Carl Stauffer, PhD, Academic Director, Caux Scholars Program
This week has been a week of commemorating the incredible legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle for civil rights of all people around the world. Unfortunately, this past year was marred by heightened expressions of racial and political divisiveness for many communities across the United States. And while I would desire to call forth MLKs beautiful visions of the beloved community where white and black children play together unhindered, I feel the urge to lift up the prophetic message of MLK at this time and in so doing I am primarily writing to my white brothers and sisters in America.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” We as the white community have sanitized and sterilized King’s historical message in order to stay in our status quo comfort zone. Freelance journalist Robert Jenson (1999) put it this way, “White people, whether overtly racist or not, benefit from living in a world mostly run by white people that has been built on the land and the backs of non-white people.” From my reading of MLK, I am hard pressed not to believe that if he were still alive today he would make all of us feel quite uncomfortable.
The dominant white culture that we live in wants us to believe that the “Beloved Community” that MLK so fervently spoke about is the same as being racially “color blind.” It is not. The myth of “color blindness” simply serves to reinforce the dominating ideology of free radical individualism – that each of us can independently control our lives and the decisions that we make and that this is done completely detached from the influence of societal barriers of race, poverty and class. In the words of Omowale Akintunde (1999), “For most whites, racism is like murder: the concept exists but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen.”
As long as we hold onto this concept of totalizing self-agency, we will never be able to see, identify, comprehend or act against the insidious racism of collective violence and systemic injustice in this country. We will never recognize the cultural legacies and institutional aftermaths of racial violence throughout our history, and we will continue to react to the anger, frustration and violence understandably vented on us by our black brothers and sisters as a personal affront to us, and our loved ones.
Building on these ideas, Ange Atkinson (2008) unpacks the crux of the matter as follows, “A color blind racial ideology is one that rationalizes white supremacy and white privilege and overlooks the underlying racial structure, thus allowing blame to be placed on individuals for their struggles and lack of success rather than recognizing that certain people succeed due to white privilege.” Ange goes on to state, “With the creation of white history the white perspective is perceived as neutral instead of just one viewpoint of a story. This allows for further white supremacy to prevail because”…white privilege becomes invisible.”
So what are we to do? The Beloved Community that MLK spoke about calls us to walk in solidarity across all racial divides to name the structural violence of our history and it’s current manifestations in our societal structures whether public or private. It calls us to be uncomfortable and vulnerable and to intentionally “sit in the fire” of the truth being spoken by those who have suffered and who have fought for generations to overcome structures that have repressed and oppressed them from birth. It requires us to act together across all racial divisions in order to change and eliminate these harmful structures once and for all. It requires us to seek out new spaces to live, work, worship and socialize across all race differences in order to press into the better world we want to see.
In 2016, I am grateful to be part of the Caux Scholars Program and the Initiatives of Change movement – a global collaboration to live and act in the spirit of MLKs “Beloved Community”. Join us as we forge reconciliation across world divides!
Akintunde, O. (1999). White Racism, White Supremacy, While Privilege, and the Social Construction of Race: Moving from Modernist to Postmodernist Multiculturalism. Multicultural Education. 7:2-8.
Atkinson, A. (2008). Understanding White Habitus and White Privilege. Race, Ethnicity, and Me Project (Trinity University). First Edition (Fall): 1-7.
Jensen, R. (1999). More Thoughts on Why the System of White Privilege is Wrong. Baltimore Sun, July 4. - See more at: http://us.iofc.org/sitting-fire-truth-0#sthash.bfVIt4ra.dpuf