Matt grew up in a privileged, white household. Looking back, he can see that his journey to grow toward greater self-awareness around social injustice was a long and fitful process, and it required the investment of people who could speak to his ignorance in ways he could hear.
I grew up in upper-middle class, white suburbia. I never wanted for anything essential or even beneficial. My parents were, and are, generous people with good hearts that are open to and feel for the suffering of others, and my siblings and I were often encouraged to help people, engage in service opportunities, and make donations. But I never saw the racial divides in our country because I was never exposed to them.
Almost everybody I interacted with growing up was white. When learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. the first time in kindergarten, I thought my classmate of Latino and Native American descent was Black simply because I had never seen anyone else who wasn’t white before. And, because I went to private, Catholic schools, most of the people I interacted with who were not white were also affluent, so I was never really exposed to the reality of injustice and inequality except through history and social studies classes.
The process of growing toward greater consciousness of systemic injustice was long and slow for me, and I’m indebted to a number of people who took the time to confront my ignorance, even when I wasn’t willing to see what they were showing me. My journey has given me resolve to commit to that same patient and sustained effort with others.
I am, perhaps, most indebted to my college roommate (who lived with me for all four years of college). He had a naturally welcoming and friendly personality and instinctively knew how not to put people on the defensive. He was always patient and willing to listen as I tried to understand a very different reality than the one I grew up in, but he didn’t let me off the hook — he shared his perspective as well and was firm about his experience and the experiences of other people he knew. He was my first Black friend.
My critical social awareness began to grow when I traveled abroad and had the chance to see how others view American culture. My first trip was a week-long service trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. In the evenings, after our service work, the Maryknoll nun in charge of the program would lead us in prayer, reflection, and conversation. I was not ready to hear what she had to say.
Growing up, everything I had learned and heard told me that the United States was better than any other country and was a source of good in the world. I’d never heard of the School of the Americas and had always been told that our history of meddling in the politics of our neighbors was for their benefit, not for our own. While I was glad for the overall experience and certainly affected by the poverty that I had seen, I left thinking she was crazy.
My college offered a diversity awareness training that every freshman had to attend as part of a “personal well-being in college” course. It also evoked strong feelings in me — frankly, the experience pissed me off. A video we had to watch seemed to say that many individuals were racist, or at least had racist attitudes. I had not yet learned about structural injustice and how we are unconsciously impacted and influenced by social systems, and can act in ways that are damaging to others without even being aware of it. But it did get me talking — out of anger — and I signed up to be a facilitator for the trainings the next year because I thought I could do it better.
Instead, I was gently guided through a reflective, educational process that gave me room to talk with my peers, hear their stories, and learn how to place those narratives in the broader context of our society. By the time we were ready to do the trainings, I was prepared for the video to piss other people off — not because I wanted it to, but because I knew it would, and I was ready to use their indignation as an opening to talk about some of these deeper issues.
But I still needed more guidance, which came in the form of studying and service abroad in South America. Those trips exposed me to the evils and injustices of the world and stripped away every vestige of the “myth of the great America.” Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful for many things about the United States, but I could no longer accept that our foreign policy and economic interests were always beneficial for our neighbors or could be trusted to have the good of their citizens in mind.
It was one of the most heart-wrenching times of my life, letting go of my belief that my country was necessarily morally superior to any other — a country that I loved so much (so much so that a friend of mine gave me a giant American flag card for my birthday one year). Once the blinders fell away while I was abroad, I saw our country very differently when I returned home. And all I had left was my faith in God, my trust that God is love, and my conviction that we must love other people as ourselves — even if we are only able to do so in seemingly small and insignificant ways.
Without the help of people who were willing to listen to my questions, who were patient with my ignorance of the reality that so many have to live with every day, and who were okay with me not being a finished product, I don’t know what would have happened. I needed people who could walk with me for just one small step of the way, because self-awareness and social consciousness is a long and difficult journey.
Due to our impatience for someone to see things our way or to “get it,” we forget that many of us need to start small, or we won’t start at all. Unleashing an avalanche of passion and conviction upon someone may feel good to us, but it generally doesn’t help them. Think of a dried-out sponge. When you put it under the faucet and run water on it, at first the water just runs right off. But it’s a sponge — it’s supposed to soak up water. And it will as it acclimates to the new input — if we deliver the same volume of water more slowly, sometimes starting just with a trickle.
We treat people the same way sometimes. We have to let the water soak in. We have to plant seeds and let them grow. Start by listening to the concerns of people and answering them where they are at. We have to tell our stories, and be ready for some pushback or attempts to explain them away. And we have to try to step in the shoes of those who live on the margins, because out-of-sight really is out-of-mind. This is the work of living with solidarity, but it takes time and sustained vigilance.
There’s an obvious counterpoint here: ignorance is a privilege the oppressed don’t have. Why should those who are suffering — and anyone trying to live a life of solidarity — have to wait around for the privileged to finally get it? It doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t just.
That’s a valid concern, and it’s true that it isn’t fair or just. But the only way out of this mess is seeing and treating each person as someone with inherent human dignity — whether they come from privilege or the margins. People are worth investing in. That is how I was seen, even though (or perhaps because) I was pitied for my ignorance. And when we are ignorant, we are deprived of something even more essential than our eyesight: our ability to see and act with moral clarity.
Accompanying those with different or unexamined convictions is long and slow work, but it is worth it in order to cultivate justice and peace, even if it is just one drop of water on the sponge, or seed in the field, at a time.