When I was young and someone was nasty to another person, or displayed meanness of spirit when they knew the victim could not fight back, if I could not get directly involved, I used to wish for a hidden power that would let me take retribution in my own hands. I quietly thought it would be fair that if a person was unkind, disrespectful, racist, or violent, they should experience a sudden jolt of discomfort—perhaps churning stomach cramps that caused them to double over. For extreme cases, I thought spontaneous diarrhea might be sufficiently embarrassing and painful so the person would have to stop. I could simply wish it so, and it would happen and I would be the one to decide how and when this judgment would be applied. Not a nice thought, I know. Perhaps I should not reveal this side of myself, but it was there. At the time, I didn’t consider the possibility that unexpected punishment might not result in a change in belief, it probably would have only changed the behavior for the moment.
Do you want to know what made me stop dreaming about this power? It was the humbling realization that the next time it might be me. I might be the one writhing in pain on the floor because of my unkind words or behavior. I am not perfect, and I knew I could not inflict payback on others without setting myself up for a measure of the same. That was enough to make me quiet those dreams.
I was left to figure out other ways to deal with my anger and disappointment with the occasional cruelty of people. I realize when I see other people acting out towards innocent people, yes, there is a twinge of pain, the cramping of a gut, or headaches, only I am the one feeling it, not the perpetrator. I read, watch, or listen to the daily news and it seems as if just when you thought the behavior of people couldn’t get any worse, there is another account of someone entrusted with leadership either behaving in a base manner, or others, also in positions where they could speak out, ignoring the behavior and maybe even agreeing, depending on the group being attacked.
I expect that many of us are going through the same thing if we watch the videos, read the news, or follow the stories on social media. There is pain and suffering and we who watch will feel it.
That is not all that I feel. Some of us are not shocked by the bigotry and hostility oozing out of the minds and mouths of people emboldened by hate and power. Sadly, we have known it was there all the time, simmering underneath, just waiting for an opportunity to bubble forth.
It is tiring because people are becoming more vocal in their disregard for those they perceive as not being worthy of respect. I know many of you want something to happen, something to stop the violent attacks against our bodies and the accompanying harm to our minds and spirits. I have spoken to friends as I try to sort out what role I can play in this fight. Because it is a fight. You are asking the same questions—what should I be doing?
I feel compelled to talk about this because I think some of my friends and readers are surprised when they hear the stories in the news or personal accounts. It is not part of their life experience, so they might wonder if these incidents are random occurrences, maybe they only happen to certain people, in other neighborhoods, perhaps with a different kind of education, demeanor or upbringing. Good people, or people who are doing what they are supposed to be doing, exceptional people, they don’t experience this, or so they believe. Only people who are doing what they should not be doing, in places where they supposedly don’t belong experience this behavior.
The problem with being considered exceptional is that it seems like a compliment, until it isn’t. The truth is none of us are exceptional in the way that makes you immune to mistreatment. The right education, culture, or job may appear to be a buffer, but it is a wall made of wishes, and it takes one bad encounter to bring it all tumbling down. If we do not oppose injustice we create a culture where prejudice, fear, and ignorance set policy and normalize hateful behavior. I want us to get past the point where we only react when it happens to someone we know well, when we think it is personal.
Some of us might seem exceptional, that we are safe from the sort of bias that is becoming more open because of the political climate. Except we are not, we are not immune or exceptional. And if it can happen to me, to my family, to your friends, then it can and does happen more than you know. And it might also happen to you or someone you love.
I am reminded of a statement James Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis. Explaining his concern and support for her, he felt he had to get involved because “if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” Baldwin understood we are all connected.
It is all personal. If wishing it away worked, we would not be in the situation we find ourselves in. I am following the steps I know (prayer, asking for guidance, then taking action by using my voice, money, votes, and any useful skills) to work individually and where I can, as part of a collective, so that I don’t just dream about how to correct a wrong. There are times when quiet action taken behind the scenes can make a difference, but these days I am challenging myself to be both vocal and visible.