This is an insight written by Sara Rissanen on the recent Bahá’í Chair for World Peace Lecture, Discarding Hate held at the University of Maryland on February 4, 2020.
“Things don’t change unless we all push back on them. And that’s my small role there to speak out against what white nationalist ideology explicitly looks like.” – Derek Black
It takes a lot of courage to be able to stand up in front of people and say “I was wrong.” Derek Black felt an obligation to take action to speak against white nationalism after he removed himself from the ideology with which he was raised. Through being able to take ownership of the mistakes of his past, Black has been able to open up the discussion of racism and antisemitism. Black believes that nice conversations don’t change minds and that the most powerful interaction happens when you are able to speak out when you hear something that is wrong.
While this talk was a good opportunity to learn about white nationalism, for me a bigger takeaway was understanding how Black was able to work through his mindset shift of what he saw as “right.” Much of this shift was influenced by his deeper interactions with his peers, emphasizing the importance of community. He expressed that for someone to change their mind, they need to change who they identify as their community – to create connections with and care for people who challenge their current ideas. Being able to discover different perspectives is what caused Black to change his perspective on racism and antisemitism.
When invited to a Shabbat dinner by one of his Jewish friends in college, Black was able to get to know and befriend people who hold a different perspective. And these conversations forced him to look for himself and find what he holds to be true about society and the world. A huge realization for him was realizing that his words and actions were hurting people – people he came to care about. Through these conversations, Black was able to challenge his own beliefs and willing to say to himself that he may be wrong.
Race is a social construct but our society still allows racism to be a lens through which many individuals see the world. Anti-semitism condemns Jewish people in such an extreme way that Black expressed that racism felt more “normal” to Black. “Normal” in the sense that it aligned with the cultural history of the American south. While antisemitism and racism are two different things, they come from the same identity-focused rationality of labeling a group of people as “my enemy.”
We always have this question of how can I change people’s minds? How do I convince people that racism or antisemitism is wrong? And the answer is that it’s not something you can do unless people are open and willing to listen. In sharing his experience, Black said that “condemnation is another form of connection.” This is a remarkable point as it expressed that it doesn’t always feel like you can change someone’s mind by asserting your values, but you can. He encouraged us to ask the questions: “Who am I connected to?” and ”Who am I responsible for?” to establish our own sphere of influence.
Coming into this conversation I didn’t have a strong understanding of the white nationalist movement or how white supremacism shows up in our political and social spheres. I am very lucky to be able to say that as a white woman in the U.S. racism and antisemitism are not issues that affect me in my daily life. And because of this, while I hold strong opinions on racism and antisemitism I have never felt driven to speak out against either. This conversation with Derek Black encouraged me to be more conscious of the role white supremacy plays in our society and ask myself the question: how can I stand against the racism I see in my everyday life?
You can watch the full video of the lecture on our youtube page here.
About the Author
Sara Rissanen is a junior studying Marketing at the University of Maryland. She is currently the Marketing Specialist at the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace. Sara hopes to create a better future by opening the conversation of peace-building among her peers.