Words of Healing “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” – Jesus (Matt 24:35).

1Jan/010

A White Man’s Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

A Dream

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of my heroes. I still get shivers down my back when I hear "I have a dream today" (King). He had a voice that reached beyond the color of skin, giving a dream to Black men and White men alike. I'm White, but I can still share his dream. One of his dreams was that "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers" (King). I share that dream, but I find that I am without a voice. I can speak of racial issues, but who would listen? I'm only a White man, a Honky, what injustice have I suffered? Must I suffer injustice before I can share a dream?

Because of the dream of Martin Luther King and many other African Americans, legal, institutional segregation is no more. However, though the legal documents state that there shall be no segregation, segregation is, nonetheless, alive and well today. We have taken the ugly face of segregation and put a mask on it. The mask smiles and says that segregation does not exist, but all one must do is walk into the lunchroom of any multi-racial school and the mask is taken off. Though "little black boys and black girls" go to school with "little white boys and white girls," they sit at different tables, talk a different talk, and walk a different walk. They do not yet "walk together as brothers and sisters." Myers, a Social Psychologist cited, "...in a survey of students at 390 colleges and universities, 53 percent of African American students felt excluded from social activities," whereas only "24 percent of Asian Americans, 16 percent of Mexican Americans, and 6 percent of European Americans," felt the same way (340). Why is this so?

Categorization: Us and Them

Social Psychology sheds some lights on why this is true. We all "simplify our environment" through "Categorization" (Myers 340). We all, more or less, categorize people based on their group and/or race. In my own life, I am labeled by people as a right wing, conservative, fundamental Christian because of the stand that I take on most issues. These categorizations are true. However, if you start making assumption of what I'm like because of the categories that I'm in, you are beginning to form prejudices about me. Regardless of popular opinion, not all fundamental Christians are alike. Therefore, as Myers points out, categorizations are not the same as prejudice, but they do "provide a foundation for prejudice" (340).

One of the foundations for racial prejudice, then, would be to focus on racial differences. If a person is highly focused on what race, ethnicity, or color they are, then they are more likely to form prejudices along those lines. "Social identity theory implies that those who feel their social identity keenly will concern themselves with correctly categorizing people as us or them" (Myers 364). To illustrate this point, terms such as "Oreo" for a Black person who is "White on the inside" show how much the us/them mentality has permeated the Black culture. This categorization as us and them then leads to the segregation that we now observe taking place in America, and the only way to avoid it is to stop noticing the color of a person's skin as a source to know anything about them at all.

Now, in this, I mostly blame our nation as a whole. As David Person put it, "Racism has been as American as jazz and the Harlem Globetrotters. It stains our history and colors our relationships. It has affected how we learn, teach, work and worship." By discriminating against African Americans throughout history, White's have forced Black Americans to "feel their social identity keenly." Every time a Black man or woman walks into a store and is treated differently than a White person, they become very aware of their race and their differences. It is, then, no mystery as to why Black people pull together under the bonds created from discrimination and a common history thereby creating an "us" and "them" mentality. I understand why the "us" and "them" is there, but I also wonder how it can be changed.

Making an Issue of Race Creates Hypersensitivity

To change and to stop noticing the color of skin is a difficult thing to do. From the White perspective, when I meet a Black man, I have to ask myself if he might perhaps be offended if I said he was Black instead of African American, and I can't just start calling every Black person African American because there are many Black people that are Hispanic, etc. So, the political correctness in our society actually forces me to notice a person's race more than I otherwise would, especially when it comes to Black Americans. I know that I notice it more than I otherwise would, because my aunt is Black, and growing up I never thought anything about it. I may have asked my mom at a young age why she was so dark, but I never thought that she was "one of 'them.'" I didn't care that she was black-why should I? However, because I'm now supposed to say that she is African American, and now that there is Black Entertainment Television, and now that there is African American History in our schools, I am much more aware of the differences between us. This has made me "keenly aware" of my own color, and it has made me cautious in approaching Black Americans for fear of offending, whereas I mix freely with Asians, Latinos, and other races that I meet because I have no fear of offending them.

I don't like being uncomfortable, but whenever I am around Black people, I am aware of their being Black, then that awareness makes me self-conscious, and that self-consciousness makes me uncomfortable. Why should I be uncomfortable around people just because of their color of skin? I shouldn't be, but I am because I'm afraid to offend even one person. I'm afraid to add one ounce of pain to the life of any African American, for I do know about all the discrimination that they still must face in America today. However, when I should just go up and talk without thinking about it, I start second guessing myself, and in effect, I treat Black people differently than I would if had I not paid any attention to their skin color. Therefore, being afraid to offend has actually created a form of discrimination, for instead of treating them like anyone else I have become hypersensitive to race.

I believe that many well-meaning White Americans share my hypersensitivity because of the focus that we put on Black and White issues. It makes me wonder if we are doing the right thing in our approach to the subject. I believe that by having Black emphasis, we are furthering the problem. Now, don't misunderstand me. Is it fair to have Black History Month? Yes it is! Is it fair to have college classes of African American History? Yes, of course it is! In fact, in my opinion, it would be fair if every White person, whose ancestors owned slaves, were to be put into slavery. That would be an eye for eye and tooth for tooth, which is fair if nothing else. White people owe Black people a tremendous debt that can never be repaid. However, a wrong once done can never be undone, and focusing on the wrongs done can never bring the unity that Martin Luther King spoke of in his speech.

The Tie That Binds

As long as we call it African American History, White people will say, "that's about 'them,'" but as long as American History remains silent about slavery, the lives of the slaves and the great people of Black History, Black people will say, "that's about 'them.'" Rather, we need to make slavery and the great people of Black History as part of American History and teach it side by side and in the same class that we teach of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. The "them," if anything, needs to be people of the past, and the "us" needs to be the united people of the present. While I am not Black, slavery is a part of my history too, because those Black people were Americans. They weren't treated like Americans, but they were, and African American History has had an effect on my modern day life, which makes it my history.

Am I right? Well, some will say that I'm just a Honky. Some will say that I don't know what it's like to be Black, and, you know what? They'll be right. I don't know what it's like to be discriminated against based on the color of my skin. I don't know what it's like to have a store's security follow me around just because I'm Black. I don't know what it's like to have store clerks put the change on the counter because they're afraid to touch my hand. However, what I do know about is the dream, the dream that we would look beyond the color of our skin and be "brothers and sisters."

Being brothers and sisters doesn't mean that we are exactly the same, my actual sister and I are much different. There are some things about her that I will never fully understand, some pains of life that she has had that I will never have. However, we have a tie that binds and so we celebrate our diversity instead of despising it. Similarly, to fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King does not mean that Black and White people have to be the same. Rather, we must discover the tie that binds despite our diversity and then celebrate our diversity.

Finding the tie that binds is the real trick, however, for we must learn a new way of thinking, to focus on what unites us rather than what makes us different. My only thoughts on this are to echo the words of Langston Hughes, "I, too, am America." We are all Americans, and we must attempt to unite under that banner. We must attempt to unite under the Red, White, and Blue, for which has been shed the blood of both Black and White people in the name of freedom. If we do not unite under that common banner, that tie that binds, then we will forever focus on our differences and forever segregate ourselves from one another, and Martin Luther King's dream will remain, forever, just a dream.


Works Cited

Hughes, Langston. "I, Too, Sing America." The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Estate of Langston Hughes, 1994. The Academy of American Poets. 16 May 2001 Click Here

King Jr., Martin Luther. "I Have a Dream." 15 July 1997. The Love Shack. 16 May 2001 Click Here

Myers, David G. Social Psychology. Boston: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1999.

Person, David. "Overcoming racism requires forgiveness." The Huntsville Times 16 Feb. 2001. Alabama's Home on the Net. 16 May 2001 Click Here

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