A short six weeks ago, I was in the heart of New York City with nine other students, embarking on Xavier’s first ever Dorothy Day Immersion with the intent of studying racial justice and wealth inequality. Aside from those collective buzzwords, I had no idea what I would be doing in New York for seven days, and it wasn’t until I arrived at the doors of Benincasa, our host home for the week, that I began to understand what I would encounter.
The week began with a ferry ride to Staten Island where we visited the site of Eric Garner’s murder. Most notably, Garner’s last words were, “I can’t breathe”, and visiting the site of his death, I reflected on those words and on the state of race relations in America. The neighborhood itself seemed average, and nothing in particular stood out as being the scene of a huge, national incident of police brutality. Instead, there were businesses opening up for the day, buses driving passengers to work, and a small, quiet park where a lone man sat on a brisk January day. For America, Eric Garner is another name, another story that catches our attention for a short time and then disappears into a long list of individuals of color killed by a brief encounter, a moment of fear, implicit bias, police brutality, racial inequality…For this neighborhood, however, Eric Garner was a real person with a family and a life, and is someone whose death has still not received justice.
Reflecting on the topic of racial justice is anything but easy; it feels uncomfortable, challenging, and confusing, especially for those of us who have never experienced racial oppression. So how can we start, and maintain, an open discussion about race? I’m certainly no expert, but from what I’ve experienced, the beginning point is an internal dialogue—taking an honest look at who you surround yourself with is the first step in recognizing who you don’t surround yourself with, and how that choice impacts your reality. My own, internal conversation goes something like this:
“What color am I?” White.
“What color are my parents?” White.
“My siblings?” White.
“My best friends?” White.
“My doctors?” White.
“The people I’ve dated?” White.
“My neighbors?” White.
I could keep going, but I think you get the point. My world is very white, and I surround myself with white people. Your world might be very different from mine, but I would venture to say that most of us live in some sort of demographic homogeneity. Our closest friends, family members, mentors, etc., tend to be people most similar to ourselves. In some ways, homogeny can be positive. It’s nice to have people who act, think, and interpret the world similar to how we do; it makes us feel understood and like we belong. Yet in other ways, it limits us, divides, us, and creates an “us vs. them” mentality that subconsciously dictates the way we approach “that other person” who we really don’t know or encounter at all.
Diminishing the gap that exists between people of varying identities is both challenging and demanding. It requires that both sides take a step closer to one another in a way that is genuinely vulnerable. I saw this act of vulnerability occur daily on the Dorothy Day Immersion. Our group was split racially, by gender, socioeconomic status, and by age, and so we could have easily stayed closed minded or hardened of heart during our tough reflections at the end of each day. Instead, we all made a conscious choice to lean in closely and to really listen.
There were times during these reflections that my heart was beating out of my chest because of how frustrated I was, and some moments lead me to feeling even more lost in regards to racial justice. Still, the group began to understand each other’s perspectives and stepped closer to one another, making that internal struggle of my own confusion and lost-ness a little less isolating. Our group created an intentional community, and so the divides that could have existed between us, didn’t. We saw what it looked like to build friendships with people outside of the limited, homogenous realities of our own backgrounds, and we experienced firsthand how positive and how truly life-giving these relationships are. The fight for racial justice will continue to be an uphill battle, but for me, there is comfort in knowing that given effort from all people involved, the “us vs. them” mentality truly can be changed into “we.”
Ann Marie Diener is a Senior Psychology major with minors in Business and Peace & Justice studies. She is originally from Golden, Colorado—the greatest place on earth.