Have you hugged your white supremacist today?

Have you hugged your white supremacist today?

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Sandee: So I’m sitting here with Thom. He’s a beloved member of our i.c.stars team. He works on the development side bringing folks into the network and ensuring that our greater community feels engaged and seen. And what most folks don’t know about Thom is that he’s also a social justice dude and he has his degree in social work. So, he brings with him the perspective of what’s the bigger picture about how we’re looking at social justice in terms of the work that we do, how we embrace the future as one larger community and how we honor all our members.

And so earlier this week, Thom says, “Okay, so what’s the deal in Charlottesville? We have got to talk about this.” And, my big fancy idea was rather than hearing all my thoughts, let’s hear what Thom has to say. So Thom, let’s get started. Tell us in your words, what are the cracks of Charlottesville in your mind? What’s the real issue here?

Thom: That’s a good question. I think that really Charlottesville is the combination of a lot of things over the years that’s been going on in the area. There’s a lot of unrest growing with the white nationalists who feel growing entitlements [are undermining them]. Additionally, they are becoming more and more emboldened with the rise of a concentration of their subculture online. For them to be, it has felt like they’ve been given a little bit of a voice with recent political development — not just Donald Trump, but including Donald Trump not taking a stronger stand on opposing their group and ideas. I think this has created a group of people who feel they can action outside of the law, which they believe is unjust due to their worldview.

What I think is most interesting is the different way in which recent protests have happened and the reactions from the government, media and nation. In Charlottesville protest, though they were protected by the law at the beginning, they were treated so differently than the protest that we saw a year ago at Standing Rock with Native American groups. You can notice that there were different ways in which each protest was treated, and that was dependent upon what group is protesting and how they’re typically treated by our government and enforcers of law. A group that’s non-violent and not carrying any weapons, like at Standing Rock, gets military action, whereas a group that’s carrying weapons openly is protected by police.

So you have police officers in Charlottesville making sure that the All-Right groups, white nationalists, Neo-Nazis and all of the people that were there to protest the taking down of the statue were being protected by the police even though they were openly kind of touting a possible violence. I think that really speaks to some innate privileges and kind of agency given to that racial group.

Sandee: Well, if I look at it from the lens of the police or the folks who have taken an oath to keep us safe, I think that it was absolutely necessary for them to protect these groups because I mean that’s like opening up a can. They have said, “This is I what stand for and we’ve got weapons.” Without the police protecting them, it could have been a massacre versus the other protesting you mentioned was about shutting down the pipeline. And so they were actually interfering in some commerce.

And not to compare one to another because I don’t want to get all caught up in mostly semantics. But my question for you is, have the white nationalists and similar groups always been with us? Because you said early on that they’ve been emboldened to sort of be more visible, to take more of the stage. Is this something new? Have they always been around? Has this been just more of a sleeper thing? In my lifetime, I haven’t seen anything like this since the march in Skokie by the Nazis. What are your thoughts there?

Thom: So I believe that there has been no wall in their presence. They’ve always been here, I think. It’s not that they are just suddenly coming around, but I think that maybe more casual members or even people somewhat interested in their ideas have become more engaged and able to take ownership of events and activities. I think most of them were less engaged before, however with the growing ties of identity politics, more people are wanting to own a social label. For them, there is power in taking on social labels or owning a specific role because it created oppression and marginalization of other groups or people. For those who don’t necessarily feel that they have a label to take on, these groups give them power. I think it’s a perverse pull to take on a label that is so against general progress, but in a way by taking that on, you can distort it as its own sort of progress.

Sandee: What I’m hearing you say is that this is about fear of progress turning in on itself and saying, “We’re going to make our own progress.”

So what do you think the progress is that we’ve made? What’s that initial ripple that’s causing this reversed progress movement?

Thom: I think people are generally willing to give any marginalized group a chance to grow—to hit the growing stage. But, some people begin to get scared when they see more and more that you seeing the majority of people accepting, or at least tolerating, groups that weren’t previously accepted or tolerated. It scares some people that others are threatening their idea of what life really looks like. I think that’s what it really gets down to whether it’s the LGBT community or any ethnic community. If what one person’s idea of what life, especially “American life,” should like is suddenly being actively thwarted by people who are just living their own life however they best see fit. I also think that these groups too often internalize these different lives as an attack on their own view, and there’s something very destabilizing about seeing so much out there that’s different, especially if your world has been insulated and closed off.

It’s easier to follow a script than to truly dive in and explore all that is possible in the world, and I think there are cracks that you’ll discover when you’re offered openness versus a script. It’s so much easier to pick a script over learning and exploring the differences, however, the majority of the population are embracing the idea that people should have the ability to be themselves and do what’s right for them, and that calls into question what the script is for.

Sandee: Wow! And so the tipping point, the removal of the Confederate leaders, these statutes that say to a certain group of people, “Your heroes are no longer relevant.” But seeing those heroes being toppled over is a sign that the way things were and the way things will be are very different.

And so why is this moment in time so important?

Thom: It’s important because we’re here. It’s the moment that we have, right? It’s what we can work in. We have all the history, sure, and we have the future, but the future is undetermined and the history may be skewed towards a narrative or two, but we have today and we have now to be able to take actions and make the future what we would like it to be.
And I think right now with the growing unrest in a lot of different areas, there’s room for a lot of change and not just change in a social sense but change in structures and in systems that are primed for change. We’re see a lot more of political involvement throughout the United States more than we’ve seen in a long time and that’s partially because people got comfortable with the way things were. But now that things are unsettled and seemingly more chaotic—arguably are more chaotic—there is a lot of potential for more people to get involved and actually make a real difference.

But it does take measured, strategic and thoughtful action not just protesting the streets. We need protest, but we also need to work within the channels that we have because that’s where we’re able to affect change right now. I think that a lot of past attempts at change get stuck in just making our voices heard, but not also playing the game that we’ve created for ourselves—the one our government has had in place for 300 years.

Sandee: I couldn’t agree with you more, and Cris will laugh because he knows what I’m about to say by heart. Change is uncomfortable, and that’s how we know it’s working. And so is this an uncomfortable moment that will be the lining in our history books or is the uncomfortable moment, the sound bites from the President?

Thom: Well, that’s a good question. I mean the sound bites from the President have definitely been an uncomfortable moment, and I think it will be really telling to see how other leaders will respond to the comments, especially Tuesday’s reversal of his own statement in the unscripted press conference he held. I think that’s been the most challenging for a lot of leaders, and I don’t think that we have fully gotten to a point where everyone knows how to feel about it or respond to it. So it will be interesting to see the responses. Hopefully more leaders, who have aligned with him in the past, will speak out against the things that he said, particularly to equate the acts of the white nationalists with the acts of those protesting against the white nationalists. It was wrong to equate those two protests and their participants. They were not on the same level. The two groups’ goals are not equivocal.

As far as will this be the turning point in our history, I don’t think so, because we have so many at the same time right now. We have the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. We had the protest of Vietnam. Before those, the Civil War itself was such a big changing point for our country. I think part of the disconnect with this specific sort of struggle is that we don’t talk about the Civil War nearly as much in the North, as I think they do in the South. It is a very tumultuous time in our nation’s history. It’s the bloodiest, most deaths of any war that we’ve had for American in our country’s history, and there’s something in that struggle that clearly is not done. There’s still more kind of pride or misunderstanding between those who feel that the Confederacy was not represented ideally or correctly.

So, I think that we will continue to have points in the history of our country where it seems like a big turning point, and it might be, but it also might just be one more step along the way.

Sandee: So maybe this isn’t the Rosa Parks’ moment that we remember, that we record as the splash point for the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe it is one step along the way of what would be the equivalent of today’s Civil War. That’s what I’m hearing you say, and that is really some scary stuff.

For all of our alums, as we are thinking through this and trying to make sense of why someone would plow into a crowd of people standing up against injustice or why people would come with hate, fear and violence towards anyone who wasn’t a part of the “white majority” our main question is — What are the system’s changes that need to happen? What are the things that we can do as leaders after the protest, after the blogs, after the discussions, after the vote? What can we do from a system’s level? Because, you know, that’s what we love, as geeks.

Thom: Yeah. That’s a great question and I discussed this with a friend shortly after everything happened in Charlottesville. To me the answer is that the first step is to get directly involved with marginalized communities, whether that’s people who just don’t look like you or even the elderly. We have so many systems in our country that really need reform. And, we also have so much culturally that plays along with those systems.

Additionally, I would say that we need to focus on education. When you begin to look at education, you’ll see where there’s underfunding in rural areas, as well as urban areas depending on tax brackets and other similar systems. You’ll see how segregated those communities often are from people who look different. And, to be able to make effective system’s change, we must get to know the people who need help on a more personal level. We won’t know what’s needed or who needs it unless we are talking to them and engaging with them.

So, go volunteer in school. Find out what it is that kids need, that people in rural areas need, that people in nursing homes need, that homeless people need or the veterans need. Whatever you feel most drawn to, I would say engage with that. Don’t just post a piece on Facebook or share your views, but actually go and interface with that community.

Sandee: Great, I love that. The answer to system’s change is if all of us as individuals desegregate our life.

If thousands and millions of us we spend time getting to know people who are different than us and step across that line, we’ll sort of break what I call the “Chuck Clayton rule.” That rule is basically that we have one friend who is in the background who doesn’t have a story line but is different than us, but we’re able to create a storyline about true relationships across gender, race, religion, age and socioeconomics. When we’re able to do that, we start to build the system’s change because once we create those relationships and have empathy, we can’t go back to being insulated and segregated in our lives.

Thom: And we are, whether we like it or not or whether we feel like it or not, all part of that system that we’re talking about. But if we don’t acknowledge that when we talk about a system is stays an abstract word, even though it’s really controlling our lives in some way. By engaging or not engaging, we are part of the system.

I think that’s where a lot of this unrest comes from is that a lot of people weren’t engaging for a long time. They were engaging within their own communities where it was comfortable and where it felt easy and safe rather than getting out into their learning edge, feeling a little uncomfortable, but seeing new things and new perspectives that might help them better understand their neighbor.

Sandee: And that’s what we do every day here at i.c.stars. We step into the uncomfortable. We push ourselves to the limits. We learn things that at first step we have to acknowledge that we don’t know anything and push on through to be able to every single day learn something, grow something, make something and change. Thank you so much, Thom. This is amazing conversation with you as always.

Thom: Thank you. It’s always great to talk to you too.

Sandee: And I’m going to go and break my own segregation by making friends with the white supremacists today.

Thom: Oh, wow!

About Sandee

Sandee Kastrul's photo
I believe that the definition of leadership is making opportunities for others. I am a leadership geek and find that the richest opportunities for all of our futures lie in education. I am a believer in reciprocity in education and that as educators we are both teacher and student. I believe that the world can be a classroom if we open ourselves to the notion that application, concatenation and liberation start with listening. Schedule Sandee to Speak

About i.c.stars

i.c.stars is a non-profit organization in Chicago for adults with a high school diploma or GED. Using project-based learning and full immersion teaching, i.c.stars provides an opportunity for change-driven, future leaders to develop skills in business and technology. To learn more go to www.icstars.org

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