In the last week, I’ve seen more quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. than I have in the last three Black History Months, from people on both sides of the issue. Black people are taught to keep in mind one important fact about Dr. King that is often overlooked: he was the leader of a peaceful movement in the fight for our civil rights, he never acted in violence — yet he was still murdered.
This is the cornerstone of “the talk” given to us by our parents. It starts when we first hear someone say “nigger” and watch our parents wince, or when we meet our first police officer and our parents squeeze our shoulders. They sit us down, and this is what they tell us:
You can’t be too black. Your existence can’t make them feel threatened. They can storm capitol buildings and walk into places of business armed to the teeth, but you can’t gather peacefully. The president will advocate peace for them, violence for you. How we live and breathe is dictated by how comfortable other people feel. That is the lesson behind the lesson of Dr. King: even when we act peacefully, some people will only see a threat.
The very reason our parents sit us down is the same reason our grandparents sat them down. We must keep our children alive, so one day things will change. But more than half a century of Dr. King quotes have yet to end the killing and the hate. Even when supported by friends and family of other races, we still live trapped by the perceptions of people who do not recognize our humanity. It doesn’t have to be this way.
When people protest for the safety of black lives, they are not protesting against the average white citizen. We protest white supremacy, which is “a system of structural advantage [that] favors white people in social, political, and economic arenas,” according to writer and producer Baratunde Thurston. White people have chosen and can choose to use the advantages of this system to learn how to help the people it oppresses.
To ignore another person’s suffering because you are not directly affected is the easy choice. It’s the choice that so many people before us have made. It’s what brought us here now. The pain doesn’t go away just because you don’t choose to acknowledge its existence.
Some ask the question: “Why should I care?” The state of our country right now is exactly why caring about other people and taking action to prevent more suffering is important. Empathy matters because our world is on fire. It’s the hard choice, but every day after it gets easier to make. The best way to start is simple: ask why we protest, because these issues are not just political topics for intellectual discussion, but horrors impacting our everyday lives.
Hear the pain in our voices, and know there is hope beneath.