by Cain Turner (Southwest Political Director at Kaine for Virginia 2018, Finance & Political Director at Sneathern for Congress, Organizer at Women’s March on Washington 2018)
I had never been directly involved with politics or activism outside of college social clubs in 2014 when Michael Brown was unjustly murdered in Ferguson. During the Ferguson riots, I was living in Richmond, where a march and rally had been planned in support of Brown, his family, and the thousands who marched to protest his murder — and in opposition to police shootings of unarmed, innocent, young, black people, which seemed to becoming more and more commonplace. I had to attend. I was heartbroken. I was furious.
I have never lived as an African American person, and so I cannot relate to their specific struggles. But I am Middle Eastern — and I am LGBTQ. I remember how life changed for my family after 9/11. Suddenly, we were called racial slurs; we were stopped at airports; my father and his siblings experienced this in particular due to their dark complexions and ethnic features. In elementary school, it was normal for kids to dish out homophobic slurs to effeminate boys like me. But suddenly, they were saying something new. “Terrorist.” I didn’t understand the significance of this word at the time, but what I did know was some of my white classmates were instructed by their parents not to play with me anymore. In hindsight, this likely contributed to what I could only call an unspoken, natural bond to other racial minorities and marginalized communities. Years later, I would learn my family had experienced similar discrimination since childhood, and that 9/11 had only exacerbated an already-existing problem.
It feels horrible being “othered.” The Northam photo brings back immense pain for African Americans and racial/ethnic minorities. It resurrects a harrowing history of lynchings, hate crimes, slurs, being treated like second-class citizens… This hurts everyone who has experienced discrimination for biological characteristics like the color of their skin — and now is the time for minorities and allies alike to respond by standing in solidarity against hate & bigotry across the board.
The conversation we’re having in Virginia about Ralph Northam and others is necessary; it’s a learning opportunity for all Virginians and Americans. People who are privileged to be white and affluent shouldn’t feel attacked by these critiques. They should welcome this learning opportunity with open arms. From what I have seen, most Democrats have taken a bold step to lead on this issue throughout Virginia and the country, something they notably haven’t always done. Let’s continue to lead by calling out systemic racism everywhere — the alternative is complicity.
As my former boss, Andrew Sneathern, would say, “When any member of our community is suffering, we are all diminished by that suffering.”