I've probably read more than 50 articles about the current #BaltimoreUprising.
Some of my favorites so far have been:
As I’ve read these my internal dialog has been something like this, “Yes yes, yes, yes, good point, interesting, yes, yes.”
But then my cousin sent me one that made me skip a beat: Baltimore is a Shithole, which adeptly contrasts the protests in the city with the simultaneous scene at The Maryland Cup, a prestigious horse race out in the country. The juxtaposition is sharp.
The author does a good job at capturing The Maryland Cup.
The carelessness –
“The crowd clapped and cheered as the horses galloped to the finish line. The air filled with cigar smoke. Champagne was popped. A woman in a purple tweed skirt suit with immaculately styled gray hair sashayed across the lawn, making the social rounds. A teenage girl stumbled, clutching her boyfriend.”
The resentment -
(quoting a source) The media distorts,” he said. “Every time a black person dies, the media covers it. If it was a white person, we wouldn’t be out here talking about it.
The disconnection –
(quoting a source) “It’s sad what happened to this guy, but let the police do their job. I feel these people protesting, I really do. But if the police really did something wrong, it’s going to come out.”
And the fashion –
“Girls in punch-colored sundresses and Jack Rogers sandals or Hunter wellington boots, boys in bowties, pants and blazers in pastel shades of pink, mint green, yellow and blue.” (To be sure, preppy people wear some ridiculous clothes but I'm not sure it's fair to hold that against them.)
It’s all familiar. This is the culture in which I was raised. I haven't been to this race but I have been to events like it. I know these institutions. I know these people. I'm surprisingly sympathetic and defensive of the random, jovial, embroidered-animal-panted guy photographed for the article.
But it’s the description of the high school and college students that pain me the most. I know these kinds of kids. I was one. At this age I was aware enough to know that I was nauseated by the epithet I often heard to describe black kids. But I was also stupid enough to say things like “littering is a way to stimulate the economy because it creates jobs”. No one around me called me out on this statement but I felt the shame of it quite quickly. And it's haunted me since. Their carelessness and unawareness is uncomfortable, especially contrasted with the events of the day. But I was no different.
It’s difficult to read negative portrayals of your culture (something I haven’t had to suffer often). This discomfort is heightened by the fact that I don’t see much here that I want to claim as mine and I don’t see much that I want for my kids either. If they said, “Baltimore is a shithole” I’d be mortified. The very least that I hope for is a recognition that "it's complicated", but even that would be disappointing.
I'm not saying that I don’t want to claim the people that I came from. I do, and love them very much. But for me the culture has a problem.
My people are WASPy people, European “mutts” with no particularly strong ethnic ties. My people have been here for a long time. (And because of that I have always hated conversations about heritage. There is no good answer. I’ve used a lot of meaningless ones.) We built and benefit from the same systems that disenfranchise others. The status quo has worked for us and we’ve worked hard to maintain it. I’m convinced this maintenance requires the culture of carelessness described above. And that carelessness is supported by detachment, apathy and silence.
That’s not the explicit goal of course. But it’s the outcome, and a familiar cocktail.
I wasn’t raised to be racist or callous or careless. I was raised to be a good and generous person. To judge people by the content of their character (to use MLKs’ words) despite their race (as I was often told, ‘it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, or green’). I was taught that it’s best not to perseverate on color, or really even notice it. It was rude and constructed a false barrier.
I was raised to be sympathetic about the suffering of individuals. I felt bad for that homeless person. But I wasn't raised to understanding the causes and mechanisms of that suffering. And it would have been rude to notice that many of the homeless in Philadelphia were black. Nor was I encouraged to connect myself to it. The problems were external and BIG, too big to change, in a short time anyway.
When group behavior was recognized and acknowledged, it’s interpretation was always separated from any meaningful context. Noticing that all the black kids sat together in the cafeteria was used as an example to support my own segregation. People like to be with people like themselves. Other people’s choices were never connected to me or my behavior or a shared environment.
All these kinds of explanations and beliefs let me off the hook. They aren’t cogent but they still easily twist together to make a compelling argument for apathy and detachment. And that apathy and detachment support the status quo and maintain the segregation and racist structures/practices/policies of our country.
Individuals are responsible for their own outcomes; it’s up to them. Barriers from long ago are gone; we’ve done all we can. Anyone can make it; it’s their fault if they haven’t. People like to be with their own people; so don’t feel badly for only being with people who look like you. Don’t draw attention to differences; it creates false barriers. The problems are too big to fix; it’s not worth trying. Who can honestly keep up with the “right way” to do things; you’re never going to get it right.
And all these messages would be more easily challenged if such a premium wasn’t placed on silence. Not only was I not taught to talk about issues of substance, I was taught not to talk about issues of substance. I was taught to be agreeable and courteous. To quell conflict (which my family can attest I am not very good at doing), not agitate. Temperature control is taken very seriously and the social thermostat is really sensitive.
I literally didn't have one family member ask me about or mention the word Ferguson in all of 2014 despite the fact that it is 10 miles away (save one aunt at my brother’s wedding). I wasn’t that surprised; it might have been an unpleasant conversation.
I have long rejected the carelessness. And the detachment. Rejecting silence has been the next piece. And this rejection comes with costs. It’s not just the fact that I’m offending people and perhaps closing doors for myself. The true cost seems to be this: once I pull away the parts of my culture that I don’t like, and publicly acknowledging that to myself (weird but true), I’m not sure what’s left. My people’s history seems to be bloated with comfort and accumulation at the expense of others’ suffering, sacrifice and exclusion. Coupled with scant ethnic ties and light religion (I’m secular but was raised Episcopalian), it feels bankrupt - literally unable to pay its debt. It feels like a vacuum. And it’s the fear of this vacuum plus a healthy dose of guilt that has kept me tethered “for better or for worse” to the culture in which I was raised. But more and more that’s how I see it; it is purposefully not something that I’m choosing, nor is it something that I want for my kids.
I’m glad to not be careless anymore. It feels good to be engaged. I’m glad to not be detached. It feels good to better understand the social world around me the role I play. I’m glad to not be apathetic anymore. It feels good to believe that trying is worth it. I’m glad to not be silent. It feels good to be challenged and connected and free. Even if it’s harder.