It was a sunny afternoon, perfect for a walk to go get lunch at some nearby food carts with my close friend. As we walked, we discussed what was going on in our lives and our mutual struggle with wrapping our heads around what was happening in Portland related to the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. It is not unusual for us to discuss something that I had learned in class that week, applying it to our own lived experiences as queer individuals, or the lives of others that hold oppressed identities, and that day was no different.
We were specifically talking about how shame kills people, some people’s unwillingness to own past behaviors that they are not proud of, so that they can make reparations, and how so many people hold positions in the top of the bottom 80% that perpetuate systemic oppression without realizing it. All three conversations are highly intertwined because it takes vulnerability to own our past mistakes and admit we were wrong or that we are a part of the systems of oppression that we have gone to school to dismantle; if we cannot muster up the courage to own it, learn about the construction of it, so we can work to eradicate it, then many of us feel an immense amount of shame.
On the walk back after eating the most delicious Pad Thai burrito I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming, we came upon the wall of a building painted with the words, “HEY! YOU’RE PART OF IT”. Those words stopped me in my tracks. The artist had painted wallpaper on the building that looked as though it was being peeled away from the brick, but the words still covered the entire side of the building. Immediately, I looked at him and said, “even though the wallpaper is being peeled away, the words still remain. To me that represents the fact that even when we try to remove the image of us being part of the problem, by doing work in jobs that help oppressed people, at the root of it all, we are still part of it; we are part of those oppressive systems that keep people exactly where they are”.
Unless we move outside of what the systems are asking us to do, we will never be able to truly dismantle the oppressive and patriarchal systems that are in place. We have to have the courage to acknowledge that removing the “wallpaper” only gives us the illusion that we are part of change. If we want change, real long lasting change, we have to tear down the whole building and start over again. For me, that means checking my privilege and biases, owning that I am not perfect and have done harm to others (implicitly or explicitly), make reparations for my choices, and then work hard outside the system to obliterate them.
I will never forget the impact that wall of words had on me that sunny afternoon. I don’t know who the artist is, or their intended message, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is what I do with those words. Do I use the impact they had on me to move forward and create change, or do I let them slowly fade from my memory, by taking the easy path, and maintain the status quo? I choose option number 1; now I just have to decide how to be an agent of change, rather than a passive accomplice.