“All I’m saying is simply this: that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commencement address to Oberlin College in June 1965
On January 18 as we were celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his leadership in the civil rights movement, I came across these words delivered by him at the Oberlin College commencement address, an institution that shares many ties to the founding and first decades of Berea College.
Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of loved ones have lost their lives to the pandemic. Many black and brown Americans were killed by the very police charged to protect them. An economic crisis has created despair for so many. And most recently, the Capitol insurrection motivated by white supremacy and misinformation shook our democracy. These intertwining crises combined to create significant collective trauma in our lives. We are scared, exhausted, disturbed, and despairing. We are suffering individually and as a country.
But these tragic events have presented us with an opportunity–they have brought the national attention to massive issues and dynamics we need to name and address. And if we refocus the emotional energy of our sadness and anger, if we remember the truth spoken by Dr. King that we belong to each other and that one person’s wellbeing is caught up with everyone’s well-being, there is hope. We have hope.
But before we can begin healing and achieve reconciliation, the truth must be named. We must acknowledge that a major dynamic, if not the major dynamic at the heart of those four major national tragedies described above is white supremacy. We must wrestle with the reality that the pandemic is affecting black and brown Americans at a much greater rate than others, acknowledging the systemic racism built into the foundations of our healthcare system. We must acknowledge that the Black Lives Matter movement is a vital and necessary response to the white supremacy inherent in law enforcement. We must name the reality that the job crisis, the hunger crisis ravaging our country is fundamentally caused by a system created to benefit certain people at the expense of most others. And finally we must name the truth about the Capitol insurrection, that the anxiety felt by many Americans around immigration and race, the anxiety around the way the economy doesn’t serve everyday people was weaponized by those in power to fuel xenophobia, hate, and violence.
Back on January 6, as I was watching the terror of the Capitol insurrection live on the television, I was taken aback. I was taken aback by the fact that so many members of that violent mob, so many of those domestic terrorists looked like me. And then I struggled to reconcile the sheer violence and seriousness of the transgressions committed by this mob with the lack of proportional response by law enforcement. How were they just letting them roam free?
And then so many memories and experiences flashed through my mind, times where the power and privilege of being a traditionally masculine presenting white man allowed me to feel safe, allowed me to feel entitled to a space, a space where many (if not most) others might be threatened, unwelcome, and experience harm. Whether in the presence of law enforcement, walking through a city at night, or in the workplace, my personal experience was and continues to be very different than those who don’t look like me.
The Capitol insurrection provided us with a disturbingly clear and vivid illustration of the prevalence of systemic white (male) supremacy in our society. What will it take for us to see it? What will it take for us white men to see that, paraphrasing Dr. King’s words, we will never be who we ought to be until each person is who they ought to be? I look forward to working with the Berea College community in bringing down the defenses of white fragility, and with humility, listen to the many leaders advocating for change in the legacy of Dr. King, that “we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.”