Over the last several months, maybe years, there have been different fronts where I, upper-middle-class-straight-white-married-with-kids-and-a-mortgage-man, have had to look in the mirror and realise the man standing there does not see things that should have been seen.
The first were the astounding number of homeless people in my city. I routinely walk downtown and the amount of obviously homeless people is amazing to me. At first, I found myself crossing to the other side of the street (Pharisee!) to avoid a confrontation. But one afternoon, I walked past a man slumped on the sidewalk and he stopped me. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, but overtime I’ve found myself evaluating the person asking me for money. I don’t really know what criteria I use to determine who gets the dollars in my pocket, but I look them in the eye and make a determination. Sometimes I don’t have any change, but they’re more than happy to take an American Spirit. This guy, though, was different than a lot of the people I’d run into – he truly was slumped and emotion was showing on his face. He’d heard of a church that was offering help and asked me directions – I wasn’t sure which church he was talking about, so I pointed out the ones I knew nearby. He was broken by addiction and couldn’t get help – I asked him about the crisis center nearby and if he’d been there, but there was apparently bad blood. I knelt by him and he took my hand and he told me bits of his story, how he was trying to get back on his feet. I got a little weepy listening to him and I didn’t know what to do. So I offered him the money I had but he shook me off, even while still grasping my hand. I wished him well and turned to walk away feeling the shame of this man trail me as I asked myself what else was I supposed to do? How is it, that in America, there are people left on the streets? How is it that we can’t find a way to help these people out? How is it that some of these people refuse to be helped? How is it that I can continue to live my relatively extravagant lifestyle and not find some way to do something more to help these people other than a few bucks and smokes?
The next was my brother re-coming out as a homosexual and getting a divorce from his wife. He had been “rehabilitated” by the church – we’d successfully “prayed away the gay”! And here he was, a few years later, done fighting against the person that he was and always had been. He was tired of hiding and wanted to find the relief of just simply being who he was without fear. The first time he came home after the divorce, my wife and I were in a much different place spiritually than we had been and we sat around a campfire in our backyard under the autumn stars beaming their own special heat and I just tried to reaffirm my love for my brother – that no matter what, I was not going to stop loving him. Right around that time we bought a rainbow flag to fly – our own little testament to the story that we loved my brother no matter what.
The next time my brother was in town, the shooting at a night club in Orlando happened and I got my first true realisation of the hate my brother’s community faced. Previously it had been the simple condemnation he had faced by my conservative upbringing – hate the sin, love the sinner kind of shit [that, in and of itself, was hurtful enough]. We spoke about the shooting the morning after it happened, briefly, but we had our nephews’ birthday parties to attend, so we spent the rest of the day with my sister and her family, and at the end of the day, my brother’s one persistent thought was: no one once brought the shooting up. It was as if, in our straight, white [well, my sister’s brown, so that’s not an entirely fair characterization], conservative religious family, there was no thought to the hateful killing of precious lives in Orlando. Not one thought. And that was the realisation – I, too, had not given it much thought the rest of the day, but my brother and his community via social media were actively mourning – loving, kind, caring people were checking in with him from a thousand miles away to see how he had been affected. And straight-white-privileged-male me [who thought he was “woke”] was hardly awake to it. How can I sit and consume media and our culture so passively while there are so many in the LGBT community affected daily by hate? How can I proclaim that I love my brother if all I do is hang a rainbow flag and sit smugly beside it in my cult of suburbia, cut off from the real hurt and pain these people experience, all the while complaining about my life and how I have it so bad [because of my own self-inflicted wounds, nonetheless]?
When the first very public incident of a black man being killed by the police came to light, I heard about it because it was a thing, but didn’t think too much more about it. Living in MT, the ratio of white to black/brown/yellow is pretty ridiculous. Seeing a black person in MT is not necessarily a daily occurrence. And so, as the deaths continued to pile up in the media and it gained more and more traction, as #BlackLiveMatter gained traction, I groaned, incredulous, when the #AllLivesMatter movement tried to take up the ground that #BlackLivesMatter was trying to gain. But, again, all of it was at arms length away. It was so much easier to look at it from a distance and sadly shake my head. Because, what else can I do? What more can I do than sit on my hands? What more should I do than silently condemn the obvious systemic racism still pervasive in this country?
The Brilliance has a beautiful song called Does Your Heart Break? [link] I was doing the dishes on a Saturday morning, listening to the album that song is on quite loudly and suddenly, in the midst of this beautiful, song, it wrenched my heart with these words:
When the man said,
you are choking me
And he cried out,
I cannot breathe
Did your heart break?
Does your heart break now?
I can’t find it for certain, but if I had to guess, this would be referencing Eric Garner – choked to death by an NYPD officer. And, again, I had heard the story, but I hadn’t let it in – I hadn’t let it affect me. But when I heard that song, it made me as those questions again and again. What else can I do?
Then, the #MeToo movement started up and #TimesUp – a well deserved war against the tirade of terrible men doing terrible things to women because of their power. As Harvey Weinstein was exposed and the dominoes of powerful men began to fall and the stories started coming out [newsflash: it’s not just white men or heterosexual men – it appears to be NEARLY EVERY FREAKING MAN] the mirror became an ugly thing for me to look into. The terrible recounting of over 150 women [last I saw reported] who were sexually abused as little girls and teenagers by Larry Nassar for US Gymnastics. The obtuse efforts by Aziz Ansari to get laid. The sad, pathetic efforts of James Franco to take advantage of his position at his school to put aspiring women in compromising situations. The lewd behavior of Louis CK. The forceful [and apparently, obliviousness] of Charlie Rose. These men weren’t just horny. They were getting off on the power they held over those perceived to be weaker than they.
As I read the stories of these and more encounters, the comments on those stories, listened to the perspectives of women in my life, I again began to ask the questions I had been previously asking: how is it that I can live my life the way I do and not see the consequences others have to face? How is it that I can continue to quarantine myself in my pretty little self-sufficient life without fear of retribution from almost no one else? How is it that I can not be more aware of the pain, struggle, and suffering that other peoples in “lesser” positions than me?
As I sat and asked myself those questions, I realised, looking in the mirror that I’ve never done enough to stir a change. It doesn’t matter where I live – I have a voice that can speak out against injustice and a body with hands and feet that can reach out and help in whatever way necessary.
And, listen: I’m not trying to be “white woke guy”. Being woke isn’t my responsibility. My responsibility is valuing and fighting for every single life. Finding ways to help the homeless. Standing up for and loving and respecting lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders. Embracing and fighting for the equal standing of black men and women and children. And looking women in the eye with respect and standing up for them whenever I see a situation when someone is trying to take advantage of them.