Last night FoxyJ and I watched Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, a documentary about a group of refugees from Sierra Leone's brutal civil war of the nineties who started a band, bringing music to refugee camps in Guinea until the war ended in 2002 and they became leaders in bringing the refugees home. The story is meant to be one of hope, showing how these people used music to help them and their fellow refugees recover from the horrors they'd lived through, but as much as I enjoyed the movie and especially the music, I had a hard time getting past the horrors to the hope. It's hard to listen to a man tell how rebel soldiers forced him to beat his child to death and then cut off his hand, to see the fear in his eyes at the prospect of returning to the country he once called home, and not be left with the same sense of despair and helplessness that I've felt after watching every other film I've seen about the atrocities that happen in countries throughout Africa.
Earlier this week we watched In the Heat of the Night, and while I enjoyed the story and the acting--Sidney Poitier is amazing--I felt a similar sense of helplessness, though in this case not so much despair as anger at people whose racism leads them to treat human beings so inhumanely. Toward the beginning of the film the camera rests for a moment on a little statue of the Virgin Mary on a policeman's dashboard, and I was reminded of Crash, another film about racism that combined all those feelings of helplessness, despair, and anger and magnified them. As it turns out, I'm not the only person who has made the connection between the two movies--a review FoxyJ stumbled upon talked about how both movies are meant to make middle-class white people (read: me) feel good about themselves for not being racist.
A couple weeks ago I spent a while digging through the archives of a blog called Stuff White People Like. I laughed quite a bit as I read the satirical observations of white yuppies, as the particular brand of white yuppie parodied here, who loves diversity and gay people and the environment, is very much your typical Seattleite. The more I read, though, the more uncomfortable I became; the parodies started sounding less like parodies and more like accurate descriptions of me. I am the white guy who recycles because it's a way I can save the Earth without actually having to do much. I am the white guy who loves "conscious" hip-hop because it so vitally addresses the problems of a community I don't belong to. I am a living parody of educated, middle-class white people. I'm not very comfortable with this realization.
I'm in the midst of reading Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama's memoir about missing the chance to get to know his father and the resultant disconnect with his Kenyan roots. I feel a connection--and at the same time feel like I have no right to claim such a connection--to the teenaged Obama who felt as much like an outsider among the few other black students at his high school in Hawai'i as among the Asian, Polynesian, and white majority. I had a similar experience when I went to college and related neither to the white students that surrounded me nor to the other students from Hawai'i. In the former case it was my own pride in my island upbringing that prevented me from acknowledging that mainland white culture was not that different from my own; in the latter it was the color of my skin that betrayed me--despite the fact that I'd never lived anywhere but Hawai'i, I felt like an imposter claiming the islands as my home.
I like to think it is my own experience as an outsider--whether for my race or my sexual orientation--that leads me to feel a sense of connection to the victims of racism and to the residents of a continent recovering from centuries of European colonization and American slavery. The fact that I like to think this reveals just how ridiculous I am. I have a nice home, food, and nearly two master's degrees. Technically I believe my family's income is below the poverty line, but that's by choice, not by necessity. I am not a victim of anything. I have never been discriminated against for my race or my orientation. I live in a country where I can reasonably assume that rebels are not going to come to my village and kill or mutilate me. No matter how much hip-hop I listen to or books about racial identity I read or documentaries about Africa I see, I will not know what it is to be oppressed.
What then should I do? Should I stop trying to understand because I will never succeed, because even if I did that wouldn't solve anyone's problems? I don't think so. I can't solve the problems of the world, but I can't ignore them either. I'd like to end here on something pithy like "Perhaps trying to understand is all I can do," but honestly that feels like a cop-out. An excuse for the privileged intellectual elite to feel smug about recognizing that people everywhere are suffering, but not really do anything about it that would require more effort than buying a "Save Darfur" t-shirt.
I remain in the comfort of my perceived helplessness because anything beyond that is overwhelming.