I had a post planned out today about shame and empathy. It's sitting in my drafts folder right now. Perhaps I'll post it next week or the week after. Today, I just didn't have it in me to click the post button. I've been reading a lot about the protests in Baltimore. One more black man shot down by the people we pay to protect the public. Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. Eric Harris. Michael Brown. How many other names? How many other dead men and women whose names will never be known to the public? I mourn for them, their families, and their communities. It's hard not to stagger under the weight of so much collective grief.
There is a lot of blame, for very good reason, on our system of law enforcement, and a culture that does not place the same value on lives of color. I've been doing a lot of self reflection these past months about my place within this culture, and don't always like what I see. I have been complicit in perpetuating racism through thoughtless words and actions.
Now, my own thoughtless micro-aggressions don't seem all that small.
For example, when I was in graduate school in Chicago, I lived in student housing in Hyde Park. For those of you unfamiliar with that area, it is an object lesson in racial and economic inequality. There is a very nice, very gentrified bubble around the University of Chicago, with beautiful brownstones and teeming collegiate life, surrounded by some of the roughest and racially segregated areas I've ever seen. The graduate dorms are located right at the edge of the U Chicago bubble. It must have been a month or two into my program, when two of my dorm-mates shared this crazy story about how they were harassed by the cops. Basically, they had gotten lost or taken a wrong turn somewhere, and ended up outside of "the bubble." Upon stopping them, the cops informed my friends that "There's no reason for white people to be in this area except to buy drugs." My response? I laughed. An aspiring social worker, out to help the downtrodden laughed at an anecdote without stopping to think about its implications.
I can't help but cringe at the language I used back then, which was not all that long ago. Without thinking, I once joked that I lived "right on the line between the nice Hyde Park, and the only-white-person-for-miles Hyde Park." A few years later, working in community mental health, I once told a coworker that I longed for the days when I could get out of working in the trenches of Medicaid and Child Protective Services and start dealing with "white people problems." Now, my own thoughtless micro-aggressions don't seem all that small. I can't erase the history of my own bad behavior, but I can be more mindful of my own words and actions moving forward.
For me, the big takeaway from giving thought to my thoughtless prejudices is that they can really happen to anybody, even the most well meaning of allies. I think those of us in social services and public service are even more vulnerable to accidental prejudice than the rest of the population.
When you interface with human tragedy day after day, patina forms over your soul, usually when you're not looking. And so, every parent is a potential abuser. Every shifty glance hints at criminality. It reminds me of a quote from Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay, describing the thought process of commander Vimes.
These were dangerous thoughts, he knew. They were the kind that crept up on a Watchman when the chase was over and it was just you and him, facing one another in that breathless little pinch between the crime and the punishment.
And maybe a Watchman had seen civilization with the skin ripped off one time too many and stopped acting like a Watchman and started acting like a normal human being and realized that the click of the crossbow or the sweep of the sword would make all the world so clean.
And you couldn’t think like that, even about vampires. Even though they’d take the lives of other people because little lives don’t matter and what the hell can we take away from them?
And, too, you couldn’t think like that because they gave you a sword and a badge and that turned you into something else and that had to mean there were some thoughts you couldn’t think.
It's why I stopped working with kids in the system. I saw myself becoming this hardened, cynical person who I didn't much like. Therefore, while I don't exactly empathize with the police who shot innocent black men, I can understand how they can get to a point where killing someone in cold blood no longer feels like murder. I cannot tell you how frightening it felt to acknowledge my own capacity to become monstrous. It makes me all the more committed to becoming an effective ally.
So where does this all get me? Well, I guess it doesn't matter. Not really anyway. These issues are so much bigger than me, so much more important than my own relative comfort. Still, it is important for me to be part of the solution and use my privilege for the forces of anti-oppression. It's not much, but it's what I have to offer.
Black lives matter as much as my own.