(This is the text of the speech by Andrea Finley ’13 at the opening ceremony for Colgate’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.)
“Moving the Mantle … Getting Outside of Ourselves to Create New Comfort Zones as a Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Every year we gather together around this date to honor the words and actions of the late great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As someone who has attended many diversity forums, collective remembrances and social justice advocacy affairs, the words of Dr. King are always given in reverence, and with great appreciation, and for that he is always honored and remembered. Alongside this appreciation, his most famous words of his “I Have a Dream” speech are most commonly recited. But today I look else where for the inspiring words of Dr King. To be quite honest, I believe that we have over played the “I Have A Dream Speech” far too many times, without thinking critically about just what those words are truly saying, we must not take those words for granted. Or perhaps we have gotten far too comfortable with being familiar with those words and calling ourselves activists while simply embodying the face of passivity.
When I was asked to give this address, I found myself extremely excited, and reflective, but also relatively fearful. I found myself sitting and contemplating the words of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, Baird Rustin and a plethora of others who commonly go unnoticed within our everyday lives. I began to think back to the 1960’s and the Civil Rights Movement and all of the struggles and triumphs that people of color were forced to endure. I thought about my ancestors who survived the slave past to tell their stories with a collective consciousness, and then I began to realize what our generation is missing.
Too many a times we are unwilling to step outside of ourselves, unwilling to move beyond our own capacity to be uncomfortable. We live in an age and generation that has been told that the “I, I, I, me, me, me” mentality is all that we need. But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of community. It is time that we return to that sense of community that allows us to reach beyond ourselves in order to understand one another. For your liberation is bound in my liberation, and for that we are ultimately connected.
I could stand here today and ramble through the historical impetus and struggle that people of color have faced within our country for decades, but there lies a far more meaningful message that I believe we all must internalize before we begin to understand that history. And I simply have one question for you all today: What does it take for you to get outside of yourself? Some of you may be looking at me confused, wondering just what it is that I’m trying to get at, or what it is that I’m trying to say. I have not asked you a trick question, it simply remains, what does it take for you to get outside of yourself?
It took me a very long time to understand what this question truly means. I was forced to sit and recollect about my own personal journey here at Colgate. I was forced to think of the life altering moments that I experienced here, and as much as I would love to say that my most memorable Colgate experiences were brought about from venues such as dance fest or release nights, they were not. My most memorable Colgate experiences have been life-altering moments when my identity was questioned in some form or fashion. The first being freshman year when I was confronted by a Caucasian male who stopped and approached me after class and said, “You know you’re a lot smarter than I thought you would be.” I was taken aback by his comment, but I was curious as to his reasoning, and so I asked him, “Is it because I’m black?” And almost effortlessly he replied, “Yeah.”
This would be the first of many racialized moments that I would endure throughout my Colgate experience. I had to learn quickly that Colgate was going to be much more than an academic journey. Sophomore year presented another set of challenges, as my femininity and sexuality were questioned in a phenomenal way. I was leaving work one day from CLSI and I entered the women’s restroom as two Caucasian women were standing at the sinks. I could feel their eyes on me, examining me as I heard one of them say, “That black bitch.” I knew that they were referring to me, but I had never seen these girls in my life, and I’d never spoken to them either. I was livid by the fact that one of them had just called me such a profane name and for no apparent reason. But it was the comment that proceeded out of the second female’s mouth that literally sent me into tears. She said, “You can’t even call her a bitch because that would imply that she’s some type of female and clearly she’s not.”
I am telling you about these experiences, because these experiences are the foundations for my message today. What does it take for you to get outside of yourself? What does it take for you to get outside of your own perspective, to see beyond and more intuitively into the experiences of someone else? We as a people need to get back to the place of accountability, where we feel accountable to someone other than ourselves. It is time that we move the mantle to get outside of ourselves to create new comfort zones. But we must think critically if we are to be accountable to one another. For it is out of this place of discomfort that we truly thrive.
When it comes to race, it is always so easy to label everything as a black or white issue. But what about the invisibility of our Hispanic, Latino, Asian and Native American brothers and sisters that are so often left out of the conversation? Or perhaps the mere struggle of facing a predominately white classroom with a majority of white faces, and often being looked at as the ethnic or cultural experience or voice. “So evidently seen when a professor asks a student of color, “So what is your opinion of slavery?” Or how do we contend with faculty who discourage students of color from the math and sciences here at Colgate because those subjects are just too hard? Or what can we make of the lack of representation for faculty of color on our campus, for an institution that believes representation equates to interaction when in actuality it does not.
Some of you may see this as an attack, or a mere compilation of complaints, and for those who have fallen captive to that insensitivity I dare you to get outside of yourself. I bring to light the mere truth in hopes to challenge each and every one of us to do more. I challenge our administration to get outside of their selves to stretch their limits and their comfort zones. I challenge us as students to think beyond the parameters of what is comfortable and what is acceptable. I challenge my white brothers and sisters to examine how white privilege has benefited your lives, and in what ways can you use your privilege to make a difference for those less fortunate.
I challenge my people of color to partner with our white brothers and sisters, to know that we cannot fight this fight alone, and I challenge us as people to get back to that basic level of human companionship to see that in some form and some way we all need each other, because non of us can live this life alone. I challenge us not to fall captive to the lie of colorblind ideologies that says that race does not matter. The fact that we have a black president does not erase the structural, and systemic fallacies of our society that still revolve around racial injustice. Race matters, and when we choose to see things through a colorblind lens, we loose the authenticity and representation of cultural and racial differences that ultimately bring us together.
I challenge us to make mistakes, but to learn from them, that we would not repeat the vicious cycle of normalcy that has led us to complacency. I challenge us get uncomfortable, to relish in that moment, and to never forget the feeling of discomfort. I challenge us as students to challenge the status quo, to rename spaces in frank such as the “man cave” that maybe one day it could simply be “the cave.” I challenge us to think critically about spaces on our campus that resemble racialized inferiority such as that of the Cutten complex. I challenge us to stop the segregation and the monotony of living segregated lives on this campus. I challenge you to be mindful of your rhetoric, say what you mean and mean what you say. Get outside of yourself.
We are all blessed by the mere fact that we are able to attend this institution. I cannot deny the phenomenal education that I have acquired or the amazing opportunities that I have been blessed to have while being here and meeting such prominent figures as Dr. Cornel West. One of the greatest services that you can do for yourself while you are here is to claim your education. Do not be afraid to be that voice of contestation or that voice of difference. It is through the authority of differing perspectives that true educational attainment is brought forth and achieved. We are blessed that the vast majority of our faculty are OK with students who not only challenge their peers but also the mindsets of our professional faculty and staff. Allow your opinion to be heard. Validation is not always the end goal, but rather the courage to be different.
And so my message today, is nothing ground breaking, nothing that any of us have not already heard, but simply something that we forget too often. So please allow me to be your gentle reminder that this life is not worth living by ourselves, and our accountability to one another is perhaps the only thing that will save us from ourselves. Now is not the time to be passive or silent, as Audre Lorde stated, “Your silence will not protect you.” We can no longer afford to conduct business as usual, for now is the time for change. And as Dr. King so passionately stated, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” And so I must ask, are you living yet? Or has this society permeated your mind into believing that you are all that you need?
Today we honor Dr. King, his vision, the struggle, the triumph and the days to come, for surely our work is not done. We look to the slave past to honor the ancestors who came before us that we should stand where we are today. And it is through their impetus that we move ahead, while never forgetting all that they endured. Dr. King your life was never in vain, and as a living legacy of his vision I challenge you to acknowledge people for their differences, but allow those differences to be the very things that bring us together, rather than tare us apart.
Will you accept the call to move the mantle in order to create new comfort zones? What does it take for us to get outside of ourselves in our residence halls and apartments? What does it take for us to get outside of ourselves in our classrooms? What does it take for us to get outside of ourselves in Frank? What does it take for us to get outside of ourselves in the quad? What does it take for us to get outside of ourselves to truly create an atmosphere where the Colgate hello is real?
What does it take? What does it take for you to get outside of yourself to accept people for who they are, no longer based on their race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexuality, socioeconomic status, their religious ideologies, or anything else that comprise our identities? Can we get back to the basic principal that Dr. King has always challenged us with? Can we thrive in a society where people can truly be judged on the content of their character? We can and we will, but only when we ask ourselves … What does it take for you to get outside of yourself?