Warning: This is a controversial post on a controversial subject. If you don’t enjoy having your assumptions challenged, please close this tab now and feel free to return when I’m writing about lighter, happier matters.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Not least because it’s one of the few times of the year when we are allowed to stuff our faces without restraint, but in equal parts because it’s a holiday that encourages a bit of introspection. What are we thankful for? In years past, I’ve had different things on my mind, and different things to be thankful for: that my aunt’s battle with cancer was going well, that she was out of the hospital and able to share a meal with us; that I was lucky enough to have a job in the depths of recession; that I had returned home safe and sound from traveling abroad. But this year, there are some different things I’m thankful for, that I wish I didn’t have to be.
Here are some things I shouldn’t have to feel grateful for:
1. My skin is colored in such a way that I will most likely never need to fear unwarranted police violence and brutality;
2. My skin is colored in such a way that I will most likely never be automatically assumed to be a criminal, a drug addict, or a lazy bum profiting off the work of others;
3. My skin, and that of my family members, is colored in such a way that I will most likely never have to worry about losing a parent, sibling, or child, to violence that results from stereotyping, misunderstanding, or wrongful assumption.
I wish I didn’t have to be thankful for these things. As it turns out, I’m not really thankful for them at all. I’m thankful for them in a superficial way. I’m thankful that I, personally, will likely never be hurt as a result of the ingrained racism in our society, as a result of the systematic discrimination that people of color experience on a daily basis.
But I wish I didn’t have to be.
Because no one should have to fear for their life when playing with toy guns. Because no one should have to fear for their life while wearing a hoodie. Because no one should have to fear for her life when knocking on a stranger’s door to ask for help.
In the newest installment of The Hunger Games film series, Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, takes the battle to the streets of the districts and the capitol in order to fight against the oppressive system that has taken her freedom and her right to life away from her. Millions of people across America have read or watched Katniss’ story. We have sympathized, empathized, and wished we had her courage, her strength, her charisma. We love Katniss, and we love her story.
In the first two books of the series, Katniss is literally forced into violent conflict. There is no way to be a pacifist and survive the Hunger Games, which she does, two years in a row. She hunts her enemies, she kills, and in most cases, she has no regrets. But in the third book, MOCKINGJAY, Katniss steps into a new role, one for which she volunteers. She becomes the symbol of the revolution. She fights, not because she has to, but because she believes the system is unjust and cruel. She knows there’s a better system, one which doesn’t starve her family and her friends, one in which no one is ever sent to the arena in a fight to the death. She knows that freedom is something she can believe in; something to fight for. But she fights willingly. She shoots planes out of the sky. She hunts soldiers in the streets of the Capital. She films videos encouraging other people to do the same, to fight for their freedom, to kill in pursuit of liberty. And we, as onlookers, love her for it.
So why is it that when hundreds of thousands of people of color take to the streets to demand freedom from an unjust society, one which puts them in prison at nearly six times the rate of caucasians, one in which they are nearly two and a half times more likely to live below the poverty line, one in which health care and education consistently fails people of color, depriving them of equal opportunity to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, we as white Americans cry foul, declaring them “violent” and “angry,” calling them “looters” and “rioters”? Why, by extension, are we arguing that the people who live and breathe in our world have less right to protest, to revolution, to liberty, than a fictional character who will never draw breath, will never have children, will never have life outside of our imaginations? Why does Katniss Everdeen deserve glory, admiration, and even a tint of envy, when real people who do the same things she does, on the streets of America, are devalued, dehumanized, criminalized? Why is Katniss a celebrity, while the protesters in Ferguson are vilified?
After all, Katniss killed soldiers of the capital to achieve her ends. The only person who has died in connection with the Ferguson protests is Michael Brown.
This Thanksgiving, what I’m most thankful for is that I live in a world where people are not afraid to fight for their rights. I live in a world where the American Revolution liberated the thirteen colonies from the colonial British rule of the 18th century. I live in a world where half the world united to liberate Europe from the oppressive and maniacally destructive rule of the Nazis in the 20th century. I live in a world where African-Americans united in the 1950s and ’60s to liberate themselves from Jim Crow, the realities of public lynchings, and “separate but equal”. And I live in a world where people are not afraid fight to liberate themselves from systematic oppression in the 21st century, for people like Michael Brown, who was condemned to death for petty theft, for Trayvon Martin, who was condemned to death for ‘looking suspicious’, for Tamir Rice, who was condemned to death for playing with a toy gun, for Renisha McBride, who was condemned to death for knocking on a neighbor’s door for help.
I am thankful that people are unafraid to fight for their rights. But I wish I didn’t have to be.
Is this controversial? Asserting that racism exists, and that if you aren’t a member of the disfavored group, you might be unaware how constantly you gain automatic preferences and benefit from belonging to the group in power. That should be obvious to any thinking person. It’s an expression of territorial protective behavior that proves constantly that humans aren’t superior or different from other animals.
We have an individual responsibility to resist that kind of ignorance, mostly by not behaving that way ourselves, while awaiting the deaths of those who can’t or won’t stop hurting others this way. I’ve given up trying to change people’s minds through reason. Some only learn through extreme tragedy. Some won’t examine their own lives deeply no matter what.
I couldn’t connect much with all the Hunger Games stuff. YA literature isn’t really my thing, being an “OA”. But I’ve seen plenty of the injustices fostered by Capitalism, class and our traditional resistance to viewing the evils of our own history honestly. I like the theme of the article though. We can still be thankful for the opportunities to be generally useful that invisible privilege affords.
I wish it weren’t controversial, but it is. It’s very difficult for a lot of people to understand how they unconsciously benefit from systems of power, because it’s so ingrained into us.
I agree that we have that responsibility to resist that ignorance. But I also believe that we have the responsibility to take a stand and try to persuade, even if many are unreasonable. I think that the only way racism can ever be brought to a full end is if both the disadvantaged and those in positions of power work together to pull away the veil and destroy those power systems.
You rock. This rocks. That is all.
Thank you, Joanne. Glad to have your support.
I’m glad you found the words. I have felt thankful too for my skin colour for the reasons you list, but I have been to ashamed to admit it. It is wrong that racism leads to such quick judgements and fear that this keeps on happening. Your parallel with The Hunger Games was an eye opener for me. I am a pacifist and find violent protest difficult but when the alternatives have been exhausted and hope is lost, people feel backed into a corner.
Excuse the ‘too’ typo. Way past bedtime for me and eyes blurring!
I’m not sure how aptly the fictional (and, I think, somewhat undeveloped) main character of a YA novel in a vastly different, futuristic, dystopian world applies to Ferguson, but I’ll play along with the analogy. I agree completely about Trayvon and the 12 y/o boy and the woman knocking on a door for help, but I cannot equate the Michael Brown circumstances with the others. He engaged in a life-and-death struggle for a cop’s gun. He continued to charge the cop. If he were a 300-pound white guy, he would be just as dead as Mike Brown. Put yourself in the cop’s shoes…you’re being beaten by a much stronger opponent who has 80 pounds on you. Put yourself in Mike’s shoes…what earthly reason would he have to fight for a cop’s gun and later move toward him again? What’s his motivation? Did he deserve to die? Of course not, but he put himself in that situation, as did the cop.
Real life isn’t like the movies where shooters always drop a bad guy with a perfectly placed shot (and Katniss never misses with her arrows and, rather conveniently, doesn’t do much of the killing directly, at least in the first movie, the only one I’ll see). It’s Hollywood, not life.
I think the article does an injustice to black people. It makes them sound like helpless victims to the system. What about personal responsibility? Community? Is Centenne more or less likely to build an office in Ferguson now? Some blacks receive higher educations, obtain professional jobs and titles (POTUS leaps to mind). What is the next step in the article? Reparations? Back to reverse job discrimination? Can we no longer call blacks (and whites) who burn buildings, smash windows and steal property looters and rioters? What are we supposed to call them? It’s what the words mean, for God’s sake. Whose feelings are we hurting here by calling looters what they are? I’m confused.
Hi Scott! Thanks for commenting. We cannot know for sure whether or not a 300 pound white man would have also been killed in a similar situation to Mike Brown’s, but your point is well taken that Mike Brown’s particular case is outstanding in the group of four that I cited. But the larger point stands: Black people are disproportionately victimized by police violence (http://www.bustle.com/articles/36096-do-police-shoot-black-men-more-often-statistics-say-yes-absolutely)
Yes, “it’s Hollywood, not life.” That’s true. But my point wasn’t about the realities of killing versus the realities of protesting. My point was the level of validation we as a society give the fictional individual versus the group of protesters. We validate Katniss, we uplift her, we celebrate her as a heroine, but we vilify the Ferguson protestors, we demonize them, we ask why they’re not doing more for their community, why they’re destroying their own homes, why they’re fighting for their rights in a way that we as whites haven’t sanctioned or decided is OK.
As to the bit about personal responsibility, I’ll cite the disparities between availability of health care, educational opportunities, and income levels, before claiming that black Americans should assume more personal responsibility. I’ll cite decades of blockbusting, public housing projects, zoning laws, and public transport plans that isolate and denigrate communities of color, whether they are black, Hispanic, Asian, or mixed. I’ll refer again to the storied history of police brutality, when, for centuries, law enforcement has been more focused on criminalizing and controlling African-Americans than protecting their communities. (http://www.alternet.org/most-white-people-america-are-completely-oblivious?page=0%2C0). I’ll cite all of these things before asking black people to step up their levels of personal and community responsibility. And finally, you ask good questions about the next step here – my intent was certainly not to provide any policy suggestions about how to scrub the deep ingrained racism from our collective consciousness, but rather simply to point out how differently we assess those who are forced to fight for their liberties.
One important difference between Katniss and the rioters in Ferguson is that I suspect (I admit, I’ve never seen the movie) that her violent actions were rather better chosen to actually fight against those oppressing her and hers, rather than hurting her own people and innocent bystanders. The Ferguson rioters torched and looted stores in their own neighborhoods, some of which may have been minority-owned, others of which were places that provided goods and services (and jobs) contributing to the well-being of the community. They were not shooting soldiers who would have killed or enslaved them.
Hi Jim, thanks for commenting! Yes, you’re correct that the looting and burning of local businesses is a terrible thing and damaging to the community. Here is some evidence that the Ferguson community came together in the days afterwards to rectify those damages and uplift local business owners:
Also, isn’t it sort of better to look at this in this way: Katniss was destroying PEOPLE and LIVES, whereas the Ferguson protesters were destroying THINGS? That sort of helps put in perspective the differences in value between these two forms of destruction. If black people in America started shooting cops and city prosecutors, then the two forms of violence might be on par. But if they did that, can you even imagine how white Americans would react?
Check out this post from Black Girl Dangerous for more information on why the distinction between people and things is so critical: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/11/ferguson-destruction-violence-really-isnt/