I’ve seen a couple of different claims on the Internet that not posting something on social media about Ferguson or Eric Garner or racism in America is itself a sign of racism, or something along those lines. By remaining silent on social media, white people are just part of whatever problem there is. I think that’s a bad argument, but I can understand why people might think that. If everyone posted something on Facebook about every injustice in America or the world, Facebook would be nothing but that. The world can be a shitty place. My constantly acknowledging that on Facebook isn’t going to make it any better.
Just to give some examples of things I hate: continuing worldwide environmental devastation; on-going, pointless, unjust wars America started that have killed tens of thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and cost billions of dollars that could have been spent productively; all the wars America didn’t start; Islamist terrorists; American drug policies that have created near-genocidal conditions in parts of northern Mexico and a vastly unjust and expensive prison-industrial complex in the U.S.; the future of children being almost completely determined by their parents’ socioeconomic status; the persistent and possibly unchangable concentrations of poverty in the country; and the de facto unequal rights that oppress millions of Americans and billions around the world every day.
If some people think my sins of omission make me a worse person, then I’ll say something. Just to make those people happy, I’ll provide my completely irrelevant opinion on racial injustice in America. It’s awful. It’s systematic throughout the country. It should be stopped. I have no idea how to do that and suspect it’s impossible because many people are stupid and fearful of people who aren’t like them. The Ferguson grand jury was a farce, and the prosecutor must have been a fool to think that any disinterested person, much less the many interested persons, would be able to look at that process and say, “Yeah! Justice accomplished!” However, I expected no indictment, just as I expected no indictment in the Eric Garner case. I believe, like anyone who has paid attention to racial issues in America should know, when it comes to white people harming people of color, getting justice is very rare. What can I do about that? Not a damn thing.
However, neither the irrelevance of my opinions or the ineffectiveness of my personal actions are why I don’t normally say anything about racial injustice or race in America. It’s because when something like the Ferguson decision happens, I don’t see it as my place to speak. I see it as my place to listen, or at least read. I read the stuff my friends and acquaintances of and not of color post on Facebook. I try my best to understand what it must be like to be the Other in American society, because that’s a difficult enough thing for anyone without expecting some additional commentary that signifies to whomever that I’m a good person or whatever it is someone wants me to be. I’ve always felt like an outsider in American culture, but never an Other.
I even have irrelevant opinions about white privilege, about which I was ignorant for most of my life, but about which I couldn’t possibly disagree with once I understood what it was. Yes, I’m a beneficiary of it, and no, I never felt like one. I’m still not sure what it would mean to feel like you’re the beneficiary of something so abstract, but I acknowledge it exists and I understand how it works. Probably I never felt like it because when I was younger I was relatively poor compared to a lot of my friends. We weren’t destitute (although my parents basically were by the time of their deaths), but we didn’t have much money, and what money we did have was because my parents were extremely frugal. I didn’t feel white, but I sure felt poor.
In addition to being poor, I was also depressed through much of my childhood. I remember my mother saying she was always sad when looking at my 2nd grade school picture, for example, because I looked so sad. By high school I often assumed that one day, if things kept on like that, I’d just commit suicide. I have no qualms about it. If it was good enough for Cato, it should be good enough for me. Not wanting to burden someone with finding a dead body, I even worked out a method that would be painless and leave no trace anyone was likely to ever find. When your mind has been to places like that, it’s sometimes hard to consider other people’s problems as seriously as they should be considered.
This isn’t a pity party for previous me, though. Seriously, to hell with that kid. He was an ignorant fool, even if he couldn’t have known any better at the time. However, for much of my life I was so focused on my own problems that I didn’t think about other people’s problems. I suspect most of us are like that. So I was poor and depressed. I was also a tall, strong, intelligent, heterosexual white male, and decent enough looking that I’d never worry about discrimination because of my looks, which is generally something we only do to women in American anyway. Most people focus on their problems, not their unearned benefits.
Although I was hassled by the police a couple of times as a teenager, I haven’t been as an adult. The last time a cop confronted me I was 19 and walking with a friend on a levee near my apartment about 1am. The cop pulled up, shined a flashlight at us, and demanded to see our driver’s licenses. I told him I didn’t have one on me because I wasn’t driving, I was walking, and I didn’t say it in a subservient way. And this was in the south. What did the cop do? He told us the levees were really private property and that we shouldn’t walk on them, and then he drove away. One can’t say for sure, but I’d bet that situation would have ended differently if my skin had been darker. Did I realize that at the time? Nope. I realized it just now because I haven’t thought of the incident in years. I can walk into almost any public space in America and never be harassed. I’ll never be pulled over or pulled out of a security line because of the color of my skin.
That took me a very long time to understand, because as a member of the default race in American society, I never thought about being white. It’s not like I feel a particular bond with all white people. I’ve met a lot of them over the years, and mostly I’m not that impressed. A lot of my felt relationship to the world has been based more on my size. I’ve never known what it’s like not to be bigger and taller than most of the people around me. When I was a student back at my violent Christian private school (such, such were the days!), if someone wanted to fight or bully me I’d just fight back, and while I had my share of bloody noses and cut lips, I was never beaten up. I had no fear of other kids, just like today I have no fear of other adults. Muggers aren’t going to make me a first choice target because I’m big, just like cops aren’t going to target me because I’m white.
I mention this not to revel in my violent past, because I hated fighting. I mention it because that’s the way I now think about being white in America. It’s like being the bigger, stronger kid on the playground who can walk around being oblivious to what happens to other kids, to the ones who can’t just be the way they want to be. Sometimes that big kid is a bully, but most of the time that big kid just doesn’t have to consider the perspectives of other people. The smaller geeks are being bullied by a football player. Oh well, nothing I can do about that. He wouldn’t dare try that with me after all. Being white in America is like that. Sometimes it’s the bullies who win. They shoot an unarmed black man in the street and they get away with it because, just as boys will be boys, whites will be whites, and it’s not like anyone who counts got hurt, right? When it’s not the bullies, it’s the oblivious ones. I don’t know because I don’t need to know because I can mind my own business and do whatever I want and nobody’s going to say anything. When you’re in that position, it’s really hard to understand what it’s like not being in that position.
I was never the bully, I was definitely oblivious, and now I’m neither. But after that, what could I possibly say? What business does a middle-class, middle-aged, white guy like me have saying anything about race in America? What useful or interesting perspective could I possibly offer? Does my speaking out on social media against racial injustice make me a better person? Is anyone every persuaded by Facebook activism? Are any friends’ minds ever changed, even if I had many friends whose minds I’d want to change? Are my opinions on the matter any more known to my friends than they were before? It’s not like I’m shy about telling people what I think. If I see injustice in person and do nothing, I’m complicit with it. If I’m silent on social media about something I haven’t experienced, then it’s because I believe the best thing to do in the situation is shut up and listen to other people who know more than me about the topic. I’ve been listening, and now I’m shutting up again.