Tim Wise recently visited the University of Southern California as part of his “White Like Me” lecture series. Amid the #USChangeMovement, a student-led movement to end racial profiling on and around campus, and a federal investigation into the university’s mishandling of sexual assault cases, the anti-racism writer and educator delivered a timely message on race and privilege.
As Wise talked candidly about the history of oppression in America, I reflected on my own experiences as an African American woman at a predominately white institution. As I looked around, everyone was nodding and clapping almost in sync with one another. Only five months after the racially motivated incident involving 79 LAPD officers and six student arrests and less than a year after the construction of the campus gates, we were painfully aware of the issues at hand.
For me, the lecture functioned as a therapy session. To hear my experiences validated through university-funded speakers made me feel sane for the first time in a while. But before I could allow myself to get excited, reality set in: the students and administrators who most desperately needed to hear the truth about race and privilege weren’t in the room.
Like many students of color, I have attended countless discussions on racism, classism, sexism, and every type of “–ism” that exists in America. As much as I appreciate these conversations, I’m tired of having them with people who already get it.
Modern manifestations of institutional racism seem obvious, but to who? There are still millions of Americans who genuinely believe that we live in a post-racial society despite the fact that there are more Black people in prison, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850. Contrary to popular belief, schools are more segregated now than they were at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement.
Unfortunately, the individuals who seek to unpack these facts are often deemed as “race-baiters.” As someone who knows firsthand how depressing it is to regularly discuss the plight of people of color, I can assure you that no one wakes up in the morning eager to talk about the achievement gap or prison industrial complex. But as difficult as these conversations may be, it is not enough to merely talk about race and class, especially when the people in power aren’t listening.
How do you have honest conversations about race in a country that vehemently denies its own history? At what point do you stop talking and get to work? What does activism even look like in the 21st century? Are we too late?
As terrifying as the answers may be, I refuse to lose faith in America’s ability to progress. If it weren’t for unyielding hope, we wouldn’t be where we are today. But faith without works is dead. Instead of spending hours drafting Facebook rants, we need to write letters to our state representatives and find ways to hold them accountable. Rather than protesting the government after they shutdown, we need to exercise the rights we still have and proactively influence local policy.
Mass marches and town hall forums were essential in mobilizing movements of the past, but they were only intended to be a means to an end, not the end. While we still have the right to vote, speak freely, and peacefully assemble—well, sort of—we must redefine modern activism and find solutions to the problems plaguing our communities. Conversation can’t save us, but it’s a start.