I constantly worry about doing the right thing. And I worry about trying to do the right thing but doing it poorly, or it being received in a way I did not intend. Often, I worry to the point of inaction.
I know that I am not alone. There are many in our community who want to help but aren’t sure how. We can start by speaking up. I saw something and as was suggested I am going to say something. I saw a letter steeped in the words and themes almost exclusively used to target Muslims. I saw racism, and I believe the marginalized members of our community when they say they saw it.
The issues we face as a community are often difficult and nuanced. They deserve better than to be boiled down to racist tropes. We need to have complex conversations.
The laws, rules, and norms in America, and Oak Park more specifically, have largely been written and established at tables occupied almost exclusively by white people, usually just white men. Other perspectives are relegated to the margins around these laws, rules, and norms. These marginalized people have, for too long, occupied these empty margins, full of unheard concerns and unheeded needs.
This is a fundamental part of the white supremacist systems that define the American experience and from which Oak Park is not exempt. It can be difficult for white men, like me, to understand and cede space to the needs of those that America has historically pushed to the margins. I am no exception. I occasionally fail to recognize problems within the spaces I occupy — even when I go looking — because my life experiences as a white man have not presented me with barriers experienced every day by women, BIPOC, Muslims, Jews, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, and everyone else that America has deemed “other.”
This background is important because even actions that are not actively hostile to those marginalized communities can still be supportive of white supremacy. In fact, any action taken without an effort to hear and consider the perspectives of these communities is, in a way, an action in furtherance of white supremacy.
It is my duty as an elected official to make sure that all voices in our community have a chance to speak, even if what they say may make me uncomfortable. It is not, however, for white men to tell people who have been marginalized that they need to tone it down, or be nicer, less divisive. They have been asked for far too long to stay quiet to make white people in power more comfortable — and that has consistently failed to move the needle toward equity. It has allowed leaders to satisfy themselves with incremental and moderate solutions in the pursuit of consensus.
There are times when consensus is appropriate, but when it comes to recognizing the struggles of marginalized people and what government can do to help create equity, we need to move beyond moderation. The Fair Housing Ordinance of decades past that made so many in our village proud was not an act of moderation, it was a bold step. We cannot leave that kind of vision on the mantle to be occasionally polished for show. Instead, we must look to it as a reminder of what we can do when we are willing to be bold and pursue progress.
Oak Park and its elected leaders, myself included, must not look to moderation as a guiding principle. Oak Park needs to take action to center those who have been pushed to the margins. To do anything less — to fight for moderation — is to fight for white supremacy.
Matthew Fruth is a member of the Oak Park Public Library Board of Commissioners.