I remember where I was when I heard the verdict. More importantly I remember the emotions that flowed through me. Anger, disappointment, fear. And it was not just from the verdict, but more importantly from what the verdict meant. The verdict simultaneously confirmed the durability and fickleness of our legal system. Its established beliefs and confirmed fears. The jury may have ruled correctly according to the relevant laws, but those same laws don't do enough to protect all of our citizens.
Since the verdict, I have heard the familiar call for a "national conversation on race." These seem to be the same calls for national conversations that arise after well-publicized incidents that rip the scab off of Americans deepest wound: Whether it be speeches from a Chicago minister, or a tenured Harvard professor being arrested in front of his own home, or when an unarmed young African American teenager is killed walking home from the store.
Well, to be frank, I'm tired of national conversations, whatever that even means. The impact of racism, or many other "isms" in our society are deep-seated, generational, and omni-present, and there is no "national conversation" that will unseat them. National conversations will not do it, only personal commitments. What changes us is empathetic connections, the ability to walk in someone else's shoes to truly understand their relationship to this nation we all call home.
Years ago, I got involved in the LGBT movement, first with the long overdue repeal of "don't ask don't tell," and later in the cause of marriage equality, but it did not happen because I was led by a national conversation. Instead, one day over eight years ago, one of my best friends, came out to me as gay. This is a man who became a mentor to me when I needed one most, a man who cared for me like family and helped me understand that the world was much bigger than simply the narrow and dangerous world I called home. He became my big brother, and I wanted for his happiness as much as I wanted for my own. After he came out, he said to me, "Wes, do you think I would choose to be discriminated against, or to have 'friends' turn their backs on me because I've revealed my true identity?" I watched his pain and realized that there was no policy that should stand in his way -- and there was no reason for happiness to be distributed in an arbitrary and miserly way. I always knew that discrimination was wrong; but watching a friend suffer for it at such a close proximity added emotional traction to what had been an abstract belief -- it made that belief real. It activated me.
I was reminded of male privilege when I went on a trip to Israel and visited the Western Wall. I prayed at the wall, and the next morning was telling a group of friends about what an emotional experience it was. One of my friends, who happened to be a woman, said to me, "Well I wish I could have had a similar of experience." Women are restricted from praying at the Wall and have only a small section they are allowed to enter and worship. In that small moment, I finally, truly grasped the definition of privilege: that I indulged the luxury of enjoying an experience and did not pause to think that others didn't have the same opportunity I took for granted. It was not a larger conversation that opened my eyes to male privilege -- it was watching the real-time effects of that privilege on a peer that burned this idea into my consciousness.
So no more "national conversations." We know that there are laws that need to be changed, like laws that enable people who are untrained but armed to the teeth to discharge a firearm and then plead self-defense. However, no more commissions on the impact of race in our society. But no more commissions on the impact of race in our society. The larger conversation has been had over and over again. Personal, intimate interactions and moments of momentary discomfort are what will move this conversation into action. With policies like affirmative action being dismantled or reconfigured, it's up to us in many ways to pursue diversity in our lives. We have to make personal efforts to understand cultural differences, nuances, and perspectives, to seek out people unlike ourselves and connect to them as individuals. It makes us all stronger, but more than that, it gets us closer to the just and fair society we all crave. It's in these personal interactions that a true community is forged. These are the experiences that will turn the "national conversation" into action.
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