Much that is significant, discouraging, harmful, and inspiring has been said over the last three weeks regarding the “white supremacist” Facebook post by an Oak Park Muslim woman and a response post by a politically prominent white man, labeling her words an act of terrorism. Since the terrorism post was removed, the WJ has apologized and attempted to promote healing, and resolved to do no further harm in ways some people have seen as thoughtful and racially responsive, and others have called further examples of white male privilege. 

In the many responses to these developments I see two guiding principles that more whites in our community should take to heart and action. These principles are found in the humble explanation and apology offered by Ken Trainor on Dec. 9 on behalf of the Journal, as well as in the politically and racially instructive observations of ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson, Gavin Kearney, and others. 

Ending the empathetic fallacy

The first principle is one of action. Those of us truly committed to racial justice and equity must get beyond our persistent inertia, reinforced by what some have labeled the “empathetic fallacy,” the belief that injustice, oppressive discourse, and a discriminatory social reality will change as more people simply develop a cognitive and affective understanding that such reality is patently wrong. 

As many have pointed out since the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other people of color, and the massive protests against police brutality that followed, the awakening of millions of individuals around the nation to systemic racism is not enough to ensure change. Persistent, ongoing action to alter inequitable policy, institutional racism, and harmful personal and collective behavior must now take place.

A more diverse, inclusive and equitable Oak Park, as set forth in the new Village Vision Statement, requires greater direct white support of racial justice work now in motion in our village and schools, but is far from complete.

These equity-driven goals include: substantially expanding affordable housing, reviving a viable and respected Community Relations Commission, reallocating parts of the police budget to fund more social and psychological services for adults and youth, developing a robust village racial equity policy with accountability protocols, and supporting OPRF High School’s equity-centered curriculum restructuring. 

Accountability relationships

All of these changes now before us are within reach. They can advance justice and equity. To achieve them requires that more white people build accountability relationships with people who have long endured religious, gender, and racial oppression. Such relationships are essential if we are to make equity a lived standard and not just an aspiration. 

Accountability relationships require humility, sharing and relinquishing power, and the willingness to be a supportive voice, and not the leading voice.

When we choose to act for justice, we must consistently heed the heartfelt concerns of our neighbors who have suffered, be answerable for what we do and say, and be willing to grow, moving further away from our intended or unintended role in human oppression.

Abandoning the empathetic fallacy and nurturing personal and collective accountability relationships with those harmed by centuries of oppression remain ongoing personal challenges for me.

As the New Year approaches and we enter the second half century of seeking a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive community, I invite other antiracist white Oak Parkers to actively join this ongoing quest.

John Duffy, a longtime Oak Park resident, is a cofounder of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education.

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