I am sitting down to write while Baltimore is uprising. Or — since the National Guard has been brought in, and a curfew is in place — I am sitting down to write in the wake of Baltimore uprising, and I can say this without hesitation: my white friends have opinions about it. Their opinions are: “There is never a reason for violence"; “Violence begets violence"; “It’s an uprising not a riot"; “The media is racist"; “Rioters are thugs"; “Rioters (uprisers) are heroes"; and, most popularly, “This again?"
Personally, I am most struck by a quote that a college student named Robert Wilson gave to the New York Times for their reporting on Baltimore this morning. The quotes is buried at the very end of the piece, but it’s telling: “With the riots, we’re not trying to act like animals or thugs. We’re just angry at the surroundings, like this is all that is given to us, and we’re tired of this, like nobody wants to wake up and see broken-down buildings. They take away the community centers, they take away our fathers, and now we have traffic lights that don’t work, we have houses that are crumbling, falling down.”
Often, the maxim that “violence is never the answer” comes from a place of privilege. Those of us who have the time to have Facebook opinions about current events do not know what it feels like to live in a storm that never lets up. We don’t know how we would react. It isn’t our job to try to make an educated guess.
It can be hard to know what you are supposed to do when you are not an immediate stakeholder in a world that is increasingly suffering.
I have gone through a lot of phases in my near-decade of working in public schools in New Orleans. My first notion was that I could fix everything, pretty much singlehandedly. I believed that activism meant action, and that if kids were getting a decidedly bad education, I had the tools and wherewithal to reverse that. In reflection, I can’t believe how arrogant I was. Those of us coming to New Orleans just after Katrina were told a story that New Orleans had been plagued for too long by bad and lazy teachers. The blame was easy to place, and the solution was obvious: younger, harder working college graduates would mend the wings of broken schools.
Of course, it wasn’t simple like that at all. First of all, I have literally never met a lazy teacher. Just the energy it takes to get out of bed every morning at 5:30 a.m. and work until dinnertime without much let-up or any real breaks requires more hard work than is asked of any of my friends who are successful graphic designers or entrepreneurs. Second, teaching is hard. It doesn’t really matter how good your grades were in college, you need more than five weeks of intensive summer training to be a truly exceptional teacher. Although the people in power who fought for the overhaul of the public school system will never say it out loud, charter schools with young white teachers are not performing any better than public schools were performing before them.
I took off my red cape after my third year of teaching in New Orleans, fed up and jaded. I started to shift the blame. This destructive school system wasn’t bad teachers’ faults, or kids' faults, or their parents’ faults; it was the fault of the rich, white charter school operators and administrators and board presidents who didn’t care about kids and made decisions without carefully weighing everyone’s opinions. I began posting heated articles on Facebook and arguing with other privileged people at parties about how privileged people had no place making all these decisions in public education.
But nothing changed. Really, it just got harder for me to find work in education, because I had become so outspokenly anti-everything. So I entered a new phase: I decided there wasn’t any point, so I just wouldn’t care. It was too painful to see kids going to schools where they didn’t feel loved or valued or safe. I turned away.
Two nights ago, I went to see Zoe Boekbinder sing at a fund-raising show in New Orleans. Zoe is the kind of quiet, birdlike person who startles you when you hear that big, soulful voice come out of her little body; her work is positively hypnotic. She alternated between playing songs and telling musical origin stories: the work she performed that night represented some of the results of the Prison Music Project, which she has been producing with Ani DiFranco for the past few years. The crux of this project is to produce an album of work composed by incarcerated men at New Folsom Prison. Since these songs would otherwise not leave the prison walls, Zoe sings them herself.
At the end of the set — which was objectively heartbreaking, with stories of men who, because of California’s three-strikes law, will never see their families outside prison walls again — Zoe said something pretty affecting. She related an anecdote about a friend who had told her he didn’t feel like he could ever do work in California prisons because to see that kind of suffering would be too difficult. The comment made her realize that she had to see it. She said that for her, the only way to care enough to try to do anything, was to look the suffering in the face as much as she could.
Earlier that week, the private New Orleans Newman School quietly hosted another in a lecture in a series titled “Free Market.” The speaker John Tamny presented on the topic of income inequality, and how it is a truly wonderful thing. I wish I was exaggerating, but in an interview with the New Orleans Advocate, Tamny literally described income inequality as “beautiful,” adding, "It’s a tragedy that we’re the richest nation on Earth, and what I mean by that is we should be exponentially wealthier.” He said that the poor in America are better off than they are in other countries, with evidence: "Judging by the obesity problem in the U.S., everyone gets to eat.” Maybe Tamny is convincing people, because New Orleans ranks second in the country for highest rates of income inequality, and the gap here is growing: a recent study puts inequality in New Orleans roughly on par with that in Zambia, according to statistics kept by the Central Intelligence Agency.
There is a sense in our world that some people are better and more deserving than other people. Lectures like Tamny’s perpetuate that belief, and advocate further that the very rich separate themselves from the very poor. Turning away from suffering becomes more than just a coping mechanism; it becomes an active objective.
This is a tragedy for everyone. Really, it is the very idea that we are somehow separate from other human beings that manifests pain in the first place.
So here’s the question: as privileged people in dominant race groups and powerful socio-economic positions, what should we be doing? There are plenty of complicated answers, and everyone with a WiFi connection will gladly offer her opinion. Here is the one I think is fundamentally true, no matter what you believe: We need to not turn away. And beyond that, we need to understand that the suffering is too big and too deep and too ingrained for us to singlehandedly solve or fix or manage. We need to be listeners. We need to honor the complexity and pain of another reality. We need to be willing to share the weight; not micromanage it. And so, finally: we have to let go of our power.
Western Buddhist guru Tara Brach tells this story in her talks fairly often:
Imagine while walking in the woods you see a small dog sitting by a tree. You bend down to pet it and it suddenly lunges at you, teeth bared. Initially you might be frightened and angry. But then you notice one of its legs is caught in a trap, buried under some leaves.
The reminder here is that humans act aggressively or hurtfully because their legs are always caught in traps. That’s not just about people suffering on visceral and obvious levels; it’s about ourselves, too. We all feel (at least occasionally) powerless, and that feeling makes us grasp at control.
If we are in positions that are privileged enough to soften, then we must. And to do the work that needs to be done, as difficult as it is, we have to be willing to hear what others have to say, without interrupting to expound upon our own opinions of who should be blamed.
There will come a time when someone with real stakes will ask you to use your privilege to contribute to the pursuit of human freedom; and when the time comes, if you have truly listened, you will know what to do. Until then: do not turn away just because you can.