“Look at his eyes. They’re wild. He belongs to the wilderness. He’s a savage man”
The other day I was spending time with someone very dear to me. They are the nicest, most loving, well-educated, kind person. We decided to have a quiet, relaxing night talking and watching films. One of these films featured an Afro-American man as the main character. I don’t particularly remember what the story was about or who the actors were, but I do vividly remember what I heard as I saw a close-up of the Black man’s face. The person that I was with at that time suddenly said “Look at his eyes. They’re wild. He belongs to the wilderness. He’s a savage man”. Truth be told, I did not know how to react. I felt an overflow of emotions that I could not quite define and I just knew there was something fundamentally wrong with a statement I just heard. But what about it made me react this way? I was rather confused, even more so because I did see something in that man’s eyes, something intense and emotional, something powerful and sad, a hidden story to be told. As I embarked on the plane to Atlanta, I was determined to find out what that story was.
Throughout the program, I managed to learn a lot about the community of black people in the United States. I learned about their history and their culture, about their oppression and suppression, about their struggle that started centuries ago, and has lasted to this day on. During my time in Atlanta, I saw, heard of, and experienced what the black community has been going through ever since they were forcefully brought to America. I cannot of course claim that I know exactly what it feels like, I cannot possibly imagine how painful it must have been for men, women, and children, fathers, mothers, daughters and sons, relatives, and friends to go through life constantly being undermined and dehumanized. I could, however, witness it, and finally, understand what was hidden behind the eyes of the man from the film. It was anger. The frustration of having to constantly fight the system that is designed to work against him and his people. Broken pride and questioned self-worth after centuries of belittling by those who deemed themselves better. Heartbreak when thinking of numerous kids being kidnapped, taken away from their parents, abused, and killed in the name of a faulty ideology. Survival in the world that implicates never-ending oppression. Powerlessness in fighting the system. The power that comes with staying strong, surviving and pushing back, no matter what. Both hopelessness and hope, in one.
I could, however, witness it, and finally, understand what was hidden behind the eyes of the man from the film. It was anger.
Thinking about the oppression of the black community is innately connected to the concept of white supremacy and white privilege. Two concepts that scare and confuse me, causing a weird sense of guilt within me, this guilt that derives solely from the color of my skin.
“Privilege” in particular is a word that makes me very uncomfortable and triggers a lot of conflicted emotions. One of its definitions states that privilege is a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most. Very often, however, “privilege” comes with its pejorative meaning of a benefit unjustly given only to certain individuals who thus are in the position of power. I would argue that this rhetoric, although to a certain extent understandable, is very dangerous, serving as a one-dimensional tool to create conflicts and frictions within societies. Many forget that privilege is not defined by a certain right or a particular benefit; what truly shapes one’s privilege is the “of most” part of the definition. My privilege is not my own creation; it derives from how others perceive me and will shift with the context that I find myself in.
My privilege is not my own creation; it derives from how others perceive me and will shift with the context that I find myself in.
While in Poland, I don’t see myself as either over- or underprivileged. There, I am one of the “most.” My privilege in Poland does not derive from my socioeconomic background, my education, my religion, nor my race. When I travel across Western Europe, I feel like I lose any sort of privilege that I might have back home. I constantly have to prove myself to others, protect myself against stereo- types people have of Poles, especially Polish women, and show that I am so much more than my country’s politics, struggling with economic barriers at the same time. And then I come to the United States, a country where my privilege comes by default: because I have higher education that is considered exclusive, even though where I come from, you can access it for free; because I get to travel and spend money, even though I work extremely hard to be able to afford it; mainly however, because I am white.
How do I become a good ally to the communities that need support?
Depending on the context, even if I don’t perceive myself as privileged, others may view my status differently; this is something that I must recognize as I begin to work in communities within which my privilege is blatant. Thus, I ask myself: how do I become a good ally to the communities that need support? How do I gain their trust? How do I support them without overstepping? How do I make sure that I am not an oppressor in a group that is already oppressed? We have seen multiple examples of that phenomenon: sexism, homophobia, silencing, micro-aggressions, interracial stratification based on socioeconomic factors – they all occur within activist groups, whether consciously or not. Hence, how do we make sure that all of our voices are heard loud and clear? How do we create platforms for those who might be different from us but with whom we share our end goals? Lastly, how do we prevent exclusion in movements that were originally meant to strive for inclusivity?
As I struggled to answer these questions myself, I discussed them with two marvelous speakers that joined us throughout the program: Dr. Carol Anderson and Toni-Michelle Williams. Having spoken to them, I realized that the first step to introduce change is to reinstate humanity of the belittled in the eyes of others; not only in the eyes of those full of hatred, but also in the perception of those who are afraid of the unknown or simply do not have the right tools of understanding. We should start by shifting narratives, and in so doing move focus away from identity and towards the human being that is hidden behind an assigned label. We must emphasize that people are so much more than the stereotypes that affect them. Finally, we are obliged to tell their stories; stories of real human beings that feel, laugh, cry, grow old and crave dignity, just as we all do.
Why then is it so hard for the human race to learn from its history? Why do we keep making the same mistakes?
At the Ebenezer Church, we heard that the greatest sin in the world is to refuse to learn. Why then is it so hard for the human race to learn from its history? Why do we keep making the same mistakes? Why do keep omitting parallels so clearly visible to an attentive observer? Why do we allow for the sinusoid of prosperity and destruction to thrive? Why do we need horror and trauma before we understand the true value of humanity and liberation? History is a weapon that we have to learn to use wisely in order to break the vicious circle. We have to constantly educate ourselves, think critically, compare and draw conclusions, use the wisdom of the experienced and put in the energy of the young. We have to set goals, look for allies and collaborate in order to fight the good fight. More importantly, however, as Dr. David Hooker said, we have to figure out what world we want to live in and create it ourselves, for no one else will do it for us.