A couple of days ago, while my sister Rahel and I were discussing social inequality and the notion of privilege, she recounted a story that highlighted the stark divisions between being “white” and “black” in America. As she was walking out of CVS, she happened upon a homeless man who was asking for money. She reached in her purse and handed the beleaguered man a couple of dollars only to be met with indignation.
“If there was any justice in this world,” the homeless man murmured with anger, “it would be me giving you money and you right here where I’m at.”
Rahel was initially shocked by what she heard; given the political and cultural zeitgeist of our country and her own encounter with one too many acts of bigotry over her life, she understood the destitute man’s comments to be centered on race. To her credit, instead of withdrawing charity, my sister went ahead, gave him the money and wished him well as she walked away. Even though her initial reaction was a sense of indignation, she realized that the man was reacting out of brokenness and knew that getting into an argument with him would only lead to more acrimony.
It is easy to advise others that the only way to overcome hate is through love, but this ignores one crucial factor. All of us, irrespective of our identity or station in life, are struggling with scars and baggage that we harbor deep in our hearts. We act and reciprocate with others through the prism of our experiences, if we truly want to make a difference in this world, we have to acknowledge that all of us are going through our own wounds and suffering.
This is not to excuse racism nor to somehow give a pass to those who inject antipathy into the public square. However, just as my sister made the decision to respond with forbearance when encountered with animus, we too must find it in our hearts to lead with grace instead of taking the bait by letting malice invade our spirits. We cannot let our compassion be limited by social constructs nor can we be blinded by imposed identities that serve to foster tribal animosity. There is, a reason after all, that I keep using quotes around the words black and white.
There are some public figures who are steadily encouraging us to be confrontational and to “get in their face” when it comes to fighting racism, sexism and the myriad of ways marginalized groups are maligned by society. But if we understand injustice only through the eyes of the most oppressed, we will miss the broader picture of inequality that is repressing all. Most social ills are linked to a root cause, inequality is a systemic problem that is born from a winner take all dynamic that supersedes the human essence of collective wellness.
Iniquity is like a Rorschach test; we view discrimination through our personal prism. This is why some who understand inequality through race or gender point to the “white” homeless man as entitled and my “black” sister as the excluded while others who see injustice through class would argue that the homeless man was the exploited and that my middle-class sister the privileged. There are a litany of ways this encounter could be dissected and debated, but doing so overlooks the fact that both are struggling under a weight of a system that takes from many in order to enrich few.
We are being conditioned to argue who has it worst instead of how we can all do better. Along the way, vindictiveness has crept into the public discourse. On all sides of the divide there are many who want to be heard while they have their ears closed to the plight of other people. If we are to ameliorate social ills and bend the arc of history towards justice, we can only do so through inclusion and togetherness. #BrokenEqually Click To Tweet
There is nothing as useless as who struggles more; pain, after all, is relative to each person. Only when we share our stories without accusing others can we begin to turn back the tide of acrimony that is inundating society. Responding to the broken with closed fists only creates more enmity. The moment we realize that we are all broken equally—even if our struggles are different—is when we can mend our nation and our planet as a whole.
“Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.” ~ Helen Keller
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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.