So, just getting this off of MY chest…
[Trigger Warning: mention of racism, transphobia, ableism, and sexual violence]
Tonight, I saw a picture from the Occupy Wall Street protests of two white women in agony…and I liked it.
Let me deconstruct that for you.
The two people in that picture had just been pepper sprayed by police. I’ve never experienced pepper spray before, but I am pretty sure it’s absolutely terrible, and I know that government forces get the kind that is even stronger than what ordinary civilians can buy. So this was not a joke. Those people were in real pain, and someone had captured the moment on camera.
For some reason, though, my first thought when I saw this was that they were faking. It just looked so unreal, like they were making such a big deal about it. And then I read the accompanying text and I realized that it was real, and I liked the fact that they were in pain.
Okay, so there is something seriously wrong here.
Let’s not lie— the people who participate in protests (not always, but usually) have a lot of privilege. Think about it: you have to have money for travel, money to buy supplies, and then be in a position which allows you to spend several days away from your job, school, your family, etc. So people who protest either have nothing to lose or they have something that they can fall back on if things go wrong— family, friends, money, lawyers, a social safety net, etc.
Another aspect of this is that you also generally need to be able-bodied and mentally “together” to participate in things like this. I am extremely near-sighted to the point where I cannot go out without my glasses. I can only imagine how completely fucking scary it would be if I was in a protest and suddenly things got heated and I lost my glasses— I would be totally helpless, and if anyone hurt me, I wouldn’t even be able to later identify them. I also have debilitating allergies, asthma, and skin problems that would be a problem if I had to stay in an environment that is largely beyond my control.
In addition to these physical issues, I have social anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD from sexual abuse— so the idea that I could be handled by strangers, arrested, and forced to stay in a confined place is almost too much to think about. Not to mention being transgender— there have been lots of instances of trans people being assaulted or sexually abused/raped in prison in the past few weeks. I am also Asian American and male presenting right now, and there’s a culture of emasculation and weakness surrounding Asian American men, so it is very likely that I would be in danger if I were in jail.
I am also a college student from a poor family, and as I’ve already established, I have physical limitations that prevent me from doing a lot of normal things. So I cannot afford to miss school— I can’t work the majority of untrained jobs.
As you can see, there are many different factors that are preventing me from participating in these protests. If I were not an Asian American, Trans, disabled, poor, survivor, then things would be different. But unfortunately, that’s who I am— there’s just too much risk and not enough incentive for me to put myself on the line. So you must understand that when I see a bunch of people at a protest in New York, I actually see a bunch of able-bodied, mostly white, cis-gendered people who have some money and privilege that I don’t. There is absolutely no denying this.
When I saw that photo of two women in pain from pepper spray, I saw two white, probably more wealthy than I am, able-bodied women. I saw two people who go to protests and never have to worry about possibly being blind for the rest of their lives from pepper spray, because they never have to deal with the fear of being blind from living each day with poor eyesight. I saw two people who would probably be on the front page of a newspaper because they are white and cis-gendered, not dark-skinned and queer like me. I saw two people who already get more social and institutional support than I do, simply by virtue of being white and having been born with “normal” bodies.
I saw the frustratingly old trope of the white-woman’s tears. I saw the rich person’s false solidarity, trying to give their paltry crumbs to the poor without making any real sacrifices for the future. I saw the able-bodied person doing things that I can’t— things that I can only dream of.
And maybe these problems do exist, but it doesn’t mean that how I felt was okay. Because it should never, ever be okay to rejoice in, to feel good because someone else is suffering. Even if they have more than you, and even if they are luckier than you are. Because they’re still suffering, and every time we see a person hurting, we should do what we can to help them.
Often on Tumblr, and recently after the execution of Troy Davis, I’ve seen a lot of racial frustration and flat-out hate expressed towards white people. This is totally justified, and I shared in these feelings. But maybe I internalized that hate and fear and frustration. I saw myself, the Asian American person, the perpetual foreigner in this country that I try so hard to love and not hate. I saw an entire life of never belonging, always being the outsider in every social situation. I saw the people who made excuses to fire my mother from her job last year, and the people who have yelled racial slurs at me on the street, telling me to go back to China, even though I’ve lived here my entire life.
So today, when I saw two white women in agony on my dash, I saw crocodile tears, and some part of me wanted to laugh. Look, I said to myself, they’re finally getting a taste of what we (people of color) have to deal with every day!
bell hooks says that when we are trapped in dehumanizing systems, we learn to take on and even adopt the oppressor’s attitudes of domination and violence. She calls this the “internalized oppressor”. I think my internalized oppressor came out today when, instead of acting out of empathy for someone else’s pain, I acted out of my own pain and fear. That’s what racism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and other oppressions do to you— they hurt you so much that you start to hurt yourself and others in turn. It is in these moments that we need to remind ourselves that people are still people, no matter how inhuman or how violent they have been to us. We need to be critical of ourselves and root out that internalized oppressor that makes it okay to laugh at someone else’s pain. Because you know what? That’s what the oppressor wants us to do— to fight each other instead of working together to tear down the flawed power structures that actually hurt us.
So I am leaving this message here, because I am sure that other people have seen that same photo or seen these protests and felt the same way. Yes, there is a certain privilege that those protestors carry with them— but it doesn’t mean that we can’t support and empathize with them. They are trying to do something that is badly needed— draw attention to and reform a broken financial system that hurts all of us in some way. Being privileged is never a reason to write off another person’s suffering. Being privileged is never an excuse for police brutality.
There are a lot of things in this post I could write tomes on, but I will ignore your section of blaming whites (as a group) for Troy Davis’s institutionalized murder, I will ignoring your seeming need to divide the 99% of the occupy wall street movement into further levels of have and have not, and go right to the heart of the problem.
I don’t know which two white women you saw, but in all your admission, you did not once admit that maybe you were assuming too much about these women. One of my acquaintances was there and got arrested, with full brutality. To the camera, she would look just like the people you described - white women. Maybe you saw a picture of her. Did it even occur to you that she might be more than that?
This friend of mine, who you dismissed as a privileged white woman looking for a thrill, is, in fact, a survivor of abuse, suffers from several MI’s and PTSD, and a physical chronic invisible condition. Not that you considered that one of the women you dismissed as a rich white women being used for sympathy could have possibly had any abuse of her own, right? When you dismissed them, you dismissed her, and hundreds of other white women who are survivors of abuse, LGBTQ, living with MI and chronic invisible conditions, etc.
I’m sorry, but screw your “able bodied” bullshit. She was arrested, handled, and yes, it was traumatic, AND denied medication. But she was still a white women, huh - still has that going for her.
I’m glad you realized that feeling joy at others pain is wrong, but you missed the biggest mistake you made - the assumptions you made about the two women in the picture. Your post comes away still labeling them as privileged, rich, able-bodied cis women. And you can’t know that from the picture any more than I can know all the things about you that you have listed on the side of your blog from a picture of you.
Where is your warning for all that erasure, huh? Because you erased my friend. You erased me. You erased the people who are at that protest in spite of difficulties of any sort. And I don’t think you realize that at all in all your talk of internalized oppression.
I want want to fuck school and hop a train to NYC
I’m looking at the occupy wall street stuff. It is 8am on Sunday and I haven’t slept. I am going to sleep all day. I am going to wake up, and do homework, and then do the same on Monday. I am going to go to class all week, do stupid readings, and meanwhile, my generation and others are trying to fight back and change the world. When I grow up, I’m going to have to tell children that during this movement, I was plowing through the system because I was too afraid of risking it and fighting. That’s a yucky feeling.
I don’t want to have to say that. At the same time, there is so much stopping me. I have invested so much, not just in the system, but it this education. And as much as I support the protests on wallstreet, I also support higher education, even if it needs some tweaking. If I skip classes - don’t do my work - don’t follow the rules of the people giving me money to go here and get a degree — well I may be able to say I fought, but how am I going to explain all of the things I threw out.
Yea, maybe degrees are over rated. Maybe higher education is in need of a change. But I LOVE LEARNING and I can’t bring my self to hold up my middle finger to something that has been sacred to me my whole life. Not the System as a whole, hell no - but no one can time this revolution to my convenience. And maybe it makes me a coward, but I can’t bring myself to throw away everything for this revolution.
THAT BEING SAID:
I want to help! Do you guys need things? Just need me to spread the word? Write to congress (like that will help…)? But really… Anyone know what we can do from the proverbial sidelines?
IS THERE ANY WAY I CAN HELP FROM HERE?