Do we criticize or do we build to make things better?
By: Doug Kindschi, Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
In a guest essay published in The New York Times this past weekend, Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, now known as Interfaith America, relates a lesson he learned nearly 30 years ago as a university student. It is a powerful lesson for us all today.
Patel first heard the term “white supremacy” in an introductory sociology course while an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois. He had the image of men wearing white hoods and burning crosses. But the professor continued describing the “assumption that from clothes to language to aesthetic preferences to family structure — for white people are normal, and the patterns associated with people of color are inferior.” But then Patel realized that she was describing his entire life, from his embarrassment about his grandmother from India and how she cooked, dressed, to even the fact that she lived with his family. While such structures were much more challenging for Black, Native Americans, and Latinos, they could also impact persons like himself from South Asia.
He recalled a presentation his father gave at a conference of Asian businesspeople where he was asked why he purchased a Subway store rather than an independent shop. His response was, “Which white people do you know are going to buy sandwiches from a brown guy born in India named Sadruddin? A recognizable franchise covers your dark skin and ethnic name. It helps you hide.”
As Patel continued his studies he learned about how racism permeated everything, and he became committed to doing all he could to fight against such patterns in the structures of our society. In his final semester at the university he did an independent study with an African-American female professor of theater and education. The professor and some of her graduate students had written a play dealing with children’s experience of oppression. In a talk-back session following the play, Patel was eager demonstrate what he had learned in his independent study and was the first person to respond.
He recounts how his professor smiled in anticipation of his comment. Remembering his response, he writes, “I used a tone dripping with scorn. I targeted a scene in the play where a child retreats to his own room after a fight with a parent. In front of the entire audience, I declared my professor and her graduate students guilty of racism and classism for writing a character who had his own room. ‘What about all the families where kids don’t have their own rooms? Or the Black and brown families that don’t have houses? Don’t you realize that your play is only further oppressing them?’”
He had hoped the professor would be proud of him, but was shocked by her email response, “Her students, she wrote, had worked so hard on the play and were deeply hurt by my comments. She was hurt, too. Why hadn’t I offered constructive suggestions, she wondered. She closed with this: Since you were disappointed with the play that these students wrote, you should try your hand at creating something better. It is always harder to create than it is to criticize.”
Patel reflected on his experience and realized the important lesson he had been taught, writing, “My professor was teaching me that devoting yourself to seeing the bad in everything means that you ignore the good and you absolve yourself of responsibility for building things that are better.” He realized that he didn’t want to be the critic, he wanted to build to make things better; he “wanted to be the person putting something on the stage.”
This is a lesson for us all, especially in these days of mass shootings, racial violence, and toxic polarization in our politics as well as permeating social media. As the political campaigns ramp up, it is so much easier to go negative and disparage the opposition rather than offer solutions. In social media, hate talk gets transmitted and gets more followers than constructive ideas.
Promoting fear is easier that building to make things better. Can we find leaders who don’t build on fear but present a vision? Can each of us resist the impulse to simply complain and criticize? Can we build to make things better?