Recently, in light of the hotly debated conversations around police brutality and the effectiveness of rioting as a form of protest, I re-posted the following quote from a Mother Jones article on my personal Facebook page. It was from a speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at the American Psychology Associations’ annual convention in Washington, DC, in September 1967. He said:
“A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.'”
Many of my Facebook friends liked this quote, understood it, and shared it. But inevitably, there were those who wanted to know, “What about personal responsibility”?
Despite the mountains of research and whole fields of scholarship designed to educate the public about the many deep and longstanding social, cultural, political, and economic inequities that exist, there remains an alarmingly large population of people who refuse to recognize systematic oppression and the myriad ways it impacts the lives of individuals who are marginalized by it.
When it comes to structural racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates once said, “There’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix.”
Every single plague people attempt to use to pathologize the “black community” (poverty, lack of education, etc.) has its roots within white supremacist attitudes, behaviors, actions and policies. Not only were these challenges created by white supremacy, they are upheld by it today.
But it’s not JUST about white supremacy. I would take Coates’ quote a step further and point out that there is also nothing wrong with women that the complete and total elimination of patriarchy/sexism won’t fix. There is nothing wrong with LGBTQA folks that the complete and total elimination of heteronormativity and homophobia won’t fix. There is nothing wrong with poor people that the dismantling of classism won’t fix. There is nothing wrong with differently-abled people that the dismantling of ableism won’t fix. These systems of oppression work together and reinforce each other, making both the understanding and implementation of intersectionality absolutely critical.
And yes, those who make the personal responsibility argument are correct, to a certain degree. On individual levels, we do have and can leverage our personal power. People are incredibly resilient. And while no one surmounts their challenges alone, (although the illusions of meritocracy and rugged individualism would have us believe so) many people have had enough collective support, resources, love, and/or inner strength to pull themselves up out of some incredibly bleak and traumatic circumstances. Those who call for personal responsibility are correct in their assertion that we should recognize and develop our personal power, using it to gain as much clarity and autonomy as possible and helping others do the same. At every turn, we should remind ourselves and others how powerful and durable the human spirit is and how people have and will continue to beat extraordinary odds.
But that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of fixing this world by addressing the attitudes, polices, practices, and socio-cultural structures that make marginalized people have to struggle so hard to live, be seen, recognized, loved, and treated like human beings. The reality is that there are both very intentional and derivative conditions greatly impacting the ability of all people to access opportunity, resources, support, education, health and quality of life. For as much as personal responsibility cheerleaders profess to be for and about humanity, I have to seriously question the credibility of anyone who claims to be for the well-being of the individual, while feeling no responsibility to recognize or dismantle the systematic oppression that constantly threatens and undermines that well-being for so many people.
That darkness that Hugo referred to is the big and pressing problem, not the people struggling to survive in it. And while the highly problematic use of “lightness” to denote “good” and “darkness” to denote “bad” is not lost on me, for the sake of brevity, I’ll use Hugo’s metaphor for now and save the unpacking of that for another post.
When we see an individual struggling anywhere, we need to be willing to ask ourselves how and why this person has been failed by the collective. We can’t continue in the long tradition of pushing this world towards progress, justice, and peace by failing to recognize our responsibility to one another.
So how do we address Hugo’s metaphorical darkness? The first and most powerful step in dismantling anything is seeing it. Naming it. Calling it exactly what it is. In the naming of a thing, you disarm it. It is weakened tremendously by that very act. (This works on the darkness that exists in us on an individual level too, our “shadow”…but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)
This is where the personal responsibility camp drops the ball. Their failure and unwillingness to recognize the darkness is exactly what allows it to thrive. By concentrating their energy on critiquing how effectively people are navigating the darkness versus working to dismantle it, those who focus solely on personal responsibility debilitate collective efforts and impede the fight for social justice. In all their motivational attempts to individualize struggle and promote a narrative of meritocracy, they fail to see how their denial of systemic oppression only strengthens it. The darkness of oppression and systemic inequality derives its power precisely from its invisibility; from people’s unwillingness to call it what it is. Thus, it grows unchecked, pulling its strings, working its machinations, and impacting our lives in ways that only increase our confusion and struggle.
Natasha Thomas-Jackson is a social justice activist, writer, artist, and the co-founder/executive director of RAISE IT UP! Youth Arts & Awareness, a nonprofit agency that promotes youth engagement, expression, and empowerment through performance, literary art, and social activism. RAISE IT UP! has been featured several times on National Public Radio (NPR) and Natasha’s writings have been published by the John Hopkins Center on Genetic Research, AlterNet, and the Black Congressional Caucus. Currently, she is working on launching a new site as part of a feminist collective and working on a book.