I recently attended the 2nd Annual Boston Talks About Racism, an event hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity, where “the Mayor and members of his team [would] discuss the implementation of Boston’s Resilience Strategy, and [the] year-long project that will bring small, facilitated conversations about racism, healing, and policy work into all of Boston’s neighborhoods.”
A 45-minute Q&A session with Mayor Walsh was the highlight of the morning, followed by breakout sessions on a variety of topics including housing displacement and discrimination, Boston’s immigrant community, and economic inclusion. During the Q&A session, one thing that Mayor Walsh repeatedly stressed and fell back on, particularly as part of his response to some of the tougher questions, was the notion that this was a “conversation”, a “dialogue”, and that it was important to get the conversation going across the City. Admittedly, the Mayor stressed this enough times where it became a concern for me, one that I shared with one of our local news stations.
We find ourselves at a place in this 21st century where the collective consciousness of the population is seemingly being elevated to a higher level. There was a time where certain conversations only happened within certain marginalized communities and between certain marginalized peoples. Now, it is spreading into other communities and groups. Invariably, what’s missing from these conversations is this: a sense of urgency.
First, while I can appreciate that the literacy of a percentage of the population is increasing as they engage with stories of systemic oppression and injustice (and, more importantly, with the individuals who are telling these stories), now we have to wait. While they are finally paying attention – in no small part due to the fact that the foundations of their realities have been shaken and their own lives and livelihoods are now being threatened – we have to wait for everyone to catch up to where we have always been, but were too inconvenienced or too comfortable to concern themselves with. It does not really seem or feel like they are in a rush to me.
This does not surprise me. One cannot expect those who have never been subject to perpetual acts of dehumanization to react and respond to a threat the same way those who have would. Those who belong to a dominant group do not face the same existential threats to their bodies and lives as those who belong to an oppressed group. Even if members of the dominant group should find themselves in a position where they feel and are, to some extent, legitimately at risk by the same threat, the immediate and lasting impacts of such a threat will fundamentally be felt differently by individuals of both the dominant and oppressed group. So, there is no sense of urgency.
“Comprehension is not a requisite of cooperation.” – Councillor West, The Matrix Reloaded
Secondly, at what point does knowledge become actionable? When should an individual feel “comfortable” enough to act on a new level of consciousness and become an agent of change? Should one’s comfort even be a factor when acting as an ally? Therein lies the complacency of privilege. If the oppressed, let alone their grievances, mattered to the oppressors, an indoctrination of the latter in the experiences of oppression of the former would not be needed. There would not be a as great a need for individual or factional racial literacy because the literacy of the community-at-large would be more than sufficient. One would simply trust and believe in what was shared and who shared it, and act on it. But, because their lives don’t matter, their stories don’t matter. Since their stories don’t matter, their petitions don’t matter.
So, how can we realize this sense of urgency? Rather, how can we circumvent the question altogether by acting on what is already known by many, without the prerequisite of it being known by all? Trust. Without a measure of trust, it is impossible to engage any serious matter with a any sense of urgency.
If a close friend comes to you in their time of need, gasping for air, begging, pleading for help, you, being the exceptional friend and human being that you are, will rush to help them. In the immediacy of the moment, you do not have to know all the details, you do not have to ask for an entire backstory, you do not need to be brought up to speed. All that matters is that you must do something to help, right then and there. Why? Because of the relationship you have with your friend, and the love and trust that is central to your relationship. Because you know this person, you act on what you know in that moment. A true friend, an ally, will take up your cause as their own, simply because it is important to you.
Due to segregation – by choice, by design, or by unintended consequences – we do not allow ourselves the opportunity to establish legitimate relationships with individuals of other races and ethnicities. Our interactions are sporadic, cordial, and superficial, and subsequently we retreat to the inner sanctums of our identity groups where we remain stagnant in our world views and our (mis)perceptions. Because we do not literally see each other (also, figuratively, as equals), we do not engage with each other. Because we do not engage with each other, we do not know each other. Because we do not know each other, we do not trust each other. Because we do not trust each other, we do not believe each other. Because we do not believe each other, we cannot help each other. Because we cannot help each other, we hurt each other. It all falls apart before it ever had a real chance of coming together.