Today is our second day in Baton Rouge. Although we are only three weeks into our journey, we have already worked with so many amazing community partners! With each person we meet and the more we learn, though, I often think back to one of the trainings we had during our stay in NOLA. During our second week at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, we had an Anti-Oppression training with Reverend Deanna.
On May 25th, that Saturday afternoon, the seven of us riders and three staff found ourselves in the Sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Church. As we circled up, our mood became more serious as we fell into quiet reflection. Looking around the room, I saw 9 other people, people who I had just met only 6 days ago, people who I would be spending the next 9 weeks living and learning with as we biked together…people whose background and roots I had very little knowledge about.
But the next few hours were spent doing exactly that, getting to know the people I’d be working with more in depth. This training not only highlighted the importance of understanding who we are working with, but also the importance of recognizing the oppressions that exist in our society. Through different exercises, we focused on the extreme wealth inequality that exists within the United States and racism. I will never forget the major thing that Reverend Deanna stressed that day. Racism is prejudice plus power. So what does this really mean? It means that yes, anyone, of any race, can hold racial prejudices and biases against others, but for someone to be racist requires having institutional power. For example, in North America, whites have the institutional power. They have the money, head most of the corporations, and essentially control all of the systems that matter. Therefore, only white people can be racist, because they are the ones that hold the institutional power.
Perhaps this is a hard nut to swallow for many people, but it is the truth, and in order to work for the change we want, we must first open our eyes and not be afraid to look this reality in the eye. Only once we understand how and why these oppressions work the way they do, can we then uproot the problem and start healing the damage that has been done.
So as I am sitting here in Baton Rouge, I think back to the huge, gigantic, oil refinery that I saw yesterday on my way to the Pray for Our Air meeting. I think about the church that we met in that is literally right next to that refinery. I think about the community members I talked with (all people of color), their wish for clean air, and their inspiring strength to stand and fight the injustices they are facing. From what I have seen already, the injustices that these people are fighting against are a result of racism, are a result of that institutional power and that is wrong.
I have no doubt that as we continue on our journey to Houston, we will only see more of this unjust and racist system, a system that is deeply ingrained in our society. Throughout our trip, as we continue to actively listen to their stories and learn from these communities, we ask that others stand in solidarity with these people as they fight back against these systems of oppression, demanding justice.