Tag Archives: Hypocrisy

Third World Black America?

I went to the Union Square vigil last night, the National Moment of Silence for victims of police brutality. I spent a minute chanting with the protesters, but decided that I wanted to hear what people at the vigil had to say, rather than walk through NYC. It was nice, being surrounded by people I did not know, who had all come out to support the same cause. There were a lot of us. We were a community with potential.

One morning on the walk through Kibera, there was a sort of mob forming at one of the intersections of our path. It seemed ominous, although its animosity was not directed toward us, but at whatever was happening at its center.
“Mzungu!” One man called out to the volunteer in front of me, “Come and look at this!” Other members of the crowd laughed, but we didn’t pay attention. We had to get to school, and despite being curious about what was happening, the vibe coming from the people gathered was scary.
We later found out that we had passed by a stoning. Someone had been caught stealing, and when this happens, the perpetrator is stoned to death. In this case, they stopped before the guy was actually dead. It was still slightly unnerving to hear about.
The way that it was explained makes a lot of sense, though. Kibera is a community. An actual, beautiful community, “where everyone looks out for each other. If someone is having a party a few houses down from you, you go to it, even if you don’t know them that well. You go, because they’re your neighbor. When you buy, say, a radio, that’s only possible after taking the time to save up for it. Once you have it, it is precious to you. If someone steals your radio, they are also stealing your security. You cannot trust them, because the same people who steal from you will also come into your house and rape you. A community without trust between its residents is not a community at all, and Kibera can’t function the same way unless that trust is restored. So the community must punish the person who breached trust severely enough to ensure that it will never happen again. They do not trust the police to help them, because they know the police are not their allies; they only hurt, and never help.”

Throughout the experience, I would be annoyed with other volunteers for looking at things that were happening in Kibera as sad aspects of a developing (some people actually still said Third World) nation that was behind the United States. Certain people actually seemed to believe that in four weeks, we would make everything better and set a good Western example for the people we supposedly helped. Meanwhile, there seemed to be no reflection on the United States’ own issues.

This was one that I almost missed. I didn’t really think about it until, while listening to speakers at the vigil, I found myself wondering about Mike Brown’s body lying in the street. When you find a body in the street, who do you call? Who do you expect to move it? It’s funny, because my automatic reaction would be to think of the police. You’re supposed to be able to call the police when you find a dead body, and they’re supposed to rush over and then do their detective thing, find the killer, and put the killer to justice. Right?
But what if the police put the body there in the first place? That sounds crazy.
That sounds crazy. What if the police shot the body and left it there to rot in the middle of an active street? And what if they shot the body for no viable reason? What if the police are actually killers?
Who do you call now?

There are those stupid Youtubers who have their racist “In the Hood” pranks, where they harass black people into beating them up. One especially stupid one involves them going up to random black guys and snatching the cell phones out of their hands to “check” the time. They Know it looks like they’re stealing the phones. They Know they’re going to be beaten up. They Know they’re creating extremely fucked up situations, but they keep creating them because they Don’t Know that they’re participating in yet another form of racism.
If you can get shot for being black, are you really going to call the police when a shrimpy white boy takes your phone? That’d be stupid. You have to take care of it yourself because you don’t even have a community to stone with you. Black people are not enough of a community yet. I have hope. It can be done. If black people continued to come together and didn’t just wait for the next abominable killing that made headlines, there Could Be a community.

But for right now, it seems that we’re behind Kibera. This must be when what Monsignor Ivan Illich meant when he told volunteers to stay in America and fix its own inequalities first. Who will fix this?

Who are we Helping?

I’ll get briefly personal on behalf of someone else: my uncle. He and my aunt are lucky enough to have jobs that they find meaningful. She’s an artist/small-time actress, and he’s a carpenter. A terrific woodworker, actually. He’s done our kitchen and my parents’ closets, and made us an awesome dining room cabinet. However, it can be expensive to do what you love, and making a living is becoming tighter for him. Recently, my mom had him come over to widen our doors (so we could install a washing machine). It took a lot of work, but at the end he didn’t want to be paid, saying that he’d done it as a favor to family.

Of course, my mother wouldn’t accept this, and repeatedly tried to get him to take money, which he repeatedly refused. Things got really awkward as it became apparent that she was going to cry over his financial situation, and he finally accepted thirty dollars for gas, then got the hell out of our house. She followed to the door, still trying to increase his earnings, and finally watched morosely as he got into his car to drive off.

“Look happier,” I told her, “for him.”
“But I’m not happy,” she told me, “I’m sad!”
“Believe me, everybody knows that,” I said. “But you either need to look happy for him right now, or leave so he can’t see your face. You’re making him feel bad.”
“How?” she asked, defensively. “How??”

What followed was an annoying debate. My mother believed I was attacking her for no reason, and that I was cold-hearted for not jumping on board to help family members in need. How could I not understand how upsetting the situation was? Why wouldn’t I want to help?
“But you aren’t helping. You made everything worse, and you can’t understand that because you’re only thinking of yourself,” I said, then immediately backpedaled to explain myself as a wave of hurt indignation crossed her face.

Her indignation was partially correct. Of course she wasn’t only thinking of herself. The only reason she was upset in the first place was because of someone else’s suffering. The fact that she was near tears over someone else refusing to take her money should have been evidence enough that she was thinking of others, not herself.
But it wasn’t, at least not completely.
My mother gave me my empathic distress. She feels deeply for people and their situations, and is always looking to help others. Unfortunately, along the way she gets so wrapped up in what she imagines they must be feeling, the emotions take over her dealings. Few things will make you feel worse about your situation than having someone cry over it for you, tell you how you must be feeling about it, and openly pity you. The way my mother went about trying to pay my uncle for his work, she made it seem as though we’d been using him purely out of pity, because we felt sorry for the sad man we thought he must be. The longer she pleaded with him, the less it seemed like she actually appreciated his craftsmanship. We all knew her true intentions, but they became irrelevant, and the whole thing was embarrassing (I even left the room, pretending to be ignorant of the situation for his sake). She was too wrapped up in her own emotions to see it.

* * * * * *

I used to think I wanted to join the Peace Corps; to some extent, I still do. I don’t know what I want to do with my life, and because up until recently I’ve placed very little value on my life, I decided to give it value by helping others. I even flirted with the idea of joining the United Nations, until reading too many stories of their peacekeeping troops’ inaction during times of crisis turned me off. The Peace Corps seemed like a better alternative, especially after hearing my mom’s stories from when she was a volunteer. Teaching? Dam projects to create electricity? Actually doing things? I didn’t even bother me to learn that her group got kicked out of their country after one member tried to galvanize citizens against the corruption in their government.

Then I read “To Hell With Good Intentions”, and my entire perception was rocked. It made me examine my mother’s story more closely. Did anyone listen to the guy who spoke against the government? And what happened if they did? A few weeks ago, at least forty people were killed in the DRC after they attempted a coup, with sticks. Everything about that last sentence was wrong.
The Peace Corps was kicked out, yes, and isn’t allowed back. Their foreign (and largely white) privilege protected them from facing any real punishment. They got to go home, feeling good for helping other, less fortunate people, but what did they leave behind?

When I help people, I want it to stick. I don’t want to go somewhere for a couple months or years, ignorantly change other people’s lifestyles in ways that I judge to be correct, and then happily leave everyone behind, struggling to get by with what I’ve left them. I can’t trust my judgement that much, especially as an outsider. Me telling people what they need would not be so different from my mother telling people what they’re feeling; in both cases, the agency is being taken from the supposed subjects, and the focus and power are given to the supposed helper.

It’s not about the helpers. It’s not about what I think will be better, or what I want done immediately. It’s about what’s necessary, possible, and will continue to help people after I’ve gone. Knowing the vice of Helper’s Absorption, how can I avoid it? I guess by trying to go where I know I’m needed, and staying until I know I am not. This would mean leaving the judgement of what’s needed up to the people actually familiar with the situation. It wouldn’t mean ignoring my own moral compass, or shutting out my own ideas and innovations, but I hope it would at least leave agency in the possession of the people who need it the most. Not like this will be some simple thing to do, but I’m determined to do it.
And when I help people, I hope you won’t know about it through me. People who help for the bragging rights are only helping themselves.

Everyone should go read “The Poisonwood Bible”.