In Search of Hope and Unity

CN: politics, discussion of violence, racism, ableism.

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“Many of us still know that love trumps hate. We need to stick together, to keep our voices loud in this democracy. I need to use my research skills in our country to bring evidence and reason back on stage where they belong. Trump’s idea of revolution isn’t the only kind of change we can have in America. It’s not too late.”

My Facebook post on the morning of November 9, 2016

Like many Americans, I have been deeply troubled by recent events. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others whose names I don’t yet know. The brutal murders of Alejandro Ripley, a 9-year-old autistic boy whose mother drowned him and then tried to blame the killing on a black man, and Willow Dunn, a 4-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was left out to starve.

I am struggling for hope, struggling for answers, struggling to figure out how I, a disabled white woman, can fight for the justice that both my black and my disabled brothers and sisters deserve.

I was a totally blind white girl raised in a suburb that is almost 90% white and less than 2% black. My first education on racial differences came when I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. in elementary school. When I asked my parents the inevitable question, was I black or white, they were touched by my ignorance. For many years I thought that my blindness protected me from being racist. I realize now that none of us are immune to bias and stereotyping. Sure, I can’t see skin color, but I absorbed the same history, the same cultural teachings as my sighted peers. I am still susceptible to judge others by the characteristics I am able to observe or am told about. I acknowledge my privilege and the responsibility that comes with it.

I spent six years studying stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination under leading researchers on racial bias in policing and other applied settings. I have a good idea of the universality of prejudice and its multiple sources, but I still struggle to figure out what we can do about it.

Yet I can’t live in despair for very long. As I searched for hope, I thought about the students in my youth mentoring program, students of all races and ethnicities, strengths and abilities, coming together in community. When I spoke to the students at our virtual meeting last weekend, I urged them not to settle for the label of “future leaders” so often given to young people. Instead, I encouraged them that they can all become leaders today, in the present. To find something, a cause or an idea, an area of need, and put it into action.

Last night, I listened to the “Pomp and Circumstance” graduation melody. I reflected on my three graduations, from high school, undergrad, and doctoral training. Each time I heard that song and walked across a stage, I felt the infinite freedom of the future as one chapter ended and a new one began. I felt that sense of open time and space extending ahead, and the power to shape it however I wished.

We aren’t ready to simply graduate from centuries of institutionalized racism and oppression. But each day is a new day. Collectively, we have the power to shape a new path. And I realize it’s not up to me to have the answers. It will take all of us together, pooling our diverse expertise and creativity, to come up with solutions and put them into practice. Just as I implore nondisabled people to center the lived experiences of disabled people, I recognize the need for me to step back and listen thoughtfully to others’ lived experiences with racial bias. I think part of the answer lies in celebrating each other’s differences, rather than simply ignoring them. I will put my vote toward local and national leaders who are willing to implement evidence-driven solutions. And I think we need to encourage our younger generations to share their fresh perspectives, energy, and hope.

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