I have long felt a stir of emotion and kinship whenever I come upon a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., knowing intuitively his vision included me as much as anyone. I was a 22-year-old VISTA Volunteer in North Georgia the summer he was assassinated. I knew nothing about structural racism. Yet every day I was confronted by a white power structure controlling resource allocation for roads, sewage, education, health care and public safety, where everything was divided into two vastly uneven categories- one white, one black.

During my growing up years, I wasn’t encouraged to think. I was conditioned to blend in, get by, memorize what was on the test, and please my teachers. It was dangerous to question or think outside the box. I was told I was learning how to become an adult. I didn’t realize that I was also being regimented into a system of haves and have nots.  

Martin was different. I admired his bravery and courage. And because of his courage, I feared for him. He challenged the status quo with a wild infusion of love and hard fact. He defied everything I felt powerless to confront. Yet there I was in Georgia, listening, learning, taking the smallest baby steps into the man I hoped to become. 

Only later did I stumble upon a U.S. history denied me. It was a history of manifest destiny, of Jim Crow and mass migration of an entire people from a caste system in the south to another, equally as paralyzing, in the north and west.

Last Sunday I attended an interfaith memorial service honoring Dr. King at a Pentecostal Church holding few people, with faces mostly black and brown, bearing witness to a legacy being overrun by sales and commercial savvy.  On Monday, the day we officially recognized his holiday, I co-lead a workshop for teachers. Our theme was creating peaceful dialogue when students or colleagues have strongly opposing points of view. The educators were mostly white and eager, some coming from 90 miles away. Where some see only a holiday, others see an opportunity to engage and learn.

Two days later I see a friend in passing who works for the University of Rochester. This is the first-year employees were granted the day off. He mentions how good it was to have a ‘free’ day to run errands, happy that so many stores were open. He is young, white, professional, and unaware of his privilege.  I wonder if he stops to think how many people of color had to work Monday to keep the stores open and the fast food restaurant bathrooms clean.

I wonder how to leverage my white, male, privilege and invite him into conversation. I challenge myself to keep from seeing him through the single lens of privilege or race and reach for his humanity while holding on to my own.

—Steven Jarose