We Cannot Turn Back

As another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, MSPS reflects on the dream at Notre Dame.

The other night I heard a community organizer from South Bend speak. They call him Brother Sage, a name he earned while serving as principal for a failing elementary school in East St. Louis, as he says “a neighborhood where kids wake up in the morning and gargle razor-water.”

Brother Sage recalled his teenage years in 1964, when a barber in his hometown in Ohio refused to cut the hair of African Americans. Yet, in the same breath, Brother Sage called for striving for peace among all communities.

I asked, “How do you attain peace? How can you build trust with the barber, or a community other than your own, that doesn’t share your beliefs?”

He replied, “Go outside your comfort-zone.”

What I really wanted him to tell me was, “well, it’s ABC…” but the truth is that there are no guidelines to overcoming the bitterness of bigotry. There are no guidelines for creating for a just society. There is no single way to engage with others who may not share your perspective, or may in fact, staunchly oppose it.

The reality is that individuals who agree with the barber in Ohio still exist.

The reality is that those elementary students who attended Brother Sage’s School were born into low-income housing, born into a system that secludes them from access to an equitable education, born into a generational cycle of poverty.

Desegregation and equal access to education – these are two of the issues that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life for but they are still prevalent today. How can we work towards making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for freedom and justice a reality?

Like Brother Sage said, one way to strive for peace is getting comfortable with being a little uncomfortable.

“As we walk, we must make the pledge
that we shall march ahead.
We cannot turn back.” – MLK

What is the cost of antiracism?

Through MSPS this month, it’s free.

ERAC/CE (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality), a community organizing group based in Kalamazoo, MI, is sponsoring a two-and-a-half day antiracism community organizing and training workshop coming up on September 27-29 and MSPS at Notre Dame is taking a group of students up for the retreat.

From the ERAC/CE website:

“[The] 2½-day Analyzing & Understanding Systemic Racism Workshop, [is] an intensive organizing workshop to understand and analyze racism in the U.S. The definition of systemic racism is explored. Three manifestations of racism – individual, institutional, and cultural – are examined, along with their effects on both communities of color and white communities. The issue of racism and the task of dismantling racism are viewed from ethical, political, social and spiritual perspectives, with the goal of equipping people to combat racism within their institutions and in the larger society.”

The itinerary for the trip is simple: We will depart from Notre Dame on Thursday, September 27 in the late afternoon to arrive for the 6:00pm start time. Following three hours of workshop on Thursday evening, there will be two full days of workshop on Friday and Saturday. We will be staying overnight two nights in Kalamazoo, MI. We will return to campus by 8:00pm on Saturday, September 29.

Registration, hotel, and meals are provided FREE by MSPS.

Spots are limited for the upcoming workshop. But if you are interested, please fill out this very brief Google form and look forward to an email soon with further information regarding the retreat and its departure time on the 27th.


Having attended these workshops in the past, I personally think this is a remarkable opportunity, one that I am happy to talk about if you have any further questions (tblake@nd.edu).

Among its major tenets, MSPS supports the continued struggle and movement for racial equity and social justice both at Notre Dame and in wider society through educational programs and training, including community organizing.

This immersion experience is part of the MSPS Martin Luther King, Jr. Series for the Study of Race.

Stand up. Stand up. Stand up!

Marvin Worthy’s charge to the new resident hall staffs on Wednesday afternoon was to stand up and to be a leader in the fight against oppression on campus this year.

That’s a fairly tall order and I’m not as good at inspirational speech as Mr. Worthy.

The truth is there’s a lot to unpack following an afternoon devoted to diversity and oppression, and Mr. Worthy’s charge to stand up—echoed by MSPS—isn’t an easy thing.

It isn’t an easy thing to do: to change a campus culture, to fight oppression on a campus steeped in many years of tradition.

Because tradition, by design, operates counter to change.

And to fight to change will occasionally or always mean defying and dismantling quite a bit of what’s considered tradition.

Are you prepared truly and wholly to do that?

–I have worked in Multicultural Student Programs and Services for five years and I’m still not 100% sure that I can do it 100% of the time.–

(And if you’d like to talk to me about that process, I am always willing.)

Mr. Worthy suggested yesterday that to fight oppression will be difficult, but that “we have to try.”

But I wonder if that’s totally true. We don’t have to try, do we?—not if we don’t want to.

Sure, we can and should respond to negative, discriminatory acts on our campus–acts which we recognize are not isolated incidents, but rather daily occurrences and which are inherent in our world and on our campus.

But that doesn’t mean we have to challenge ourselves to understand these acts on a deeper level. We don’t have to critique our traditions and to work together to fight the oppressive systems that allowed these acts to happen in the first place.

We don’t have to—not if we don’t want to.

It is insufficient to understand our leadership roles as those of doctors and nurses in a hospital treating all patients regardless of their afflictions and regardless of their racial, sexual, gender, class, or religious orientations and identities.

It is insufficient because to tolerate difference—as if difference is something undesirable that we must nevertheless deal with—is to deny the true identity of others on an equal and socially just plane.

Does this make sense?

From the activist Audre Lorde:

“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference… is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”

(The larger original is worth reading several times, as well, if you’re interested.)

Lorde is advocating that merely tolerance and acceptance of difference is insufficient.

Rather than tolerance and acceptance of differences, we need to be motivated to acknowledge differences as wholly and intrinsically equal.

If we were motivated to view differences as wholly and intrinsically equal in value, then differences could not be demeaned as the butts of jokes or the objects of insensitive parties or the underlying motivations for hate mail, hate crimes, and hate speech on our campus and in our daily lives.

It is absolutely an issue of social justice to work fully toward achieving a level of understanding that acknowledges that differences should be appreciated as of intrinsically equal value, not merely traits that must be “tolerated,” “accepted,” or “dealt with” passively.

But again, this kind of deep, structural understanding and motivation to change is difficult.

Traditions and familiar ways of doing things might have to die absolutely will have to die for true change to happen.

We’ll probably have to put turf on the football field, too.

And that is because we understand today that there are better ways to do things than before. And that’s OK. And that’s necessary for the survival of our world.

Mr. Worthy rightly suggested that his presentation should not be the end, but the beginning of the conversation. There will be several opportunities to continue to engage with issues of race and identity and class this year through the offerings of MSPS and other sharp, like-minded, action-oriented departments and offices.

Be sure to check those out.

Of course, you don’t really have to—not if you don’t want to.

But like Mr. Worthy, MSPS is calling on you to stand up and do it because you want to and because it’s Right.