My Own Ignorance Met With An Urgent and Ongoing Call to Take Social Responsibility

Before I start diving into this, I have to say that I am not the one who should be urging people to vote. Nor am I the one who should be informing people on voting- it’s quite hypocritical to my past and even my present. But, that’s also why I should speak. My own experience with understanding the WHY behind showing up to vote and the WHY behind getting engaged in local politics is so important, also exposes my whiteness and my privilege and ignorance over the years. I am not devoid of that whiteness or privilege or ignorance now either. It has been a slow awakening for five years. Sometimes that awakening shook me. Other times, I turned away- afraid of the pain. We’ve got to be honest in our process of learning. We have to confront our past and present self. We have to acknowledge what we don’t know and where we’ve been wrong in order to take the steps towards a deeper understanding. I can’t speak and urge people to vote or speak and urge people to engage in anti-racist work until I’m also willing to expose myself and my own process in it all.

When I was old enough to vote, I didn’t comprehend the weight of what that right meant. I saw it as not a big deal and something I would maybe do. My motive was probably more attached to wearing a sticker than actual change. That’s a HUGE issue. But sadly, I’m probably not the only one who has been there before.

I prided myself more on “not being political” than I ever did on being an engaged citizen in high school and early on in college. Why? The answer is directly connected to my privilege, my pride, and my ignorance. As a white middle-class female who grew up in a very privileged and conservative community, I felt politics didn’t really impact me. I felt that no matter who was in charge, my life wouldn’t change much. In some ways, that can be very true. I have always had a lot of security. I am who the systems that have been built directly benefit. I didn’t know it, but also, I had to know it. If I knew politics didn’t fully impact me as an individual, I also knew that I was privileged- I just didn’t have the language for it. Partly because no one talked about privilege and partly because if someone was talking about it, I was not listening.

None of this is about me. Yet, all of it is about me needing to take responsibility. So, yes, it is about me. But not in the ways I used to think. I was used to the world revolving around me and my community. I was unaware that what actually needed to happen was a dismantling of the system revolving around me and whiteness.

All of everything is political. Every decision we make is political, whether we name it as such. My politics that I dismissed as not being politics just happened to be attached to my privilege and aligned with a hidden agenda of protecting that privilege, without me even realizing it. Even if I didn’t agree with what people said growing up and was not as much on the right side as others, I was still a part of the majority and ignorantly listened and absorbed white supremacist ideas. I knew NOTHING about politics in high school. I knew NOTHING about the work Obama was doing when he was in office. It took me being at the African American History museum in Washington D.C. last December to actually listen to one of Obama’s speeches. That’s a HUGE problem. And, then even more, this is where I have to continue to be really honest with myself and walk in repentance. I followed the train of people saying they didn’t like Michelle Obama because she made us have healthy vending machines. Can we take a moment to hear that statement? I’m ashamed. But, refuse to let my shame keep me hiding. It’s not about me hoping people don’t see the messed up ideology that I once participated in. It is about me facing that past and then diving deep into how my thinking in the present can still be attached to a consciousness I grew accustomed to. It took me watching an 8th grade student reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming THIS YEAR to really lean in and pay attention to the work she did and continues to do.

My sophomore year of college I was able to vote in my first big election. I knew enough to show up to the polls, but not enough to know why that was so important. I was still quite naive. I lived in a sorority house that year and I remember tensions always feeling high. Some of my friends were far more aware, yet there were people within the house who had very different opinions. I can remember hearing their conversations and not knowing at all how to engage in those conversations. I reverted back to my high school self who wanted nothing to do with “politics” and not wanting to dive into conflict of controversy. Yet, I was pursuing a degree in English Education, stepping into a career that is centered in politics and requires a willingness to be face to face with conflict daily. What I remember most that November was walking downstairs to seeing friends in tears when they learned Trump won the election. I learned enough before the election to know that no part of me could support or vote for Trump. But, I didn’t yet understand those tears. Those were tears of mourning and of fear of what would come. Tears of fear for friends who could not yet get their citizenship. Tears that the nation is crying more and more of today. Those tears were one of the moments where I was shook and awakened more to all that I had not been seeing or paying attention to. Tears that made me listen more than ever before. Tears that made me see the absolute resiliency of the Dreamers, yet grasp deeper a bit of the fear they had been living in.

Then, fast forward to 2018, I was waking up a little more, little by little, thanks to some friends who were adamant about speaking up for human rights and adamant about showing others that they need to use their privilege and do the same. Friends who showed me that anti-racist work isn’t just for educators or social workers, it is for EVERYONE. Political work isn’t just for political science majors, it is for EVERYONE. And professors who were adamant about making class uncomfortable because it needed to be in order for the majority of the students in the room (since the majority was always White) to grasp racism and the state of our nation. That year I watched our current governor campaign through videos of himself holding guns in the country while I watched Stacy Abrams work tirelessly to educate others about why we should all vote. I was listening, but still pretty ill-informed. And still afraid. The discomfort was so new and raw. I was trying to learn. But often, that learning was not enough. One night I tried to hear Abrams speak- but, when the line was too long to hear her and I had a paper to write, I left. Again, I’m ashamed of my unwillingness to really listen then. I was trying, but not enough. I still didn’t get it.

Often time, with politics, I don’t know where to start. There are the big issues that people always speak about and argue about, that put you on the right or left side. But there are also hundreds of other incredibly important policies to pay attention to and policies that people have very different opinions about.

Stepping into my first year as an educator, I’ve finally begun to see how important policy is and I really know now that everything we do is political. The texts I choose to teach are political. The texts I don’t choose to teach are political. The willingness or unwillingness I have to having uncomfortable conversations are political. Yet, I’m still so unaware. I’m behind on much of this political understanding and I’m incredibly grateful for friends who have been brave in sharing this importance, even as others tell them they are “too political”. I’m grateful for friends who are not afraid to challenge me, or, if they are afraid, they don’t let that stop them from speaking. Politics and policy have changed drastically for me as I step out to see that it is not about me. It is not about protecting my tax dollars; it is about my students, my friends, my community. It is about lifting those who have been pushed down by a system that fights to keep them there. It is about pushing back against oppression. Not about protecting my privilege. It is about using my privilege, to then participate in dismantling the systems that seek to support my privilege even further. It is about basic human rights. It is about a social responsibility. It is about dismantling the white supremacy I once was so naive to. It is about getting lower in humility and diving deeper into empathy. It is about compassion. It is about critical learning. It is about difficult knowledge. And it is about never stopping to learn. I’m sure years from now I’ll read over this and be upset by what I was still missing. But, that’s not enough to keep me from speaking now.

So, as June 9th roles around and as November 3rd comes, let’s take on that social responsibility. And then, not stop there. It can’t stop there.

I read Stacy Abram’s opinion piece the other day and her words are far better than any of my words here. When you can, I encourage you to read what she has to say:

And beyond that, I’m not the person to inform you about all who is running and the policies to be really paying attention to. I’m still behind on that work and still learning so much in that space. This is not to inform, I’m not the best person for that. This is to open more honest dialogue. This is a small step of continuing the work of confronting my own self. And a space where I’m hoping others might read and see their own self and history too. We cannot stay in shame and guilt. That keeps us protective over our pride and defensive about our selves. But, what we can do is deal with that shame. Deal with that guilt. Speak about it. And then, continue to do honest work. To ask ourselves about our motives. To check where we’ve been wrong and where we may continue to be wrong. And to be more concerned with compassion than rightness. To be open to being called out and to listen when we are. I don’t know much. But I do know we have a lot of continued work in unlearning and learning. And again, that work always starts with our self.

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