Friday, February 21, 2020

Little Earthquakes

In every life, there are pivotal moments - moments where you enter as one person, and emerge as a person changed.

Some of these pivotal moments are earth-shattering: the loss of a loved one. My sister's death was one such cataclysmic event in my life.

But, while the death of a loved one can rend the very fabric of your world, so many pivotal moments are but little earthquakes - rumblings felt only by you, and largely brushed off by passersby.

Today, I share one such little earthquake, the reverberations of which continue to shape my life and perspective.

My family took a trip to Jamaica when I was in undergrad.

We stayed in an all-inclusive resort, but took excursions to destinations throughout the island.

I could write another post about the wealth disparities I saw - the extravagance of the resorts as compared to the poverty of the local populace - but I'd seen poverty before. It troubled me, but was not new to me.

What was new to me dawned on me slowly.

It wasn't apparent on the resort, but it held me in an intense, larger-than-life gaze every time we boarded the bus:

The gaze came from different faces, but always from brown eyes - every ad here, every billboard, every "buy this or do that" - was presented by black people. And for black people.

Everywhere I looked, black faces were heralded as the beauty standard, as the friendliness standard, as the...standard.

Now I can already hear the quintessential 90s "well duh" emanating from some of you. Logically a predominantly black population would have advertisements etc featuring predominantly black models and actors.

But what you're not getting - and what I didn't understand until I'd experienced it - was the impact of seeing a race other than my own presented as "the standard."

*Insert Erin's little earthquake here.*

This is the moment when I discovered for myself just how much race mattered/s.

Now please don't misread - no one was mean to me. I faced no discrimination in Jamaica for being white. I wasn't singled out - it was actually the opposite. I was completely ignored.

I was invisible.

And, in that week of invisibility I discovered an uncomfortable truth from which my whiteness in a predominantly white country had shielded me: invisibility hurts.

To that point, I'd been aware of what I understood to be hurtful racism - the racism that sneers slurs. The racism that says, "You can't drink from the same water fountain as me." The racism that says you get a stiffer sentence for the same crimes. The racism that burns crosses, vandalizes businesses, commits murders.

But it never occurred to me that, in just leaving people alone, being polite, doing nothing racist or "cruel" to them in particular, but surrounding them by images of beauty in which neither they nor anyone resembling them are included, making media in which they and their stories are excluded, and assuming all's well so long as everyone gets to use the same fountain, creates its own kind of pain.

Again, don't misread. I understand capitalism. I understand that, in a predominantly white society, predominantly white stories sell. And it's all about the bottom line. But what I didn't understand until that trip in my early 20s, was the larger sociological and psychological impact of these truths on marginalized peoples.

This earthquake reverberates in my soul to this day.

Remembering this feeling of invisibility - of existing as a walking, talking ghost in a sea of people who didn't resemble me - is an exercise I try to revisit with regularity.

It's why, when I watch shows like "Fresh Off The Boat" and films like "Us," I do so with the consciousness that my patronage, however small, contributes to the visibility of those people that white America has traditionally walked right on by.

It's why I think "White History Month" and "All Lives Matter" would be comically ridiculous if they weren't so injurious.

It's why I am writing today, when I haven't in months, after seeing Donald Trump disparage "Parasite" when it's nothing short of remarkable that a foreign language film featuring no white actors has reached such heights.

I don't think I am exemplary in this regard. I don't think I deserve some sort of accolade for discovering in my 20s a truth minority peoples have experienced their whole lives. Rather, I just want to use whatever small platform I have to bring attention to an issue my white brethren may not have previously considered:

Even if we share the fountain; even if we share the lunch counter; even if we share schools and neighborhoods and backyard barbecues - the work isn't finished.

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