With the protests in Baltimore taking place, I’ve been thinking a lot about race, equality, and social media. I don’t post much on the subject, as I’m not sure how I fit in to the whole debate, but prompted by some conversations and thinking from this past week, I feel compelled to sort out my thoughts in a public or semi-public place. I don’t want to point any fingers or espouse any solution. Instead, I mainly just want to clarify.
In terms of labels, and the privileges traditionally ascribed to them, I’m high on the chart: straight, white, male, able-bodied, and upper middle class. I’m not part of the 1%, but I have never had to face any real discrimination. At most, I’ve had to curb decisions and trim back dreams due to constraints on money.
That said, I have felt “other” at points, whether through mingling in counterpublics or traveling to Egypt, where I was the minority at the station, in the markets, on the streets, etc. It is an odd feeling. A certain embodied and spatial self-consciousness, a sense of uncanny distance–even rejection–from the stuff and people around you. A sense of the exiled, alien, or intrusive.
With that in mind, I can’t say my experience connects to the experience of those alienated by the public sphere at large. My experience is vastly different from theirs, and I think that’s the key: find a multiculturalism that doesn’t try to erase the meaningful differences that do exist, but that provides a place where conversation can take place. Recognizing difference, but also recognizing relationship.
For example, Cornell West points out how many Black leaders become washed down or “de-odorized,” in his words. We see this with MLK, honoring his “I have a Dream Speech” without recognizing his widespread attacks on capitalism or militarism. Or, as with Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, many white Americans–and the media and textbooks I’ve encountered at large–stress the nonviolent turn they took, as if their violent actions were merely a muddy memory and not a meaningful response to the oppression they faced.
In more contemporary contexts, many white Americans might stress the “I recognize my privilege” narrative, while the victimized narratives of minorities–and the anger it expresses–becomes secondary. Some may attack the looting without reflecting on the anger, frustration, the institutional poverty that causes it, left over from hundreds of years of race relations, struggle, and oppression. On the converse, others may fixate on the violence, without looking at the nonviolence and cooperation that may take place on the sidelines. Or impose boarders that leave people alienated and uncertain. Or rely on unchallenged cultural assumptions and group dynamics, like the classic “rugged individualism” narrative.
Simply put, some narratives are more marketable or palatable than others. Some are easier to grasp, easier to hold onto, easier to repeat, easier to spread, or shout, or celebrate. Or, more bleakly, our own inborn biases–our confirmation biases, Dunbar’s numbers, and in-group proclivities–and our cultivation as individual people with limited access and viewpoints in an American milieu prevent us from seeing the whole stage. We get stuck, in a sense, caught up in simplification because the broader picture is so messy, uncertain, ugly, and inconvenient.
We are caught in a paradox: in constant relation, with constant separation. We are all in this together, but alone.
As I said, I don’t want to propose a solution, and though I unintentionally point my finger at certain broad perspectives, I’m pointing the finger at myself. I’m flawed. Even this thinking-through or “essai” may be fraught with errors, may be dangerous, may be constraining and insensitive.
If anything, though, I think we need a certain kind of sympathy, a certain kind of identification that traditional in-group out-group dynamics and bland #AllLivesMatter multiculturalism do not meet. Once upon a time, Americans were called “The People of Feeling.” Sympathy and “fellow-feeling” was a bedrock of politics and social relations. It was a scientific fact that filled all sorts of writings. Granted, as many scholars–like Julia Stern and Andrew Burstein–note, it often excluded many black Americans and women, but I think it still has some use for us today.
I know of few other things that highlight these affective ties and social relations as clearly and viscerally as sympathy. As Diane Davis argues, in order for unifying symbols–like language or culture–to develop, one must first consider an “always prior relation to the foreign(er) without which no meaning-making or determinate (symbolic) relation would be possible.” In other words, we are always in relation. We are always “being-with.”
With this in mind, we always have an ethical obligation to recognize our inherent relationship. But at the same time, that relationship always recognizes the inherent difference or “foreign” element of the other. Through “sympathetic imagination” and “emotional contagion” we may break down boarders, but a separation always persists for most of us. “I” can never be fully “you.”
So perhaps I lied (again), and I am putting forth a position, but it is a pretty basic one: we are all different, each with different (inaccessible) worlds and stories, but we are also in the same communities, the same country, the same world.
With this in mind, I see the role of activism. I do not see myself fitting that role personally, but I think activism and the laws and tradition that allow such activism provide key resources. They are necessary. They are beneficial. But they also have a profound ethical dimension, because activism always addresses “our” world, not “my” world or “your” world. All of our individual actions ripple through the whole.
As one of my teachers would always say, “It’s complicated.” But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek progress or clarity. I think it just means we must do so with a clear sense of sympathy and “humility,” mindful of the “ground” where each of us stands and why.