First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
Although this poem was written over a century ago, the message translates through time. Niemoller wrote this about the complicity of Germans and their silence towards the Nazi persecution of millions of people. Take a moment to reflect on how the meaning of this poem might change if you replaced ‘socialist’, ‘trade unionist’ or ‘Jew’ with any marginalized identity in America.
Complicity can be just as bad as active action. Recall those anti-bullying campaigns we all went through in elementary school. There is the bully-the one taking action, the victim-the one negatively affected, and the bystander-the one who sees injustice, but stays silent. We all know the consequences of the bystander affect: everyone thinks that someone else will do or say something, and in the end, nothing is done at all. The bystander is complicit in the injustice by staying silent. That affect goes much further than a high school bully, however.
Consider the ways in which not only people, but institutions, policies, and media bully and neglect people of marginalized identities. Just focusing on one identity isn’t enough though. All identities intersect. There’s race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ability, language, citizenship, religion, and more. If you don’t recognize the affects of any of these, you may be complicit in your privilege.
Awareness of your own privileges are the first step in taking action. For me, this means using my whiteness to advocate for people of color, using my economic status to advocate for low income populations, and my citizenship status to advocate for immigrants and refugees. I recommend choosing to give up an easy, complicit life style for one of advocacy and speaking up for those who can’t.
Don’t know where to start? Start with a google search ‘inequality in America’, ‘problems facing diverse populations’, and ‘the affects of privilege’ are some good starting points. Explore the Multicultural Center in the Ohio Union or Hale Hall on south campus. Go to a Pride meeting and just listen. In a few days, Black History Month will begin and there are more than enough options for presentations, Ted Talks, and events focused on Black history and pride. Educate yo’self.
Eventually, if you don’t start to care and speak up, there will be no one left to speak for you.