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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Language of Reconciliation

I am guilty. Guilty of taking every privilege I have ever been granted, guilty for being born into a neighborhood secured by insurance agencies and reaped the benefits of urban planning, guilty for being placed into schools that were freely chosen, guilty for having access to solid financial aid for college, guilty for having a family that is able to support that aid, guilty for being able to freely shop, guilty for questioning authority without violent retribution or expulsion, guilty for exerting authority even in situations where I am not the uniformed person, guilty for freely walking, guilty for living in neighborhoods where the violence does not apply to me.

I am guilty of even more than this.

This feeling is appropriate. I wish that I could do more. More than writing politicians, engaging with friends, trying my best to be a good person, and working as best as I can to empathize with every person I encounter. This is simply not enough. Feeling guilty is a perfectly rational response to horrendous injustices, especially when those injustices are executed in my name, or rather, for my face, or for my privilege, to ensure my secure status in society. And those injustices burn my eyes, they destroy the value of any security whatsoever, for that security requires that the backs of others carry the absolute weight of sheer volatility, vagrancy, and violence.

At what point is this security worthwhile? As we become more aware of the startling, violent injustices committed in our names against others, will white Americans be willing to challenge their own securities to improve society? We are insulated from violence: our people conspired to form slums through financial measures and planning policies that designed our neighborhoods-in-fortresses. Our people conspired to perpetuate those slums by lending insecure funds to minorities looking for any chance to improve their lifestyle and gain a piece of security. Our people continually encourage a form of political austerity that forces budget cuts that harm the least among us, and in fact allow us to strengthen our position in society.

This is unacceptable.

Encountering our guilt is one way to form a language of reconciliation. We must face ourselves, and truly interrogate our privilege, in order to create an equal society. We can only listen; we must stop our condemnations of "black rioters," and our "outrage" at other forms of black violence. We must listen to pleas that describe specific wrongs, specific transgressions, however large, or however small, and we must urge them to stop. If we are outside of the realm of protest movements, if the comfort of the middle class has swallowed us whole, we must use that power to our advantage: write our representatives, demand changes, or even not that we do not want atrocious injustices committed in our names.

If these ideas seem convoluted and strange, it is because the institutions that have formed our privileges have also successfully masked themselves and pinned the blame on others. A brief history of racism bears this out: We steal your land; when you don't own property, we point and say, "Why are you so poor and lazy?" We steal your ability to own your labor; when you're unable to apply your abilities in the best possible labor market, we say, "Why can't you get a job?" We impede your access to sound credit, and when you can't own your business, or can't afford college, can't own your home, or default on your mortgage, we say, "Why aren't you able to better your own lot? Why can't you pull yourself up from your bootstraps and make it work?" We take away your access to institutional justice, barring your chance to successfully see your transgressors in court, and when you protest, we ask, "What is the point of this violence?" We declare war on your neighborhoods, call your neighborhoods war zones, and violently enforce those areas, then say, "Why are you so violent? Why can't you accomplish your goals peacefully?"There is more to racism, of course, but it is worth noting that the history of racism can be summarized in five sentences.

This is unacceptable. This is why I feel guilt. My identity, on the surface, is oppressor. This is accomplished in my name. We must reconcile these wrongs, and we have the benefits to do so: we have the security of police forces, equity, financially sound neighborhoods, open ears from politicians, media, and other privileged and powerful people. Instead of asking for specific gains, it would be telling to write our representatives and tell them that our white privilege is no longer acceptable. We want everyone to be able to share in our open, secure society, to be free from violence, to be able to take the same chances, learn the same theories, work in the same executive offices, hold the same political offices, own the same homes, and have the same access to credit.

This is our burden. Make no mistake, it is ours. This is why I feel guilty. Yet, by confronting this guilt, by letting it flow through my veins, I understand this much: we must listen. We must write. We must encounter our own privilege, and we must either make peace with it, or demand that others share in it. Our language of reconciliation begins here, with guilt, but also open ears. Are we up to the task to invite others into our circles? Do we want better institutions? If we care for society to improve, this is where we must begin, and we must know that we can improve our society even if we are not on the frontline of protest, violence, or combat.