“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?” – Homecoming
A birth of chance. That is the totality of where one can attribute the success and opportunities in our lives. If you were born in the 1600s or the early 1900s, what would your life look like? What barriers would block your dreams? What rights wouldn’t you be able to take advantage of? Would you be held back by the color of your skin, your gender or your sexual orientation? What would you have to hide? Would you feel pressure to assimilate?
The last character’s lens in Yaa Gyasi’s work shares with the reader this realization: that the opportunities he has are no more than a throw of the dice of when he entered the world. A few generations ago, he would not be so lucky. But he encounters a luck that escaped the height of systemic racism. A luck that barely pushed back the barriers his forefathers had no choice but to succumb to.
“For the privileged, equality feels like oppression because their privilege would be lost.” –
The “Stand Against Racism” campaign week at Impact Hub concluded with a book club discussion of the novel, Homecoming. An inspiring tale of two sisters’ lineage, unknown to each other. One is sold into slavery and the other remains on the shores of her homeland. No story is better than the other, no side more successful than the other. Each born descendant of both sides experience pain, loss, joy and renewal. Homecoming is an account of the strivings of the human experience that although within its pages is unique to the black American experience, can also be felt by all in the human community.
Gyasi’s writing brilliantly gives her readers an insider’s look into the individual struggles, frustrations and helplessness of each character. And on the fringes of the pages of their lives, the reader witnesses the systemic hatred of white society towards people they chose not to regard as human. For how can one see a human being suffer and not be affected, unless they no longer see a human being? This was the crux of the book discussion that led to the question: “how do we change systemic thinking that has been cultivated for centuries?” A system that is still doling out privilege payments to one side? And although today’s beneficiaries may not approve of racism, standing against it could mean a loss of those privileges. As one Host Hilary Ippolito pointed out, for the privileged, equality feels like oppression because their privilege would be lost. So a dilemma the book club found in our society today is a refusal to acknowledge privilege.
“The problem isn’t empathy, the problem is action.” -Adam Strom
This is not to say those huddled masses yearning to be free didn’t experience bias and extreme prejudice when they landed on America’s shores. But the latter generations experienced less and less of it as the individual differences and cultures were swallowed up in the common denominator that is white skin.
The thriving discussion brought to light many questions for which we couldn’t find answers: How do we unpack for the masses the truth of the imbalance of privilege they absentmindedly enjoy? How do we turn awareness into action? How do we create safe spaces to address the raw and still bleeding wound that is systemic racism in America? How do we help the individual see the power of the difference just one person can make, even in unearthing a centuries’ old system?
It wasn’t surprising that this discussion wasn’t greatly attended. “This book was hard to read as a white person, to read of the incredible destructiveness of whiteness,” said Alisha Harrington. Systemic racism and white privilege are topics that have been discussed for some time, yet the discussion only manages to move a few inches per generation. America is a system that was built to benefit one group of people, a benefit at any cost. Tackling systemic racism gave rise to two challenging issues that became apparent in our discussion, that we saw not only in our country and community but also in the individual: a sense of powerlessness to change a cemented system and an unspoken desire to keep benefiting from it. Such a controversy was a tug of war that had no victors.
What will it take to begin to tilt the scales? In a later conversation, I caught up Hubber Adam Strom to get his take on shifting the privileged mindset. He strongly advocated action, not more empathy. Empathy, Adam believes, can only genuinely be practiced when one has had the same experiences. Many of us don’t share the same experiences, so what we are really doing is exhibiting care. And caring is great, but we can get comfortable caring and never move to action. But there are small things, not necessarily systemic things, we can do in our everyday lives that can rail against racism. “The problem isn’t empathy, the problem is action,” said Adam.
Choosing to become aware and take action isn’t easy. Although one voice can be powerful to incite change, to be that one means many times weathering the storm alone. It can also mean weathering a storm you may never see the calm of in your lifetime. So the hard question must be asked – can you live without your privilege? Can you give it away? Can you share it so that it becomes the standard, so that it becomes the rule and not the exception? If your answer is no, it doesn’t make you evil, just human. I invite you to join our conversation to help create a safe space for everyone to engage in earnest dialogue to help shape a society we all deserve.
“Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future. And if you point the people’s eye to the future, they night not see what is being done to hurt them in the past.”