I was in the middle of writing a complicated e-mail, thinking about a meeting I needed to set up, and trying to figure out when I was going to do some homework, when an Outlook reminder popped up on my screen.
MLK Day vigil and diversity forum: 15 minutes.
The African American Cultural Society at the university where I work was hosting a small gathering to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. and his work, and I’d put the event on my calendar a while ago.
I hit “Snooze,” thinking I’d try to finish forming my thoughts for the e-mail, and then I could head over. But it took me longer to do this than I’d expected, and by then I had missed the vigil part of the program. Well, I’d go to the diversity forum when that started a little later.
I headed over a few minutes before it was supposed to start, thinking I could just slip in the back for a little while and then get back to some things I really needed to get done soon.
But when I arrived at the room, the doors were shut, and through the glass windows I could see only a handful of people had attended. They were seated in a circle, already engaged in discussion, looking at a PowerPoint. I thought it would be too disruptive for me to walk in just then, only a couple of minutes late, but still behind in the flow of the conversation. So I went back to my office.
A twinge of guilt surfaced as I walked away. Perhaps it wasn’t a big deal to miss out on a small forum like this one, but it seemed to be representative of bigger things I’ve missed out on. Conversations with people whose skin is darker than mine, whose accents are different from mine. Social circles in which I would have been the minority and would have felt the awkwardness of not belonging. Discussions about injustices that don’t affect people of my ethnicity or class.
We may feel overwhelmed if we can’t take on a big volunteer project or start a social justice movement. We might let ourselves be intimidated into not doing anything at all. But there is at least one simple thing we can do: show up to the conversation. Too often, I and my fellow white middle-class Americans have not bothered to participate. We subconsciously assume that the civil rights movement ended decades ago, and the issues it addressed aren’t a problem anymore.
But the fact that we still celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in this country indicates that prejudice is still a problem, even if it is now more subtle. We have certainly not attained the dream King famously spoke of, and we may feel daunted by its impossible utopian ideal.
But there is a quiet power in showing up, listening to each other, and talking together. In discussion, we learn from each other and come to a fuller understanding of people’s experiences, their perspectives on what’s wrong, and their ideas about how to make it right.
So let’s show up to the conversation.