Sitting Back

10 04 2010

I just read this personal essay at stuff white people do and need to share it here. I don’t regularly visit that blog, in fact I’ve probably only read it a handful of times over the past year but I saw a link to it from another feminist blog tonight and wanted to check it out again. Kind of glad I did and at the same time, what I just read was fairly upsetting.

Growing up, I’ve often been the one who talks too much and often about things that other people would rather not discuss. I was raised by a mother and step-father who were very successful professionally, very passionate in their personal relationship and very cruel about others. Intentionally or not (not, I’d say), they raised a very conscious girl who grew up to be an often very quiet and at other times, very outspoken young woman. Today I could, at any offensive moment, respond or walk away. I tend to respond because I value ‘teachable moments’ – I cherish what I’ve learned from people who’ve reached out to me to say ‘hey, that’s fucked up’ and I hope to offer the same kind of perspective-changing words if I encounter casual bigotry.

I figure she’s right that on average people don’t speak out – I think a lot of people quietly consent to bigotry without realizing the impact of their silence.

The most significant time that I tried to make something out of ignorance was just a few years ago – my effort was not entirely successful yet somehow was still somewhat positive in the end. As a temp in a corporate setting, I spoke out to a fellow temp without fear of losing my job because hey, I was temporary anyway. I had no expectation of being hired and really, sometimes real life matters more.

It wasn’t the most tense situation in the world but it seemed significant. This coworker asked what the big deal was about a celebrity making a gesture with her hands and eyes that was, essentially, completely, racist (although the coworker didn’t describe it as such obviously). I offered some words about ‘majority’ ‘minority’, and being othered, things like that as she studied the image on her screen of the celebrity. I’m pretty sure the conversation ended with her shrugging her shoulders and us quietly returning to our work.

I can’t remember how I dealt with that moment internally, perhaps a little glad that I said something, maybe a little pessimistic that it had any kind of impact. At the end of the day, another woman pulled me aside to talk about it – she wanted to thank me. I was floored – thank me? I had never heard that one before. She appreciated what I did on many levels apparently and said to me “I live and breathe social justice”. Damn – I thought – maybe this isn’t the worst place to work after all.

One thing I do kind of often – I’m wondering if it’s just a phase – but I walk out of movies that offend me as a feminist. Be it an evening on the couch with the dude or a night out at the local non-profit theater. I’m not saying it’s the most classy act in the world but then if it’s gone that far, neither is the movie.

The film could even be one I’ve been craving to see for the first time, doesn’t matter. I cut my losses and feel nothing but regret for society. If there’s something sexist or racist and it’s not part of a learning story – if it’s just completely pointless then I’m usually on my feet. The worst is when the local non-profit theater shows midnight movies – usually comedies from the last few decades – classics – the crowd is encouraged to be vocal – have a good time as a group (strangers, friends and all). It’s usually fun but sometimes you find yourself watching as the audience catcalls a woman on the screen who incidentally is getting kicked and beaten by ‘thugs’ – I’m like, what could silence this crowd? What goes too far?

I remember that every single time, my partner has been right beside me. We’ve been going to movies together since we first started living together almost three years ago. Whenever I do walk out, especially if it’s at a public space, I want to check with him afterwards to see how he felt. I’ve noticed that most of the time he says ‘I’m with you because that was awful’, ‘because it upset me, too’.

The best way to stand up for someone that’s out there facing something you might not have to face – feeling some serious oppression in a way that you have the privilege and distance enough to not feel so deeply – is for you to go there and feel it too. Imagine you don’t have that privilege. Or – think of what could cut you to the core and imagine that it’s happening right then and there. It would probably seem so pointless, so cruel and outdated and I don’t know – humiliating. Dehumanizing. And if no one stands up for you or if the only words you hear are about you being upset like you’re the only one who can see that it’s wrong – then you’d probably feel even worse.

Definitely I have memories of not speaking out. And most definitely I am shocked to hear about the silence of others in moments with more significance across the world. Reading this story of a greyhound station and a person losing their idealistic view on the world seriously breaks my heart and damages even my own hope a little. The cruelty that she faced and the silent consent to bigotry are shocking and painful and I wasn’t there. I don’t know any of those people and I can only imagine the scene from time and miles away.

How could that happen? How could that happen today? It sounds like a nightmare – you’re in a public space, someone accosts you – it’s horrible – and yet somehow in this bus station full of people you are suddenly alone. It’s not their fight. I guess.

How could anyone stand for that? How could anyone ignore that?

How does anyone even know racist jokes these days? It all seems so outdated, so fiction but then I realize that I am white and have no idea the depth and breadth of racism because I have the privilege of not facing it every single day in this country.




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