Three Social Justice Lessons From Sanford

Outraged by the George Zimmerman verdict? Here's how to be an effective ally.

In the days following the “not guilty” verdict that made George Zimmerman a free man, many blacks (myself included) have shared their experiences with racism as part of a broader conversation about civil rights and social justice.

The tones and premises of these these conversations are generally one-sided; racism is easily characterized as a black problem; homophobia is for gays; and sexism and reproductive rights are pesky “women’s issues.” In reality, all of these things are America’s problem, requiring change agents and agents of change.

On the heels of Trayvon Martin rallies nationwide, fresh from DOMA’s repeal, and as Texas legislature does everything it can to make abortion impossible in the state, the people of the United States are at a crossroad to figure out who we are as a nation. Tensions are so strong they seem almost tangible, as if restrictive intolerance has been made available by the caseload.

Following last week’s verdict, a (black) friend of mine was on the receiving end of Facebook messages from one of her (white) friends asking what she could do to help black people in light of the verdict and related frustrations within the black community. It’s an interesting question, if for no other reason than it’s not something one is asked everyday.

I started thinking more about how that question could be answered, and all the informal conversations I’ve had over the years with people who are different from myself about the issues that matter to me and the ways that privilege impacts my life. Academics and talking heads have gotten a lot of airtime this week dissecting privilege and its function in the American way of life. While I do not disagree and have discussed it at times myself, it’s just as important to speak in plain language about how we can move forward. Together.

Here are a few ideas I came up with:

1. Be an ally. Civil rights work needs allied partnership. Few causes move forward through the actions of one community alone. This is true for matters of race, gender, sexuality and even class. We each should show an interest in communities other than our own. We must educate ourselves by asking questions without presumptions. By seeing how each separate community is intrinsically linked, and figuring out how we fit in to the dynamics of power (which also requires self-examination of personal privilege), we can see areas where we can help to make a difference in the lives of others

2. Be a listener. If the comment section of last week’s column is any indication, we do not all share the same points of view, or even live the same reality. And by virtue of that fact, there are some things that we will fail to understand about one another. And that’s okay. Failure to understand causes hurt, anger or fear, but doesn’t take away from the fact that they exist. It doesn’t invalidate those experiences.

When we speak to someone about who he or she is, we must come in with an open mind. Part of that openness means knowing we won’t necessarily understand or even agree with their point of view, but we can seek to empathize with their humanity. We all feel things the same way, regardless of why we feel them. Understanding someone or something is not a requirement for respect. Respect allows us to see the humanity in others. It allows us to concede that despite whatever identity privileges we may benefit from, we don’t always know everything. Respect humbles us, enables change. Compassion only demands a desire for improvement.

3. Be an educator. Presuming that our own privileges have been examined, we can also help to educate others who share our privilege. We have the social responsibility to expose our peers to anti-discriminatory and inclusive ways of thinking and behaving. The country’s conversation about social justice needs many voices. It should have talkers and listeners. It needs griots in communities that aren’t directly affected. It needs patience in the communities that are. It needs no martyrs of ego; there have been enough untimely ends. It needs diligence. It needs action. It needs growth. It needs you.