Vietnam Adventure 15: On the journey to justice and love

What a week this has been… I have been so stirred up emotionally. I’ve been in a state of shock and grief. I’ve wanted nothing more than to express my love and empathy for so many people who have been marginalized throughout their lifetimes, and in particular in the last year – including people of color, Muslims, immigrants, folks with disabilities, women and the LBGTQ community. My heart has ached and yet I haven’t known how to express it in a way that could be heard clearly, in a way that communicates that the pain is not about the politics – it is about a lack of love and respect for our fellow human beings.

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For a long time I’ve wanted to share with my family and old-time friends about my journey of coming into awareness about my identities, and specifically my racial identity. It hasn’t been a political journey, it’s been an interior and exterior journey. One where many experiences and people have gently and patiently helped me to see myself and my world more clearly. I have feared writing and sharing about this – I fear offending my social justice “teachers” and my friends/family who experience so much pain and have no choice in the matter. I also fear being judged and misunderstood by my family and childhood/college friends. So here it is, here I am. I will write this very imperfectly and in a state of extreme vulnerability.

I am from the mid-west, Indiana specifically. For many people associations with that part of the country conjure up conservative, Christian, white, heterosexual, hard-working, etc. All of those things have been part of my experience. I grew up in a very isolated culture – I was surrounded by whiteness, by middle-class standards, by ability of body and mind, by expectations of attending college, and by standards of hard work. I didn’t have any contact with folks with other religious identities, sexual identities, racial identities nor gender identities (outside male/female). I was living in a bubble, and furthermore was taught that some of these “other” identities were even classified as sins for Christians.

Moving out of Indiana to North Carolina for college at least exposed me to a much more racially diverse community. I remember that it felt different, and I liked it very much. I studied other cultures and languages as a French and International Business major – I even studied abroad in Paris for a semester. Those experiences felt like they set me apart from my family – I felt I was the only one really interested in other cultures and languages. While those were fantastic multicultural opportunities for me, I was still living in a white, European existence – which wasn’t really as different as I thought it was at the time. Overall even in my college experience, nearly all of my friends and partners were white. Then I moved back to Indiana and continued to live in my bubble. It wasn’t until graduate school that I really began to dive into multiculturalism and what that means. It was the first time I read about WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) identity and what that means in a US context. It was the first time I began to understand on a small scale how my starting point in life, was very different than a lot of other people living in my country.

I then moved to Bloomington, IN, to take a job at Indiana University. There I fully embraced the international and diversity initiatives on our team, and wanted to continue learning and exploring. I decided to request an appointment by the Mayor of our city to become a Human Rights Commissioner. Through that experience I was involved not only in promoting an inclusive community, but also investigating hate crimes, as well as reports of discrimination in housing and employment. I remember feeling so surprised at how many cases we were dealing with, even in our “sweet, little Bloomington, Indiana.”

From there I moved out to Seattle, WA, to take yet another job, this time at Seattle University. There my journey of discovering my own identities really opened up. I will never forget the day that I was engaged in a conversation about systems of power, privilege and oppression. I didn’t really get it – I had worked hard and earned all the things I had in my life at that point, including my new leadership position at the university. The experience that really opened up my eyes for the first time, was an activity in which I was given a sheet of paper that listed out various identities by those that were dominant and those that were marginalized on a systemic level in the US. As I went through the list and marked down my identities I realized every single one of them was in the dominant category except for my gender. It was jolting, and I was so embarrassed that I was just realizing these things about myself. I wanted to hide; I felt exposed – it felt like I was supposed to already know this.

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But I knew I wouldn’t grow without asking questions of my new friends and colleagues. I began reading books, watching films, consciously seeking friendships with people who have different identities than my own, and trying to have conversations with folks to learn and understand their experiences more. At times I felt like a fool – how did I not see all of my privilege before? How did I not more clearly see the pain and disadvantages of so many other people in my own communities? Coming into awareness about who I am and what that means in the context of my world is complicated, it’s sensitive, it’s triggering, and so often it is judged. I’ve experienced guilt many, many times over the years. I’ve realized guilt keeps me paralyzed, and doesn’t allow me to move forward in my own work nor that of supporting others.  These reflections are more of an ongoing invitation to see myself and my world in the context of many realities – not just my own, but also that of the many forms of the “other.”

This post is very challenging to write, and I’m not sure if it is clear to those who may be reading it. What I’m trying to say is that being born into a white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied/minded, Judeo-Christian, mid-western work values family and culture was completely beyond anything I could control. They happen to be the identities that my country and the systems we’ve created are designed to serve, since those systems were created by people who share my identities. I didn’t earn it, I didn’t deserve it, I did nothing to gain all the privileges these identities have and continue to afford me. I began to learn and understand how powerful and painful language is. I began to see how privilege means we don’t see the advantages we have. I began to understand that I live in a country that is still very racially driven, and that we have so, so much work to do together to bring about justice and to heal. I’ve continuously asked myself, how can I use my unearned privileges to support and advocate for folks who are consistently marginalized in so many ways, on so many levels. Once I became aware of how these dominant and marginalized identities are internalized, I started to see it everywhere. My desire to contribute to justice, to “being the change” has been growing and evolving.

Given all that I have shared here, I’m guessing you can imagine how deeply personal and painful this election has been and continues to be for me. It’s truly not about winning and losing. It’s not about having all the answers to very complicated issues. I was already growing in awareness and urgency to get involved and engaged in work of advocating for those who are most vulnerable. I never imagined how explicit and unavoidable sexism, racism, homophobia and intense fear of what is “different” to our dominant culture would become. I’d already been feeling a stronger and deeper pull to more directly and strongly advocate for the rights of others on all levels – individually, organizationally, and institutionally.  Like everyone else I’ve tried so hard to understand how someone who was so vividly cruel and disrespectful to so many populations of people, who are already so marginalized in our country, was supported by so many. I have felt sick with sadness thinking about all the pain, already heaped on top of more pain. For me, the truth is other than being a woman, most things this campaign and platform represent will only privilege ME even more.

So, to all my friends, family, and fellow Americans who are Muslim, people of color, immigrants, veterans, women and LGBTQ, I promise to continue my journey toward advocating for justice. I want to be here for you on a personal level, and I want to support and defend you on a systemic level. And I need help in doing that. I don’t want to ask you to do that work. I’m asking, pleading with my fellow white Americans to join me – not to be stuck in shame, but to be open to the interior and exterior process that it is to see ourselves and others with more clarity, more honesty, and more love. To be open to the responsibility we have in our communities. There is a Bible verse that persistently comes to mind that sums it up for me – “to whom much is given, much is required.” Even as I continue to have tears and to feel deep sadness, I love you all beyond measure.