Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is usually a day where we look back on the life of a vaunted man, one who had dreams of multicultural harmony in the land of the red, white and blue.
But looking back, how far has the U.S. really come in its race relations? Yes, there’s clearly been huge strides. We have a black president, the number of African Americans graduating from high school and college is growing and so is the black middle class. But what about the other changes? The individual ones that transform our collective consciousness?
It starts with addressing those parts of ourselves where the whispers reside. The whispers that warn white women to slide a protective hand over their purse when a black man walks by. The whisper that cautions store clerks about the brown kid in the hoodie and baggy pants. It says there’s probably stolen merchandise in his backpack, not books. The curious question that makes you wonder what country an Asian-American girl is really from.
Sure those whispers aren’t as thunderous as the infamous “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” proclamation from Alabama Gov. George Wallace. However, they do divide us.
It’s those divisions that stall our growth toward true equality. I’m not saying that we should all strive to be the same, because we’re not. People are different and that’s OK. In fact, it’s good and should be celebrated.
The problem arises when institutions such as the justice system, education system and workforce end up unfairly harming those who are “different.” Harm from such powerful institutions lasts for generations.
We all have influence on those systems, and we all can help make it better. It begins with ourselves and recognizing our “isms.” Everyone has them. Men have them about women, straight people about gays, Christians, Muslims, black, white, yellow, brown… And since moving to Norway, I’ve uncovered some of my own “isms.” We all have those quiet voices in our minds whispering untruths about others who are different.
Bring those whispers to light, examine them, challenge them. It’s not easy because a lot of times those “isms” come at lightning speed. But when those whispering thoughts strike, take a pause and ask yourself why.
“I think we have to look much deeper than that if we are to find the real cause of man’s problems and the real cause of the world’s ills today. If we are to really find it I think we will have to look in the hearts and souls of men,” King told a Detroit church in 1954.
“The problem is with man himself and man’s soul. We haven’t learned how to be just and honest and kind and true and loving,” he said. “And that is the basis of our problem.”
So as our New Year’s resolutions start to fade, maybe we can use some of that energy to push for a better us, one that’s more just, honest, kind, true and loving. Doing so will help us realize the dream of being a nation that’s indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.