What I Learned as a White Person at Social Justice Seminar
I grew up in a white town with a white family and white friends, knowing mostly white people. We never talked about race. Everybody I knew was in a well-to-do home, living in a “safe” neighborhood. In other words, I was sheltered. I was “protected” from what the world really looked like. But I think that the illusion of what was safe, what was right, was more of a dangerous influence on me than anything that I was “protected” from.
I considered myself to be an open-minded, progressive, liberal person. I cringed when white people used the n word. I knew racism was bad. But if you had asked me if I ever really deeply thought about racism, the true consequences of it, the simple privileges that I take for granted that people of color face every single day, I would have said to you… “Huh?”
I remember when I was in my junior year of high school, and one of my friends who was black said to me, “When you see a cop on the street, you just keep walking and don’t think about it. When I see a cop, I run.” And I was shocked. I mean, I had heard of black lives matter, but I didn’t really know what it meant, and I guess I had never really considered what it was like for people who didn’t look like me just to try and exist.
I remember the summer before my senior year of high school, I attended a social justice seminar program. Majority of the kids were white and rich. Those who weren’t were, in effect, separated from us; we didn’t make any effort at all to talk to them. I saw boys who wore chains, had dreadlocks, spoke in a way that I couldn’t understand, and I was…scared of them. And I asked myself what the hell is wrong with this picture, because here I am at a social justice seminar, where there is more segregation than I have ever seen, and I am scared of people who aren’t me.
We did an exercise on the last day where we all sat in a room and were told to stand up if we had experienced certain situations. It started off simple: “Stand if you’ve ever been to a protest,” “Stand if you have a sibling,” etc. And then she said: “Stand if you have ever been stopped by a cop on the street.” “Stand if you have had a loved one that has been murdered.” “Stand if someone you love has been a victim of gang violence.” “Stand if you or someone you know has been a victim of police brutality.”
About 25% of the kids in the room were people of color. And after all of these statements describing horror and injustice, every single one of them stood up. And you don’t have to trust my observations. According to Vox, black and Hispanic people make up 27 percent of the population, and yet represent 43 percent of the people murdered by the police, and 51% of the people killed by police while not attacking in 2012. According to a report released by the Department of Education in 2017, 18 percent of the students enrolled in preschool are black students, yet they represent 42 percent of preschool one-time suspensions and 48 percent of the preschool more than once suspensions. A 2013 report by the US Sentencing Commission found that black men receive 19.5 percent longer jail sentences than white men for the same crime.
That seminar was the first time that I truly realized that something was very wrong with the way that we treat people in America. There was something very wrong with the fact that everybody at home was telling me that black lives matter was a terrorist organization, that this movement shouldn’t matter to me because I was white. I was in a room full of people who were brutalized by society just because of what they looked like. Of course, black lives matter. That shouldn’t be a controversial or shocking statement to make. But since our society devalues and demeans people of color, since unarmed black teens are murdered just for walking down the street, it’s extremely controversial, which is why the movement itself is so important.
The truth is, I don’t know how to talk about race. This country has a problem with actually talking about race, and white people are often the loudest voices when it comes to the discussion on racism in America. They tend to get defensive and never own up to the ways in which they benefit from privilege.
But here is what I do know. I know that what is happening to people in America that do not look like me needs to stop. I know that I have been an ignorant, privileged idiot for not caring about this beforehand and not actively taking action against it. I don’t want my voice to be the only one you hear in this conversation because ultimately my voice is not the one that needs to be centered. But I also know that white people tend to listen to white people over people of color, so white people, I am calling you out. It is time that we stop shying away from talking about race and actually acknowledge all of the horrible things that have happened and are still happening to people of color around the world, that we perpetuate. It is time that we shut up and listen, that we stand behind and not in front, that we actively support black lives matter and actually make an effort to help those that do not look like us. Because everyone, no matter their skin color, deserves their best chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Ava Budavari-Glenn is currently a senior in high school and has served on the GYAC’s 2015-16 class and 2017-18 class. She is a self-proclaimed writer and social justice warrior and you can find more of her activism and her writing on avabudavari.com.