Thursday, November 30, 2023

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 17, 2022 - Being a Co-Conspirator

I am definitely a person who wants to be on the right side of history. But that’s my pride talking, frankly. As a point of my faith, namely the commandment to love my neighbor as myself, I also want to be on the right side of love and justice.

When I first heard of the term “white privilege” I already knew enough about how racism and discrimination function in society that I wasn’t particularly triggered by it, as some are. I was immediately curious about its implications, however.

I’ve heard some White men in particular, bristle strongly at the suggestion that they are somehow privileged in our world simply because they are White and male. They see only through the lens of their own experience and know how hard they’ve worked and how they often feel they’ve little to show for it. So to be described as “privileged” is the opposite of their own lived experience. 

Yet, privileged we are. Even though, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I have a modest understanding by comparison of what it means to be marginalized, it’s not the same thing as racism or sexism. White gay males are still the ones with greater privilege among the rest of our Alphabet Tribe, and for the same reasons as in the rest of society. It’s best for those of us with even fractal degrees of privilege to be among those who use it to improve the human condition.

My only challenge in this has been figuring out how to use White privilege to be a wind at the back of the solution when my privilege is actually part of the problem. To be clear, I’m not saying I’m part of the problem because I consciously make things worse. I’m only part of the problem because I haven’t always understood that simply being an ally is not enough. In short, I haven’t known what to do with the privilege I have to affect greater equality for others.

In the meantime, it has always been my recommendation and practice as a White male to listen rather than speak about issues like sexism and racism. I try to share what I hear from those who experience it, rather than claim to understand it myself.

I received quite a shock last week when a friend sent me a video of three Black women on stage speaking at an event. One of whom, Dr. Bettina Love, described the difference between being a social justice ally and a social justice co-conspirator. I had never heard the term co-conspirator used in a positive way before.

She told a story about Bree Newsome and James Tyson the day that Bree climbed a flagpole on the South Carolina statehouse to remove the confederate flag in the weeks following the racist massacre at the AME church by Dylann Roof. 

When the White male authorities came to stop this Black woman from removing a confederate symbol, they decided to electrically tase the flagpole in order to make Bree fall, probably to her death. But James Tyson, standing at the base of the metal pole, protected her by placing his hand on it, knowing that they weren’t going to electrify it while his hand was there. Because James was White. 

That is an example of how to use White privilege. What I learned from this video was that James was understanding of the difference between merely being an racial ally and being a co-conspirator to justice. James took a risk on her behalf. 

I felt shocked by this potentially literally shocking story, because like a bolt of lightning, I finally understood what the role of a progressive White male should be in this moment of our great human reckoning.

We do not have the luxury at this moment to merely be allies. While it’s good to know what’s wrong in the world, and even hold some effective tools toward not contributing further to the problem, what the world needs of White men now is for us to be co-conspirators to justice. We need more James Tysons.

We need more people willing to stand up and take a risk. To stand with, to stand up for, speak out against, to use what society has given us by dint of our gender and color to help insist upon equality in our world. 

James Tyson is not the hero of that day. That title belongs to Bree Newsome. She risked her life to remove an emblem of her own ancestors’ enslavement from its place of undeserved honor on the South Carolina statehouse. But James rightfully holds his place as a co-conspirator of her heroism. He used his White privilege in the way we are meant. 

The flag went back up immediately after her arrest, but the gesture had its intended effect.  Less than two weeks later, the South Carolina state legislature voted to make it illegal to display the confederate flag on any public building. And the flag came back down permanently.

Love thy neighbor as thyself. Hold their humanity as equal to yours. Stand beside. Fight for. Kneel with. 

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