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Reflections of a Danish John Lewis Fellow: Finding Your Voice in a World of Silent Majorities

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.


In this time and age, we cannot deny the relationship between colonial history and the condition of the world. Colonial structures have imprisoned people of color in oppression, and racism continues to be a global issue. As every nation is unique with its individual history and culture, racist traditions are expressed differently depending on context (Hervik, 2011:2). However, in the age of Globalization, no nation exists in isolation. Due to the position and influence of America, dealing with racism in the US is universally relevant. The John Lewis Fellowship, a Humanity in Action fellowship in collaboration with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, put together fellows from the United States and Europe, to create a space in which a diverse body of students and young professionals could discuss civil and human rights with an American starting point and drawing on European comparatives. 
 
As introduction to the fellowship, Judith S. Goldstein, HIA’s executive director, spoke on the impact of American exceptionalism and the lack of American accountability excised. The global role as a superpower has made it so that no other nation has been able to affectively condemn and force change for America’s racist practices. Moreover, since other nations look to America for a moral compass, the subtle ways in which racism has survived is significant – nationally and internationally. 
 
In the American context, people of African decent and other non-whites have historically been considered inherently inferior, and have from the birth of the nation been treated as such (Miles & Brown, 2003:120). Throughout American history, there have been numerous instances of racism, both structuralized and institutionalized. The concept of races became a patent asset of American society after the transatlantic slave system, and while there tends to be some disagreement in regards to whether racism was a precondition or consequence of the slave system, it is clear that racism became an instrument that served to uphold a racial and social hierarchy (Miles & Brown, 2003:122). 
 
While slavery can be regarded as the first institution of racism affecting blacks, its abolishment did not immediately free the shackles that it had brought with it. According to Loîc Wacquant, slavery, and other race making institutions (e.g. Jim Crow and mass incarceration) have successfully operated to define, confine and control blacks (Wacquant, 2006:45). Hence, to understand American racism, one has to go back and consider the starting point, timing and composition; the smooth onset, and the quiet ignorance and acceptance of its detritus effects on those it directly and indirectly affects (Bulmer & Solomos, 1999:74). In other words, one must look back in order to look forward. 
 
Sankofa, the idea of taking from the past in order to enrich the present, or looking back in order to move forward, was an important concept presented by Dr. Sims-Alvarado. The notion of finding answers in close inspection of history has continuously been a source of revelation throughout the fellowship. Becoming familiarized with the past, and situating American societal tendencies in an international framework, was a helpful tool in conceptualizing the content of the program. Moreover, by placing the fellowship in Atlanta, the so-called cradle of the civil rights movement and the city that is supposedly ‘too busy to hate’, history became an inescapable part of not only our physical and spiritual movement in the city, but also with our interaction with the city and with each other.
 
So what did we learn from history? The fellowship introduced us to a variety of topics and people that were important for the black struggle in America. Perhaps, the most valuable lesson we learned was to understand history as a fundamental element in how we understand the world today. To a large extend, history has been instrumental in the global issues that are especially inflected upon the world’s poor. Unfortunately, in most educational systems, certainly in Western cultures, history is presented through a Eurocentric view. This has failed to acknowledge the ways in which colonialism has been destructive for the perception of the world’s non-whites. White supremacy has encaged people of color in systems of oppression e.g. in the claws of Jim Crow (Anderson & Stewart, 2007:82).
 
 The Jim Crow system (1865-1965) was a system created to legally enforce discrimination and segregation of African Americans from cradle to grave, as a response to the emancipation and integration of former slaves into American society. Through mob violence, terrorist group activities and lynchings, whites sought to dis¬courage blacks from asserting their newly awarded civil rights. The system reformed the ways in which slavery could provide sub-designed laws that effectively helped to keep the blacks subjugated. The Jim Crow system deprived black people in America from ethnic honor, and became nationally and politically accepted in society (Anderson & Stewart, 2007:85). 
 
In the consideration of a system that blandly favored whites in all aspects, history teaches us that white supremacy has held immense power and did not seek to conceal it at that time. White supremacy and Eurocentrism has characterized, fashioned, and conditioned the European (and Western) attitude towards African and black people, and has left no place for the African, and others, except for that of servitudes and second-class citizens (Hoskins, 1992:53). Eurocentrism can be perceived in the picture of a long train, in which white culture travels in the front (first class), while the rest of the cultures are found towards the back of the train – or eventually thrown out of it. 
 
In the Eurocentric ideology, Africa is viewed as the “dark continent” and the home of cannibals, savages, inferior, uncivilized, backward, primitive peoples that lack knowledge and culture and possesses evil traits and desires. Furthermore, in creating this system of oppression, the first necessity was to make the world see blacks as subhuman, then to make fellow citizens believe this notion, and finally, worst of all, to make blacks believe themselves to be inferior (Hoskins, 1992:55). 
 
White supremacy has thrived and conditioned colored people to a permanent position of a globally suppressed group, and has robbed people of color from their autonomy – personal, political and economical. Due to slavery and the aftermath, it can be argued that African Americans have suffered psychological trauma, and hence, white supremacy can be considered as violence. Moreover, it is can be argued that the whitewashing of history has vast consequences in that a people without knowledge on “having done” will have grave difficulty acknowledging the motivation of “can do” (Hoskins, 1992:57). Where the dangers of white supremacy lies today, is in its subtle and embedded nature wrapped up in racially neutral language. The discursive mechanisms and organizational features of what we could call routine or everyday inequalities are harder to combat. 
 
Institutionalized racism is measured by its effect and not its ideological content. Hence, it deals with the notion of certain groups being penalized on the grounds of skin color and not just the degrading public preconception of that group. In the US, the penalty for being black can be very harsh, and that is often caused by unconscious and unintentional biases. These biases are regularly backed up in social and political power, which is often blurred or invisible, and thus it becomes hard to challenge (Miles & Brown, 2003:70). The Black Lives Matter Movement can be seen as a clear example of this. Coincidently, the BLMM was highly visible in Atlanta in the first days of the fellowship. Demonstrations filled the city as a public response to the shootings of two black men, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul. This allowed an insight into the ways in which “colorblind” rhetoric creates concealment of the racists systems that are regrettably still alive. The killing of these black men by the hands of police officers show the failure of justice and a flawed system where America has not been able to live up to her moral obligations. Perhaps more damaging, the continuous public counter responses to the BLMM illustrate a reluctance to see the significance and correlation between race and class in American society. Arguably, this is detrimental, as it creates a form of silent majority (Miles and Brown, 2003:62). Silent majorities are understood as the masses not meaning to, but somewhat responsible for creating and maintaining the unequal power structures by their unawareness or lack of genuine interest in racist traditions. Without a ‘silent’ majority, there could not be the grounds for sustaining discrimination as seen in today’s America. 
 
The past month has been an intense ride, one that familiarized us with the legacy of systematic racism and with concepts of black suffering, strategic racism, white indifference, politics of fear, the harms of oppression Olympics and of white amnesia. As activists, we have learned the importance of organizing, strategizing and mobilizing, the importance of collation building and ally-ship, as well as the importance of good leadership (we cannot, in the words of Professor Littleton, ‘just be hollering in the streets). We learned, regardless of our own backgrounds, that we do not live in a colorblind society, but rather, a color silent one and that it is up to us to speak up against it – loud and clear. 
 
On a personal level, this experience has provided the perfect circumstance to reflect, react and rearrange thoughts. Among the many reflections I have had, perhaps, none has been as significant as realizing the power of reflection and becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Change does not come overnight, and an everyday revolution is the required. The big changes will not be granted through the big intentions that we all have; it is in the small choices that we make and in our unwavering dedication to the cause. Before coming to Atlanta, I had let my activism burn out because I was jailed by the anger and frustration that comes with trying to challenge how people have been taught to see the world. I had become a part of the silent majority. I came to Atlanta wanting to soothe my anger though this fellowship. However, I will be going home even angrier. What has changed in me, however, is that the fire has been ignited once again, and with being comfortably pissed at the status quo, I have rediscovered my voice – my most efficient weapon.  
 
I have realized that no matter how angry, frustrated or tired we get, silencing our voices is by de facto raising the voices of injustice, and that my role as a scholar activist is to speak up and use my anger in a constructive manner. If no one knows that I am mad at the system, the anger will destroy me instead of destroying it; and nothing has liberated my spirit more than coming to this realization. Moreover, in the light of current events, we cannot lose hope. While racism is America’s homegrown beast, and the system is indeed a giant, we need to remember that even giants must fall. We have to believe that violence can, as history has showed us, be a catalyst for change, and that by changing the status quo in the United States, we have a shot at changing the status quo at home. As Congressman John Lewis eloquently put it ‘we all came here in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now’.
 
So what now? A month ago, I had great expectations and vague idea of what to expect of my experience as a John Lewis fellow in Atlanta. I have not only learned a lot about the important figures of the long civil rights movement and of people who have continued the fight, but I have learned a lot about myself. I can see again, that I am warrior – a wounded one admittedly – but in the encouraging words of Dr. Daniel Black, we were all here in Atlanta, in this fellowship, because we are wounded soldier and soldiers that were getting ready for battle. So I will be back on the frontlines, or more accurately, I will hit the keys and use my scholar activism, now that I have a greater understanding and submission to my role in the fight. The development that happened over the last month will have an impact on me forever. I have realized that you cannot be a revolutionary and a lone wolf, which is why I am so appreciative of the community we have built. If society reflected the 28 unique fellows I shared this experience with, I am sure we would be more efficient in combating racism globally. 
 
29 John Lewis fellows from the United States and Europe, came together in Atlanta, from various personal and cultural backgrounds to form an alliance and common ground for our future personal and collective fight for civil and human rights. We were all here for a reason, and it is now up to us to make it count. In the process, it is important that we keep our close ally-ship, and that we remind each other that progress is never linear. We need to make it our mission to confront and not just complain; we need to list our demands like Dr. Roslyn Pope and her friends, and we need to make more noise and use our voices so that they do not drown in the silent majorities. We need to understand history and draw inspiration from greats like Frederick Douglas, MLK, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokeley Carmichael and others, and all in all, we need to get in the way, and take up Congressman John Lewis’ advice to stir up some of that ‘good trouble’. 

References

Anderson, Talmadge  & Stewart, James: Introduction to African American Studies (Inprint Edditions, 2007)

Bulmer, Martin & Solomos, John: Racism (Oxford Reader, 1999)

Hervik, Peter: Racism, Race, Neo-Racism in The Annoying Difference. The Emergence of Danish Neonationalism (Berghahn Books, 2011)

Miles, Robert & Brown, Malcolm: Racism – 2nd edition (Routledge, 2003)

Wacquant, Loîc: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the “Race Question” in the United States in The Globalization of Racism (Paradigm Publishers, 2006)

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