I love teaching. I love how students are open to new information and give critical thought about contemporary social issues. Mostly, I teach about social injustices that accompany the experience of being racialized (labeled) as not-white. For example, why is it that, on average, being white means you’ll be much wealthier, earn more money for the same job, enjoy better health, live longer, attain higher education, and not go to prison as often? Why are the differences even more disturbing for Native, black, or Hispanic women?
In my experience, most students want to understand the existence of wealth and wage gaps, health disparities, educational achievement variances, and imprisonment rates for people of color, especially for women of color. Students ask how “The American Dream” has historically provided life opportunities for white folk while denying it for people of color. In other words, they want to know about racism and how it continues to impact their lives.
Students discover how societal issues, like unemployment, crime, homelessness, and poverty, are stereotypically thought of as “race” issues for Native, Black, and Hispanic people. They become aware of the fact race-neutral principles of meritocracy and individualism are indeed racially biased. In my classes, students start to question status quo racism. They learn to stand against prejudiced and bigoted ideas and social norms.
And that’s where it gets tricky. Students often tell me about their disheartening experiences when discussing racism among their friends and family. Recently, I received an email from a former student. She and a friend went home for a holiday. During dinner, she recognized her family’s use of derogatory terms and stereotypes. When she interrupted, her family dismissed her knowledge about racial inequality in America and ridiculed her for being young. She concluded her email by stating that resistance to racism is futile because the world is too cruel. Hopefully, my reply to her can be useful for others:
I’m sorry you were subjected to such ugliness. Those closest to us often cause us the most pain and show little respect for our knowledge and understanding of the interdependence of this world. They may even berate us when we stand against injustice, especially when they’ve been socialized or taught to believe that it is "God-given and proper."
And yes, the world is cruel, but it's also beautiful. There's beauty in the solidarity of you and your friend against the cynical, ingrained bigotry of your family members. There's beauty in the protests, activism, and social change that happens over time. Yes, we can lose hope and become distraught (which I've done a couple of times), but we must always come back to ourselves.
We do not live in this world alone. We are a community—interdependent and needful of one another. Those who do not understand—indeed, those who want to stay uninformed—will live in the same unbalanced world that they helped create with their unwillingness to listen and learn. They will also suffer, like the rest of us, over what they allow to be done or willfully do to others in this unjust world. Their refusal to acknowledge social injustice doesn’t make it any less relevant or any less harmful.
Most of all, what you do is not futile! Remember my mantra? “Social justice seeds grow into social justice trees.” With each encounter, you’re planting seeds. Because of our interdependence, there are ripple effects for each small change we make. People that used to vehemently oppose me are now some of my strongest advocates. But social resistance to social injustice always begins on a personal level. So, let’s start with these two steps:
- Let’s stop believing what they say about us—good or bad. If we give people the power to make us feel good about ourselves, we’ve given them the power to make us feel bad. We should validate ourselves and not wait for others to say we're talented, smart, or kind, etc. We’re not limited in our abilities to do well in the world, and more importantly, to do good for the world.
- Let’s stop believing what they say about others—good or bad. Let’s be open to people who are different from us, so that we might experience the beauty of other cultures and beliefs. When deciding whether to associate or support others, let’s examine their characters and motives, not their social attributes like race, religion, or nationality.
It takes time—sometimes a very long time—to change, but we all start from the same place, within our own minds, hearts, spirits, and souls. Let’s free ourselves first. It may seem hard to process all of this, and that's okay. That's what life is about—growing, learning, changing, and, yes, at times, enduring.
Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, an Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, a writer for Indian Country Today Media Network, and a public sociologist.