President Obama’s speech, celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, reminded me that Mandela freed not only his people, but also his jailors. Mandela knew, on a deep level, that freedom only happens when everyone is free. Thus, he fought for the rights and dignity of his oppressors as well as for his own people. As Mandela states, “Social equality is the only basis of human happiness.” (A letter written on August 1, 1970)
For some time I have been thinking, how can I communicate the importance of fighting against societal inequities to my fellow white Americans? How can I demonstrate that fighting against the (invisible to us) racism that exists today is for our happiness, especially when the work is emotionally uncomfortable and often confusing? Additionally, many white people feel quite happy, and if they are unhappy, they probably don’t think that social inequality is the root of their unhappiness. How then, does someone come to action? Why would we, white people make Mandela’s quest for social equality a priority in our own lives?
In her article A Racist Mind, Rinku Sen describes the dramatic results from a Pew Survey, which found that 30% of white Americans were dissatisfied with the George Zimmerman trial verdict compared to 86% of black Americans. After Trayvon Martin was murdered and police released George Zimmerman, my wife and I organized a community march in protest. We delivered fliers to businesses in our neighborhood, most of which were white-owned and occupied. One restaurant hung a flier in a prominent location while others directed us down back hallways to saturated community boards. The two black-owned businesses took stacks of fliers and handed them out to their customers. Conversation immediately shifted to Trayvon Martin, and people requested fliers to take home.
White people were lied to from a young age. We learned that Pilgrims and Indians sat down to a peaceful meal together while the atrocities that occurred were glossed over. We learned that slavery happened but we were never made to think about what that meant.
Maybe it’s the anger of feeling betrayed that will help us move forward. Are we going to teach our children the same lies? Do we not have enough faith that they can handle the truth of our history and therefore, our present?
Like Mandela’s jailors we do not understand that we remain in the invisible prison of an unequal system; the prison of watching a people be denigrated and robbed of dignity. The prison of allowing, as Obama states, ‘a thousand slights’ to fall upon the black (poor, LGBT, disabled) community without interference.
Mandela believed in all people’s inherent goodness, "Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished." (From Long Walk to Freedom, 1995). “When people are determined they can overcome anything.” (Johannesburg, South Africa, Nov. 14, 2006)