Editor’s note: Jakyra Green, a junior English education major from Elkhart, won the 2023 C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest at Goshen College with her speech titled “The privilege of peace.” This feature is a written adaptation of her speech.
From early childhood, many of us are taught a simplistic definition of peace. We are taught to love our neighbor and cultivate empathy. Most of all, we are told to abide by the saying, “treat others as you wish to be treated.” It is almost as if that phrase applies universally to all, transcending borders and identities; almost as if peace is solely based on how we perceive the
With that said, is the concept of peace an illusion for some and real for others? Let me share some of my own experiences where peace did not exist.
In second grade, my Black friend told me about a time she overheard another classmate ask the white teacher, “What do you do if a police officer is mean to you?” My friend remembers the teacher’s face etched in confusion. As these conversations happened, my hands began to sweat, and my legs bounced up and down. I remember my run-in with police officers. In these moments, during conversations with friends, I am not at peace.
And in high school, I went to a convenience store with my friends. My white friend paid for my sour Skittles, and I walked out. The cashier thought I was stealing and almost pressed the button to alert the cops. I was furious, and my friend said to “chill out” because it was not a big deal. We almost argued the whole car ride back until I realized my words had just cascaded onto tone-deaf ears. When I have to defend myself against racism, I am not at peace.
These stories do not begin to encompass the realities that people of color face. Speaking from my experience living in a Black identity, many white people have attempted to deflect the damage and injustice to the Black community by saying “all lives matter,” bringing up Black-on-Black crime, claiming they don’t see color or that Black people are paranoid about being mistreated by the police. And yet, the truth is far from an illusion and much more complex.
In May 2022, a normal day of grocery shopping, in Buffalo, New York, was transformed into a scene of mass murder. Thirteen victims were shot in a racially-motivated attack that killed 10, all Black. All of these victims were hunted for the color of their skin. These people were like you and me — running errands or an employee finishing a shift when their paths crossed with a white man driven by hate.
The names of the fallen murdered in 2022 and 2023 by officers are too many to list, and yet here are a few who left too soon: Donnell Rochester, 18, Baltimore, Maryland Dante Kittrell, 58, South Bend, Indiana Tyre Nichols, 29, Memphis Tennessee
Tragically, violence towards Black women receives little to no media coverage. According to Insider, the police shot and killed at least 50 Black women from February 2015 to March 2021. There are cases like Breonna Taylor, whose death sparked national news coverage, but this was an exception out of many untold stories. Rekia Boyd, for example, was a 22-year-old unarmed Black woman, and no one showed up to march at her rally even though the police went free.
While violence against Black people continues, illusion runs rampant in how society, particularly white people, views racial or societal peace and the experiences of Black people.
Even with our country’s racist history, many white Americans fail to see the racial discrepancies and inequities directly linked to systemic racism. There has been improvement in recent decades. But, significant gaps rooted in slavery, Jim Crow and racism remain prevalent.
In 2020, Reuters released the report, The Black and White Race Gap. The numbers show us these truths:
- Disparities for Black women begin at birth. They are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. As for Black infants? They die twice the rate as white infants.
- Black undergraduate students owe approximately $7,000 more in student loans than their white counterparts. Friends have come to me stressed about how they’ll pay their tuition. Goshen College’s advice? Take out more loans. This advice doesn’t reflect the realities Black students face. It only conveys the ILLUSION that everyone is on equal footing.
- Black men received prison sentences at least 20 percent or longer than white men for the exact crime. This racial-based prosecution is likely to produce wrongful convictions and disproportionate incarceration of people of color.
How is this justice? How is this peace? Issues meant to be resolved years ago affect the lives of contemporary Black society and individuals. Systemic problems like those above-involving death, debt and prison, must be addressed to achieve realistic and sustainable peace.
Many white people who are not impacted by systemic racism assume peace is universal, wanting racism fixed by ignoring race or being kind to everyone. Ignoring racism is an illusion and carries a fantasy or utopian element that is beyond reality.
According to a poll by David Binder Research, 50 percent of young white Americans say discrimination against THEM is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities, and while most of them said they feel uncomfortable discussing racial issues — I feel uncomfortable being racially profiled.
Racism, systemic racism, is another thing we have to talk about, even if you are not directly affected by it. The truth is, we cannot be the beneficiaries of an oppressive society without facing the repercussions. It is why civil unrest followed after George Floyd’s death. There was an outpour of multiracial support as more people acknowledged the realities of systemic racism.
As I came across videos of his murder, I said to myself: “This hurts, but I’m not shocked.” To be shocked is a privilege Black people do not have. We are always waiting for the next Floyd, praying that tomorrow, it won’t be us.
And now I ask, those of you white: Why did it take a man dying with an officer kneeling on his neck for you to think this should not be happening? Why is the only time you notice Black people when there is a major headline?
That said, the absence of violence doesn’t always mean peace. Violence happens not only on the streets but in hospital rooms and grocery stores. It occurs when you remain silent during acts of injustice because you are not witnessing Black bodies being abused.
So again: how is this peace or justice if none of my people are safe?
Many of us are taught that we are all the same and that our skin color is irrelevant. That if we comply, peace works for us all the same.
If that were true, George Floyd would still be alive. His family would not mourn his death.
If that were true, if we were really all the same, I wouldn’t have the lingering worry that my siblings or I could be the next MaKhia Bryant.
But, that is the privilege of peace that Black people are not afforded.
Being anti-racist is continuous work. Incorporating peace into your every day goes beyond the simple definition we have all been accustomed to learning.
Although engaging with social media and attending protests are essential, it does not stop there. It is everyday actions like who you surround yourself with and how you act when no one is watching. How do you show up for Black people in smaller ways?
Listen. When Black people tell you about their lived experience, understand they chose to do that. Understand how hard it is for them to share about a target that is always on their back, something many white people will never encounter.
And, stop equating silence with peace or lack of violence. Speak up in all areas of racial injustice.
This is just a start to incorporating peace and diversity into your life. I don’t believe in giving people a manual to do better. So, go do better because these truths have always been there.
The future shouldn’t be shrouded in this utopian illusion, this simplistic definition of peace bred from white silence and ignorance. Peace is complex, peace is hard, but an endurable peace created from the lens of social justice will always matter.