Friday, May 11, 2012

Civil Rights & Why I'm Annoying

When I was in junior high and high school, I was learning about various historical events for the first time, and I was riveted. I couldn't get to history classes fast enough.

As I read about the events that lead up to the Trail of Tears, the enslavement of Africans in the USA, the Holocaust in Germany, the mass killings under Stalin, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the worker's rights movements between the World Wars, and the various attempts for women's equality since the founding of the USA, I thought: 

well, had I been alive at any of those times, I would have been on the front lines fighting. I would have stood up for the rights of all people. I would have been on the right side of history, even if it meant I would be imprisoned, even killed.

But some time at university, I started to think something else:  

I will never know what I would have done in those times. Maybe I wouldn't have spoken out, out of fear, out of cowardice, even out of prejudice. Maybe I would have thought Oh, it's God's will or There's nothing I could do or It's not my fight or Let things evolve naturally, don't force things on people, just let it be.

I don't think I would have been an active oppressor, but maybe I would have rationalized not participating, the way so many other people did when faced when those moments. 

It's really convenient and easy to stay silent in the face of injustice. Even if you aren't facing death or imprisonment by speaking out, you may be facing tiresome sighs, being hidden or unfriended on Facebook, or called things like un-American, un-Patriotic, or insensitive to religion/culture. You might make people uncomfortable. You might be considered annoying.

But social change doesn't come from gentle, friendly persuasion. It comes from messy, uncomfortable challenges and debate. And it's never, ever easy.

I decided that, while I can't ever know what I would have done had I been alive during a different time in history, that I can't do anything about the past, I can do something about the present. I decided that if I was ever given the opportunity to speak out when I witnessed someone being discriminated against, I was going to take that opportunity, and face the consequences - people have met fire hoses and batons and imprisonment for speaking out, surely I can face some eye-rolling.

And in 20 years, when my nieces say, "Aunt Jayne, back in the old days, did you speak out when gay people couldn't get married in the USA?" I'm going to be able to say, "Yes I did. Yes, I most certainly did."

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