I wonder who among those of you who will read this post – who among you are old enough to remember when Martin Luther King Jr Day became a national holiday?
I remember. I was a kid. Not a little kid – probably early teens. Old enough to understand that this was important; young enough to be so naive as to be stunned when I learned that making Martin Kuther King’s birthday a federal holiday wasn’t an automatic, easy win.
I had a button in support of the holiday. A big, round red and white political button. I was wearing it one day when I ran into our neighbor, Mrs. Buckler.
Mrs. Buckler was old. She was frail. And she had some dementia. I had watched my mom protect her when the local fraternity publicly and loudly teased and humiliated her during Rush Week.
So I was stunned when she saw my button and started an impassioned political conversation. And even more stunned that she was furious about the idea that our country would create a holiday in honor of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
For my 13th birthday, I asked for “A Testament of Hope,” Dr. King’s collected writings. Despite the fact that he and Harriet Tubman were my long-standing childhood heroes, I was oblivious to the fact that there was anybody who didn’t idolize MLK as I did.
I was shocked that anyone in this country would oppose a national day to remember and honor him.
Because, you see – I was a white girl. Had I grown up a black girl, I would not have been shocked that racism still existed. I might have idolized Rev. King – but I would have had no illusions that he or the Civil Rights Movement ended racial inequality and injustice in the United States of America.
This is what White Privilege is.
I could grow up passionately devoted to justice and equality, and not understand until my early teens that racism was alive and well.
Our young people of color don’t have the luxury of being so naive as to believe that our City is safe; or that it’s as safe for them as it is for me. They talk of the dangers of “driving while black.” They share stories of being stopped by the police, of being roughed up by the police every day. I’ve watched police drive by a paddling venue and stop where they can watch our groups as we load kayaks; something that has never happened when I’ve paddled those same venues with white paddlers over the last 15 years. We’ve had a peaceful group, sitting in a public gazebo debriefing a paddling program, approached by a police officer who’s first sentence was an aggressive “What’s REALLY going on here?” He accused the group of threatening and violent behavior.
As a clinician, it’s tempting to take the view that I work with individuals; with individual hurts, individual betrayals, individual traumas — all safely apolitical and uncontroversial.
Trauma-informed care tells us otherwise.
“To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between the victim and the perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the other hand, asks the bystander to share the burden or pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
~ Herman, J. L. (1992). “Trauma and recovery”
In a city where we know the names of Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, LaQuan McDonald – I’m left with the question:
What is our ethical responsibility as clinicians who work with young people who have experienced trauma because of oppression? Because of systemic racism, sexism, heterosexism, cisexism?
I believe we cannot be silent.
While I would be less surprised today by Mrs. Buckler’s vehement opposition to making the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a Federal Holiday, I still have the privilege to choose to be utterly blind to the oppression and systemic racism that is a part of our young people’s lives day in and day out. As a well-trained clinician, I believe I have an ethical responsibility to take an active and visible stance against it. If I don’t, I betray the trust our young people put in me.