Confront to Connect
I was in the backseat as we drove through my small Northern California town. It was my sophomore year of high school and we were reading A Thousand Splendid Suns in class. It was all I could think about, so I’d brought it up during the car ride.
“Oh, I tried reading that,” the driver of carpool that day--a White, well-off, and highly-educated mom--said. “I just couldn’t get through it. I had to put it down. It was just too upsetting.”
My stomach buckled, curling in on itself as it does when I have something to say but am upset and not sure how to articulate it.
I honestly can’t remember if I responded. I’m pretty sure I did, but it probably didn’t come out as I’d hoped. I do, however, remember what I was thinking. This was injustice. This woman who seemingly lived such a comfortable life, who didn’t feel the weight of so many systems of oppression, had opted out from learning more about painful truths of the world. She had the choice to engage--a remarkable privilege in and of itself--and had refused to do so.
[I want to pause to acknowledge that I am making a few assumptions about this woman’s experience. Yes, I do know that she was White and educated and upper middle class, but there are many other aspects that can affect someone’s day to day experiences. Illnesses, deaths, traumas, and so many other unseen difficulties. These may cause a person to feel unable to engage with these topics. I want to temper this discussion with a recognition of the many ways in which a person can be experiencing pain, of the intersectionality of each individual’s experience. I do think that there can be moments when a person shouldn’t take on more, when actually disengaging is what is needed just in order to get through the day. Please take care of yourselves!]
My town is small. It’s mainly White. It’s filled with alternative hippie-folk who want the world to be a better place. I, too, am these things. However, many of my community members also truly and deeply believe that the world will become gentler if everyone just follows their bliss and tries to be kind along the way. While not everyone who lives there has a lot of money, most have enough to support this lifestyle. In general, a lot of privilege.
I love where I’m from in so many ways. I feel very lucky to have grown up where I did and to have been surrounded by such loving, compassionate people. But there is also an insular quality to it. The sentiment the mom in carpool expressed is a common one. There is a prevalent and carefully coiffed ignorance taken on because sometimes the news of the world is just “too upsetting.” Yet then, when called out on this, or asked to question the choice, there is also a refusal to acknowledge that this is a privilege, that there is work to be done not only in our communities, in our nation, in our world, but also within ourselves. That not confronting these issues does not excuse one from benefitting from and participating in systems of power and oppression.
We exist in these safe little bubbles, crafting this image of the world as a place inevitably moving towards justice. We celebrate the victories and mourn the losses along the way, all while refusing to acknowledge the emotional and physical labor involved, the lives dedicated to pushing the world on this trajectory, the bodies marking the path behind us. Our world does not inch along simply because. It inches along because it is being carried and pulled and coaxed and shoved in that direction.
The combination of chosen ignorance and the resistance towards self-reflection and locating ourselves in these systems is a dangerous one. It relies on the fact that we are not living the stories we “can’t handle.” We have disengaged with conversations and realities and news stories that make us uncomfortable because we aren’t living the news. We move away from conversations that would ask us to learn about experiences different and challenging in ways we don’t experience, that would ask us to consider new perspectives, ideologies, political leanings etc. It is easy to do when our community is so homogenous.
I do not at all claim to have neatly sorted out how I can most intentionally and supportively use my privilege in furtherance of justice. There are days when I too say, “it is too much” and watch something silly instead. I do not credit myself as being the sole/original thinker of these thoughts or for being a better human than anyone from home. I do, however, believe that leaving my little nest has allowed me to see how it is studded on the outside with clear shards of glass. That it is not as welcoming and cozy as we think it is from the inside. I think that, perhaps, a way to use my positionality of privilege is in asking my community to engage, to bring certain realities into our discussions. To encourage self-education. To have those conversations. The result has often been messy and challenging, but isn’t that part of it?
I am from this place where some choose ignorance. I speak this language, I share experiences with these people. This is my reality. I, too, can opt to disengage and I will not have to confront the same sort of oppression and pain a person of a different race or class or gender identity might. Yet when I do engage, when I do dive into those conversations, more often than not the result is not trauma or overwhelm, but rather connection and passion and love.
So, I think it is time for my community to face these difficult conversations and hard truths. It is time for us to hold each other accountable, to ask each other to pick back up that book, read the whole article, ask another question. Removing ourselves does not erase the problem. Insulating into communities where everyone shares common beliefs and opinions doesn’t make other ideologies disappear. With these conversations, with curiosity, with the energy to learn more about one another, about how we’ve come to believe what we do, about our stories and our bodies and our histories, the beauty of our human experience--in all its grief and pain and laughter and connection--will be more fully revealed. And perhaps we will understand each other a little more. And perhaps we will have a little more empathy to fuel our journey towards equality and justice.
Maya Pace is a rising senior at Tufts University where she is majoring in Peace and Justice Studies and minoring in English. She loves being outside, reading, and sharing stories.