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Learning, unlearning and being a white ally

This essay was written as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action John Lewis Fellowship at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia.

Learning 

As the proverb reads, it takes a village to raise a kid. Education and shaping a young mind is a communal process where multiple factors as well as interactions with many people play crucial roles. It also takes a whole community to a have a brilliant fellowship like the one we were provided with. We all experienced fast growth, because we learned: from our professors, from speakers, but most importantly – from one another in this huge pool of people from very diverse backgrounds. Each individual and his or her contribution leaves in us an imprint and gives us better understanding of the problems we discuss. 

As one of the fellows, Laure Assayag pointed out, history is not objective. When we listen to just one part of it, only the dominant narrative, it turns out it is actually a very limited view. Therefore I really value the collective method of learning we experienced. Our diversified contributions on the same object made the history we learned much more complete. 

The activism without knowledge and constant learning could be, sadly, just shouting your anger in vain. It is crucial to show the power of the people, but as we progressed during the program, we learned that it takes more than that to instigate a real change. We have to list very clearly what our demands are, identify and mobilize people who share the same goal, together organize, create a strategy and enforce it. 

Dr. Roselyn Pope, as a young student of Spellman College, representing six educational institutions of Atlanta, crafted a profound, powerful statement describing the discriminatory conditions African Americans had to endure under the segregation laws in the 1960s. Her “Appeal for Human Rights” gave the Atlanta Student Movement momentum and recognition. But to create such a document, statement or list of demands, we have to, as one of the grassroots activists, Adelina Nicholls said powerfully, “learn to listen and listen to learn.” Leaders are vital part of the movement, but they are not there to push their own agenda, but to extract the voices that must be heard from the community and make sure the goals are commonly shared by all members.

The lesson that we have learned from local officials and from grassroots activists, is to organize, not only mobilize. We have to have numbers of people shouting in the streets and voicing their anger, but at the same time also people who will be in front of a Police Department Building, will take part in a sit-in at the steps of the county building, and most importantly will present the list of demands in the meeting with law enforcement. 

Very early in the program, one of our spiritual mentors here, dr. Daniel Black told us: “It is not a summer camp. You are soldiers getting ready for the battle.” And we, as soldiers, have to keep strong and have to… take good care of ourselves. “You are all here, because you are all wounded,” dr. Black said to us. “But if you can get your healing, nothing can stop you from resurrecting others.” 

Being a white ally 

We learned about slavery. We learned about horrific spectacles of lynching. We learned about segregation. We learned about powerful leaders who challenged it. We learned about modern Jim Crow era with prisons and jails incarcerating 2,3 million people, out of which 40% are African Americans, even though black people constitute only 13% of the US population. 

So will I understand my black brothers and sisters fully? 

Never, cause I have different experience, I walk the earth differently and we are faced with a different reality. For my black friends it is an everyday fight. Many of them repeat in mind: maybe If I climb a little higher, maybe if I do this, get this title, get this job, I will finally meet with… respect and dignity that is due and innate to every human being. My black fellow humans are being hunted, chased after for minor transgressions. Philando Castile, who was shot in Minnesota by a police officer, while he was sitting in a car with his girlfriend and their daughter, had been previously stopped by police 52 times in a span of few years, last time being fatal.

But I can listen. I can be receptive. I can speak out when I see that injustice slaps someone in the face. Win every day microbattles counteracting racism. Get in a way, as John Lewis likes to put it; to prevent mistreatment of other fellow humans. “When you see something that is not fair, not right, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up and find a way to get in the way” John Lewis said.

In the first line to defend our rights is government. But on the microlevel – it is you and I. And when YOU see injustice, it is not anybody else’s calling. It’s YOUR calling.

Unlearning

Now, as we took this journey through history, our eyes are wide open. But that also means we are confronted with ugly truths. And we need to become comfortable with discomfort, cause it is not going to abandon us. It takes me now not only to learn, but also to unlearn the biases that are deeply ingrained in my mind, regardless of whether I wanted them to be there or not. Having become more conscious, it is now my responsibility to further de-bias myself.

After this transformative experience, I feel that new knowledge and ideas are outpouring through each and every cell of me. I became strengthened, empowered and cognizant. I am committed to share it, and as one of the first steps, upon coming back to my community, I want to combine learning with unlearning to elevate my fellow activists. We, too, need to be strengthen. We, too, need to be empowered. We, too, need to know where we come from in order to know where we are heading. We, too, need to look back in order to move forward.

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Atlanta, GA

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