Experience is a great teacher of “feels,” of the difficult-to-describe, nebulous emotional states that often define our day-to-day existence. The feel, when you are an obvious, unwanted outsider. The feel of the police as menace, not potential ally.
These were feels I only encountered outside of my homeland. They are, however, constant companions of far, far too many of my fellow Americans. We who live in racial and economic privilege don’t understand or refuse to understand how these complex, underlying emotions affect a person’s life.
We talk about “them,” about “good ones” versus “bad ones” when we white people parse the actions of young black men in their interactions with the police. We commit reckless acts of moral judgement.
We ignore the important majority. Those who live with the feel of oppression, the pain in your gut, in your heart, who live an unrelenting chant that confirms their second-class citizenship–and yet go about their lives, loving, working hard, making homes and families. Most people struggle with the feel, yet function within the system stacked against them. Some do so with great grace and elegance and dignity. What a victory!
I have a friend, an online friend, who works as a teacher in a remote area of a very poor country. The town where he teaches was until recently a bastion of religious extremism. He himself hails from an ethnic minority, from a devoutly religious family. He had a long fascination with guns. Yet he decided to pursue his education and found a passion for science, a passion he keeps alive in very adverse conditions. His life could have gone another way entirely.
Yet we don’t sing his praises. We don’t bother to see his struggle and his victory in making his life. By virtue of his birth and location, he is still a potential terrorist, like all the rest of “those people.”
Similarly, we white folk don’t see the millions who beat back rage, despair, fear, loathing, profound psychological pain. Who refuse to bow to the worst sides of humanity. We forget the 1oo days of peaceful protest in favor of judging the outbreak of violence, carried out by a few. We paint all with the brush of our predetermined assumptions. We ignore the evidence, the reality-shaping force of feels. It is our job to listen, to correct this blindness in ourselves.
I repeat: This is OUR job. No one else’s.