Last Sunday (5/22) the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester’s (ECSW) leader, Bart Worden, gave a thought-provoking talk on ethical activism. While most of us have an idea of what encompasses ethics, ECSW takes ethics a step further by calling us to act on our ethics. The words “ethics” and “activism” are not often paired, but Worden asserts that they should be, and that our ethics must not only guide our thought processes, but our actions as well.
Take the issue of housing. Many, if not most, Westchester residents live in safe neighborhoods with rents and mortgages they can afford. They are white, and therefore are afforded the privileges that come with being the majority group — trust (not fear) of police; that their neighborhood grocers will be stocked with fresh, healthy, organic foods (whereas in black, low income neighborhoods, these foods are hard to find and/or not affordable); that their homes will not be inundated with roaches, or falling apart from chronic disrepair; that they can go out after dark without fear of becoming a victim of crime; etc. In short, they are comfortable. This is not to say that all white people are comfortable, or that all white people have perfect lives, but that in Westchester County, most white people are indeed quite comfortable when it comes to income and housing.
And this is not to say that all white people think these disparities are not unfair. Many white people see these conditions as unethical. But many of these same people do nothing about it. They choose comfort over action. They choose to enjoy the privileges the color of their skin affords them, without lending a hand to the many activist groups, right here in Westchester, who fight tirelessly to undo social injustice.
A white activist colleague of mine once told me that she tried to persuade a family member to educate herself about racism, and how it permeates every aspect of the Black American experience. The family member agreed and enrolled in a racism workshop. Then she quit.
“Why did she quit?” I asked my friend.
My friend replied, “Because it made her uncomfortable.”