Over the past year, U.S. media has been exploding with stories about seemingly racially-motivated abuses against Blacks. Though the individual instances of inequality are being hotly debated, the larger framework has not yet surfaced in the public discourse—oppression. Oppression is the suppression of rights of groups other than one’s own. It is not uncommon for people to assume that discrimination must be explicit, like the police officer shooting an unarmed Black man in South Carolina. Much more pervasive, actually, are the implicit acts perpetrated by people who are unaware of the consequences of their own biases. Implicit are the findings of the Justice Department’s review of Ferguson that cited 161 use-of-force complaints against the Ferguson Police Department from 2010 to 2014, of which only one case was founded and no officer was disciplined. These implicit acts of discrimination, without significant legal nor social accountability, become and reinforce oppression-filled systems.
There is a lot of work to be done to dismantle the implicit policies and normalized behaviors in our various systems (education, employment, government, law enforcement, etc.) Lest we get discouraged, remember that there is also plenty of work that can be done at the personal level to bring more justice into our daily lives. First, we have to get real with ourselves about our own biases. Until you are personally aware of your beliefs, about yourself and others—you will not be comfortable enough in your skin to take the next step. That next step begins with reaching across the lines of privilege in order to learn. Until you put aside your “stuff” and truly try to understand another’s reality, without judgment or blame or shame, they remain a mystery—and the unknown is scary. When we are scared we hunker down, draw lines, prejudge, and fight to protect ourselves (often with violence). That violence comes from every direction. The long history of Black-on-Black gang violence is one of the horrific manifestations of internalized oppression, as are the disproportionate rates of suicide among gay teens, and the alarming presence of eating disorders in teenage girls. Oppression kills— every form of it.
Why is it so important that each of us take a stand and begin our own campaign to end inequality where we live? The answer is simple: it could be your child next. Picture your 12 year old son shot in the middle of the day in a public park by police while playing with a toy. Or, imagine your 19 year old son’s face played and replayed on national news enthusiastically singing a song about lynching a Black person. Either way, the result on the young person, the family, and community is devastating—and any one of us could be next.
As leaders, each of us has the opportunity to practice social justice, make it one of the core tenants of our leadership philosophy. Socially just leaders:
- educate ourselves about issues of power and oppression
- reflect on our own biases and invest in gaining greater exposure to, understanding of and empathy for other realities
- challenge oppressive behaviors where and when they occur
- actively seek opportunities to be an ally to people in marginalized groups or circumstances
Take, for instance, the panel of African American community leaders who embraced Levi Pettit though his words and actions were incredibly racist. They allowed this hurtful situation to become a teachable moment. And though they are applauded for their generosity of spirit, remember that with power come responsibility; it is not always up to the marginalized group to forgive. When you are in a position of power–manager, boss, White, male, straight, adult, young, physically able, parent–you hold more responsibility for doing what’s right and initiating socially just change.