This has been a hard year in many ways. Not just for me, for everyone. Of particular concern are the events surrounding police violence against people of color in America. Although I'm away, my heart is very much there. I would be protesting if I could. But more than protesting, I would want to be there for my friends. And with people who I know understand what the protests are about.
I've been dealing with some health issues recently. It's made it hard to sleep sometimes. So while lying awake I think about all the things that are going on in the world. I remember a time when I thought that if we worked really hard we could end racism in America within my lifetime. We could end poverty. I am confronted now with the fact that these were the naive imaginings of a child.
I still hope for these things, but it seems to me that in some ways we're further than ever from achieving them. Longstanding injustices fester in a society like an infected wound. We managed for a long time to smooth over them. To tuck them away in parts of the country, parts of the cities where many of us could avoid seeing them. I witnessed this happening in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a place that was once a lovely liberal city. It still is in some ways. But the mayor and city council, several years ago, made the decision to build the new homeless shelter out in the borderlands, so that people staying there would have to take a long bus trip to get into downtown. Hidden out here, I imagine the city government hoped they could get rid of panhandlers and drunks, people raiding garbage cans for empty pop bottles to return for the deposit. Because it didn't look good for our fair city. It didn't look good to the wealthy business people who had expanded over from Farmington Hills and the wealthy students who came to attend the University of Michigan. The solution to the homeless problem was, for them, to make the homeless less visible. Which really is like saying, the solution to that gunshot wound in your side is to put a shirt on.
But on the other hand, the actual solutions evade us. They require civic participation from everyone who is able. This is difficult since we can't even get people to agree that it's a problem they should help with. And for those of us who do think so, what concrete things can we do? We are told that our help is demeaning. Or hopeless. Or makes the problem worse. We are told that doing nothing is helping things stay the same.
When I was six, I both discovered race and was confronted by racism when I saw a white teacher call an African-American child a bad name when he came to ask her for help. I was instantly on the child's side. But there was little I could do. I didn't even have words to state my case. Just a shock in my solar plexus. What I did with that shock was live quietly and try to be an example. Live well with others of all races and backgrounds. I learned six languages. I traveled widely. I spent a couple of years in Africa. I'm from a modest background, so I did this all on a shoestring, on the border of poverty most of the time.
I worked for a public interest law office, helping low income clients pro bono. I worked as an activist for environmental and social justice, and for progressive voting and education. I marched against unnecessary and unjust wars. I gave speeches. I even ran for office.
I have done all this, and I still don't have any answers. I have fewer answers than I had before. Because I can't control the way other people think. I can't wave a magic wand and erase the bad experiences people have had. I can't take away fear and hate. The hardest thing to accept is that the world is this way. It's not good. And there is little we can do individually and not much more we can do together. Because for every one of us who wants to solve this problem for real, not by hiding it away, but by opening it up, there are ten people who don't want to. For every step in the right direction we go, there is a massive backlash. We end up further along the bleak end of the spectrum.
We are all afraid of change to some extent. Americans have their ways. There is a lot that's good about America. But we are a sheltered people. We tend to feel it's our way or the highway. The internet is bringing people together who haven't been able to talk over ideas before, and we're discovering ways we differ. Americans, on their own high horses, assume their own moral superiority without trying to examine cultural differences. This is the same foundation as benevolent racism. But what can a person do about it, even once aware of it?
I find myself here, missing a bunch of context. Things that British people know, have grown up with. In jokes that I will never get. Words that mean different things. Attitudes, such as class distinctions. I find them problematic. But they just are what they are. This is not my country. I can't fight attitudes that I don't even understand. And really, an argument can easily be made that it's wrong for me to fight British cultural attitudes. How arrogant to think that I know how British people ought to think.
For me, for now, all I can actually do is treat each person I meet as an individual. Try to understand and empathize with them, or if I can't, try to figure out why. I can do this to the limits of my emotional strength. And then I have to take a break to recover some of my energy.
The thing I find worrying in the behavior of most of those fighting on the right side, is that they seem to find it easier to support broad, faceless groups of people than actual human beings. That instead of trying to get along with perceived ideological opponents, in hopes that they may win them over slowly, they lump them all together into the enemy camp and stay far, far away. That, my friends, is how we got into this mess in the first place.