“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”.
– Desmond Tutu
As we celebrate the birthday of this great and wise man, I feel compelled so share the revelation that I have spent much of my life as a neutral, innocent bystander in America. As I look back on this past year, I cannot continue on the path of neutrality, particularly where justice is concerned. We leave for Colorado today, which will be the 38th state on our journey across this beautiful land.
As I watch the sun come up over the wide Kansas plains this morning, I find myself asking why was I neutral all of my life with all of this injustice in America?
One of the biggest reasons was ignorance. I was unaware of what was going on outside of my world. I lived in a place where I received justice most of the time and saw most claims of injustice as bogus, race-baiting, or the result of an unfounded victim mentality. In our media-segregated world, it is amazing how many situations and events are portrayed through completely different lenses. Take a police shooting of an unarmed black man. Since few white middle or upper class folks have actually seen an event like this personally, we are so dependent on our media sources for the “real truth” of what actually is happening. One side will discuss what a great person the victim was, highlighting his role as a father and a son to humanize him, scrutinizing the officer as unstable and inhumane. The other side might highlight the black man’s past arrests, how his behavior provoked the response of the officer, who himself was a victim, building a case that the shooting was justified. Media and social media both run to these camps within hours of these tragic events, and they stay there until we move on to other things to fight about. Skin color, socioeconomic, political leanings and above all, implicit bias send most of us to one of these camps as well. I know it did for me until I inadvertently lost all those lenses I was gazing at the world through.
Another reason for my ignorance is due to the social construct of race that has labeled me white. I had no idea before our journey, but I have learned how being part of the white class has provided some real and undeniable advantages to me and my ancestors whose shoulders and legacies I stand upon.
One of the genius things about the construct of race in America is that if you are on the white side of the equation, you don’t know it exists. In conversations with Americans who have shades of black and brown skin, the majority of them have said that they think about race every day. They can’t get away from it. It is there when they go shopping, apply for a job, interact with the police, and so on. I don’t think about being white in any of these situations. I don’t see how people of different races experience injustice in standard daily actions because I don’t experience it.
It is the reality of race, the system used segregation of our American cities and the segregation of our media that have in large part led to our ignorance of the world around us. Despite being an educated man, I was ignorant about the injustice taking place every day in America.
I had been taught from birth to love my neighbor as much as I love myself, but for whatever reason, my view of a neighbor was limited mostly to the people in my actual neighborhood, social circles or professional interactions.
I failed to see that all people are beautiful and of infinite value because I didn’t truly realize in my heart that they were made in the image of God. I had yet to discover that we all bear His image.
This includes people like Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi. This includes the families who live in the ghettos of Detroit and the reservations of the Midwest. This includes those walking the hard path of immigration, those who pray to a different god, or don’t believe that a higher power at all. It includes people who choose a spouse of the same gender as well as those who refuse to bake a wedding cake in honor of such a union. It includes the unborn baby as well as the mother convinced that abortion is her best option. These are my neighbors.
I could go on and on, but you get my point. I am learning who my neighbor is and it has changed my life. It has not been easy. It has been heartbreaking to discover my own neutrality as so many have suffered injustice around me. I don’t have to agree with my neighbor to see their value. And you don’t have to agree with my incomplete list of neighbors to hopefully see me as your neighbor. When we lose sight of one another’s value and dignity, there is nothing our dark hearts won’t do. We have seen this throughout our history and it is as prevalent today as ever.
With only 13 states to go, we are beginning more and more to think about what we will do with our lives at the end of the trip. We don’t have a house to return to – we sold that. We don’t have jobs to return to – we quit those.
Whatever we do with our lives next, we can no longer be neutral because as Desmond Tutu pointed out, it is not neutrality to the oppressed.