The Color of Urgency

Friday, February 3, 2017 - 5:30 am

The Color of Urgency

As images of Saturday night’s spontaneous airport protests began to flood in through my Twitter stream, I was elbow deep in sparkle glue and Perler beads, recovering from an illness, and feeling desperate about the state of the world. I texted with friends who managed to get to San Francisco International and JFK, thanking them for their motivation, learning about the palpable sense of urgency and love they were experiencing.

When news broke that the ACLU, among other organizations, had managed to get a stay against what I will unapologetically refer to as the Muslim ban, I felt a wave of relief pass through my body unlike anything I have felt since Donald Trump’s election.

The rule of law still stands.

People still show up and stand up for what is right.

All is not lost.

Maya and I made a love note for our local mosque and John and I donated to the organizations that had won the night. I went to bed feeling like this was our new normal, and that in fact, that was okay. As long as it still feels like checks and balances actually have a shot at protecting us from this chaotic, amoral administration, and as long as people are willing to come together to protect what we hold sacred, we will be okay.

But I woke up with a tickle in the back of my throat. Soon it became a scratch. And finally it was an un-ignorable pain.

I realized that we — meaning white people, privileged people, Silicon Valley billionaires, intellectual literati, lawyers — showed up in droves when the give-us-your-huddled-masses narrative was threatened. We, in fact, went to the most dreaded, inconvenient public space anywhere — airports! — to make our allegiance to this narrative and its consequences known.

I can’t help but wonder how many of these same people were at Black Lives Matter protests. How many of us have considered the discrimination, criminalization, and even death of American citizens of color an emergency worthy of disrupting our Saturday night plans? In Michael Eric Dyson’s recently released book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, he writes about some of the subtleties of Martin Luther King’s message that have been lost over the years:

“King concluded that black suffering has generated a ‘terrible ambivalence in the soul of white America.’”

It is that ambivalence that keeps us operating as if everything is normal when a 12-year-old boy is gunned down while playing in a park in Cleveland. It is that ambivalence that allows us to stick to our appointments and sitcoms while schools dramatically re-segregate. It is that ambivalence that has us talking about maternal mortality in Southern Africa, but rarely mentioning the racial disparities here at home.

It should be said that a policy this overt, this sudden, this chaotic, logically leads to a swift and concrete response. President Trump essentially operationalized the hateful and ignorant idea that a whole body of people is immediately dangerous based simply on their religious identification. That hate codifies in customs — a place where we can actually show up with our protest signs and our righteous indignation.

The hate and ignorance that President Trump and those that surround him reserve for black Americans — at least so far — has not lent itself to the same easy urgency. As a friend of mine pointed out, anyone who has organized knows that it’s always easier to stop something and mobilize on behalf of what is than on behalf of what might be.

But even so, how much more un-subtle a narrative breach (“police are here to serve and protect”) could we find than that caught on film in the police shootings of Sandra Bland or Eric Garner? One might argue — but where would the good people have shown up to make their outrage known? Well, police stations, for starters. Aren’t they the parallel to airports in this case?

Of course, many of us have been showing up in the streets in the last year or two to proclaim that black lives matter, but in nowhere near the numbers or with nowhere near the clarity that we experienced on Saturday night.

I have hesitated to write this, even as I’ve hesitated to think this, because I want everyone motivated to counter this administration in any and every way that feels right. This is not a competition of causes or oppressions. The point is not to criticize that native moral instinct to get up and get somewhere with others, to say no in certain terms. The point is to say — we need more, not less of that. And we need it around issues that may not show up in executive orders or those that are not embodied by innocent children or elders detained for hours and then released into the loving arms of their family members.

Most importantly, we need it not just when the narrative being threatened is our best story, but when the narrative being denied is our worst story. Both are true. Yes, we have welcomed immigrants and refugees, and yes, this is part of what makes us the country that we are. But yes, we have also committed genocidal violence to those who were here long before us, and we have enslaved a whole population of people who we forcibly brought here. For 12 generations. That’s America, too. Lady Liberty and Stephen Duncan. Dyson writes,

“The golden age of the past is a fiction, a projection of nostalgia that selects what is most comforting to remember. It summons a past that was not great for all; in fact, it is a past that was not great at all, not with racism and sexism clouding the culture. Going back to a time that was great depends on deliberate disremembering.”

We must interrogate our own ambivalence. We must resist our own tendency to disremember. We must recognize that we “good white people” are actually on a continuum with President Trump, that all white people are responsible for racism.

If the resistance is going to transcend the level at which President Trump is functioning, we must be willing to not only counter his obvious moral and systematic failures, but his adolescent, dualistic thinking. America is both great and terrible. It has succeeded wildly at welcoming some people and has not only failed others, but exploited and criminalized and murdered them. All of this is why we showed up at The White House lawn and at airports. And why we must show up at police stations and hospitals and schools and prisons in the coming days.

We must show President Trump that the majority of Americans understand that our greatness is not born of innocence or inherent moral purity, but of courageous honesty and the imperfect quest for collective healing.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Kerstin Wiggins

    Courtney, I have been wrestling with this realization as well… how we show up, and for whom. Thank you for giving voice to what is often difficult to talk about, much less admit to ourselves. Your comment about acknowledging and owning the truth of our best and worst stories is so important in this devisive political climate. Our story is never either/or. It is always both – good and bad, dark and light. These are the stories that define and broaden the potentialities of our existence. Ah, the mystery of being continues to deepen…

    • Courtney Martin

      Indeed, non-dualistic, just like the wise Richard Rohr has been writing about lately in his newsletter. It’s a way of thinking my mom has always embodied and my black/white brain has sometimes struggled with. I know it’s what is needed now.

  • Gabby

    Your question to yourself, Courtney, suggests a much larger one which might open a somewhat different personal inventory and broader inquiry. We might each look at the multiple ways we are active, or “show up,” as well as the causes in which we are active. Active might mean showing up for a couple of hours at an airport but not only that. It might also mean some sort of direct sustained volunteerism or voice unrelated to marching. (I believe Parker wrote recently about choosing to make a sustained volunteer commitment himself to a community of Syrian refugees). It might mean financial contributions.
    If we consider not just marching but the bigger picture of activism, I would say for myself that the amount of time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears I have committed over the decades to matters such as poverty and racial inequities in the US relative to immigrant rights might be one thousand to one. More than one thousand to one. But it hasn’t mostly been marching.
    There is indeed research on the distribution of volunteer hours, for example, by cause which I believe shows a very different picture than what people march for specifically. People may consider the ways they can be most effective for particular policy areas they care about, the best tools at hand, and perhaps choose different vehicles of activism for different problems.
    I agree that people and communities tend to specialize in issue areas so as not to spread themselves too thinly. There is a tradition in synagogues, I know, and I thought also in some Christian faith communities of specializing in particular causes. One assembly might be focused on healing the sick, another on housing and feeding the poor, and another on “repairing the Earth” in an environmental sense. Some focus on interfaith relations. Some individuals focus on LGBT issues, but not because they do not care about climate change. Some people focus on environmental issues. Right now immigrant rights are at the forefront of many people’s attention, but I would guess still that more focused person-hours of attention are given every day of the week to issues of justice, poverty, and inequity. Some of this attention may look like marching but most not.

    • Courtney Martin

      Thanks for this–really wise. So many people in my life are trying to figure out where to put their daily energy. Some have even quit their jobs in search of something that feels more directly related to the times we are living in and the resistance that is mounting. I think it’s vital for all of us to do an inventory of sorts, on our most daily energy. Great reminder.

  • Michele Amundsen

    I love this Courtney, and it is something I wrestle with too. The ways in which I have shaken my head, been outraged about something but done nothing other than sent a credit card number to help.
    One of my very favorite signs from the woman’s march (and I wasn’t there…to my great regret and disappointment I was home watching it with pneumonia), was a sign carried by a Black woman asking the vital question “So we’ll see all you nice white ladies at the next BLM march, right?” That spoke to me and many people I know, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
    In a time where any one cause, any one group of people, , any one institution is in question and under threat,we need to be there for all of it. The letter writing, phone calls,the personal visits to senator and representative offices have made a difference….we so blithely think we can just push a button on our computer, but it is in the harder work, the showing up, that true change is made.
    I intend to be one of those nice white ladies that begin to show up for BLM, a non-Muslim that will instantly become one if registries are enforced, an ally that volunteers at Planned Parenthood and has, along with many I know, stockpiled some Plan B just in case (I am post-menopause so it’s not for me). I have been researching local progressive groups, I get a daily call to action….I am committed to doing what I can.
    And I know it won’t be enough. Ever. But we have to start supporting each other; one injustice is just like any other. Yes, we have to choose sometimes, we can’t do it all. But together we Can do it all.
    This is an extraordinary time, and extraordinary measures are called for. And sometimes those extraordinary measures are so very ordinary, so easy, that we, or I, think, let that group handle it…they got it. But the power of a sea of “white” faces among Black or Hispanic ones, gathered around Mosques and Temples, is a strong statement too. We are all the other in any given situation, and it is helpful to be reminded of this as we share in a collective move toward love and justice and what this country stands (stood?) for.

    • Courtney Martin

      I LOVE this Michele. So much. Thank you for hearing the call and answering it in such a big, courageous way. This gives me hope.

  • M.C. Mallet

    Thanks you for this reflection. It could applied to a wider ranger of issues as well.

  • Sue Johnson

    The universe conspires for our greater good. It cannot be a coincidence that every time I read your column, your words parallel my heart’s concern of the day. Thank you for being the very best Courtney Martin that you can be, and sharing your heart while you do that, which helps me to be the very best me that I can be. Thank you, Courtney…xo.

    • Courtney Martin

      Wow, thank you Sue! I’ll try to channel you when I’m wondering if what I’m writing has any resonance.

      • Sue Johnson

        “I cannot teach anybody anything–I can only make them think.”
        🙂 SueJ

  • Candyce Ossefort-Russell

    I’m profoundly grateful for your capacity to hold the both/and of this situation so gracefully, honestly, and with compassion for all. The complexity of both/and–beyond dualistic thinking–is crucial for healing the splits of our world. I want to continue to use the privilege I have not earned to make a difference in the lives of all. Thank you for presenting a challenge that continues to make me grow.

    • Courtney Martin

      Thank you for this generous note, Candyce. I think we’re all learning and I’m lucky to learn side-by-side with people like you.

  • Grace Badik

    Such a powerful reflection. Thank you for your words. I’ve been struggling with this too as a flood of people know feel the call for urgent activism. As someone who has been walking with folks impacted by numerous injustices over the past few years, sometimes I want to ask “Where were you when…?” to these new folks marching in the streets. The energy is awesome and incredible, but we can’t lose it. As Rep. John Lewis tells Krista Tippett in a recent episode of On Being “It is better to be a pilot light than a firecracker.”

  • Amor Fati

    And who is marching and standing by our Native American brothers and sisters at Standing Rock, showing our solidarity with them, fighting for clean drinking water? Many brave protesters lived side by side with them in the camps, but now that the green light was given for the contested pipeline, camps are broken down and police is given even more power, where are the protests? The marches? The outcry of the violation of basic human rights?
    We are all brothers and sisters in this world, no one is better or more deserving than the next person. These are unprecedented times to show our goodness, to stand by the oppressed and disadvantaged. Please do not forget Standing Rock.

    • Lee Toth

      Maybe in order to get that pipeline through that ass #45 is pulling the knowingly unlawful “Ban” so that all our energies are running over to what they “think” is a bigger, more dangerous, more urgent “fire”? While we are all marching and fighting for our 1st Amendment Rights, someone is about to make a boatload of money???