When to Lead and When to Follow

I’ve been struggling this past week with how best to respond to and show my support for the movements going on at the University of Missouri, Yale and other colleges across the country. My Facebook feed has been inundated with posts — from individuals of all ethnic and racial backgrounds — expressing their solidarity with the black students at Yale and the University of Missouri.

It’s great to see these messages. But I find that their “sameness” undercuts their moral and political force. Maybe it’s my natural pessimism, but it seems to me that many of the posts are less interested in lending the movements support than in earning for themselves some sort of social/cultural credit by associating with someone else’s fight against injustice. This is what I’ve been struggling with. How am I to voice my support without becoming just another “ally”?

The debates and arguments concerning “freedom of speech vs. safety and inclusion” are very interesting, and I have been struggling with many of them. Freedom of speech is one of the foundations of our society, and it is what separates the United States from many other nations. But those who see free speech as unshakeable regardless of the circumstances are overwhelmingly the people who have rarely been the victims of its oppressive capabilities. While some may view this as an attack on the first amendment, that is not the case. Free speech is exceedingly important. Yet, we need to recognize that it is much easier for somebody to promote unadulterated free speech when it has never been used against them to instill fear.

Those who claim that the movement at the University of Missouri is merely a dramatic attempt to incite violence are the same people who claim that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement devalues other, specifically white, lives. The truth is, this sort of rhetoric has flowed throughout U.S. history. The ideas that led individuals (almost all white) in 2015 to condemn the BLM movement as an attack on white lives are not very different from those used to disenfranchise blacks and justify Jim Crow legislation: they claimed that when given any power, African Americans would use it to elevate themselves and oppress whites. When are we going to realize that a demand for justice is not an attempt to denigrate whites? It is simply an attempt to end 400 years of systemic racial oppression.

Yet, I don’t know how to move forward. I want to be involved. I want to do what I can. But what is the place for a white man in these movements? A true leader, a true contributor, is one who prioritizes the success of the cause, an individual who knows when to lead and when to follow. As hard as it is for me to say, and as much as it goes against my instincts, I think the best contribution I can make is to follow, not to lead. These movements should be led by those who are most affected, and that isn’t me. So here I am voicing my unadulterated support. I will do everything that is needed of me. But I think, as was true during the Civil Rights Movement, whites should be the ones following.

Declan Hahn is a College senior from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

0 comments