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Empathy means not taking the easy way out

[su_label type=”info”]COLUMN: COMMUNITY IN FOCUS[/su_label]

Sticky notes, a reaction to Donald Trump’s election, cover the “Wall of Empathy” on  Nov. 14, 2016 at 16th Street BART station. Photo: Ekevara Kitpowsong
Sticky notes, a reaction to Donald Trump’s election, cover the “Wall of Empathy” on Nov. 14, 2016 at 16th Street BART station. Photo: Ekevara Kitpowsong

Elizabeth Holland Column Headshot_01webI was walking at the 16th and Mission Street BART Station last month, shortly after Trump won the presidency. I had heard there was a “wall of empathy” there and I wanted to see it for myself. Little post-it notes with words of love and support written on them, were scattered along the wall in different colors: pink, blue, yellow. They brightened up the wall with messages that read: “It’s going to be okay,” “Take care of each other,” “Love Trumps Hate.” Then my eyes zoomed in on one message in big, bold letters, it said: “Fuck White Supremacy.”

Suddenly, I felt very self-conscious about my skin color. I have had people tell me before that I’m not “technically white” due to the fact that I am bicultural (half Latina). But make no mistake: My skin is white and my life has been easier because of it. It is not a fact I am proud of, but rather a reality. And I think accepting that reality is my way of respecting those whose lives have been oppressed because of their skin color. This is a reality that makes people really uncomfortable, especially people that know me well and know my background. They don’t want to put me into the category of a white person, but I am in that category.

The questions that have been rolling through my mind way before Trump actually won the election were: “How can I help?” and “How do I make my voice matter?” and I think these are questions we all have to ask ourselves. We have to be really honest with ourselves about how we are perceived and how that plays into the action we take in fighting for our inalienable rights.

We can’t think that sitting back and doing nothing is okay. Sitting back and doing nothing is actively helping this movement of hate grow stronger.

I thought about how we are grouped into demographics—the way we look, the services we access, our social circles. I regularly visit Planned Parenthood for services. My mother was undocumented when she came to this country in the ‘80s. My best friends are in the LGBTQ community. But you wouldn’t necessarily know any of these things from looking at me. I have to be vocal. Many of us, for the first time, will have to be more upfront about what we do and who we are around. Do I want everyone to know I go to Planned Parenthood? Or that I believe we need stricter gun control laws? Not really. But, is it important that I vocalize these things? Yes. It’s the work that needs to be done.

That little post-it note terrified me. It terrified me because I know white supremacy is real and it’s not something I ever want to be grouped with. I want to distance myself as far away from that concept as I can.

I could easily let myself fall into a “safe demographic.” I could be the “pretty white girl” in the background who flutters her eyes at all of this. But I can’t and won’t do that. I know I have a responsibility now more than ever to step up. It’s very easy to be that girl and I was raised to not just take the easy route.

My dad grew up a middle class white boy, in the segregated Chicago of the 1970s. He told me: “I used to fight the kids who made fun of the minorities. Even as a kid, I couldn’t understand why our skin colors separated us so much.” My dad did not settle for complicity, he was not a bystander. Through his actions he said, “Yes I’m white and yes my life is easier… I acknowledge this…but I’m with you. I will fight for you.”

It is important to not be complicit. Here’s our chance.

Story by: Elizabeth Veras Holland