I read something this morning that made me see red. An article I wrote about the concept of “white privilege” recently went viral in ways I did not expect. My take on the issue departed from the media and social narrative, thus I knew when I was writing the article that it was going to create a stir. Though my intention was to foster a dialogue between groups who are being led by the elites into the antipathy and conflict, intentions have a way of being pummeled by reality.
In the article, I was careful to not assign blame to the masses and I was very intentional in training condemnation on the demagogues who prosper through our disunion. Even though the write up was circulated widely and engendered debates, to my dismay some people—without reading it fully—reverted to defensive postures and lashed at others out of anger (read Absurdity of Saying White Privilege). This seems to be the default mode for too many these days, people on all sides who are being pillaged by the powerful refuse to talk to each other and insist on yelling past each other. It’s sad, put aside politics and identity, most of us are upset about the same things. If I have one pet peeve these days, it’s when I am encountered by people who rage against the symptoms as they overlook the disease of economic inequality that is at the root of most of our suffering.
I know the folly of responding to anger with anger; that is why I have been very deliberate in not getting defensive at the criticisms people aimed at my direction and very reticent to lash back at those who insisted on leading with insult. Yet, this morning, I saw a particular thread that I was tagged on where the debate took a turn to the outrageous. One person said “white homeless people have it easier than black homeless people.” This statement, more than any other, stirred me into anger and moved me initially to write a withering article against this line of thinking. I was ready to lambaste people who make it their duty to use human suffering as political fodder and turn the struggle of the masses into wedge issues.
But a comment from a reader made me reassess. Not only about the article I was ready to write where I was intent on lighting the minds of “partisan sheep” on fire, but about my tactic when speaking against the divisiveness that is gnawing at the root of society—like calling people who struggle “partisan sheep” for example. It was Kindred Kels comment on one of my missives that made me pause and reflect:
When you live in poverty you have a survival mentality. It doesn’t allow you to function fully. It forces you to put your needs first. Making sure your family has food to eat and shelter becomes a priority over dismantling systemic oppression. Racism and classism are inextricably linked. And the poor have always been pitted against each other. We can’t fault them for being focused on day-to-day survival and not the bigger picture.
Though I make no excuses for pundits and media “elites” who, by intention, make fortunes by demagoguery and preaching separable grievances, in good conscience I can’t lump in the common people on all sides who turn to vindictiveness out of exasperation. Brokenness begets brokenness; people who are hurting and suffering from hopelessness, indigence, and/or tribulation turn to bitterness not out of choice but by frustration. This is why the powerful easily splinter us; pervasive anxieties and feeling beset by burdens have a way of inducing mass rancor among the public.
It’s easy in this paradigm of societal despondence and omnipresent gloom to hack at fellow sufferers than it is to work together for our common interests. I don’t speak on these things based on theory; I lived in shelters and missions for close to two years, what I witnessed continually were the broken who made it their right to break others who were suffering just like them. It’s by God’s grace that I did not turn to bitterness; I was able to escape the dark hole of homelessness because I refused to let discontent and victimization be my compass. I had every right, if I chose, to be indignant and claim victim mode. I give credit to my father who taught me to be independent and to never reside in victimization for laying down the markers that led me out of the wilderness 15 years after his passing.
But others don’t have what I have. I’m not boasting or being haughty; the truth is that I do enjoy privileges that millions in our nations never had. I was raised by two loving parents; my father, working endless jobs from taxis to post office sorter, and my mom, working hard to take care of home, made it possible for me to go to college and graduate school after that. Though life’s turn found me sleeping on pavements for a while, I was armed with the know how and the wisdom to fight my way out of poverty and destitution. These are aptitudes many never had the chance to attain; in too many quarters, the color of one’s skin, the level of one’s education or the stigma of being poor serves as a jail that imprisons the potential of tens of millions in our nation and billions throughout the world.Is it any wonder then that people who have been caught in generational poverty on all sides are easily influenced by firebrands and emotional manipulators who tell them that their enemies are the “others”. When people lose hope, they turn to acrimony. Those who wish to make a difference in this world should think twice about bashing people who bash others. Like I said, I separate the intentional liars who use suffering to make fortunes apart from the huddled masses who are being victimized. Once bitten by hardship and the twice bludgeoned by those who use their hardship to create divisions and indifference, there is a reason why society is going to the dogs.
Most of us are taking to politics and signing up to “social justice” campaigns without realizing how the game is being played on us by the gentry. Immoral as they are, I understand why opinion leaders, pundits and politicians keep trying to convince us to reside in the narrow corridors of separable grievances. As long as we stay victims, we remain their loyal customers. But what is our rational to turn blow torches on each other? Antipathy doesn’t feed us nor do ideologies pay our rents. This left/right divide and looking through the prism of identity will be the end of us; a society that keeps getting ginned up into animosity eventually implodes in the most violent and unpredictable ways (see also Rwanda). Do we want our children to see up close and personal what happens when the United States turns into Hotel Americana?
By the way, I don’t write this to set myself apart from the rest as if I have it all figured out. I’m on a journey along with the readers, I’ve just learned through hardship a few lessons over the past couple of years. There is in fact an “us versus them” paradigm except it’s more like “them versus us”. There is a sliver of humanity, the top .01%, who perpetuate suffering on a global scale and thrive as the rest of humanity is drowning in despair. The rest of “us” is all of us; though the system insists on splintering humanity based on color, gender, faith, orientation and ideologies, in truth we are all in this together. “Us” is humanity—the oppressed class—which is being repressed by a few irrespective of our differences. Whether the repression is by brute force or by economic thievery is inconsequential; the only way towards redemption is through unity.
Instead of unity, we are moon walking back into chains. Rather than seeing human suffering through the eyes of people who suffer, too many insist on understanding suffering through the ego. We are being conditioned as a society to only accept people who think like us and look like us and all others are turned into abstract enemies who have to be conquered. This is how a few thousand are able to conquer billions globally. They have us convinced that we are each other’s enemies instead of understanding that we are all being shellacked by a system of global greed that is sustained by taking blood and livelihoods from the many and transferring it to the few. “Africa” was colonized using this most nefarious scheme of divide and conquer; as they did to the land of humanity’s inception they are now doing to Americans. Click. Clack! Kapow! RIP humanity.
It does not have to be this way. Our numbers exceed the few who oppress humanity. Our power is greater if we choose togetherness and have forbearance towards our fellow neighbors. I shall recommit to forbearance going forward towards those who don’t quite see this world as I do. I hope others do the same because there justice can’t be delivered through the womb of insults and ad hominem. My experiences in missions and shelters taught me this one thing. Those who refused to give their hands to bitterness and vindictiveness were the ones who were able to heal from brokenness and rise from disrepair. Those who saw themselves as victims and chose to gash others who suffered like them condemned themselves to a life of vengeance and resentment. For the record, this is not to say that those who are mired in homelessness choose that path; poverty is not a choice—most of the indigence a life sentence.
Yet, irrespective of our pains and struggles, we have little control of what happens in our lives, but we have control of the decisions we make after the earth cracks and breaks our souls. Some of the wealthiest people I’ve met in my life were vagabonds with nothing to their names yet retained their giving kindness. Conversely, some of the most impoverished souls I’ve had the misfortune of shaking hands with were the uber-wealthy being driven in limousines and cursing their existence while swimming in opulence. We lose track of these things as we keep elevating the moneyed gentry while stepping on one another. Be kind to the least among us; as we treat those who have it worse than us without politicizing their pains, we too will mend in the process.
I chose the picture of the child above for a reason. It’s hard to tell the child’s race, gender or ethnicity, that child. If we walked by and saw a child crying like that, looking worn down by poverty and hardship, would we ask him or her what her race was or what political party the child belonged to? Of course not, when we see children hurting, we rightly see their suffering not their exterior. Why can’t we apply this same level of compassion to adults who are hurting too? We would never treat children the way too many of us treat other adults, but in each of our hearts is a child that hurts. Can we not be forbearing and forgiving towards each other instead of declaring wars for the sake of conquering one another?
Forbearance is something you do for yourself as much as for others. The only way to heal from past pain and to move forward to fruitfulness is to stop comparing who has it worse and lead with compassion and empathy instead. We don’t have to monopolize pains in order to make our pains known. In fact, our pains gain meaning when we say “I hurt as you hurt”. We can either join forces with others who suffer or we can marginalize ourselves by saying “only me”. Think on these things and ask yourself if your quest is justice or victory—they are not the same things. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Let love be our guiding light; let empathy be our North Star to justice. #OfTheseFour
None is greater than the other; we are all greater when we love and be kind to each other::
Check out the latest Ghion Cast where I discuss these very issues of empathy towards each other and unity to defend our common interests.
Check out the Ghion Cast below where I discussed how unity can overcome tyranny and used examples ranging from America, Haiti and Ethiopia to drive home the point of inclusive justice.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.