In order to make society better for all, we must listen to and learn about all perspectives. That means listening to the stories of people who don't have the same gender, racial, religious, sexual, etc. identity as you, VanDewater argues. - Photo via pixabay.com

The Black Lives Matter movement has been pushed to the forefront of society’s attention in recent months. With the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others, people of all races have been banding together to protest police brutality and the white privilege that has been inherent in the United States system since its very founding as a country.

While many people have been active voices in the fight against systemic racism and other issues for a long time, more people who don’t experience these things directly have become more involved in the push for equity of all forms. The people who don’t experience this oppression – white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied and/or Christian men – are often part of the problem.

As a white, able-bodied woman raised in a Catholic family, I often don’t realize the privilege that I have in society. I’m not discriminated against on the basis of my race or religion. The most I could say in the way of experiencing oppression would be the things I’m told not to do as a woman because “it’s not ladylike.”

Because of my lack of personal experience with oppression, I didn’t find it necessary to actively fight oppression, quite frankly. I thought it was simply enough to not be racist.

I started becoming more active in fighting racism and other plagues of the system at the same time the news of George Floyd’s murder came to the center of mainstream media’s focus, and protests sprung up around the country to demand justice for Floyd and other Black people who have died at the hands of an unjust system. Though I wish I could say that this isn’t what it took for me to be an active member of this movement, and as much as it looks like I jumped on the bandwagon, this is what finally pushed me – and many other non-Black people – to take action.

Since then, I have continued to push myself to be an active part of the effort against injustice and oppression – to educate myself, to listen to people who have more experience with oppression and to have conversations with people who sympathize with the movement (as well as people who don’t) to make sure I’m not just being a performative activist.

A big part of this has been education. This semester I decided to take Introduction to Africana Studies with Dr. Lola Ames to expand my understanding of the Black community. I didn’t need an elective, but I knew that with all my other obligations during the academic year, I would most likely not stay on top of my self-education. I also wanted to have some direction to what I should learn, as learning anything on your own can be a daunting task.

We are now a little over a month into the semester and I can say that this was absolutely the right decision. Though at this point in the course we haven’t gotten much further than basic African history and the Atlantic Slave Trade, I have learned things I never knew before.

I’ve learned about how slavery began in Africa with the enslavement of the people of other nations. It was only when Europeans became involved that slavery became entwined with skin color. I’ve learned about the differences between the Europeans’ and the Africans’ slavery systems.

I’ve read about the revolts on slave ships against the Europeans as well as the more passive forms of resistance like starvation. Though I’ve been taught in the past about the Middle Passage, no one ever even indicated that there was resistance of any kind.

I’ve learned about the rich societies of Africa and the diversity of religion and economic systems across the continent before Europeans colonized it.

And, importantly, I’ve learned about the strength of the African leaders when faced with colonization by the Europeans. One story in particular sticks out to me: when Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba, a warrior, went to negotiate with the Portuguese. When she arrived, they were seated in chairs and there was nowhere for her to sit. Nzinga then had her servant go on her hands and knees and sat on her back so she could be at eye level with the Portuguese rather than below them. She stood strong during negotiations and won concessions from the Portuguese.

This is just a brief list of things I’ve learned that I’ve never even vaguely heard about in any other class. The semester is not even half over yet, so I’m sure I will learn more about things that I couldn’t even think of now.

These are things that our typical K-12 education doesn’t cover. In fact, most college curricula doesn’t elucidate things from outside the personal experiences of white people. But because I chose this class, I am now better able to understand what the Black community has been through. While no one alive today has any personal experience with the Middle Passage, it is still the reason for many Black Americans having come to this country in the first place. It and many other hardships Black people have gone through in the past still affect their lives today.

My point in relaying all of this to you is that this course has broadened my knowledge of experiences outside of my own. I believe that it makes me better able to support the fight against unjust societal constructs, to make real change in the world and make it better for everyone today and for the people of the future.

I can’t do it alone though. No one person can do enough to change our society for the better. It must be a collaborative effort. We must all take any opportunity we are offered to expand our understanding of other people’s experiences and use that to take the next step toward societal equity – whether it’s taking an Africana Studies course as an elective, joining conversations about the inequities other people experience in their daily lives or even just reading up on other people’s experiences on your own time.

Who knows, in the act of learning how to better our society for all those who live in it, we might even end up bettering ourselves.

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