I’ve taught Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essay “Letter from Birmingham Jail” more times than I can count. I love his strength, his resilience in his fatal fight against white oppression and bigotry. He was assassinated on my birthday and every time right before I celebrate, I always first think of him before I blow out the candles, how he took a bullet for his beliefs.
But I think if he were alive today he’d be ashamed of how divided our society has become. He’d be ashamed that much of his work has, in many ways, been undone in the face of political correctness that sterilizes our language, blunts our thoughts before they can even form into spoken words and punishes those who speak out or God forbid accidentally say the wrong thing. MLK used to stress people needed to have a “dialogue vs. a monologue.” Sure, we talk today. We talk in a code so generic and careful that nothing ever truly gets discussed. Racists remain racist and the self-righteous keep on pointing out the flaws in everybody else but themselves.
For years I’ve gotten used to checking the White, Non-Hispanic box when asked about my heritage, my ethnicity. I am classified as white, period. I am to keep to myself who I am. My European ancestors, the dirt-poor ones who came here from the islands of Greece, who took in other people’s ironing or sold fruit out of the back of a pick-up truck just to put food on the table for their children, their hard-earned identities, they simply don’t count, not to the United States Census Bureau. I am Native American too, on my mother’s side. But exactly what percentage? Is it enough to constitute shading in another box?
No. To the eyes of the US Census Bureau and all other institutions that call for me to answer who I am, I must remember this – I am what I am not.
Years ago I published a piece in the New York Times Magazine titled “Prejudice and Pride.” It sparked a lot of conversation and it has and continues to be taught in universities across the country. I hoped that by now we’d be beyond intentionally drawing distinctions from one another, our race or our sexual orientation and maybe, just maybe, we might try and connect with one another by some of our similarities. We have plenty of them. Love. Loss. Grief. They’re universal feelings experienced by all of humanity. But sadly enough, in a society where walls are favored to be constructed between our country and another, I couldn’t be more wrong.