Rev. Meg Riley is the director of Advocacy and Witness at the Unitarian Universalist Association.
I still remember where I was when the Matthew Shepard killing made national news: rural West Virginia. To say that I was shocked to see the headline in that paper about a gay man being brutally murdered is an understatement.
I was not shocked about the murder, mind you. As a lesbian these past thirty years, I have marked hundreds of deaths of victims of such senseless acts of violence against GLBT people. What shocked me was that this was presented as news, as if residents of rural West Virginia would find it noteworthy that such a thing had happened.
This experience haunts me now, with Henry Louis Gates’ arrest for being in his own house on the front page. The fact that it happened is not what is surprising. The fact that it is noteworthy is. Both Gates and Shepard could pull on other privilege besides the identity that caused them to be targeted: privilege of class, of connection, of being the exemplary person.
Don’t misread me, I am delighted that the media is paying attention to both of these stories. It’s just that 99 times out of 100, the victim’s profile is more complicated and they don’t have standing to get noticed. We’re all complicated. Some voices online would try to paint even Gates as a person who deserved what he got.
The truth is that no one deserves to be violated, to be arrested, to be oppressed, to be excluded, simply for being who they are. That includes everyone I like and a heck of a lot of folks I don’t. (Alice Walker: God loves everyone you do and a mess of folks you don’t.) Standing on the Side of Love is important in high profile cases, like this one, and I hope that the Gates arrest will create opportunities for a great deal of action against racial profiling in every town in this nation. I intend to write a letter to my own local paper, here in Minneapolis, where the incidence of racial profiling is staggering. I urge you to do the same.
But if we make this about Gates, we’re missing the point. We need to speak out for the unnamed people, the ones without the connections to make all the papers. We need to stand on the side of love with communities who live exclusion, oppression, and violence daily. We need to learn their stories firsthand, because they will never be above the fold in the paper.