Yesterday, this country celebrated the life of a historical icon, Martin Luther King Jr. A champion of civil rights and social justice, Dr. King has come to symbolize the racial strife embedded in recent U.S. history. We revere his high moral fiber and pious spirit, remembering him as a saint more than a man. However, the day did more than just honor the efforts of an American hero.
For many, it was a harsh reminder of the uncomfortable similarities between race relations in the 1950/60s and today. The events of Ferguson ring far too familiar when juxtaposed with civil rights movements in North Carolina or Alabama. Graduation and literacy rates seem to mirror the days of separate but equal. Prison populations often fail to reflect national demographics and legal systems seemingly favor discrimination over evidence. And with the first black president handing the Oval Office over to a white man fervently supported by Ku Klux Klan leaders, America feels far from modern to some of her citizens.
In an attempt to observe the holiday, I attended a seminar about social media and how it can be harnessed for online activism. The lecture was presented by two women of color and a member of the trans community, a minority lens particularly helpful in exposing subcultures within the large universe of Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. Something powerful the speakers emphasized was moving away from digital proclamations and towards actual impact. Announcing oneself as an ally of #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter, but not attending a local rally does little to reform society. This seems intuitive but is a trap many fall into, myself included.
As a white cis female, I often feel uncertain about my supposed role in social justice. I am comfortable reposting a compelling article about the election or tweeting a great documentary about race, but uncomfortable attending a local BLM meeting or visiting the K.C. Potter Center. My lack of minority status makes me feel as though these larger, real-world systems are not designed for me, nor are for my participation. However, staying within this comfort zone really just translates to inaction and perpetuating the inequality I say I oppose. The speakers stressed the need for a shift from screens to streets.
More than anything, this seminar prompted me to think about this course and identity. My whiteness is largely defined by a lack of blackness, brownness, or “other-ness:” a mutually exclusive understanding of race and a total exclusion of overlap. The discussion of Painter and Horsman left me realizing how constructed, purposeful, and artificial race has been throughout history. My discomfort to move activism from my phone to my life is a symptom of this dangerous racial narrative.
Dr. King famously said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” My socio-political beliefs usually remain in a comfortable, convenient digital space. I appreciate the seminar for pushing back on my understanding of allyship, just as I appreciate this class for furthering my perception of race. Over this semester, I hope to struggle, to contemplate, and to hopefully gain new insight.