It’s a horrifying, gut-wrenching time to be human. I suppose it always is, and always has been, and maybe none of the staggering hate-motivated events are new, just our ubiquitous recording capabilities and 24-hour news cycle are. We’re sick with hate. Sick from hate. I’m starting to hate humanity. But before I seek refuge in my dark feeling that the sooner humanity is wiped off the planet, the better, I return to an adaptation of a Hillel quote I once saw on the front of a Seattle synagogue that makes me do the work.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? If not now, when? Right now, it’s the second two phrases I feel I must explore, if I’m going to try to stay rooted. Since I have no plans to hasten my exit from this life, nor can I predict when and if we’ll be wiped out completely, I have to do something. I’ve spent enough time in a numb depression, doing absolutely nothing with myself, making no positive contributions to what ails our species, that I can’t afford more of the same. I have to let the terrible news penetrate me emotionally, and spur me to some sort of action.
If I am not for others, what am I? I’m struck by the fact the question isn’t who, but what. I take it to mean that if I am not connecting with or standing up for others, I lose my humanity and become an object. What makes me human is my sociability, my need for others. And if I am not taking care of others, how, exactly, do I fit in? For someone who has felt apart from others most of her life, this is a critical question. So I want others to draw near, yet I’m not willing to make a move toward them? We then become fixed in our positions and no one connects, no one gets helped, nothing progresses? Sounds a whole hell of a lot like the state of the American Government, of American politics. Which is a commentary on American society, really.
It’s too easy to throw up my hands and say, the problems are too big, I’m one person, I’m not in that group, I don’t have contacts there, I can’t think of a solution. It assures a retreat from others. It divides us further. It assures no problems will be solved. It lets me off the hook. What am I?
I’m embarrassed to admit that when I hear people espousing views with which I don’t agree, views that reflect ignorance and intolerance, I often stay silent. I think of myself as a tolerant, open-minded, live-and-let-live sort, who grasps the savage inequalities of our world, yet I’m unwilling to express my convictions when they are tested. Sometimes I’m stunned into silence. Sometimes I fear rejection. Sometimes I’m worried about coming across as inarticulate. Sometimes I fear retaliation. If I am unwilling to speak up, what do I stand for? If my values are truly mine, of me, and of others, yet I’m unwilling to express or defend or champion them, what am I? Do I even understand what values are, if fear of reprisal from someone I believe is dead wrong can silence me? Do I have them?
I’m sickened to understand, truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I grew up believing we lived in a post-civil rights era, where, while we still didn’t have true equality in our society, things were at least way better than they were back in the day. I don’t believe this anymore. I believe the attitudes and actions perpetrated by the white majority on people of color, separating us from them, have simply gone underground, rearing their nasty heads as evidenced by the murders of black men in the streets by cops who will never face prosecution, to name a single phenomenon. Or check out this recent asinine controversy over who can use which public restroom. Don’t try to tell me for one second this doesn’t smack of “separate but equal”, with transgendered people as the target du jour. Us v. Them, over and over again.
My inaction is fear based. I’m afraid to challenge the system and fail, risking a true understanding of how hopeless our human struggles may actually be. I’m afraid to be shouted down or disrespected. I’m afraid to engage, lest I see sides of my loved and respected ones that change my views of them. I’m afraid to put myself out there. What am I?
Being a woman in America is to live in fear. It is not hyperbolic to say that I look over my shoulder constantly to avoid rape situations. I understand I could be raped, beaten, and killed at any time, by any man. And don’t tell me I’m paranoid. I’m realistic. Rapists and murderers don’t look or act a certain way that gives warning in the first few moments of an interaction. Just ask any of Ted Bundy’s victims. As a woman, I am expected and taught by society to watch out for myself, that the onus is on me to protect myself from violence. I’m not to expect that men will be held accountable, that they will be taught to create a sense of safety, to check themselves, and move through the world with caution, with respect for women and girls.
Let me shift the frame. Being white in America is to live in privilege. It is not hyperbolic to say that I don’t have to look over my shoulder constantly to avoid systemic racism and violence. I understand that based solely on the color of my skin I was conferred, at birth, with countless advantages I cannot begin to enumerate, or even see sometimes. As a white American, I have never been apart from the group. I move through the world with ease, with freedom, taking for granted all the special entitlements that are mine because of my whiteness.