Maybe you’re like me: white and privileged enough to own horses. From our rural, mostly peaceful, mostly white communities, it might be easy to ignore the massive protests over systemic injustice. It might be easy to dismiss the protests as flash points soon to fade, bumps in the already bumpy road of 2020.
We horse owners often practice a ‘live and let live’ philosophy, happy to stay in our lanes and keep to ourselves. What do the deaths of blacks in big cities have to do with us?
I’m reminded of the words set in granite at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, written by Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor:
They came first for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Systemic injustice is a scourge that makes its victims feel unsafe and targeted. Blacks in America feel unsafe and targeted, but it could be anyone anywhere.
Systemic injustice was part of a conversation I had with Monica McWilliams twenty years ago in Boston. McWilliams co-founded the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and won seat in that country’s original Legislative Assembly. I reported on her U.S. visit to receive a Woman of the Year award.
A Catholic from south Belfast, she took part in the peace talks leading to the historic Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended the Troubles, a decades-long period of sectarian violence and political unrest effecting the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and, peripherally, the United States. Nearly 4,000 people died during the Troubles. Half were civilians.
For generations in Northern Ireland, Catholics had felt unsafe and targeted. McWilliams told me a simple story of shoe shopping:
Her son was to receive his First Communion and needed white shoes to go with his outfit. Harried and in a hurry, they stopped at a shoe store in a Protestant neighborhood. Not realizing the dangerous gravity of his words, her son complained loudly about all the Communion fuss. Heads turned. Smiles turned to frowns. They were not welcome in this shop or in this neighborhood.
Systemic injustice takes all shapes in its goal to keep the powerful in power and to keep down those being dominated. The Irish know what it is. In Dublin and Belfast, they are protesting against systemic injustice after George Floyd’s murder.
Sure, not all horse owners are “privileged” if we think of it in terms of socio-economic status. I was talking about this with my friend, Forrest Van Tuyl, a musician and working cowboy in Oregon. I asked him what he thought of the white privilege in the working cowboy world. “Cowboying is a choice. Being born black is not.” Privilege is not just about money advantages. It’s about systemic advantages that make it less likely for people of color to succeed.
If you’re a woman, you know what it feels like to be targeted and unsafe. As a reporter, a runner, a laborer on construction sites, I’ve experienced systemic injustice. I’ve felt vulnerable and targeted. How about you?
If you’re a horse owner, you know what power and dominance look like, too. Generally, we show up for our horses with courage, support, compassion, and a sense of responsibility. But there are sickening possibilities whenever power over another being is possible: violence. Or worse, sanctioned violence. It’s an ugly mix of fear aggression and cowardice that has hurt and killed scores of our equine partners.
Pause for a moment and think about where you cross paths with systemic injustice. It might seem like we’re far removed from the treachery and pain that’s unfolding today – mostly in big cities without a horse in sight – but if you look more closely, you’ll see just a few degrees of separation. Ask yourself: are you minding your own business or sticking your head in the sand? Let’s counter this year’s fear, ignorance, and cynicism with joy, knowledge, and compassion. Let’s join the conversation and be part of the solution.
Props & Calls to Action:
- We’re thrilled to see Chronicle of the Horse engaging in conversation over systemic injustice, white privilege, and horse world silence.
- Check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on the Case for Reparations in the Atlantic (not because of slavery, but because of systemic discrimination in federal housing and loan programs). A recommendation from Forrest Van Tuyl.
- We follow social media pages that can help educate us and recommend courses of action.
- We encourage readers to educate themselves with books, documentaries, and other sources of reliable material.
- We support involvement in organizations striving for effective change.
Read about Compton Cowboys, who attended the Best Horse Practices Summit. Photo, from their Instagram feed below.