by Alicia Sprague
Growing up white in the U.S., I learned one solution for fighting injustice: if I just treated people well, I could cause a ripple effect of kindness that would spread across the world. That’s how I used to picture solving all the world’s problems; start with smiling at one person and watch how that action spread, all the way to City Council, Congress, the United Nations, and beyond. Self-interest conquered; corruption eradicated; racism uprooted; goodness wins the day.
I believe in the power of kindness. I believe how we treat people matters. But I no longer think that kindness will end oppression.
I am a white, straight, non-trans, middle class woman. I grew up, as many of us in the U.S. do, in a segregated neighborhood. Not segregated in the sense that white folks and folks of color weren’t legally allowed to live next to one another, but segregated in the sense that historic and continued discriminatory housing and lending practices largely kept folks of color out of my neighborhood. Despite growing up in as diverse a place as San Diego, the vast majority of my neighbors, friends, classmates, and family members were white. Never in my childhood and young adult years was I made to feel that the homogeneity of my social network was a problem. Never did I think to myself that I was missing out on valuable friendships and cross-cultural competencies. I was a passive participant in the life that I had been born into – one in which my opportunities were not limited by the color of my skin and where people who looked like me filled the White House, ruled the box office, and dominated the stories, histories, and narratives of my books.
Perhaps it’s only too obvious, then, that the messages I received about racism (largely from movies, t.v., and other media – no one in my family or friend groups talked about race) boiled down to this: racists were mean white people who said and did awful, violent things to people of color. Everyone else, myself included, who led with kindness and a warm heart were doing what needed to be done to eradicate racism and make the world an equally wonderful place for everyone to live in.
This way of thinking continued throughout my childhood, adolescence, and most of my 20s. Then, at the age of 28 and for a whole variety of reasons that could fill another three pages, this worldview of mine began to develop some serious cracks. I became aware of just how limited my racial understanding was, how nonexistent my skills were to effectively work across difference. For the first time in my life, I actively sought out friends who held identities different than my own; talked with my family members about topics that had never been discussed in our household before; visited parts of my community I had never been to and went to events I wouldn’t have given a passing thought to before. I turned my attention to books (surprising no one who knows me): books on U.S. history that had been left out of my K-16 education. Books on the U.S. criminal justice and legal systems. Books on power, privilege, and social identity. Books on anti-racism, transgender rights, Islamophobia, and racial justice. Memoirs and biographies of people of color, LGBTQIA folks, and people with disabilities.
The cracks in my worldview became so wide that eventually it shattered altogether. My confident belief that racism and all other discriminatory “isms” would slowly die out of their own accord was upended. My misunderstanding that civil rights issues were solved in the 1960s was corrected. I became aware of my own privilege. My eyes were opened to the way that every system in our country is deeply affected by oppressive policies and how they continue to operate in ways that benefit some groups of people over others.
And slowly, as I continue to build a new worldview enriched with deeper knowledge and perspective, what I have come to understand is that kindness won’t solve racism. Kindness can’t solve racism, as racism and other forms of oppression are deeply embedded within our country’s structures, its institutions, and policies, not just our individual actions. If we are ever going to create an equitable society, we need to create actively anti-racist and anti-oppressive policies and systems. Doing our own self-work to uproot racist beliefs and behaviors within us, of course, is also critical. But focusing on acts of kindness alone will not change the fact that:
- people of all races use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates in the U.S., yet the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is six times that of white folks1 and “the United States currently imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.”2
- lending and housing market practices continue to segregate people by class and skin color and relegate folks of color to poorer neighborhoods.3
- Native Americans have been forced off land where their ancestors lived for generations and coerced onto the most marginal and barren land in the U.S., 4 or that indigenous women are missing and murdered at disproportional rates. 5
- a person using a wheelchair cannot enter a building with stairs but no ramp, or more broadly, that our society is not built for people who are navigating the world with disabilities.6
- there are “food deserts” in our urban centers, where working class folks have to rely on fast food without the option of accessible grocery stores.7
- the maternal mortality rate of Black women is three to four times higher than that of white women.8
- private businesses can refuse service to folks who identify as LGBTQ+, whether this means denying them a meal or an education.9
- in Flint, Michigan, a community of predominantly Black folks, thousands of residents are still getting their water from lead pipes, 6 years after the initial water crisis began.10
- trans women of color are disproportionately at greater risk of violence than non-trans women.11
- Latinx women make 54 cents for every dollar paid to white men.12
- Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise in the United States and are at an 18 year high in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. 13
So what is the solution, if not kindness? We must educate ourselves about policies in our healthcare, legal, criminal justice, educational, housing, agricultural, and other U.S. systems that are perpetuating inequitable outcomes for marginalized communities – so that we can write new policies that truly center equity. We must reflect on the many ways in which we may be acting out racism and other discrimination because of ideas we’ve subconsciously inherited from U.S. culture – so that we can identify those behaviors and choose different ways of being. We must change ourselves – and the structures of our society.
Kindness is wonderful. Kindness is much needed. But to fight oppression, we must go beyond kindness.
If you would like to read more about the statistics listed above and advocacy actions you can add to your toolbox to fight systemic injustice, please see the following resources:
- Article: White Like Me, Nice Like Me – 4 minute read
- Article: White People Assume Niceness is the Answer to Racial Inequality. It’s Not – 6 minute read
- Article: Ibram Kendi, One of the Nation’s Leading Scholars of Racism, Says Education and Love are Not the Answer– 10 minute read
- 3Article: Redlining was Banned 50 Years Ago. It’s Still Hurting Minorities Today – 10 minute read
- 6Article: Why I Wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act– 15 minute read
- 8Article: America Is Failing Its Black Mothers– 20 minute read
- 10Article: Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know – 15 minute read
- Article: Fresh Challenges to State Exclusions on Transgender Health Coverage – 10 minute read
- 9Article: 6 LGBTQ Rights Fights to Watch in 2020 – 5 minute read
- 12Article: How Would You Like to Work the Same Hours for Half the Pay? That’s the Gender Pay Gap for Latinas – 5 minute read
- 13 Article: ‘A Different Era’: Anti-Semitic Crimes, and Efforts to Track Them, Climb – 5 minute read
- 7Journal Article: Sisters of the Soil: Urban Gardening as Resistance in Detroit – 30 minute read
- Podcast: A Forgotten History of How the U.S. Government Segregated America – 35 minute listen
- 1Fact Sheet: Criminal Justice Fact Sheet – 5 minute read
- 5Fact Sheet: In Indian Country, A Crisis of Missing Women. And A New One When They’re Found. – 5 minute read
- 11Fact Sheet: Violence Against Trans People – 5 minute read
- Website: Advocacy 101
- 4 Book: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
- Book: Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty
- 2Book: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness