Friday, July 22, 2016

The False Immunity of Being White

A few years ago, I got a flu shot. I don't usually get one - no particular reason other than no good reason to get one. But that year, ilana was getting one and I thought, "Why not?"

We didn't have health insurance, so we got it at a pharmacy. I kind of hate getting shots (likely another reason I hadn't gotten them often) and so felt a bit woozy during and after. They had me lie down and rest, and then I could get up and move around. I felt pretty sick for a couple of days - fever and all - when we called the pharmacy they said that can happen. It passed and I didn't get the flu that year, but I don't usually get it. Ironically, I did cancel classes that week due to the severity of my reaction to the innoculation - I did understand that one week sick is better than multiple weeks.

Why do I bring this up?

I've been thinking a lot about white fragility lately, and how easy it is for those of us who are not often exposed to the pain behind racism to get overwhelmed by it. So many good fellow white people I know - dedicated, heartfelt humans and activists, everyday Janes and Joes - are simply unable to endure the log haul, emotionally and physically. Self-care, like in any area of our lives, is crucial, but I also think we whites have to accommodate for our previous lack of exposure (chosen or by-product of privilege) and lower ourselves in slowly, or we wind up leaping in and out and being inconsistent in our support of important movements.

Innoculation a, by design, give us tiny exposures to a disease in order to build our immune systems to better handle them. Racism is a disease, an endemic one, and one that is in the air and water all the time. The thing is, white people, we think we are immune. But it is a false and dangerous immunity. We simply have the privilege to not be forced to be exposed as often, to choose our exposure and its effects on us. We have to choose to breathe common air, to drink common water. Even more accurately, we drink it, we breathe it and get sick - for racism injured us, too - and somehow don't feel the injuries.

Looking at the Flint water crisis is a great
Literal metaphor and example of this. Large numbers of people who are poor, and most often of color, pay the true environmental price of the computers and technologies of the privileges enjoyed by the few. When the few on top - the folks who are predominately white, and sometimes rich - hear about these prices, we are outages for a hot minute, then forget. 


Because we can. Because media encourages us to see such things as anamolies and unconnected, as if the flu were called something different each year, instead of being variations on the same strains. Because we are so unaccustomed to, so normally unexposed to just how bad - literally and psychologically metaphorically - the air and water are. Our shock is a symptom - rather than showing our righteousness, it shows our privilege. And our indignant and impatient responses are also a sign of how unaccustomed we are to the real situations.

This is not all bad. When the people on top begin to realize how bad it is for those on bottom, if they work on it and stay sympathetic, they can actually take action to help reverse the trends. If we inoculate ourselves enough (preferably with other white people so folks of color don't have to put up with our constant questions and emotions) we can actually have the benefit of having been protected from the disease, and having realized there is no protection for anyone so long as the disease persists.

The disease of racism can only be truly overcome through obliteration. This is where innoculation as metaphor falls apart. We have to be able to abide it so we can be allies in the race for the cure - to wipe it out. But that will take a long ass time. It just will. So becoming truly immune - not just above exposure but able to abide alongside those who have no choice but to drink and breathe it - helps us to truly see it, feel it, and touch the passion needed to get rid of it.

So if you are white, and curious, expose yourself. Go gently, but persistently. When you feel worn out, take a break but come back. Don't give up. Be inspired by people of color who have written about how to keep up the good fight in the long run.

And don't wait to get your shot like I did. If one wipes you out, then maybe more regular exposure is needed. Rest for a few days and try again. Keep trying.

*My back porch apologies to all the epidemiologists and other scientists I know who may cringe and my using the flu as a metaphor. I claim poet's license here!

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