“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was going to start this week’s post with a short comment about the George Floyd killing and ensuing protests. I was going to say how tone deaf it would be to jump straight into my post this week without acknowledging the injustice that continues to happen in my home country. I was going to share a couple quotes, and then move on. But as I started typing, it turns out I had a lot more to say.
I’m feeling especially far from the US right now. A couple days ago I started watching the riots, the videos, the outrage. But coming across 12-year-old Keedron Bryan belt out his pain and grief really moved me. I watched and rewatched it again and again until eventually retweeting it onward.
It made me realize: I honest to God can’t imagine what it feels like to be scared in your own home, among your own countrymen, living in your own skin.
Although I’m European and white, my ancestors coming to America were the lowly Irish, Italian and Greek immigrant kind of white. I remember my Greek Papou telling stories of being called a “Bolivar Road Bum,” Bolivar Road being the immigrant-riddled street in downtown Cleveland where he lived with his single mother and two younger brothers. But did he ever feel scared to be alive?
I’ve often wondered if the discrimination he felt, or my Italian and Irish great grandparents felt, compares at all to what Keedron Bryan and George Floyd and millions of other marginalized people still feel in the US and elsewhere in the world.
Of course not. While my immigrant European ancestors took backbreaking labor jobs because they were the only ones they could find, at least they had the freedom to do so. They made the choice to come to the United States. They weren’t dragged there. Their origin story is one of opportunity, not oppression.
The other thing my whiteness can’t truly understand is what it feels like to be racially profiled and discriminated against. The only quasi-racism I ever experienced was in Iceland, and even that’s a huge stretch. I’m embarrassed to share it as my only point of reference, but here it is nonetheless.
Steve tells the story in Tales of Iceland. My friend Bojo has dark features like me, although his from Lebanese roots, mine Balkan and Italian. One night in Reykjavík, we made friends with a group of Icelandic girls. On our way from one bar to the next, a guy friend of theirs, an Icelandic Air pilot, joined us. He nodded toward Bojo and I and made a remark in Icelandic to one of the girls, sending her head flying back with laughter.
We asked another girl, What did that guy say that was so funny?
“Oh, he joked about you two, saying ‘Did Greece throw up in here?'”
Steve thought it was hilarious. And so did we. It’s actually a pretty good line.
But it stayed with me. It stayed with both of us. Bojo even brought it up when we spoke on the phone this week. Maybe we felt a minuscule 0.000001% of what it’s actually like to be discriminated against, called a name, knelt on horrifically and unjustifiably. And then we continued galavanting through the streets of Reykjavík without a care in the world.
Why bother sharing any of this?
I guess I’m trying to feel how my oppressed brothers and sisters might feel, and realizing how far I truly am from understanding how they could possibly feel. It doesn’t stop my heart from hurting for and with them. But in trying to intellectually or emotionally “walk a mile in their shoes,” I lack the lived experience to find even the first few baby steps.
I’m also exploring what all of this means to me, for me, and what I can do about it as an able bodied and privileged person in the world today. I hope you’ll bear with me as I explore what I feel on the page.
I’ve been guilty of not speaking up in my life. Not only on issues of social injustice, but on difficult conversations, taking a stand, offering an opinion, sharing what I believe.
I’ve had to work on 1) believing I had a voice to share in the first place, and 2) activating that voice to speak about things that matter to me. This blog was my entry drug into that. And Jesus help me – if I think about how psychologically difficult it’s been for me to raise my voice, as statistically the most privileged voice in the world, what must it be like for my marginalized brothers and sisters?
While writing this, I found a collection of quotes about speaking up against injustice that’s helped me understand my role better:
“Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”– Mahatma Gandhi
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”— Elie Wiesel
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If I sit silently, I have sinned.”– Mohammad Mossadegh
I obviously believe in treating all people with dignity and respect. Of course Black Lives Matter. But until I say it, until I do something about it, is it really so obvious?
If there was ever any doubt, the discrimination that still occurs in the United States and everywhere else is wrong, and it’s enough. I stand with my Black brothers and sisters – ALL of my brothers and sisters, of every color, race and creed – who’ve ever felt discriminated in their own home, country or skin.
In 2012, when trying to articulate what Give, Live, Explore meant to me, I wrote:
“GIVE is realizing we’re all on the same team. Let’s help each other.”
I’m on your team.
This post, of course, is not enough. But I hope it’s a start.