Written by Dynasty Ceasar, Racial Justice Trainer, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
Earlier this week, I found myself on a Lyft ride in the back of Mr. Willie G.’s Jeep Cherokee. Mr. G struck up a conversation about the intricacies of youth and aging, but we quickly transitioned to a discussion on race and racism as we headed west on Vine Street.
As we passed the area where his childhood home once stood before its demolition during the construction of I-43, he began telling me about a time when African Americans couldn’t go west of 27th Street.
Just before he turned the corner to enter my street, we discussed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, during which, he revealed to me that he had marched with Dr. King. I responded first with a sincere expression of gratitude, which was followed by asking him how he had kept calm and didn’t retaliate?
To my surprise, Mr. Willie shared that it was quite challenging to do so. He was fifteen at the time, and can still remember being met with tear gas, bottles, racial slurs, and on some occasions, gun shots. The conversation ended with him thanking me for the work that I do at the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin and I responded by appreciating his resilience as it made it possible for me to be here in the first place.
Our conversation led me to question how far we’ve really come. A question I think most people of color reflect on during this time. Of course, we pay homage to Dr. King’s nonviolent approach during the Civil Rights Movement, but do we truly understand the gravity of what this did?
Choosing to take a nonviolent approach provided strength not only in changing the narrative about African Americans, but also challenged the narrative around White America’s blamelessness, as African Americans were repeatedly met with violent attacks and did not retaliate.
People of color are constantly asking white people to see humanity in the lives of black and brown people, but we should really shift our focus to asking white people to see humanity in themselves. How long will people of color have to suffer before white people internalize what it means to be human and equal to those who they cause psychological and sometimes physical harm to?
But, there’s something else that Dr. King did that is important to recognize. He kept his faith as a Christian Minister. This is crucial, as America was founded on Christian beliefs, specifically on the idea that Europeans were living out their God given purpose by expanding west, in what is called manifest destiny.
With further examination, such an assumption couldn’t possibly be true. Not only because of the brutality and genocide that expansion caused, but simply because the Christian doctrine that was used to spread this belief was not written about white people.
The racism reflected in the foundation of this country is not limited to colonization, but also, its fabrication and cultural appropriation of Christian teachings.
Dr. King’s faith was a testament to people of color having the right to the American Dream because it was built on stories about people who look like them. Therefore, we have reason to find pride in this nation because it belongs to us if not anyone else.
How can our country outgrow racism without acknowledging that racism isn’t only baked into the laws and unwritten practices, but it also lives in false narratives? The time is now, for us to face the facts and adjust accordingly.
And, the fact is that so much of this country’s identity was built on the stories and culture of people of color and has been white-washed to create a fictitious national narrative to fit a white reality.
Maybe then, we will see that our systems have been set up to praise the very people of which it oppresses.