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Advice for White People on Celebrating MLK Day

Updated on March 26, 2014

"I can remember, I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn't itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world.

"And that's all this whole thing is about. We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God's children. And that we don't have to live like we are forced to live."

--Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 3, 1968 (The day before he was assassinated, in his last public speech.)

In my experience, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is often an awkward day for white people. I think I understand why.

As a spectator, I've observed that there are two ways that white people often celebrate MLK day that are a bit offensive. We laugh it off, but under the laugh is an annoyance, a slight offense. I’m sorry; it can’t be helped.

One option is to say, “Oh! How wonderful that MLK’s dream has been realized!” But this is offensive, because it hasn’t. 95% of black people, I guarantee you, will say that racism exists today. It may be more muted, it may be more camouflaged, but it does exist. And science confirms that even (or, perhaps, especially) those most vocal about racism have a subconscious racism that their consciousness has to control vigilantly (which might, incidentally, have to do with why they are so vocal against racism). And we black people are even conscious about racism – I came across a study recently that merely telling a black person to self-identify as a black person on a test caused him to do worse. We know there’s more work to do ourselves, because we are racist to the very face we see in the mirror. So don’t tell us that racism is over. It’s a profound insult to what we know to be true.

Another option is to say, “I’m so sorry that the dream hasn’t been realized! We still have a lot of work to do.” But this doesn’t work, either. At least, not by itself. It turns easily into a patronizing, “I’m SO sorry I’m still better than you.” This apologetic statement pales in comparison to the black individual’s celebration of the day. He feels no pity for himself. Only raw determination.

I know this, in a way, from studying feminism. As a man, I cannot fully be a feminist. I can’t do it. Sexism exists, and it is a problem. And yet, as a heterosexual male, I can’t be as militant or as strong or as free of pity as an advocate of feminism as someone who is actually female. I can respect their fight, but I can’t join it the way that a woman can. It’s just impossible.

So why should I bother? Because my definition as a man is profoundly connected to who they are as women. I am not an advocate for their cause – I am a listener. I fight to listen. I tell others to listen. And, through listening and respecting their unique perspective of the world, I acquire for them an increasing measure of respect and deepen an understanding of my own experience, as I build in myself an increasing measure of humility.

I don’t provide the content for their advocacy; I provide an ear for their advocacy.

And that, I think, is how white people can celebrate the legacy and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. By taking a day out of the year to listen. Just one day. Let us speak. Respect our voices as much as we respect your Fourth of July. Because this is our beginning; this is our Independence Day, and in the words of Langston Hughes, we, too, sing America. And that listening can be active and an advocation for others to join your ears.

But what about all the other minorities? This question is commonly used to silence minorities – when a minority speaks of injustice, he is told to shut up, because at least he doesn’t have it as bad as X. I agree that I should listen to others, but I can only provide content for my own advocacy. I do not provide content for the Asian or the Palestinian – I listen to how they define and affect my own experience and standing in the socioeconomic political and experiential standing I find myself in. I am not qualified to provide the content for their voices. If you want to hear my voice, then I will speak as myself. And I will let them speak for themselves. I’m asking you, as well, to listen to me, and perhaps, through listening, you will understand yourself. This is my struggle. You may engage in your own. Do not tell us what we should do for this one day. For one day, for one 24 hour period, listen.

Morgan Freeman was once asked about black history month. He hated it. When asked why, he said, “I don’t want my history relegated to a month. How would you like to have ‘white history month’?” You see?

I don’t want this to turn into, “black people’s struggles are a symbol for my own inferiority.” Because we aren’t. We aren’t. We just aren’t. We’re not a symbol – this is real life. Day in, day out. It’s not pretend. It’s not just a story. This is our life. We aren’t your metaphor; we’re ourselves.

But at the same time, in hearing us, you’re hearing a part of yourselves, because we are, with the rest of the United States and the world, constructors of your identity as a patriot, as a citizen, as a human being.

Understand yourself by understanding us.

So that’s how you can celebrate his legacy. It’s only for one day. And your gift is coming one step closer to defining equality. For when you get right down to it, your equality and fight against inferiority is dependent on and defined by my own.


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    • profile image

      brian 3 years ago

      Black skin would make me look stronger.

    • profile image

      Julie 3 years ago

      Uh....wait a minute, don't you celebrate the 4th of July too?

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      barrier......An extremely powerful hub. I appreciate your hard core facts of reality and the honesty with which you express them. When an individual is correct, they simply are. To attempt to argue against the obvious, literal and natural differences that exist, is both futile and foolish. Until we learn to accept, profess and act, mankind is stuck where ever it happens to be....good or bad.

      I like your style. Excellent article.. UP++++

    • profile image

      brian 4 years ago

      I am going to try to go undercover as a black man to help white people with interacial relations. I may try to be a black assistant manager and try to use my blackness to get more productivity out of black employees. Black skin will also give me more flexibility on what I can and can not say.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 5 years ago from sunny Florida

      Dr. King's lofty goals were put out here for ALL of us to consider and hopefully strive to attain. I agree racism is alive and well today..but it is not just white on black it is a pervasive kind of racsism that involves black on white, and all of the other groups that we have within our country. Racism against any group of people is wrong. We all know it is.

      Dr. King spoke of us being able to coexist..and while he represented the African American population it appeared that he really did believe in civil rights for everyone

      I do not find celebrating him awkward in any way. I think anyone who had the determination and courage to march into the troubled waters he did, even unto death, should be recognized and honored. And he is celebrated every day, not just on his birthday as there are few towns in this country that do not have a street named after him.

      I grew up in the South but was taught by my Momma to love and honor all people not just white people. And I have written about my journey in by Virginia, my home sweet home series here on HubPages.

      Racism is ugly and hurtful and it runs both ways. It is on all of us to get over our preconceived ideas about others and try to move forth to understanding and healing. Let history be a lesson to all of us but let us all overcome and try to raise our children to work harder than we have worked at bridging the gaps that cross all color lines and all lines that would separate us and cause divisiveness.

      Perhaps Dr. King's most powerful words that he left are...

      "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

      And thanks for sharing this. One way we can bridge the understanding gap is for all of us to give voice to our feelings. That gives us a place to start.

      Your words

      understand yourself by understanding me can be the mantra for us all...I challenge each of us to do just understand me I must walk a mile in someone else's shoes and they in mine.

      Sending Angels to you and

    • profile image

      barrierbreaker 5 years ago


      OK, second paragraph -- no. I refuse to believe that is the reality, and so did Martin Luther King, Jr. And I focused on blacks because he did.

      What on earth is wrong with you, man? So before we had MLK, now "the rest is up to the Holy Spirit"? Seriously? We are all capable of continuing the work of MLK. It is not over; it has hardly begun.

    • Levertis Steele profile image

      Levertis Steele 5 years ago from Southern Clime

      I think that people should celebrate or not celebrae MLK Day as a right and choice. That is what freedom is all about. Those who do not want to celebrate it should not stay home from work. They should go to work or find some meaningful volunteer work to do.

      Racism will exist until the world ends. It is a waste of time to think that anyone can end it overall. I don't mind people being racists as long as they stay out of my space. That does not mean than I cannot work with a racist. I have worked with many. It means that a racist can carry his own burden of racism alone. I do not care to share it or entertain it.

      You wrote, "One option is to say, “Oh! How wonderful that MLK’s dream has been realized!” But this is offensive, because it hasn’t. 95% of black people, I guarantee you, will say that racism exists today. It may be more muted, it may be more camouflaged, but it does exist."

      MLK accomplished a lot! Some people do not think so because he did not work a miracle and change every heart forever. Jesus didn't stop racism either. People are not forced to do anything. They are given free will. .

      Of course racism exists, and Whites are not the only ones "enjoying" it. Blacks and other races are having a ball with it too. The evil force does not want one race. It wants all and it is NOT picky.

      I can say that we blacks celebrate more White events than they celebrate black, but that is not anything to whine about. That's not new. Many of us participate in the celebration of vain events like Santa Clause, Easter Bunny, rotten people and demons (Hallows Eve), and green elves, and others. No offense is intended to anyone, but I write the truth. They are all vanity and lies.

      MLK finished the work that God gave him. The rest is up to the Holy Spirit. Even the Spirit does not force people to behave a certain way. King was a man, not God, and he was effective.