I have spent a large amount of my life being a fairly apathetic person. I am emotional to a fault (although really, what does that even mean, and why do I feel compelled to say it? Why is the ability to feel emotion ever a fault? More on that another time.), and I learned early on that caring about people and things has the potential to overwhelm me to the point of being unable to function.
Case in point: When I was twelve, I became obsessed with the Minnesota Vikings; their season was going extremely well and I jumped on the bandwagon, waving my Vikings washcloth - which was the only Vikings paraphernalia I owned, for some reason - in the air and getting more ecstatic with each victory. Then came the championship game, the one that would have gotten them to the Superbowl, and Gary Anderson, frickin' Gary Anderson, who was supposed to be perfect and never miss a field goal, MISSED A FIELD GOAL, and the Vikings lost. I was verklempt. I spent the rest of that Sunday in my bedroom, sobbing into my Vikings washcloth and yelling at my parents when they tried to talk to me. I'm pretty sure I pouted for the next week. From that time on, I avoided sports like the plague - only recently have I slowly dipped my toe back in the water of cheering on professional sports teams (#gokingsgo).
It's a silly story, but if you think crying about a football game is ridiculous, then it's a good example of why I have avoided getting emotionally involved with causes that actually matter. College helped nudge me in the direction of some mild activism, but for the most part, I've stayed in the shadows and allowed the rest of the world to talk loudly about injustices while I nod silently along in agreement.
I'm done doing that.
The recent events involving Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others have jump-started my conscience and stirred me out of my stupor. I feel myself getting enraged when I see people treating these incidents as individual situations completely separate from the subject of race instead of what they really are: a couple of examples out of many, many other examples that are results of centuries of systemic racism that is so enmeshed in our culture that many people - myself included - are completely blind to it.
And make no mistake: that blindness is a privilege. As a white person in this country, I have the luxury of being able to ignore the issue of race, because I live in a society that doesn't make assumptions about me based on the color of my skin. Never once have I had to wonder or worry about something happening to me because of my whiteness. My whiteness is a non-issue. My friend Shannon recently relayed to me an analogy that I thought summed up this problem quite well - the idea of fish in water:
According to a well-known philosophical maxim, the last thing a fish notices is the water. Things that are unproblematic seem natural and tend to go unnoticed. Fish take the water they swim in for granted, just as European-Americans take their race as a given, as normal. White Americans may face difficulties in life - problems having to do with money, religion, or family - but race is not one of them. White Americans can be sanguine about racial matters because their race has not been (until recently) visible to the society in which they live. They cannot see how this society produces advantages for them because these benefits seem so natural that they are taken for granted, experienced as wholly legitimate. They literally do not see how race permeates America's institutions - the very rules of the game - and its distribution of opportunities and wealthy. - Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society
Here's the thing: I'm not blind any more. I haven't been for several years now. But I've realized it's not enough to acknowledge there's a problem and then continue going along my merry way, which is what I have been doing. I am not ignorant of my privilege, but I still take advantage of it. I mourn injustices, but I don't take action. And that is worse than being ignorant to my privilege in the first place. Toby recently posted a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that I believe relates this idea very well:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.
I have almost reach the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom' who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season'.
Shallow understand from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. - Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"
That last sentence is the one that gets me: Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. It's easy for me to be lukewarm. It is much, much harder to outright reject. It's hard to care. Caring takes effort. Caring means making myself vulnerable. Giving a shit is scary. The phrase "Ignorance is bliss" exists for a reason. When you give a shit, you immerse yourself in the problems, and it's easy to get depressed and cynical. And that holds true for more than just the issue of race; it applies to the issues of women's rights, the environment, our food system, wealth inequality, and many more.
When you give a shit, shit gets real. But shouldn't realness be what we're striving for? Our humanity is at stake; the well-being of our fellow human beings, of our society, and ultimately of the world. I can no longer pretend that I am not a part of it, even if I do have the privilege of burying my head in the sand. Or continuing to be a fish swimming around in the water.
All of this begs the question: What can I actually do? As a white, fairly well-off person who has only recently starting paying real attention to a whole host of topics, this has been one of my biggest dilemmas. It is the unbearable lightness of being white. Part of my silence and inaction has been due to a fear of making a mistake, or saying something that could hurt the bigger picture or offend those who are actually experiencing discrimination and oppression. I can't pretend to know what other people are going through. I can, however, educate myself. I can acknowledge that I have privilege, and then I can learn more about the experiences of others who do not have that privilege. I can read and listen, and then I can share. In the words of Franchesca Ramsey, I can "Use [my] privilege to reach groups others cannot and uplift voices from those communities to help promote change".
Will little old me doing these things on my own change the world in a day? Nope. But with each individual person that pays attention and learns and shares, we are one step closer to shifting the way our society thinks about race (/women's rights/the environment/our food system/wealth inequality/insert issue here). The more people, the better. Not giving a shit or doing nothing are not the way to deal with not knowing what to do. It is important to think critically and open ourselves up to truly understanding the world in which we live. If each person does just that at the very least, our society might actually stand a chance of moving from "color-blindness" to being able to see the whole spectrum.
In the words of Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
P.S. Here are a few articles and a video on the topic of race that I have found particularly enlightening and inspiring in the past week or so: