Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it actually takes to create social change, because it’s certainly not easy. Part of the challenge comes from the fact that people don’t always understand or want to hear about how their actions can negatively affect other people. When talking about social issues, people can take offense if they feel you are targeting anger or criticism toward them. Creating change is also difficult because there are so many people who don’t care enough about social issues to change their own behavior and put effort into ending problems. This is understandable; it’s hard to feel passionate about changing something if the problem doesn’t directly affect you.
I have many friends who cannot understand why I’m so outraged about problems that don’t impact my life in any way. I will probably never be detained at an airport or be interrogated at the side of the road because police think I look suspicious. But the reason I am so outraged at social injustice has little to do with my personal experiences, and more to do with the fact that, had been born differently and with less privilege, I would have very little control on how I was perceived by society. The fact that a person, through no fault of their own, might never feel respected or safe in their lifetime means that our society has problems that can only be solved by actively fighting against prejudices.
Despite all this, I still find myself keeping quiet about problems I see first hand in my own social circles and communities. I think this is because I, like most other people, don’t like making people uncomfortable by questioning their views. But honestly, I’m sick and tired of hearing boys joke about rape as if it doesn’t happen to over 20% of American women. I’m sick and tired of people flippantly using the word ‘retarded’ or the n-word as an insult, as if those words don’t carry with them decades (even centuries) of pain and abuse endured by people throughout history and still today. Mostly, though, I’m sick and tired of doing nothing about it.
Now, if I feel uncomfortable speaking out about something, I remind myself that every time I stay quiet when one of my friends says that the only reason an Asian person would marry a white person is because they’re a ‘gold-digger’, or that the wage gap is a myth, I’m indirectly letting them know that what they’re saying is ok, and that I agree with it. The thought of validating someone’s hateful opinion makes me a lot more uncomfortable than calling people out on their bigotry. Especially since the chance of losing a friend over one argument is quite low when you really think about it.
There has never been a time in history where doing nothing about a problem helped solve the problem. People like Martin Luther King Jr. have condemned being neutral so as not to create tension in situations of injustice because, in the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Changing communities can be a long process, but doing nothing certainly won’t speed it up.
I would love to hear your thoughts on neutrality, and whether people in positions of privilege should feel obligated to stand up for social issues that impact less privileged groups. Leave them in the comments!