I’m going to go out on a long-ass limb here and do something crazy, possibly even stupid. I’m white, and I’m going to give my honest thoughts on how Americans deal with race (and gun control, and the minimum wage, and breastfeeding).
Three days a go, a 21-year-old white male attended a bible study in a church in Charleston, SC, and then shot and killed 9 innocent black men and women in attendance. Yesterday, my Facebook news feed was a self-righteous, indignant circle jerk of epic proportions. People are angrily pointing out the many injustices and inconsistencies in the way police, politicians, and talking heads are reacting to the shooting in Charleston. A particular 24 hour news network (whom I will not dignify by mentioning their name) has tried to paint this as an attack on religion instead of race, and people are pissed. The shooter was not physically harmed during his arrest, as compared to the many recent news stories of black suspects being injured or killed for much lesser crimes, and people are pissed. He is being called mentally ill, instead of a terrorist, and people are pissed.
I get it. You are a good person and therefore you are really pissed, and you want everyone one of your friends to know about it. You copied and pasted a snarky meme and posted it for all your friends to see. You caption it with, “#JustSayin”. You shared the obligatory John Stewart clip that comes out every time one of these things happens, and say, “He nails it every time.” Yep, he does. Or maybe you go so far as to post your thoughts on the situation with lots of generic demands for what the royal “we” should be doing. “We have to acknowledge that racism still exists in America. When are we gonna wake up?” (But you can’t go over Twitter’s 140 character limit that’s slowly deteriorating the intelligence of the human race.) You’re right. You’re so very right, and so very proud of your rightness.
*Full disclosure: Everyone does this. I certainly have been, and will occasionally continue to be, one of these people.
I’m going to pause here and mention that one of my favorite movie lines is from the The Big Lebowski (shocker, I know). Walter and The Dude are arguing, and Walter asks, “Am I wrong?” The Dude responds with, “You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole!” It’s such a fantastically universal concept. It applies to so many situations in life, and I feel the need to say it almost daily. The meaning is simple yet profound: Congratulations on being right. But where exactly does you being right get us? Being right isn’t necessarily helpful. Being right isn’t the goal.
While all these angry, Facebook soapbox stomping people might be right, they’re not really doing anything to fix the problem. First of all, they are talking to a tiny, homogeneous audience. You think that because you repost some quick-hit, black and white statement where only your closest friends and acquaintances will see, you’re making a difference? Your 500 Facebook friends are literally the 500 people in the country most like you. Sure, you have a few friends with different skin colors and there’s that one guy from Oregon, but for the most part they all live in your extremely small and sheltered bubble. Even someone with as large an audience as John Stewart’s is still only preaching to the choir. Last time I counted, there were 319 million people in the United States. Only 1.3 million people watch the Daily show each week. (That’s 0.4% for those of you without a calculator handy.)
Do you think that little sociopathic turd with a bowl cut and a gun is one of them? Are his punk-ass, skinhead friends watching John Oliver every week, looking to expand their horizons? Fuck, no. They are sitting in one of thousands of dark, secluded, little pockets of hell that you and I never, ever reach because of the geographic, socio-economic, and cyber boundaries between us. These are the people you don’t even know exist. They are the “you don’t know what you don’t know” of people. But you’re still shocked when you’re reminded of their existence, and you think, “How can there be people who don’t think like me?!”
But more importantly, as right as the heroically indignant Facebookers all are, they are only right about the should. People love to get all hung up on the should. It’s so easy to stomp your feet and complain about how it’s not fair; how it should be. My boss should recognize the hard work I’m doing. My kids should listen when I tell them to clean their room. We should be able to all hold and hands and sing Kumbaya. Well, he doesn’t, and they don’t, and we can’t. Now what?
It should go without saying that in order to figure out the what, you have to figure out the difficult part, which is the whys. Oh, everyone thinks they know why. Within five minutes people were ranting and raving about what they think happened, and how we should have prevented it, and the whole world is going straight to hell. But the knee-jerk finger pointing and scrambling for political jabs that happens in the first 24 hours is not at all what I’m talking about.
If you want to talk about a complicated, controversial topic like this, and not sound like an idiot, you should keep a few things in mind:
We are trying to figure out the whys, not the why. So far I’ve heard the same three reasons given for what happened, and only one at a time. “He’s obviously deranged!” “His family taught him to be racist!” “He had easy access to that gun!” But anyone who responds to an incident like this with just one, straightforward explanation for why has essentially announced to the world, “I SPEAK BEFORE THINKING. I ACTUALLY HEARD THIS FROM SOMEONE ELSE, AND I’M JUST REPEATING IT, ‘CAUSE, YOU KNOW, IT SOUNDS GOOD TO ME.” Human beings are complicated creatures and there are multiple reasons for everything we do.
Take your boss, for example. He doesn’t give you the recognition you deserve. You work hard, and you still feel undervalued. It’s because your boss is an asshole, right? Or maybe it’s because his wife has cancer and he’s struggling to just get through day. Or because he has never managed people before and he hasn’t been given the feedback he needs. Or because all your coworkers work even harder than you do. Or because your boss has never had a good boss of his own to model good boss behavior. Or because he does know how hard you work, but he thinks you’re too cocky and he doesn’t want to make it worse. In reality, it’s probably some combination of these reasons or an infinite number of others, with each reason influencing your boss’s behavior more or less than the others. But it’s so much easier to just call him an asshole.
This shooting happened for many reasons, including the three above, plus a bunch more.
Everything exists on a spectrum. Resist the temptation to force everyone and everything into categories of either good or bad, black or white, up or down. That’s easy, and it’s lazy, and that is exactly what leads to the sweeping generalizations that got us into this mess. Entire groups of people don’t all possess the exact same characteristic to the exact same degree. I shouldn’t have to say that (there’s that should word), but I see people on both sides of an argument make the same mistake all the damn time, whether they’re talking about race or tax reform or cloth diapering.
The shooter told his victims that he had to do it because “[black people] rape our women.” Really? The 87-year-old woman at that bible study raped one of your women? Or did you hear about a black man who raped a white woman and just decide that all black people are rapists? There is also a difference between outright hatred so powerful that it drives a person to murder innocent people, and someone who occasionally makes unfair generalizations, but is aware of that tendency and makes a conscious effort to keep an open mind (watch this Louis C.K. clip for reference). But still, we flippantly call both of these things, and everything in between, “racist” without acknowledging the difference. Here, I’ll draw you a quick diagram with my badass PowerPoint skills:
Be careful to avoid making these kinds of generalizations. Everyone does it sometimes (see Rainbow-Shitting Unicorn). But if you start a sentence with “white people” or “black people,” stop. You’re probably doing it wrong.
Shutting someone else down doesn’t mean you win. I saw this exchange yesterday:
A: *posts snarky one-liner meme she found on Tumblr*
B: “I don’t understand how you make that connection. Can you explain?”
A: “Well if you don’t understand it, then you’re part of the problem.”
Good job, A. You really showed him. He’s now completely converted over to your side.
You won’t figure it out, and that’s OK. “Say what?! No! We have to solve this. Right now. On Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/Reddit.” One of the reasons we tend to oversimplify these issues is simply comfort. We can wrap our heads around one cause and we can feel confident about attacking a singular flaw in a whole group of people. We know what to do with that. Make x illegal. Raise awareness of y. Tell those assholes to stop doing z. But when we are forced to see just how complicated these issues are, we get very, very uncomfortable. We want every conversation to end with all our thoughts and feelings wrapped up in a pretty little package with a big red bow. So when we hear another perspective or argument that creates more questions than answers in our minds, we start to squirm. It’s called cognitive dissonance, and our brains don’t like it. So we block it out; we rationalize away those intrusive, inconvenient thoughts and stick with what feels safe.
This is probably the hardest thing to overcome. Fighting cognitive dissonance is such a subconscious act, it’s difficult to catch yourself doing it. But try going into a conversation knowing that you’re going to do it. Watch for it, wait for it. When someone says something that makes your pulse quicken and your palms get all nasty and clammy, it’s probably happening. Or maybe they are saying something so utterly stupid that you are about to fly into a hulkish rage. That’s possible, too. But figure out which it is before you also say something stupid.
I’m not saying that any of this is easy, or that I perfectly practice what I preach. Shit no, I don’t. But I try. This is the ideal I strive for. I try to remember the vast universe that lies outside my happy pocket of the world, and that there is so much I just don’t know. I do realize, for example, that this blog post probably won’t be seen by anyone outside my cozy little bubble. (But that’s because I haven’t done jack shit to expand my audience… or whatever.) But hopefully I’m doing my part by saying more than a little self-righteous indignation in 140 characters or less.