The Appalling Silence of Good People

03/07/2013 05:49 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The things that we do to others, we also do to ourselves.

I feel like I've been saying this phrase on repeat for the past few weeks. I believe that developing cultural competence is integral to leadership development, and as luck would have it, the job that I have at the University of Iowa asks me to encourage leadership development in students every single day. A few weeks ago, I finished Desmond Tutu's No Future Without Forgiveness, which was a nice reintroduction to the concept of 'ubunto,' in what I thought was a culturally African concept of being ourselves through otherness. And, rather than explain to my Introduction to Leadership course, or my social justice alternative spring break orientations, a philosophical grounds from a foreign culture for developing an appreciation for diversity, identity, and inclusion, I've been using the phrase: The things that we do to others, we also do to ourselves.

The team of faculty I coordinate and teach with have struggled with the 'diversity and inclusion' lesson on the course schedule and for my alternative break group--and although I'm new to my campus, I'm willing to guess that this has been a struggle for awhile, and it's a struggle at most predominantly white institutions. How do we talk to white students about white privilege? As I listened to Jose Antonio Vargas speak on our campus this week, he put it plainly: "The more traveling I've done in the South and the Midwest," he explained, "the more I realize that the only people who can talk to white people about white privilege is other white people. It's about time people have that conversation."

His words made my heart sink. It dawned on me that my fellow faculty members and I were likely the only people on campus formally addressing the issue with our students. The conversation wasn't only tough, it was supremely important because it was our shot at sharing ideas that equipped our students to be caring and inclusive members of a society that is rapidly growing in diverse ways. And if they weren't caring and inclusive after our two-hour introduction to inclusion, at least they would be more aware of their own identity, privilege associated with it, and the other identities that exist. If we're lucky, our students would also be prepared for diversity that other generations haven't been able to embrace wholeheartedly.

I've had many interactions with students where it has been hard for them to understand that the civil rights movement isn't just a thing that happened 50 years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech, marched for equality, and employed methods of non-violence to make the statement that "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." It's not entirely clear to white students that what Dr. King did in helping address the unjust laws in society 50 years ago was not just for the benefit of African Americans, it was for the benefit of all people. They don't initially recognize that the civil rights movement wasn't just about desegregation, or shared water fountains, but rather the equality of man to his fellow man in belief systems, personal values, and in law. I don't believe it is because they don't care -- I think they haven't been asked the right questions.

It also dawned on me that my problem discussing diversity and inclusion is related to my own dirty little secret: I covet the white, heterosexual privilege that I don't deserve. Each and every day that I live under anyone's perception of me as member of the majority, I lie to myself and everyone else, and insult any movement for social justice. It's easy for me to identify the privileges that come from being a white, heterosexual male, because I don't have to show you my identity unless I want to let you in on my life. My love of people being surprised I'm gay in contrast to the offense I take to people responding with "I had wondered..." when I come out to them is a symptom of loving how I am treated as a result of that perceived identity.

What we do to others, we also do to ourselves.

I can either be a messenger to my students and all those around me for social justice, diversity, and inclusion, and prepare my students for the intersectionality among cultures that is part of America's past, present, and future, or continue to hold on to the white privilege that I don't deserve.

I can preach that same-sex marriage contributes to a greater conversation of the fullness of love among people and between individuals -- that condemning same-sex love and attraction as anything less than heterosexual relationships attacks the very concept that love is something that all people are worthy of and deserve. Or I can sit and wait, hoping for the increasing inevitability that legally I will be able to marry, but live with the fact that my value as a person will be unequal based on stigma.

I can fight the use of words and phrases like "my country," "illegal aliens," or "go back to your home" that are thrown around at undocumented immigrants because they treat real live human beings as if they are anything less than a person, and remind my fellow Americans that our social, civil, and human rights are strengthened by offering them to all people -- that all are deserving, or I continue to just be a white person who has an opinion when the issue comes to mind and is hollowly sympathetic.

I can ask those who have decided who is undeserving of equal rights -- rights that they themselves have received based on their birth -- to consider where we derive our freedoms, and how others obtain freedom, or I can continue to live without integrity and relish in the bastardized version of freedom I enjoy that I don't deserve.

Every time I'm lukewarmly supportive, rather than being a passionate believer in social justice, I tell the world that I don't care about others, and I certainly don't care about myself. Dr. King had incredible foresight to notice how the Civil Rights Movement intersected across cultures when he shared that history would render judgement on a post-civil rights movement by saying in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that "we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people." I just can't stand to be anything less than authentic. If any one of us truly believes and values the concept of liberty and justice for all, it starts from understanding that the most gift we give others is the brotherhood or sisterhood that is inextricably tied to humanity.