GROUP RIGHTS OR CIVIL RIGHTS?
I came across an Asian-German association in Berlin who shared a feeling of marginalization growing up as Asians in Germany and felt like victims of the mainstream society who discriminated against them. They were full of anger and resentment, and felt the need to get together and organize themselves to get their voices heard.
I was initially skeptical of this approach of sticking together exclusively based on race or ethnicity. Having experienced a feeling of marginalization as a minority in the homogenous setting of the New Jersey suburbs, I knew that sticking together with your own kin, however comforting it might feel to allay the sense of alienation, didn't solve any problem. It seemed to only deepen the chasm between the minority vs. the majority, the us vs. them mentality.
In the end, Asians were not the only group who were affected by the problem, so why should only Asians come together and fight for 'Asian rights'? I was reminded of a student in my class, who said he wanted to attend an 'Anti-Racism' rally in Chicago but he was not allowed to join, because he was white.
Wouldn't it be more effective, I thought, if we bring everyone — across all races — onto the same page to SEE where the problem of injustice lies, and work on generating a shared vision of a society that we want to create? Not because we should treat minorities better, but because we believe in the values of equality and inclusion, and creating a society that embodies such values?
In my own teaching at a liberal arts college in the Midwest, trying to engage a homogenous group of students with little to no exposure to diversity, I wanted to bring their attention to the issue of integration and how the ethos of the society facilitates or inhibits integration in European vs. American context. I started out framing the issue as the 'minority' issue, and I noticed my students addressing the 'minorities' as 'them' — they felt bad for the minorities and they believed that that how they were treated was wrong. The issue still remained outside of them, as a 'minority issue' rather than a 'social issue' that affected us all.
Overtime, I reframed my course into the issue of multiculturalism rather than integration — how we could create a society where not only different cultures could harmoniously co-exist side by side, but also make meaningful connections across cultural and racial boundaries. It was no longer a minority issue, but what kind of society we wanted to create based on shared values we believed in. This approach had much more resonance with my students and brought everyone onto the same page. My students got emotional and riled up about the issue, rather than me trying to convince them why the issue mattered and why they should care.
But then, 'Who has the incentive to bring any attention to the problem, other than those who are directly affected by it?,' I recalled a black professor saying at a literary festival in Berlin concerning the exploitation of the African continent. 'Of course those who are affected by the condition, because those who are not affected by the condition don't have any urgency to act or to change the condition.'
It was true that those who were affected by the problem had to speak up first and bring the society's attention to the problem, because the society didn't SEE that there was anything wrong with the way things were. A single voice wasn't loud enough, so many voices had to be brought together to bring attention to the problem. And then the discussion could be forged that brings everyone on board on what changes were needed to be made to do justice to the problem.
It was not unlike the Me Too Movement: those who were not affected by the problem of sexual harassment wouldn't have been aware of the extent of the problem. And a single victim speaking up on a case by case basis was quickly silenced and covered up. But once the victims joined forces and organized a movement, they could get their voices heard, and the problem could be recognized as they were. Now the dominant ethos of the society sided with the victims, and the social pressure no longer allowed those in the positions of power to get away with what was in their best interest.
This was what I admired about the Civil Rights Movement in America — the approach taken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who, while mobilizing Americans, iterated and pushed for the civil rights, not only the black rights — and worked on getting everyone to see why racism was wrong and why the value of equality and inclusion was something that everyone would cherish, only if they came to see it. In the end, those who participated in the Civil Rights movement were predominantly black, as it was something that affected them most directly, but still, the movement was not only about fighting for black rights, but for civl rights that united everyone based on values of equality and inclusion.
A student in my class complained why there was only 'Black Lives Matter' movement when white lives mattered too. But what the student had missed in seeing was that it was not about fighting for black lives or white lives, but fighting against the problem of injustice, which was not a minority problem or a majority problem, but a social problem of injustice that everyone should fight against. If the whites were subjected to the same violence and injustice as the blacks, there should be 'White Lives Matter' movement too.
Who mobilizes change?
Noam Chomsky in his 2017 Pacific Standard interview, when asked whether he feels a responsibility on his shoulders as one of America's most visible public intellectuals, responded: 'Same as your responsibility. Same as the responsibility of your friends. All of us have things we can do.'