Liberty Bell Middle School & High School
This is the text from a keynote given by Ilsa Govan.
I was born in a commune to parents who wanted to escape from society and reinvent a safe, loving, environment for their children. From a young age, I had a strong sense of fairness. Although my parents supported my critical thinking and wanted me make the world a better place, sometimes my whining, “That’s not fair!” wore down their hippy sensibilities.
“Life isn’t fair,” my parents told my sister and I when we’d argue about not getting to stay up late on a school night. “Life isn’t fair,” they repeated when we complained about who got to sit in the front of the car. Despite their good intentions, the clear message was, life isn’t ever going to be fair, so you need to live with unfairness. And many of you, like me, were probably taught to stop noticing because there’s nothing you can do to change it.
Well, there is. Today we’re going to look at examples of ways to be an ally for justice.
An ally is a person who is not experiencing oppression and still chooses to stand up for the rights of those who are. This may be a straight person who stands up for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, a cis gender person addressing transphobia, a male feminist, or a white person who is fighting racism. Some of the most meaningful work and relationships I’ve had in the past twenty years have been through my work as a white ally.
One of the things I was never taught in school was about white allies throughout history who had stood up against racism despite the cost to them personally. So when I decided I wanted to advocate for racial justice, I didn’t have a lot of role models or information on what that might mean. In my life, a white person either pretended not to notice race and tried to treat everyone the same, or was a racist.
Some of you may have noticed a twinge when I talk about being white or when I notice out loud that most of you are white. That might come from you also being told that talking about and noticing race was racist. But the opposite is true. The only way to end racism is to notice how different people are treated differently because of their race. If we don’t notice, or we pretend not to (I’m guessing most of you did notice my race, especially at an assembly honoring Dr. King) it makes it a lot harder to stand up against injustice. Turn to your neighbor and say, “You have to notice race to end racism.”
The silence in our history books about white allies can leave us wondering, what is my role?
Each one of you has the choice to be an ally in order to create the Beloved Community.
The idea of the Beloved Community comes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Think about the kind of school community you want to experience every day. As explained by the King center, founded by Corretta Scott King, “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”
You can choose to create the Beloved Community at school every day where people look out for each other, where everyone’s humanity is respected. However, in order to do this you may have to give something up.
My question to you is, What are you willing to give up to honor and respect the dignity of another human being?
06 Sep 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Keeping this question in mind, let’s look at some examples from the past. Since we’re celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let’s look at an image from the civil rights movement. For years, black people and their allies fought to end segregation. But winning the court case Brown vs Board of Education was just the beginning for black students. Here’s a picture of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock 9 going to Central High School. The Arkansas National Guard had to be called in to escort the students to school.
Notice the expressions on the faces of the white students. I wonder what they feared would happen when she entered their school?
What would they have to give up in order to welcome her as a part of the community? Possibly the approval of their friends and family. Even deeper than that, white students had to give up the idea that they were inherently superior and therefore deserving of better schools than black youth.
It is easy to see people who experience oppression as victims who need help, rather than recognizing the strength and resiliency they possess. As allies, it is important we don’t come from a place of thinking—they need me to fix them. I sometimes call this “white knight syndrome”, coming from the idea that the princess is incapable of helping herself and needs to be rescued.
In her book, Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, told the story of the harassment they endured, including having acid poured on her eyes. She wrote of her friend Link, a white boy, who used to tell her about dangerous areas at the school or plots other white students had to hurt her. Many of the white students who were initially friendly, were beaten up or harassed throughout the year and stopped talking with the black students as a result. White allies had to give up their own safety.
Now for a moment, try to imagine the emotional impact of the fear the Little Rock Nine felt walking through the school halls every day. Day after day knowing they were literally risking their lives to get the high quality education everyone deserves. What toll might that take? Imagine how strong they must have been.
Here’s another historic example. About 112,000 Japanese Americans on the west coast, many Washington state farmers, store owners, and families, were incarcerated and held in camps during World War II.
What would the woman in this picture have to give up in order to welcome Japanese Americans into her community and honor their human dignity? Perhaps her fear of being unsafe, her belief they were the “other” rather than her neighbors. As in the case of school desegregation, there were those allies who stood up against the government and supported their neighbors by caring for their homes and land until they returned.
George Takei, the actor and writer who played Sulu in Star Trek, was put in an internment camp as a child and has produced a play about his experiences. This is what he has to say about our collective responsibility to our community.
Now for a moment, consider the emotional impact of being suddenly seen as criminal and forced to give up your freedom.
When I was in junior high, our school mascot was the Redmond Warrior. I remember when some people in the school community wanted to change the mascot. Even though I’d only gone to school there one year, I identified as a warrior. I’d played sports where people cheered for us Warriors.
For me to give up this mascot and honor the dignity of Native people was difficult. I had to give up part of my identity and acknowledge that I had unintentionally hurt people by celebrating a racist symbol. This was difficult, as I’ve always seen myself as a good, kind person and certainly not a racist. I imagine this is the way many Washington football and Cleveland baseball fans feel—they would have to give up the idea that they, as kind-hearted people, had hurt others.
It was through organizing in partnership with local Tribes that students from diverse ethnic backgrounds advocated for changing the mascot. Even though there weren’t many Native students at our school, we still listened to their concerns and honored their request. Through the efforts of allies following the lead of Native people, they secured a 95% vote from the student body to change the mascot.
Now think for a minute about the emotion impact on Native youth at my school having their rich culture reduced to stereotypical images and tomahawk chops.
Let’s look at a couple of examples from this past year. This is Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis. For those who don’t know, she is the woman who refused to sign the marriage certificates for lesbian and gay couples, even though the law said she must as part of her job.
What would she have to give up in order to honor the humanity of couples who were entitled to the same rights as her family?
She might have to sacrifice friends and family who shared her religious beliefs. She would have to give up the idea that her interpretation of the bible and God’s law was more important than the laws of the United States. Or she could hold on to those beliefs and give up her job.
I was at a friend’s house one time and he got frustrated with a video game he was playing. He threw the controller down and said, “Man, this game is so gay!”
I asked him, “You mean the game is homosexual?”
He said no, he just meant it was bad. We went back and forth for a while about how that insulted an entire group of people when he used “gay” as a slur. I finally ended up just asking him to not use the word in that way around me.
Even though there were no lesbian or gay people present, I spoke up because those comments rob all of us of our humanity. I want to live in a community free of bigotry. Not just because we don’t want to hurt someone in the room, but because it is the right thing to treat all people with respect.
Now think for a moment about the impact on the lives of lesbian and gay couples who, finally gaining the right to marry, were then turned away by a member of their community who didn’t believe in their inherent shared humanity and rights.
Here is another recent example. This one is painful to talk about. Many of you may recognize this is a picture of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered 9 black people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last summer while they were holding a prayer circle. He said his intent was to start a race war.
Paul Davis Taylor displays a Confederate flag in front of Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 3, 1957. Taylor was among some 500 people who gathered across the street from the school, which had been scheduled to integrate. (AP Photo)
This image is of a white student who was protesting school integration at Central High School in Little Rock.
Following Roof’s horrific crime, retailers Wal-Mart, Amazon, Sears, Kmart, and Ebay all said they would stop selling merchandise with the Confederate flag. The flag was removed from cities across the south and taken off of specialty license plates in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. In South Carolina, where the people were shot while praying in church, they passed a bill to remove the flag.
What did people have to give up in order to remove a flag that stood as a symbol of hate and struck fear in the lives of members of their community? What did they have to give up to say, we will not honor a flag that divides our community?
I imagine many people felt a connection with the flag to their history and independence. They had to be willing to believe that something they held dear would cause harm to others. And a part of their identity as proud southerners was tied to this flag.
Yet they chose to do it because, as these pictures so clearly illustrate, no matter what it meant to them, this flag had been used as a symbol of hatred.
Some of you probably saw the video of Bree Newsome taking down the confederate flag in South Carolina because she didn’t want to wait another day seeing that symbol in her community.
Her white ally, James Ian Tyson, listened to her concerns and helped in the way she needed. He did not situate himself as center-stage, but rather, supported her in taking the action she wanted. Both of them were arrested.
It is important as allies that we don’t try to take over and do what we think is best, but rather we listen to the communities most impacted by oppression and follow their lead.
Now imagine the emotional impact of seeing a confederate flag in your community that was just used as a symbol of hatred by someone who killed nine people because of the color of their skin.
There are other words and symbols we can choose to let go of. I was in a workshop one time and a white man asked me why I wouldn’t say the “n-word”. He repeated the full word several times and insisted he should not have to be censored. I told him I chose not to use that word because it was a weapon of hate. My question to him was, knowing the harm it causes, why would you want to?
It takes a deep level of humility to accept feedback when someone tells you you’re causing harm, especially if that is not your intention. This is no easy task. So often we want to protect our identities, even if it means denying the truth.
Allies for justice know we will make mistakes and embrace the opportunity for truth telling. For it is only through telling the truth that we can have real reconciliation. And through truth and reconciliation, you can build the community you want.
One that honors and respects the dignity of all people.
One that chooses not to cause harm not because you have to, but because you want to.
One that believes life doesn’t have to be unfair.
I invite you to stand together now if that is the community you would like to build together.
Stand for fairness.
Stand for justice.
Stand for love.
Stand for dignity.
Stand in celebration of Dr. King’s message and your collective hope for your Beloved Community.