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Reflections From Last Weekend: 3 Things We Can Learn

By now, many are familiar with the incident that occurred in Washington DC involving students from Covington Catholic High School and Native American Elder, Nathan Phillips. Over the weekend, many on social media were wrapped up in the specifics of the event– who said or did what– as more details emerged from different perspectives. Rather than focus on the individual players in this story, there is a lot to gain by taking a step back and focusing on the lessons we can take away as a community, and as a people, as we strive to build the Beloved Community. Here are 3 things we can learn from the confrontation, and what you can do about it to be a better advocate in your daily life:

1. Education is an ongoing responsibility.

At IJPC, we believe that education is crucial part of creating a more just and peaceful society. To that end, we also understand that education isn’t just external. It is something we must do within ourselves everyday, as individuals and as members of a larger community. After charged incidents like this one, it is important to understand the larger systems at play and how we may be complicit in them, even if unintentionally. In a country with centuries of oppressive history, many notions of power and privilege are passed down from generation to generation and instilled in us by the institutions we interact with everyday. Whether it is racism, sexism, classism, or another means of oppression, in order to challenge these systems, we must know where we stand in our own minds in terms of knowledge of our history and implicit biases.

This requires an honesty with ourselves that often makes us uncomfortable. However, in order to effectively educate ourselves, it is necessary to know exactly what we needs to unlearn. This task is not a one-time deal. It is something that must be an active and ongoing part of our lives with repeated self reflection. Especially for people in positions of privilege, it is important to understand how aspects of our identities contribute to power and place in society and concepts of oneself in relation to others.

As we come into this knowledge and self awareness, our role as educators extends to those around us. When we see hate and oppression in our communities, even amongst our friends and families, we must teach the realities of history and injustice. This is responsibility is extended especially to members of privileged groups. It cannot consistently be the burden of victimized groups to defend their basic dignity and re-explain the trauma and oppression they have experienced. As people of privilege take it upon themselves to gain knowledge, the next step is to extend that knowledge and to challenge ideologies that are reinforced within our communities and our institutions.

2. We must respectfully engage in difficult conversations.

Engaging in politically charged conversations can be daunting. There’s no doubt that our society continues to become increasingly polarized. With social media growing everyday, political views are more public and there are constantly more platforms for debate. As things get heated on the internet and stakes seem to rise, one-on-one conversations become taboo for the sake of preserving relationships. This is evidenced on a large scale by the lack of dialogue between opposing sides relating to the government shutdown, or on a small scale during family dinners that can be filled with tense silence for fear of escalating debate.  

However, neither silence nor verbally violent altercations are productive. Now more than ever, it is necessary for us to challenge both ourselves and our community to speak about difficult topics. There is much to be gained from learning about those who possess different cultures/beliefs than us. By striving to educate ourselves about those which whom we coexist, our conversations can be more meaningful as well. We cannot continue “agreeing to disagree” for the sake of our own comfort. Personal prejudices have the potential to become policy and practice, thus resulting in damaging consequences to people’s lives and dignity.

In order to have productive conversations, it is necessary to understand why those we disagree with hold certain beliefs. This ties back to having knowledge of the systems that perpetuate privilege today. Understanding people’s backgrounds and environments can provide critical insight into what forms their values. Knowing this can allow for more meaningful conversations. There is no single way to conduct conversations across what sometimes feels like a monstrous divide, but having one conversation is better than none, and over the course of our lifetimes these dialogues can lead to fruitful changes that positively affect the world we live in.

3. Preparing for protests is not optional.

Taking part in any type of direct action is a deliberate choice, one that comes with the potential for public tensions to erupt and even turn violent. Because of this, each individual present at a protest should have a plan for how to de-escalate heated situations. Practicing nonviolence at a protest begins with a fundamental understanding of the issue being raised, as well as a contextual understanding of the broader movement within which the issue might be situated. Full awareness of the relevant issue and the other protestors it may attract can help all participants more critically process the actions and words of those around them, especially if those actions and words cause offense.

Furthermore, organizations like schools or local action groups who mobilize protestors should be responsible for providing their participants with individuals trained to de-escalate hecklers or engage in nonviolent tactics. Tactics that might seem innocent, can be perceived differently in different contexts. It is important not only to be equipped with strategies about how individuals can practice nonviolence, but also be able to identify when others might be engaging in nonviolent tactics or when behavior may escalate tensions. Ensuring that participants are accompanied by knowledgeable, trained individuals must be a top priority for any school,  group, or organization sponsoring participation in demonstrations.

Where can we go from here?

We have put together a few resources that may be helpful for self reflection and education, as well as tools for effectively sharing knowledge and engaging in productive, nonviolent conversations. Even when hateful events do not take place in our own neighborhoods, we still have a role to play in creating a larger Beloved Community.