Constructive tension

Here we are again–another Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A day for Americans to share his quotes on social media; a day off of work for those who work in certain industries; a day to rest. And yes, for many people, it’s a day to remember long enough to post a meme, then to forget. 

You’ve likely said to yourself at one point or another, “if I lived during [insert tumultuous time period], what would I have done?” And the answer is easy: whatever you’re doing now is what you would have done then. Are you critical of movements like Black Lives Matter because you don’t approve of their methods? Do you dismiss alarming statistics about missing and murdered indigenous women? Do you actively or passively ignore the suppression of voting rights of indigenous people in San Juan County? If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, I invite you to re-examine and be honest with yourself about what your role would have been during the civil rights movement. 

Back to social media–a lot of folks like to post King’s quote about love driving out hate. It’s a good quote and helps us feel secure because when it stands alone, it suggests that the only thing we need to do to see justice prevail is to simply love our neighbors. If only the reality were so easy.

Much less often do I see conversations had and quotes shared that address the teachings of the civil rights leader that require more of society and changemakers. I rarely see folks talk about the fact that he was surveilled by the FBI and considered a threat to national security. The “I have a dream” memes that are shared around on Facebook almost never include King’s talk about the power and importance of “constructive” tension

Here’s the truth about my personal experience when I first began to try to understand what people from different demographic groups and identities were trying to tell me: as a white woman, I was uncomfortable. Deeply, deeply uncomfortable. I was angry. I was defensive. I felt tension, but didn’t know it was constructive. And had I taken the time to read more of King’s writings beyond the heartwarming quotes from social media, I would have known that such reactions were not only normal but necessary for change to occur. 

So today, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., I invite all Utahns across the political spectrum to embrace the discomfort that comes when someone outside of your demographic group works to make change for their communities. I invite you to honestly assess your emotional reactions to the words of contemporary changemakers and activists. (It’s hard to be a contemporary of changemakers–you can’t benefit from the work of historians who tell you whether or not a movement was “good,” and coming to your own conclusions about it takes a lot more work.) 

For my white friends, I invite you to sit with your own reactions when you listen to black and Latinx communities talk about their experiences with police. For my cisgender, heterosexual friends, I invite you to be critical of your own possible responses of disbelief when the LGBTQ community tells you why the coming anti-Trans bill is so problematic. For the men and women who have not gone through the experience, consider empathy when women tell you they’re worried about abortion bans. For non-native Utahns, be honest with yourself when you react to stories about gerrymandering and voter suppression of the Diné (Navajo) people.  

Every Christmas there are opinion pieces, blog posts, and social media rants about remembering the “reason for the season.” Commentaries and opinions about carrying the spirit of the holidays throughout the whole year abound. And in this year of political divisiveness and change, I hope we can start saying the same thing about Martin Luther King Jr. Day. What is the reason for the holiday? What are we remembering? What is the context behind the white-washed quotes many of us are guilty of sharing but ignoring the rest of the year? And what are we doing to make change within our own hearts so that we can support change in our communities?

Katie Matheson is the communications director for Alliance for a Better Utah.

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