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Michigan in Color: On finding my voice

Courtesy of Kevin Chung

BY KEVIN CHUNG

Published April 18, 2014

“They just don’t get it.”

I have heard this phrase in so many permutations, so many times, from so many people, with so much weight. So often in dialogues and in social justice spaces, we throw these words around like an indicator of who is “there” and who isn’t yet.

On the one hand, I… “get” it, or where that expression comes from. From the frustration I feel as a person of color never being understood or constantly being misunderstood, those words have slipped through my lips as well. They don’t get it--they just don’t.

Yet I am reflective of this. I feel as though “getting it” and being “there” is used as this subjective assessment of one’s social competency, whereas that is the ultimate graduation--the crux of your social justice journey and an invitation to join others who “get it.” Congratulations, you are now “there” and “get it,” here is your gold star and welcome to the club! But I sometimes struggle to articulate where “there” is exactly, and what the “it” factor is that we’re talking about. And by not “getting it,” should we be so quickly demonized as being callous, ignorant and socially immoral?

My intent is not to imply that people do not and will not say problematic things. This isn’t to assuage the dauntingly poor understanding that people have of certain concepts and other identities.

I am writing here, as a person of color navigating through these social justice spaces on campus, to state that I myself might not “get it.” This enticing yet fallacious notion of “getting it” encapsulates so many feelings of anger, being silenced, and being misinterpreted; but the “it” factor is no call to action.

When I throw those words around, telling my peers they don’t “get it,” who am I to say that I get “it?” Who is to say I am “there” yet, wherever that is? Yes, in these social justice spaces I often crave to spew those words: It’s seductive. It’s lip-smacking goodness. But who am I to judge whether other people get “it” or are “there”? Is this not the opportunity to engage, learn, and grow? I am no better of a person than others, and if I start believing that I am, then our dialogues become counterproductive and establish a hostile hierarchy of social justice advocates.

And through these reflections I realize that I have blindly confided in those who I felt were “there” and got “it.”

To the courageous warriors who fight exhausting battles; those with impactful words heard in hard conversations: I admire you. You are a source of phenomenal inspiration. You are powerful, and you are brave. Your commitment to social justice is unparalleled and actions remain unmatched.

But I must apologize, to you and to myself, for I have done no good in idolizing you.

I argue that there is no room for worshipping idols.

So often we look to idols for guidance. So often we look to idols for what to say. So often we look to idols as a moral compass. And so often I find myself passively echoing the voices of these fierce leaders, looking to my peers to make sure I’m saying the “right” things for fear of being labeled as the ignoramus who doesn’t “get it”--especially as a person of color in social justice spaces. This filter I have constructed has inhibited my personal growth, and does not constructively add to social justice. Looking to idols for what should be said, I realize I have yet to step up and create my own voice.

I need to think for myself. I need to stop looking to idols for answers. I need to be brave and have the audacity to be wrong and disagree, for those are the moments when I learn; not from living in the shadows of those I idolize. And when my words, actions, or presence are problematic, I need to accept it, own up to it, and learn. My narrative needs to come from a genuine place, and not from passive compliance to those who I think “get it”.

No more worshipping idols. No more living in shadows. I need to embark on my own journey and to be a valiant soul. Maybe I don’t “get it,” and maybe I will never be “there.”

But it’s time to find my own voice.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.


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