By Jeremy Besch
I am a white man, in my 40s, who grew up in Buffalo. I am heterosexual, married, a proud dad and educated with multiple degrees, all from area schools. I am comfortably middle class. Aside from a five-year stint in Metro Detroit, I’ve spent my entire adult life in Western New York. I love this town.
I’ve been a professional educator for nearly 20 years, and a diversity coordinator since 2004. This work has allowed me to collaborate with others who are different than I am in any way conceivable: from race, to gender, to sexual orientation, to religion, to socioeconomic status, to family structure and so on. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to community organizations, developing leaders and local students about race, identity, privilege and allyship across difference. It has molded who I am, and made me better for it.
Today, as I write this, it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And sadly, I write this after having sat through the funeral this past week of a former student of mine – a young black man who was hardworking, churchgoing, smart and had all the potential in the world. Even so, he died after being gunned down on New Year’s Day – one more wasted life in the incomprehensibly long line of young people of color we lose to violence in our country every day.
As I listened to the various speakers at the funeral, I was struck by the amount of time the members of his family and community – incredibly strong, caring, aware people – spent in taking responsibility for his death. They shouldered blame as a community for being too quick to violence, too slow to speak out against it and too willing to look the other way when collaborative action against it is needed.
As we mourned together the loss of this wonderful young person, my heart broke even more deeply as I witnessed how completely and painfully his community took much of the blame for this as its own. It was truly humbling.
It is also nowhere near good enough. The truth is that some of the responsibility for this young man’s death – and the deaths of countless other young people just like him – belongs to all of us, not just to his immediate community.
As I listened to the chorus of black voices owning his death and lamenting their responsibility for it, I was struck by the fact that there are rarely white voices doing the same, including my own. We are too quick to ignore these deaths and this violence as a black problem or an urban problem. It belongs to all of us, together.
When I speak about identity and unearned privilege, I discuss how acknowledging the privileges we’re granted is a necessary first step in being an ally to our neighbors who don’t share them.
Being a white heterosexual male often gives me more immediate access to being heard, seen and respected in our culture. I argue here that this carries with it a responsibility to speak for those who won’t be heard, to open doors for others who can’t gain access and to stand with those from whom respect is withheld, simply because of their color, gender, identity or socioeconomic status.
As I mourn the death of my former student, I call on those of us with the privilege to do so to stand up against the biases, prejudices and ignorance that plagues us as a nation. My former student was responsible for his own death in significant ways, and his community may have been, as well, but so am I. And so are we. It is time for us to stand together, collectively, as neighbors, to do a better job. I am adding my white voice to the chorus of black voices I heard last week, and I am asking those of you who look like me to do the same.