MLK Day: Not Just Another Three-Day Weekend

Time for me to step up, finally

Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

I am a white person and sadly, I’ve acted like it

Not a white supremacist, mind you, nor an active racist — though as Isabel Wilkerson points out in her life-changing book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, no one who’s grown up in America has escaped some level of exposure to the toxins of racism. I have been one of those pleasant white ladies who means well, deplores overt bigotry, and lives her life within a protective shield of white privilege. Like most white people, that shield was largely invisible to me: I only caught glimpses of it from the corner of my eye, under certain circumstances. 

Like the time when my teenage son and his (also white)pals were caught shooting paintballs at road signs in an affluent Southern California neighborhood. The police let them go with a stern warning. When my son came home and confessed his adventure, he expected to be grounded. He didn’t expect to see his mother overcome with a nauseating combination of fear, rage, relief, and guilt, or to listen to her blister his eardrums with what would have happened if his skin was a different color. 

Most of the time, though — almost all of the time — I didn’t see how racism was my problem. I was a person of goodwill. I cheered for the champions of civil rights. I treated (I thought) everyone with equal respect. I cheered the Olympians who raised their fists in salute to Black pride and Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem. I voted for Obama, twice.

All from a comfortable, safe distance.

And Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? It didn’t have much to do with me

I mean, I supported it, of course. I liked listening to the speeches replayed every year, and I kind of thought it would be good to attend a parade, maybe. But perhaps I’d just be butting in. Maybe I wouldn’t be welcome. The day was really for Black people, wasn’t it? 

Anyway, it was nice to have Monday off. 

But the past four years of watching white nationalism get its hammy hands around our country’s throat, egged on by our soon-to-be-former-and-thank-God-for-that president and his toadies, cracked open my perspective. And last year — the notorious 2020 — was among other things an inescapable demonstration of the corrosion that’s been eating away at our national foundations since before they were even put in place. I don’t need to give you the litany of appalling, murderous injustices we all witnessed. Nor do I need to remind you of how watching a nine-minute video of a white cop slowly, coldly, squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he pleaded for air and his Mama became the flashpoint none of us could ignore.

And then seeing BLM demonstrators demonized by the soon-to-be-Previous-and-thank-God-for-that-again-Occupant, and the treatment those demonstrators received by police — in comparison to the way an armed mob of white terrorists seemed able to waltz right into the Capitol building with murderous intent — let’s just say it shattered any remaining illusions about racism not being my problem.

Therefore, this MLK Day feels different

It’s not just another Monday off, granted by tradition and the distant, detached memory of some long-dead president. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is now un-ignorable. 

But what to do? There’s a pandemic on, after all. Parades are pretty much out. And this year the day is taking place in the shadow of the coming inauguration. There is still the doubt that just showing up to wave a virtue flag and then receding back into my sheltered domain is off the mark.

The most meaningful way to honor Dr. King may not be through marching and flag-waving anyway. Since 1994, the day has been designated by Congress as a National Day of Service. And as the great man himself once said:

Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.

Still, how to do that, especially here in California where we’re back on lockdown and in the midst of a COVID surge far worse than last spring? Well, there are many ways.You can certainly spend some time raising your awareness by visiting or checking out some of the virtual and live-streamed events listed in this article in the New York Times. 

AmeriCorps has a website devoted to service opportunities for MLK Day. You can search its affiliate page, for local events, some of which are hands-on, but many of which allow you to participate virtually. I’ve found several near my small, rural community. 

The very fact that this year dictates that many of us must enact our service quietly, without making it about us, could put white people like me in a better frame to be an effective ally. What we do on MLK Day may not make all the difference in the world.

But it will make some difference. Any step we can take, however small, toward healing is a step toward justice and a more equitable future. I don’t think our nation will survive without that.


  1. Thanks Jan for posting this blog. It has inspired me to do something that I have been postponing for some time and that is finishing Isabel Wilkerson’s stunning book, Caste, which I now commit to do in honor of MLK day. It isn’t that I didn’t find the book both exceptional and enlightening: It was just that I found it too painful coming on top of everything else we have been experiencing in these last few months. I wanted to distract myself not rub my nose in what stinks about this country. I didn’t grow up in the U.S. but I am a product of white privilege and like all of us who do not consider ourselves “prejudiced“ Or “racist” I need to understand how I and my country looks through other eyes.

  2. Perfect post for today, Jan. I have long felt the same as you – a nice white lady who doesn’t WANT to be a racist but living life largely unaware of my white privilege. It was brought home to me when the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl. My son (who is white) wanted to go to Philly to participate in the festivities, which were sure to get raucous. My daughter-in-law was fine with that. When her brother (a young man of color) wanted to go, she pleaded with him NOT to go. She didn’t want him to get shot by a policeman in the melee. My son stayed at home and celebrated with his brother-in-law.

    I have been participating in a MLK day of service since I have been retired. Thanks for the links.

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