Trayvon Martin, The East, and the Consequences of Privilege
I remember being a kid and wondering why the fuck all of the grownups I knew seemed so incredibly laissez-faire about everything that was wrong with the world.
I mean, here I was being told that I should treat other people with respect, that I should be kind to and tolerant of those who were different from me, that I should recycle and compost and pick up litter and do all kinds of stuff that was supposed to help turn me into a model citizen. And I did do all of those things, both because I was told they were important and because I wanted to; my understanding was that these things needed to be done if we were going to live in a decent world.
I remember thinking, though, that none of the adults around me seemed to be holding up their end of the bargain. Like, I was doing what little I could, but they should have been doing so much more: shutting down environmentally dangerous power plants or stopping cities from dumping raw sewage into the river or flying around the world ending wars or whatever. Instead, I would catch them tossing recyclable items into garbage cans, and when I called them out they would just shrug sheepishly.
And I was like, fuck grownups. It was pretty obvious to me that our world was such a fucking mess because all of the people in charge were both grossly incompetent and frighteningly uncaring. My only consolation was that some day I was going to be bigger and older, and then I would finally be able right all these wrongs.
Of course, every kid’s a zealot, and they don’t understand things like grey areas or compromise or picking your battles. Everything is done full-throttle, every issue is black and white, and every battle is there to be fought and won. If you’re in it, then you’d better be in it to win it, at any cost. And there’s really nothing wrong with living this way when you’re seven – in fact, these are very normal and natural tendencies to have. Unfortunately, this take-no-prisoners philosophy becomes a bit problematic once you have to earn your own living and raise your own kids.
All of which is to say that I’m not the grownup I thought I would be.
I have an easy life. It’s so easy that I mostly don’t even have to think about how easy it is. My life, society and culture are set up in such a way that I am able to benefit from certain things like race and class without ever really having to acknowledge that those realities exist. And, I mean, that’s real privilege, isn’t it? If you can forget that you even have privilege, or if you can easily ignore the various ways that it improves your life – well, that’s basically the definition of privilege.
Two things happened on Saturday night. First, I saw The East, which is a smart, thoughtful movie about a woman who infiltrates an eco-terrorism group in an attempt to bring them down. Then, I got home and found out about George Zimmerman’s acquittal.
I should probably also add a third item to that list, namely the fact that after learning about Zimmerman’s verdict, I spent an hour on social media watching white people either denying that race had anything to do with the outcome of the trial or else trying to somehow make this whole thing about them.
The idea that we live easy lives built on conveniences that are deeply detrimental to others was a theme that came up over and over in The East. We burn coal for power, and the leftover waste poisons our rivers and lakes. We drive cats powered by fossil fuels and ignore the fact that burning those fuels is causing our planet to heat up at an alarming rate. Unless it directly affects us, we very conveniently ignore the environmentally destructive ways that both coal and oil are extracted from the earth. We buy clothing made in unsafe working conditions because it’s cheap. We cut corners in all sorts of dangerous ways because a few moments of ease is so much nicer than contemplating a lifetime of consequences.
The East is, for the most part, about a group of people who have decided that they’re not going to stand by and watch rich white people profit off of the misery of others. So they start fighting violence with violence, taking and eye for an eye and not really giving a shit if all of us end up blind because, to extend the metaphor a little further, most of us are already halfway to being sightless. Saying that an eye for an eye will make the world blind is to work off the assumption that all of us start out with two eyes, but really, that that’s just not true. Rich white people are born with two functioning eyes; the rest of the population has to figure out how to get ahead with whatever disadvantages they’re given.
On Saturday night I watched the neighbourhood watch captain of a gated community get off scot free for murdering a Black teenager in a hoody. I watched privilege play out both in the official news reports that I read and in people’s reactions on social media. I watched a whole fucking lot of people refuse to admit that the conveniences that make their lives as easy as they are exist as the flip side of the same coin that let Zimmerman walk free. I watched white people ask for comfort and sympathy when faced with hard evidence of a system that they are happy to benefit from until something like this comes along and shows its dark underbelly. I watched white people share pictures of kittens and cute babies, watched them tweet about how they were going to go home and hug their kids, without ever accepting the fact that because of their tacit permission for the way things are some folks wouldn’t ever hold their kids again.
I watched white people make this about them, and then I watched them slowly but surely provide themselves with the tools to forget that this had ever happened.
And I watched Black people wonder if their kid was next.
I live an easy life. I live on the backs of others, because I was lucky enough to be born at the top of a pile that has hurt and killed a whole lot of people. My life is safe, and the real kicker is that most of the choices that I make mean that it will continue to be so. And why shouldn’t I want to be safe? Why should I want an easy life, not just for myself, but for my kid?
Because my safety and ease come at a pretty fucking high cost, that’s why.
This is one of those days when the world seems to be nothing more than a relentless list of one terrible thing after another. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed – how and where do I even start to fix any of this? It’s too much, and I’m not enough. I want to pick my magic time-travel phone, call my seven-year-old self and explain that I’m really, really sorry, but I’m not who she wanted us to be. I’ll try to explain all about grey areas and compromise and all that stuff, and maybe she’ll even try to understand, but I think that both of us will know that I could have tried harder.
I should try harder.
I’m just not sure what trying harder would look like.
I mean, how do you fight against problems that are so deeply woven into the fabric of the way you live? How do you fight, for example, against environmentally destructiveness of coal-fired power when every time you turn on the light or plug in your computer or watch your favourite movie, your actions contribute to releasing an extra little bit of noxious gas into the air? How do you fight against huge, often unethical drug companies while at the same acknowledging that they create and manufacture the drugs that have helped keep you and your loved ones alive? How do you fight against something like the mining of the Alberta oil sands, when every time you ride in a gas-powered vehicle you add a little more carbon dioxide to the air? And sure, I don’t own a car, and I take public transit just about everywhere, but isn’t that what we call compromise? I mean, I tell myself that I’m less responsible for ruining the environment than, say, the dude with the fancy SUV, but really, I’m still culpable, you know? I’m still benefitting from mining and burning fossil fuels, and I’m certainly not doing anything to end these practices.
Most of all, how do you fight against all of the insidious, institutionalized racism that you encounter a thousand times every day? You can call out the more obvious stuff, you can take people to task for using racial slurs or referencing racial stereotypes, but what do you do about all the big and little ways that privilege affects your life? What do you do about the fact that you live in a mostly white neighbourhood, a neighbourhood whose whiteness is definitely a large part of why it’s considered to be “safe”? What do you do about the fact that your career caters almost exclusively to privileged white people? How do you handle the dawning realization that the majority of your encounters with people of colour are mostly when interacting with those working service jobs, and could, at best, be described as casually friendly?
My seven-year-old self would almost certainly want me to take the route of the eco-terrorists in The East, complete with living off-the-grid in the burned out shell of a house in the forest. My seven-year-old self would want me to fight fire with fire, taking no prisoners and teaching huge asshole corporations that they can’t knowingly hurt others and get away with it. My seven-year-old self would want to do something equally huge and visible as a protest against Zimmerman’s acquittal. She would want me to fly to Florida, raise a ruckus, start a riot; she would want everyone to know how outraged she was.
And ohhh of course there’s a part of me that sides with my seven-year-old self. I want to do something big; I want to stand up against evil, and, if I’m being totally honest with myself, I want everyone else to see me doing it. There’s a strong desire in me to right the wrongs of the world, of course, but there’s also a dash of ego in there, whispering that I should right those wrongs in a way that makes me out to be a hero.
I mentioned the other day on Facebook that I want to be a brave person who changes the world, but that I wasn’t sure what bravery was or how change happened. In response to this, my friend Jennie said,
Bravery is not a single decision. It’s the overall effect of every brave decision you make: every time you do something because it’s right, or kind, or honest, rather than because it’s convenient or because it’s less hard. So do the needful, kind, honest, things, one thing at a time. Then, when something really hard comes up, you’ll have the practice you need, and you’ll do the needful thing.
So this is how I’m going to start: by practicing bravery in all kinds of little ways, so that when the big things come, I’ll know what to do.
I’m going to initiate more discussions about my own privilege, and the privilege found both in my neighbourhood and in many parts of the Toronto yoga community.
I’m going to think about the ways that my life more closely resembles George Zimmerman’s than it does Trayvon Martin’s.
I’m going to think about more items that could be added to this list.
I’m going to start teaching Theo about racism and privilege in ways that are appropriate for his age.
Most of all, I’m going to try really, really hard to not make this about me. When people of colour raise their voice, I’m going to do my best to make sure that they get a megaphone, and then I’m going to hightail it to the back of the room and listen. I’m going to try harder to promote writing and thoughts and music and art that come from marginalized people. Rather than wearing a hoodie in solidarity or joking about starting riots, I’m going to talk about how I, a white woman, can do these things without fearing for my personal safety. I’m going to keep calling out racism and classism and sexism and ableism and homophobia and transphobia and all that other bad shit, even when I feel uncomfortable doing that.
I’m going to be brave.