Monday, January 16, 2023

Fighting Racism

My job that I have had for the past 5+ years has taught me a lot. I feel I grew professionally, but I also learned lessons that I hadn't expected. One of those involves racism in America. Prior to that, I looked at all the laws in place and the way minorities are a much more integral and important part of our society, and I thought that meant Dr. King's dream had been fulfilled. I had no idea how far we are from realizing it.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Steven Sauke, 2013
Adobe Illustrator

Growing up as a racial minority in the Philippines, I experienced racism as a child. The most dramatic that I remember was in periods of unrest when we had to stay indoors because it was too dangerous to go out due to the color of our skin. There were reports of white people being shot when they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We even found a bullet hole in our roof once, when the rainy season started and the ceiling above my bed sprang a leak. There were also more innocuous experiences, such as strangers coming up to me and pinching my white cheeks, saying, "Cuuuute!" That made me very uncomfortable. They associated Americans (anyone with white skin) with GI Joe, and people would often call, "Hi, Joe!" as we passed on the street. I just took that as them trying to be friendly. People would also stare at us, and sometimes point and say to each other, "Amerikano!" So coming back to the US, I thought I understood racism, and was thankful to be in a country that (I thought) had gotten past that. At times I even thought people had overcompensated and started discriminating against white people here. While that does happen sometimes, I have learned it isn't nearly the problem I thought it was, and I was looking through the lens of white privilege, which I didn't even think was a thing at the time. I heard of riots and protests related to racism, and was disgusted at the destruction and what my white privilege perceived as overreactions and entitlement. While I do not condone destruction and violence (and neither did Dr. King), I have learned that a lot of their anger is justified. As Dr. King once said when pressed to condemn riots, "A riot is the language of the unheard." To put that in context, this is an excerpt from his speech The Other America (1967):

But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nation's winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

One thing I have believed for years, and now believe more than ever, is that we need to listen to people from other backgrounds and other perspectives. We need to heed what they say. We need to extend respect that we have far too often withheld. I don't pretend to have reached the pinnacle of anti-racism, and I still struggle with racist thoughts at times, which I have to fight.

Working with an amazing and racially-diverse team has taught me a lot. But one thing in particular has come from watching my incredible manager, one of the kindest and most professional people I have met, go through blow after blow after blow. She has lost multiple relatives and friends just in the years I've known her, to shootings. She has endured unimaginable pain and loss, and managed to maintain her positivity and dignity through all of it. I can't express enough how much I admire her. Other coworkers have gone through similar pain and loss. This has opened my eyes to the fact that we have a long way to go in fighting racism in this country. 

Having experienced racism in the Philippines has taught me a lot, and I feel helps me to identify more with minorities here, but it is nothing compared to the horrifying tribulations they have experienced. Nobody deserves that. A year or two ago, I had a white person, a friend of a friend, try to convince me that the term "white privilege" is itself a racist slur (something I once believed myself), and she refused to truly listen as several people tried to explain that it is a statement of fact, not a slam against white people. We don't generally experience what people of other races have gone through in this country, even in recent years. We aren't usually targeted due to the color of our skin here. To say that a group of people has privilege is, in itself, neither a slam nor a compliment. It's just a statement of fact. It's what we do with that privilege that can become a problem. It's when we decide to apply a different standard to someone with a different color of skin, or start thinking of them as less.

One thing that has spoken volumes to me is the end of Martin Luther King's I've Been to the Mountaintop speech. I have trouble reading it aloud without tearing up. (I encourage you to read the entire speech by clicking on the link in this paragraph. It's powerful.)

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Dr. King delivered that speech April 3, 1968. He was assassinated April 4, 1968, the following day. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my heroes. I once thought his dream had been realized, but I now realize we have a long way to go. We need to listen to each other. We need to extend to everyone the same respect we would to anyone else, no matter the color of their skin, their religion, or anything else. Everyone needs love, care and respect. Think how many riots and other unrest we could prevent if we could just listen to voices like Dr. King and others! 

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