News in America these past few months has been troubling at best. Men raping women on college campuses, the CIA torturing prisoners, police officers killing unarmed black men in Ferguson and New York. Hearing of these atrocities, the question, "How?" kept ringing through my mind. "How could the perpetrators of these acts justify their decisions? How could they live with themselves knowing what they'd done?" After a few days of anger and confusion, my questioning began to change. I started to wonder, "How did we, as people in this nation, allow these horrors to happen?"
It is easy - and often legitimate- to get mad at or to blame someone outside of myself for the problems of America. Corporate farms are responsible for obesity, greedy businessmen are responsible for bad labor practices; the blame game goes on and on. This thought process has a purpose but, ultimately, never gets me far. Usually, after my angry ruminations, I am left feeling victimized, powerless and with no direction to move in.
I want to change my mindset from that of a victim to that of an agent of change. I want to see that I have the ability to affect what is happening around me. However, this requires a greater process of self-examination. If I think I can change an oppressive system, I must also examine how I am a part of that oppressive system. As an example, corporate farms encourage unhealthy food standards but how am I as a consumer allowing corporate farms to get away with this?
Following this train of thought, I needed to understand what system was at play in America's most recent tragedies. I began to look deeper into these issues and quickly, I saw a clear pattern between these three events: Each was an example of the unchecked power and privilege of a white man. Now, before I incite reams of comments calling me a man-hater, I want to frame this conversation in a specific way. Yes, many white men have unchecked power and, as recent traumas have shown, many corrupt and abuse. Still, I do not want to focus my rancor against these white men because as I said before, that will get me nowhere. Rather, I would like to focus on something I have power and control over: my own actions. In what ways am I, and other Americans, responsible for the gross abuse and monopolization of power that many white men have in this country?
Each of us, because we have our own unique privileges and challenges within American society must answer this question in our own way. Still, it is important for all of us to ask ourselves how we helped to create the conditions that allowed for this sort of abuse of power.
For myself, I am trying to think back to my daily activities growing up. Sometimes, I would sit at the lunch table gossiping with my friends, despairingly commenting on the number of guys a girl had been with. That upheld the power structure that oppresses women. Laughing at a somewhat racist joke condoned the abuse of power used against minority groups. Obviously, these examples are a bit superficial but this self-reflection can (and should) occur on both more mind-wracking, microscopic levels and on a greater, systemic level. The basic question: Did I speak up when I saw someone of privilege abuse his or her power? Did I ever abuse my own privilege to oppress someone else?
After the moments of reflection and, at least in my case, horror-stricken anger at my inaction - it is important to reintroduce the constrictions of reality. Was I actually able to do anything about that situation given my identity, resources, relationship to the situation, commitment to other people, etc? Maybe this is a moment for a sigh of relief.
But then the next question: given all of those very real and legitimate limits on my power, what am I able to do?
I strongly believe that all of us -- young, old, poor, rich -- have the ability and responsibility to speak out against injustice. We can push against the current, oppressive power structure that empowers white men to abuse their often undeserved authority.
So, what are you able to do? What does it mean to resist and to fight back?
For some, the very act of living and succeeding is an act of resistance. Any woman that chooses to create, to learn, to lead in a peaceful manner is resisting patriarchal messages that tell her she should just be serving her man. A child from a family of undocumented immigrants who decides to invest in her education is resisting propaganda that declaims that she has no right to learn and succeed in America. A husband who does the housework is resisting messages telling him that he should be an all-powerful arbitrator. These are daily acts of resistance that require strength and determination and should garner greater support from our communities.
Some of us, however, also have the ability to resist in more blatant ways. There are protests to attend, rallies to march in, chants to cry out. These acts are great and we must participate in them to the best of our abilities. But, eventually the spirit of the protests dies down. The weather gets cold. People stop taking to the streets. What happens then?
This leads to the third way to resist: examine our own personal abilities and connections and use these capacities to further the message of resistance. Obviously the message of resistance must come from those who are being oppressed (more on that in a bit) but how can all of us, those who are and aren't among those oppressed groups, use our unique skills and networks to further the reach of these messages?
Do you know a politician who would be sympathetic to the message of resistance? Connect him or her to a local community member who is leading the fight for resistance. Do you work among a group of people that is feeling the force of oppression? Talk to them and bring them resources so that they can better protect themselves and if possible, participate in the process of resistance. Are you a writer, educator, artist, musician? Bring the message of resistance to your community through your work. Again, we all have unique resources and talents to bring to this movement, it is simply a matter of seeing that we can and should use these talents to change our world.
Lastly, those of us who are not being specifically oppressed by any of these systems must work hard to educate ourselves and others like us on the issues and concerns of those among oppressed groups. Read articles, share articles, talk to people, make connections and friendships with those who are from oppressed groups. Most importantly; listen, ask questions when appropriate and try to understand how you can help support that group in their acts of resistance.
Looking towards America's future I see two options before me. Either I relinquish my personal power, see myself as a victim and allow America's current trajectory to take its course. Or, I understand how I am a part of these oppressive systems, take steps to resist these systems and, with the support of many other people, change the course of America's future. The choice is mine, it's ours, and now is the time to decide. How will we shape America?