I was 18 years old and a freshman in college the first time I realized that there really were people in our modern world that thought people had a different value based on their skin color. I was at an orientation meeting for an organization that I wanted to volunteer with, and the leaders of the organization talked about racism and then went on to tell me that because I was from the South and because I was going to a private college, I must be racist (those were, although pared down, their literal words). They assumed I was wealthy (I was not – I was fully funded through grants and scholarships that I had worked my tail off to earn). They assumed I had family system in place that got me into college (I did not – I was the first person in my family to go to college). And, they assumed my life experience lined up with the narrative they were sharing (it did not). I remember thinking, “You’re telling me I’m racist? Look at yourselves. You’re saying that because I’m white, I must be rich and have had an easy life. And you’re telling me that because these children are black, they must be poor and need my help to read. Who’s being self-righteous and prejudiced here?” It made me angry and it made me want to walk away from the organization.
But before I could walk out, I met some of the kids who were involved in one of the programs that this organization ran (kids who had – even though I was unaware of it happening in the world – already experienced racism in their young lives). When I met them, I immediately loved them and set my feelings about the organization aside. I could see that there was a real need, and I had the skills to make a difference in that area. So I stayed and it ended up being one of my greatest experiences in college.
The assumptions this organization made about who and how I was as a person were not fair. They put me on the defensive, and if I had chosen to hold onto that, I would have missed out on a great experience and valuable life lessons – including that just because I haven’t seen, experienced, or perpetuated something myself, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
The world has changed a lot since then. So many of our interactions now take place in the online world instead of face-to-face. And whereas I’m so grateful that social media allows us to stay connected with people from all places and phases in our life, it also removes a little bit of the humanity in our interaction. When we’re talking to ‘everyone out there in social media land,’ it’s easy to forget the individual HUMANS who may see what we say or share, it’s easy to overlook what their life experiences have been, and it’s no wonder people end up on the defensive. But when were in a defensive position, we become so focused on ‘protecting’ ourselves that we can miss the bigger picture of what’s really going on.
Just like I was angry at that organization for trying to tell me what my experience was, no one has the right to tell you what your life experience is, and you don’t have the right to tell anyone else what their life experience is.
Remember that just because YOU have never been racist toward someone else does not mean that they haven’t experienced racism – whether systemic or interpersonal or both.
And just because someone has experienced racism, it doesn’t mean that you, individually, are a racist.
But society is so much larger than our individual experiences – it is the sum of all of our experiences. So, what if instead of telling someone what their experience is or isn’t, what if we pause to listen? And have discussion? And meet each other where we are? And talk about how we want things to be? We have a great opportunity right now to create a world that is better for everyone. There is power and there is healing when we come together.
What if we all just pause today and look past the organizations and the agendas and the conspiracy theories and the political parties and the religions and the ideologies and the media and the labels and LOOK AT THE PERSON. Stop getting caught up in all the noise and frenzy that is being generated and shared across social media, pause for a moment, and take a look at the HUMAN BEINGS in our lives. See how they are hurting. Look at yourself. See how you are hurting. And then ask yourself, “Can we do better than this?”
Maybe it’s naïve of me to hope for this, but with all my heart I want a world where labels aren’t needed anymore. A world where ALL people feel seen and heard, valued and loved. I want a world where oppression no longer exists. Where racism and sexism – and nearly every other ‘ism’ are only talked about in history books so we learn not to repeat past mistakes. I want a society where humans aren’t marginalized by the systems in place, but are treated for the value that was given them by their Creator. And I know for this to happen, we have to choose to come together. We have to choose to have the hard conversations. We have to choose to hear and accept other people’s experiences without invalidating them or projecting our own onto them. We have to look at the ugly pieces of our society and its systems and consciously choose to create something better.
And I SO hope we do. <3
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