My website and blogs focus on creating an environmentally sustainable and healthy world for future generations. A fundamental aspect of building a green environment beneficial for all living on this planet means we must look at issues related to equality and inclusion. We will never have a salubrious environment if large groups of people live in terrible conditions and are treated as less important than others.
The recent protests in the United States sparked by the murder of George Floyd invite us to ask some very difficult questions about racism today. These protests are poignant reminders that we live in societies that have failed in their ideals for equality for all. At the same time, the protests are powerful. They exhibit that changes need to be made and offer us an opportunity to look at our practices, beliefs, and actions to work towards transformation.
Many deep-seated reasons exist for why injustices occur against black people, as well as others who are not considered part of the social norm because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, age, or ability. I believe that one of the reasons for this is fear. Fear, as the title of this blog states, leads to death. The title is taken from second line of the lyrics to the Youngbloods’ rendition of Chet Power’s song Get Together. The music calls for people to come together to love one another.
This coming together means we have to listen, learn, and engage with people about their experiences of discrimination. We have to look at how we are complicit in the persistence of inequalities through our (in)actions even if we do not mean to do so and genuinely believe all people should be treated equally. If we remain fearful of uncomfortable conversations and taking direct action to alter current realities, we will remain ignorant to how and why changes can be made. It also means that we will lose this opportunity to build an inclusive society built on respect and care for one another.
I am the Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Officer in my University department and took on the role because I have been aware of racism and exposed to other forms of prejudice from a young age. Taking on this role and teaching my students about the history of difference are, for me, the best ways I can help right injustices. I became aware of inequalities that existed in the United States at the age of five, when I had a series of surgical procedures on my right ear at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
On my first day in the hospital, I sat down to lunch with about 10 or 12 other children and found that I was the minority. Most of the children were black and some were Latinex. Being the minority for the first time in my life was disconcerting to say the least. It added to my fear of being left alone in the hospital without anyone I knew protecting me from the unknown.
The experience, however, was a significant life lesson. Not only did it teach me to ask how it must feel (my experience would in no way compare) to be black or brown in a predominantly white society, but also I was confronted with problems related to racism head on. I noticed that the black and Latinex children were poorer than the white children in the hospital. From that time forward, I remained observant of the great discrepancies in lifestyles between many black and white people: job opportunities, access to education and healthcare, and economic security were and are disproportional.
This was the mid 1970s, a decade after the Civil Rights movement. I remember being taught to treat everyone equally, which on the surface would seem to be a good first step towards rectifying some deep-seated inequalities that have existed in American society for centuries. However, the lessons were superficial. Rarely, did I see white people interacting with black people on a meaningful level. The majority of conversations I saw tended to be polite and cursory. I know that most of this was likely because our parents and teachers were raised in segregated societies, so it was uncomfortable for them to know how to react. Moreover, in school we were not taught how to ask ourselves to look carefully at our biases or how to rectify hundreds of years of mistreatment. So just being taught to be nice meant that people maintained an uncomfortable distance, and the problems persist.
Thinking about some of the other lyrics in Power’s song can help us to take further action to build on the promises and hope that began in the 1960s.
1. To “[g]et together and love on another right now” means that we can no longer superficially engage with people about issues of race and prejudice. Admittedly, we cannot change the past, but we can learn about it to understand how it continues to affect society. We can listen to people about their experiences and ask them how we can help make the world better for them.
2. The lyrics, “[w]e are but a moment’s sunlight fading in the grass” remind us that life is short, and we have to ask if we want to live the remainder of our lives in a world filled with hate, disparity, and dis-ease.
These protests are an amazing opportunity to honor all of those who have died, been falsely accused and incarcerated, and have been physically and emotionally harmed by racism and other forms of prejudice. Twenty-twenty is an unprecedented year, shaking us to the core of our existence and how we live. We sit on the precipice of either staying the same through our fear of change, or face our fears and act to make the world better for the future. As the Youngblood’s sang “You hold the key…”