Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Sleepwalkers

Black children don't deserve to be protected by police, they deserve to be shot by both officers and vigilantes because their appearance is one we associate with violence. Mexican mothers don't deserve sanctuary from the violence brought on by America's bogus Drug War--they deserve to be separated from their children. Muslim families don't deserve access to the same safe shores that received our great- and great great-grandparents. The safety and comfort of white people is more important than the very survival of others.

How do these kinds of heinous beliefs flourish among a population which declares itself to follow the precepts "love thine enemy as thyself, turn the other cheek, even as ye have done unto the least of these, ye have done unto me?"

The collective obliviousness of white people is a product of many things; a system of K-12 education which portrays all events in history through a "white equals right" lens, the media's misrepresentation of people of color as more dangerous and likely to commit crimes than white people, behind-closed-doors government policies of housing, loan, employment, and policing which herd people of color into ghettos and jails.

It's super lame that it's taken white people so long to wake up to all of this. It is very, very lame that they don't realize all by themselves that all of the articulate, big-hearted, intelligent POC's they know are emissaries from, not exceptions to, their cultural background. It is very, very lame that they allowed themselves to be convinced that the achievement gap had more to do with white culture being extra awesome and other cultures not so much, rather than do the small amount of research it takes to discover the actual causes of disparity. It is utterly, utterly lame that when white people look at the suffering of a person of color vs. a white person, they have a whole different set of standards for what they consider "the way things are" vs. what they find infuriating and unjust.

White people are beginning to wake up now. Voices of color are beginning to hold equal and in many cases superior sway (as should be the case when they speak about issues they are more familiar with than white people). Thanks to the increasing maturity of the internet, the collective debate is reaching a point of equilibrium. The intellectual elite is near unanimous in its intolerance of white ignorance, and we are beginning to experience the classic conundrum of revolutions: once the people who have been on the bottom get to the top, they have every incentive to recreate the cycle of oppression by humiliating and taking out vengeance upon their oppressors.

Only this time, it's not just the former oppressed perpetuating this cycle. It's also guilty former oppressors, seeking to exempt themselves from retribution, real or imagined. From ivory towers, the elite rain down righteous condemnation on poor white America, the brunt of our collective frustration towards ignorance, racism, exploitative policies, etc. finding an easy target in these dregs of the country. What is wrong with them? Why can't they seem to shake the spell of their racist pied pipers and join the ranks of smart, compassionate, worthy, non-racist human beings?

As someone who grew up with a keen sense of the economic injustices perpetrated against the population at large, I can tell you that it's an uphill battle not to be ignorant and white in a conservative state--a battle you don't properly realize you're even fighting; a battle you constantly get the uneasy sense that you're losing. You feel vaguely uncomfortable about the seemingly obvious superiority of your culture over others. Whenever you're in the company of people of color, you can tell they find you ignorant. You can tell they're angry. You can tell you're always saying the wrong thing, but you can never quite figure out just what it was you did. Maybe you're not always graceful about the fact that whites are superior, but what are you supposed to about it?

When I took a domestic diversity class and began to deconstruct "white equals right," one thing that struck me was how often my classmates insisted that most white people were *choosing* their ignorance. Their insistence that white people were *choosing* to capitalize on their advantages, knowingly and gladly at the expense of people of color.

Understandable...but problematic.

It takes a lot of humility and patience to undo a lifetime of conditioning. Frequently I was frustrated, frequently I felt myself reverting to my trained, automatic (and thus, easier) way of seeing the world. I want to believe, but I can't say for sure that I would have followed through with changing my views had I not benefitted from a patient, invested, and wise teacher helping me along the way. The way you feel you're being treated now might be a good way to understand how students of color feel in most other arenas besides this classroom, she suggested. Awesome advice, which I took. There is a certain amount of reckoning to be expected, some of which can be turned to the advantage of revolutionary work.

Imagine waking up and finding out you've been sleep-wreaking carnage on people around you the whole time you were asleep. Imagine you are confused but horrified, and you want to make it right, but they don't seem to want your help. "You've done enough here," they say.

There are many, many other sleepwalkers. You think you might have some understanding of them. There is still a great deal of carnage being wreaked, and it seems to you that it should be a first item of business, figuring out ways to wake the sleepwalkers so they'll stop hurting people and start helping in general.

"Of course you would focus on the sleepwalkers," you're told. "Just like a sleepwalker. So egocentric."

I understand now that my Irish ancestors threw their black friends under the bus in order to be white. I know it's an old story and that most people who share my skin color have ancestors who were willing to let someone else occupy the bottom rung of society just so that they wouldn't have to. I understand now that Nixon and his advisers singled out people of color for a lot of suffering that I got to avoid. Does either of those things mean that I am by nature belligerent, hateful, and willing to take my pleasure at the expense of others? 

I'm a new-ish human. Nobody told me about those things at birth. They were disguised from me along the way. Now that I have a better sense of history, I interact with the world differently. I do everything within my power to counteract these systems, as I would expect any compassionate person to. Who does it benefit to insist that it is not the business of anti-racist activists to figure out ways to awaken the sleepwalkers? Who does it benefit to insist that they actively choose sleep and carnage?

As long there are people we can point to and say "this class of person is not worth attempting to understand, collaborate with, or love" we will be easy to control. This doesn't just go for the racists; it goes for the people who have the capacity to understand and help them but instead choose to mock and condemn. Fully acknowledging that some people very understandably don't have that will or capacity.

The problems we face collectively here on Earth don't come down to race or class or gender. Privilege magnifies things--less privilege means you suffer harder, more privilege means you can exploit on a broader scale--but the essential problems, likewise the solutions, are not the province of any one group of people. Those who are attuned to our common survival are going to behave in ways that reflect that; those who are concerned only with their own survival are going to reflect that in their behavior. They're going to try to exploit everything they come across to their own ends. There are people at every level who feel left out in the cold by the rest of us, and there are reasons for them feeling that way, and there are things we can do about it.

"White is wrong" culture is scaffolding to help us build a better world. It's not a permanent fixture of that world. America has been tuned in to the "white is right" channel for a crazy long time so we need a healthy dose of the opposite just to upset the default position. It's good to remember, though, that the exploiters benefit from both "white is right" culture and "white is wrong culture" inasmuch as they both keep us divided. Both discourage us from understanding or communicating with each other. Both turn actual human beings into unrecognizable caricatures perfect for reinforcing our worst ideas about one another.

One of the things we can start doing is making a clearer distinction between our condemnation of the people who actively create and maintain systems of privilege and the people who passively benefit from them. Poor white people are deluded into thinking they're in the same boat as the exploitative classes just by virtue of their skin color. We can stop feeding that delusion by acting as though all white people are oppressors by default.

The "Olympics of Oppression" is a well known concept within the anti-racist community. The general takeaway is "pain is pain, stop trying to assert that you have it worse than others and start trying to make things better for yourself and others." Does it make sense to draw a firm distinction between the suffering of people of color and the suffering of exploited whites in the work of liberation? Our oppression may be different in both degree and kind,  but we all have a common enemy: exploitation at the expense of community.

Now a lot of people are making a lot of noise about how stupid Trump supporters are, which only feeds into everything they're told about a liberal elite that gets off on feeling superior to others but doesn't actual have any moral meat to it. Alternately, there are some people offering hugs at Trump rallies. Sometimes we just don't have a hug in us for someone who has made our lives miserable. I get that. But hugging is greater than scorning. Internet culture will be truly grown up when our collective rhetoric shifts from a call-out to a call-to-duty model, where instead of ridiculing each other's worst selves, we remind one another to keep rising to our best selves.

I'm not saying that it's a negative thing for much work of liberation to focus on people of color exclusively. That's both positive and necessary. I'm not suggesting that all those who have a grudge against white people should just get over it. That's ridiculous and reductive. I'm saying that the tone of the collective conversation needs to change if we're ever going to get anywhere collectively. I'm saying that if we're tired of oppression, we should pay close attention to what feeds into it, and what interrupts it. 

Right now there's a great, miserable barrier of people who have been born and bred into ignorance. Those who hold the truth are the only ones capable of banishing lies. And it is disrespectful to the humanity in all of us to assume that anyone would choose to live a lie that hurts others if they were able, by themselves, to come to understand it for what it is.

No comments:

Post a Comment