as a canvasser this summer is opening my eyes to see that racism isn’t always as simple as hateful words or scornful thoughts and glances. A lot of the time, racism is the system of oppression which perpetuates the verbal and non-verbal hate that is deemed worthy of media attention as true racism.

But I’m out canvassing in areas of Atlanta like Virginia Highlands or East Atlanta and I’m seeing first hand that hate speech is a by-product of economic injustice and social inequality. When I was in Virgian Highlands, the houses would alternate between three tiered miniature mansion houses where people could freely write out checks for $60, and broken down shacks of unmowed lawns, broken screens to cover their front doors, and people who are out of work. 

This wasn’t every experience-I did run into a lot of white people who were also out of work, and some black families who were well off-but a majority of the time, the white people lived in the fancy houses and the people of color lived in the shacks. This was described to me as a mixed income neighborhood.

These are not people you can reasonably ask for money and a few weeks ago I was called out as being racist by a black man who asked why I skipped his house on my way down his street. He asked me flat out, “Do you just not go to the houses of colored folks?” His house was on my list and I did skip over it because I knew I would not be able to get a contribution. I was being racist and falling into this system of oppression because it was easy to do so. Though I was mortified and angry at being called out on my behavior I’m glad someone was willing to tell me my actions were complete bull shit. No one else was going to do it so I’m glad someone had the guts to.

I can’t pretend to speak from the experience of a person of color, but from my own experience, even just as a specatator, I know this is wrong. This is why racism exists: people see the poverty of black people and other people of color and think that because it is so prevalent in certain areas that therefore it is natural. White supremacy has to come from somewhere and I see it as stemming from the economic injustices that appear so mundane it’s sickening.

The past few days I’ve been in Ansley Park and this is an area of mansions. In the two days I’ve been there, I have spoken to one black family who told me that they didn’t own the house but were renting it. Every other person I spoke to or encountered on the street was white. Aside from the mansions this reminds me of my own home town and how ignorant I was of other cultures and the sytematic oppression which keeps white people at the top. If you grow up in an all-white neighborhood you don’t even think about racism and this is perhaps the most dangerous pit fall: ignorance that the problem exists at all.

And it is a problem! This is not just what I’ve seen demographically going from house to house, but that if the police get called on our organization for soliciting, there is a much higher chance the call will be in regards to a black male canvasser.

There is an irrational fear of people of color and fear is just another form of hatred. I know people who claim that because they don’t actively insult people of color they are not racist. But they are racist because they treat people of color differently and there is never any justification for it.

Any push for economic justice-living wage jobs, equal pay for equal work regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation-will wake people up to the fact that poverty is no one’s natural state and never will be.  When people of color are given the right to the same opportunities as white people that’s when white neighborhoods will expand to include other races and mixed income areas will no longer mean rich white neighborhood speckled with colored people in poverty. People need to see the injustice  and recognize that there is nothing natural about racism or oppression.

Gun Culture and the NRA

I’m from Connecticut, but was out of state in college when the Newtown shooting happened. When I thought about starting this post, I was concerned that the moment had somehow passed and that there was a taboo on bringing up the shooting months later because it is officially a thing “of the past.” Really, I was just afraid to comment on the gun culture of America.

I never paid attention to the NRA. I knew the organization was a lobbyist, but I knew it in the vague sense of knowing, the way you know you’d get arrested if you yelled”fire!” in a movie theatre. You don’t want to test out the theory precisely because you believe it’s true.

But even knowing the NRA is a major lobbyist, I never made the connection between the NRA, racism and gun control. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of the recent shootings, but I do see a pattern. The media focus after the attacks are never directly addressing the issue of gun violence. Everything else is blamed and questioned, but not the reason for why the American people are so adamant about owning guns.

The media blames video game violence, bad parenting, moral degeneracy (as a by-product of the previous two causes), and anything as crazy as Marilyn Manson. But what interests me the most is the analysis of mental illness as a factor. Mental illness only comes up when the shooter is white. There is a push to somehow justify the shooter’s actions, to bolster the white race and show “white America” that the shooter is an outlier. It is a defense mechanism to protect the idea of a peaceful America made up entirely of white suburbs. In addition to the racism this projects, there is no thought about the ableism it harbors either and how this theory further serves to elevate the ideal of a white and perfect race.

When the shooter is a person of color, it is expected that the person of color is morally degenerate already. There is no image to save, but a racial stereotype to reinforce. Why would the media waste time talking about mental illness as a cause of the violence, when people are ready to believe the violence is a natural by-product of race?

The NRA comes into play because they love the racial stereotyping and the media’s back and forth over useless “causes” of the shootings. The NRA knows that everyone will ask “How does someone with a mental disability get a hold of a gun?” No one will bother to uncover the deeper question: “Why is anyone, mentally handicapped or otherwise, able to purchase assault weapons?” And if the shooter is a person of color, there won’t be as many questions asked at all. Instead, white suburban Americans will go out and buy more guns to protect themselves against an imagined racial threat.

And while people argue over Republican and Democrat ideas of gun control, the NRA controls both parties. Liberal and conservative, both parties are bought and sold so the NRA and other lobbyists can feed off America’s fear and paranoia over racial strife. The greater the racial tension, the more guns fearful Americans buy and the more guns there are, the chances increase for another Columbine, another Aurora or another Newtown.

The time has not passed to discuss gun control. If anything, the time is now because we need to speak out before Newtown becomes a thing of the past.  It is too easy to relegate the shooting to a half-hearted discussion where no one has a solution and no believes it is relevant. It is relevant. Not just to discuss, but to discuss all aspects: the NRA, the racism, and the overall question:

“Why are Americans adamant about owning guns?”