Why do we celebrate MLK Day?

By Lwilliams

We all know the history of Martin Luther King, Jr., a skilled orator, community leader, and symbol of the Civil Rights Movement who inspired others with his dream of equality. His achievements deserve to be recognized. But the real reason we celebrate MLK day is much deeper than that. We no longer have “white” and “colored” areas, but we are far from an equal, post-racial nation, and it’s important we remain mindful of this so we can combat the wide-spread discriminatory attitudes we may or may not even be aware of.

Here's one example. In a study, teachers were given an essay to grade with either a stereotypical black name or a stereotypical white name. Same exact essay, different name on it. Results showed that, on average, teachers gave the papers with the black name a higher grade than papers with the white name. Why? Because when the teachers saw the black name, they judged the work less critically, and awarded a higher grade in order to avoid being seen as biased or racist.

It may seem at first that this is an unfair advantage for black students, but it’s actually the opposite. While getting positive feedback is great, it doesn’t have the same effect when it doesn’t address areas that actually need improvement. And, these students are often well-aware of the bias (even if in their favor), which actually drops self-esteem. Students perform better and achieve more when expectations of them are higher. This means that the subconscious “benevolent” racism exhibited by teachers puts black students at a disadvantage. This isn't the result of explicit racism, but the culturally ingrained lens through which we see the world.

Prejudiced attitudes permeate our thoughts and actions without us even being aware of them. We treat people differently based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, and other identifiable features, and most of the time, we don’t even know it. We sometimes perpetuate racism even when we do know it. How many times have you made a joke about your Asian friend helping you with math or your Jewish friend being good at saving money? While these may be intend as lighthearted jokes, they point to the mechanism with which we still perpetuate stereotypes. It’s important to keep in mind an individual’s behavior or accomplishments and not an associated group.

Explicit discrimination is still rampant in the US as well. On January 6, 2014, Florida became the 34th state to legalize gay marriage. This is a huge step for equality, but this victory reminds us that there are still 16 states in which gays and lesbians are told by the law that their relationship isn't real and that their identity isn't valid.

Discrimination — both conscious and subconscious — continues to be a problem, influencing academic achievement, career paths, laws, and infinite other aspects of our lives. And THAT is why we celebrate MLK day — to remind ourselves of the discrimination we all face and/or commit every day, the way it affects us as individuals and as a society, and that we all have the ability to make a difference toward realizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality.

Taking a stand for equality doesn't mean you have to give a formal speech. It can be as simple as not laughing at a racist joke, or sharing your experience being on the receiving end of a discriminatory comment or action. Changing the world begins with changing people’s perceptions of what’s OK and what’s hurtful.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.