Those who know me might expect this piece to be about the environment, as I have been an avid environmental advocate for my entire professional life. I have fought for a beautiful, natural world that will sustain the health of all of humanity, and will continue to do so.
But right now, we need to talk about racism. I love you all, but we have a problem: People of color are under constant attack in the United States. This country was built upon the exploitations of peoples and lands, with countless, horrifying acts of racism occurring up to the present day. The tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia — and the response of the President of the United States, who sympathized with hate groups — is just one example. We need to stand up to these overt behaviors in our efforts to combat racism in our culture. That is imperative. To rid our society of discrimination and hate, we cannot only denounce these fringe terrorists. As a culture, we need to flush out our tolerance of intolerance.
I would like to invite my fellow Inland Northwestern white folks, especially the men, to reflect on what you are doing to combat racism. It is everywhere. If we fail to address its presence around us, it will continue to flourish. For the dream of a country that treats all people equally to come true, we have to do the work to make it happen. Our system was designed to give white people an advantage. Unless we use that privilege to fight for justice, hate will win.
Microaggressions are indirect, subtle or unintentional acts of discrimination toward marginalized groups of people. These behaviors have been normalized in our culture, even in so-called progressive spaces within our own community. The huge negative impacts on the people of color they are aimed at are easily overlooked by the white people around them. A racist joke that went unobjected to, an assumption about someone based on a racial stereotype, asking a person of color to speak on behalf of their whole race, and on and on. We can do better, and we need to do better. We owe it to our brothers and sisters of color. It is up to us to make these behaviors unacceptable and inappropriate.
Let's get empathetic! Can we imagine what it would be like to deal with oppression and microaggressions many times every day? Hopefully then, we can begin to understand the barriers others face. Do the people of color around you feel safe? Do they feel like they are treated equally? We must understand and feel this pain in order to move toward fixing its causes.
Educate yourselves about the foundational role that racism has played in the U.S. and abroad. There are a multitude of resources online, and in books. Check them out. Discuss them with your friends and family. This is our work to do. We need to change our hearts and minds, and it doesn't get much harder than that. Be brave, and expect to make mistakes. Be patient. Listen more, talk less. Be persistent.
Let's build the society we hope for. ♦
Jace Bylenga is an activist, community organizer and educator. Born in western Michigan, he has lived and worked in the Inland Northwest for 10 years, focusing on the environment, energy and social justice.