Empathy, Privilege and Ever-Evolving Perceptions

 

WHY AM I HERE?  WHAT PURPOSE CAN I SERVE ON ANOTHER CONTINENT WHEN THE COUNTRY I COME FROM IS IN SUCH DEADLY DISARRAY?  WHY AM I EXPLAINING THAT OUR CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT WAS OVER 50 YEARS AGO AND I DON’T KNOW WHY BLACK AMERICANS ARE STILL BEING KILLED BY WHITE PEOPLE’S HANDS?  WHY IN THE HELL IS DONALD TRUMP GETTING AS FAR AS HE HAS?  WILL I EVER GO BACK TO LIVE IN THE UNITED STATES?

 

I can’t get the United States out of my head recently.  The thoughts spelled out above are only a small representation of the record player spinning through my head, on an infinite loop.  I guess my country has a way of doing that to people sometimes – imposing itself into business that has no relation to it, aside from how strategically it is located to a military advantage or wealth of crude oil.  But this time, the U.S. has seeped itself into my heart, my mind and my conscience.  I have struggled to come up with the right words to express my overwhelming and distraught emotions of late, as news story after news story slams into my face day in and day out (well, the days that I can access internet, that is).  And I have an ongoing tug-of-war in my brain that has kept me awake some nights, because I feel this way simply from hearing stories.  Real people’s stories.  Real lives who have been affected incredibly by people will horrifying intentions.  And I am only slammed in the face theoretically.  There are people ACTUALLY being slammed in the face with riot gear, tear gassed until they can’t breathe, and most appalling, shot and killed for no reason other than the color of their skin.

 

Now I am not so far removed that I do not understand the complexities of a movement such as the one we are living through now.  I see that there are opinions on not just two sides, but many angles in between the opposing forces – people’s opinions of what they perceive as accurate and true, to the best of their understanding of the world and other’s worlds.  There is unfathomable pain emanating from every single person, on every single side of this war (because that’s what it is, isn’t it?) that I will never fully grasp, because I am not only unable to participate physically, but unable to participate mentally.  I will never know the suffering of a black man who has to fear for his life when he walks down the street, checking that his pants aren’t sagging too low or that he doesn’t look too “stereotypically black”.  I do not know the distress that an inter-racial couple faces when they are walking down the street, each one worried that if they are seen holding hands, something terrible might happen to their partner.  I will never know the I will never know the fear that a black woman endures who has to warn her child of how to avoid being singled out, when to reach for their license and registration, why they aren’t given the same liberties and freedoms that their white playmates are granted, and the general ways of the world that a white mother never has to think about.

 

Now what I do understand is living in a place where I am constantly, ceaselessly, forever watched, observed and sought after.  Where every move I make, I am checking my safety and making smart decisions in order to mitigate potential threats.  I do understand what it feels like to walk down the road and targeted, whether it is for my perceived abundance of money, for food, or my body.  I do understand the body-tensing, jaw-clenching worry that goes through my nervous system when I walk past a large group of men, knowing what harassment and propositions I will recieve.  It is enough to raise my cortisol levels a few times a day, give me tension headaches and question the quality of people in my community.  It is painful, heartbreaking and the most stress that I have ever experienced.  And despite all of that, it is incremental when viewed side by side to what people of the Black Lives Matter movement face.  It is incremental in the white privilege world that I live in when compared to the lack of equality that others experience on a daily basis and that I have no power to control.  It leaves me feeling helpless – knowing that I am a transplant from a country that many people see as a superpower, but that I look at currently with disgust.

 

I can recognize that I have many forms of privilege, aside from my skin color, including my citizenship to a country that allows Freedom of Speech.  I can openly speak about the atrocities occurring and my disappointment in so many of the American citizens.  To know that my opinions and criticisms of the United States are not only legal, but encouraged among many parties as what “makes America great”.  The diversity of its citizens – the melting pot of cultures – and the myriad of voices and ideas contained within one gargantuan mass of land.  How have we lost sight of these important characteristics and drifted so far from the ideologies that the United States was founded on?  Why are so many people seemingly confused about what those principles were?  I am lost for words all too often recently and can’t seem to come up with much else besides empathy.

 

Empathy begins the moment I choose to think of the ear-piercing screaming coming from the school auditorium during the Beauty Pageant I am judging as the most excitement these kids have experienced this school term, aside from going home to their family farms on the out weekends, instead of as a migraine-inducing annoyance.  Empathy continues when I politely tell the older man begging me for money outside of the grocery store that I do not have any extra, instead of becoming more frustrated with the thought that everyone wants something from me.  Empathy does not end, but continues on when I say a silent prayer for the woman who is blacked out at a shebeen, gripping a bottle of wine in one arm and her child in the other, remembering that she could be fighting demons and her past in so many ways that I would be horrified to know.  I do this instead of placing judgments onto her for being an irresponsible, alcoholic mother, because empathy is best understood when you figure out that you really understand nothing about other people.

 

I am fully aware that these judgments I receive from others stem from privilege, and from a perceived knowledge of what it means to be a white person in Namibia, and that it in no way is equal to the judgments that white cops make on a black American.  This is in no way meant to make my frustrations seem even remotely parallel to the struggles that non-white citizens are currently facing.  It is simply an effort for me to process my thoughts on these heinous times and understand the small amount that I can, coming from the privileged world that I have lived in.  Privilege is a dangerous thing, and the first thing that we can do to level the field is to acknowledge that privilege exists, and that I have it.  And then moving on from there, keeping my privilege in check and joining some of the bravest people in history who are fighting against the inequality that they face every day.

 

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A Windhoek night sky, city lights enveloped in the stark sunset contrast.
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2 thoughts on “Empathy, Privilege and Ever-Evolving Perceptions

  1. Alex how did the United States get to this place? The racial tension reminds me of the ’60’s. Does this mean racism is as it was in the 60’s?
    I don’t have the answer but I do know we need to pray more and be kind to one another.God bless America and everyone. Stay safe and we’re so proud of you. Bless you.

  2. Alex, your thoughts are so perfectly heartfelt. I can only imagine the distress you feel as you from your location and we from ours strive to navigate an understanding of how we got where we are and where do we go from here.
    I know LOVE is imperative. But it is more complex than just to use that word so glibly.
    The HOW’s and WHAT’s must be included.
    So much distress, worry and fear. That should not be what America has for our legacy.
    Love, joy, honor and peace would be among the words our beautiful country should be representative of.
    I hope that the future your generation aspires to will include them moving into the future.
    I love you, awesome lady!

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