Jasir Qiydaar, ’18, Media & Communication Studies, was a member of UMBC's delegation at the inaugural National Campus Leaders Summit, held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak for me."
These are words attributed to Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor who was imprisoned in concentration camps for opposing Nazi rule. When I saw them at the US Holocaust Museum's permanent exhibition on a tour with fellow UMBC students and other participants during the inaugural National Campus Leaders Summit, I realized that when you substitute groups like immigrants, Muslims, and African-Americans for the targeted groups in this passage, the parallels between the situations expressed in the quote and those happening today become undeniable.
Unfortunately, oftentimes people are not active in speaking out against oppression that doesn't directly impact them. This lack of support helps create an environment that allows for oppressed people’s rights to be systematically stripped from them.
Niemöller's words reflect the relationship between public inaction and moral complicity in oppressing marginalized groups. The infringements on rights he described were incremental and allowed to persist by a widespread lack of public intervention.
Even more harmful than complicity through silence is the active participation in the oppression of minority groups by those who rationalize their behaviors.
The museum's "Some Were Neighbors" exhibition focuses intently on the idea of complicity by highlighting German participation in oppressing Jewish people. It specifically focused on the ways many Germans, who at one time had close relationships with Jewish people, assisted in their promoting their oppression. In it there were countless stories of friends, teachers, and others who perpetuated the inhumane treatment of Jewish people. Generally, the Germans who were interviewed all had reasons for behaving as they did, ranging from an unwillingness to oppose their country’s policies to negative stereotypes about Jewish people.
Today, many people make the assertion that they are emphatically opposed to the treatment of Jewish people during the Holocaust. However, when confronted with contemporary instances of oppression, some of these same people fail to be as supportive. In fact, they often rationalize their discriminatory behaviors using the same reasons Germans did during the Holocaust.
One popular reason people give for not speaking out against oppression is that they don't want to "get political." However, whether we admit it or not, our lives are inherently political experiences. Politics are simply a reflection of the attitudes and behaviors that shape how we live our lives, and attempting to avoid this fact is a barrier to achieving equality.
Avoiding tough discussions about oppression allows hateful ideologies to go unchallenged, and escalate. Recently, a man in Kansas shot two Indian men after reportedly mistaking them for Iranians and telling them to leave his country. This example illustrates how intolerant beliefs can have tremendous consequences if they’re left unchecked.
For me the museum’s displays brought to mind the importance of intersectionality as a means to combat the inaction described in the phrase "and I did not speak out" that is still painfully visible today.
People's unwillingness to speak out against injustices like misogyny, transphobia, and racism reinforce them. Yet all of these issues are intertwined, and should be addressed by people who aren't directly impacted by them. Those who benefit from unearned advantages given to them by society must recognize that their privilege is ultimately a product of injustice. However, this does not mean that their privilege can’t be useful, because with privilege comes social power. Individuals who aren’t part of an oppressed group have the responsibility to leverage this power to fight for equality. Privileged people can use their influence to engage in proactive allyship that centers marginalized groups, disrupts the rationalization of harm by their peers, and utilizes their own advantages as a resource to advocate for change rather than to maintain inequalities.
Contact the author, Jasir Qiydaar, at firstname.lastname@example.org.