This blog post is a response to an article from the New York times called “White Debt,” by Eula Biss In my response I may miss the whole point and instead use this article to make another point entirely.
Biss discusses her own new debt and pleasure at owning things: her new house, her furniture, her education. All these things, a direct reflection of our social status. Then goes on to discuss Nietzsche, particularly his philosophy that the system of cutting off body parts by the “creditors of antiquity” in order to satisfy a debt was pleasurable for a creditor. She compares this to the story of the white Texas trooper who beat a black woman while she asked, “You feelin’ good about yourself?”
My problem with both of these is the supposition that it is pleasurable for the person eking out punishment. I have no interest in the question of whether the punishment is just. It is not. In both situations it is an excess in force by the person in control. What I want to think about is the collateral collected by the severing of a person from their body part or by beating. I am not convinced it is pleasure, unless it is the pleasure in satisfying the urges that provocation creates. Systems are put in place to maintain a certain civic society, policemen are put in charge to keep the peace, but when do these measures of control go awry? How do we train our front line of society, our officers, our teachers, our parents, to withstand the provocation so they don’t lose sight of themselves and the greater good that they are working towards? How do we inoculate ourselves from that particular out welling of anger that can bring us down to our most base level so that the monster of hate can be passed between us like a poltergeist? We have all been triggered, by our children, by our siblings, by our partners, by our bullies. Do you remember that singular moment where emotion takes over your system and the itch to lash out is bigger than the physical space your body inhabits? What is required is patience and practice.
The author tells of her intention to watch the shooting of Samuel DuBose on the Chicago Tribune website to mourn his death and how it is foiled by the intrusion of an Acura commercial. Before she makes it to the site, she turns away.
It is a hard and daring act to allow yourself to feel the loss of something. There are many sensations and thoughts that need to be tolerated. Biss could not, the commercial interruption brought up discomfort at her own privilege and she closed the window. My intention is not to discuss her privilege or even the validity of her observations. I’d rather discuss ways she could have responded differently. Could it be in that very moment of the Acura add, staying there despite the discomfort and seeing her intention all the way to the end could serve as payment in some way? Perhaps it matters less with an Acura add and a video of a shooting than it did later when she and her son come upon an officer handcuffing a black man. She stops to watch. Perhaps if she had practiced earlier she could have been different when the cop is on the defensive. He asks what she is doing and proceeds to get angry. She tells him, “I am being a witness.” He could realize in that moment that a witness serves everyone if there is impartiality. But he does not. She could realize that he is vulnerable. That he fears her impartiality, in fact she isn’t impartial, she is watching on purpose to protect the black man. Perhaps he senses that and his hackles go up. He wants people to understand that he doing good work, that his intentions are to protect the public. What if in that situation, Biss had held her ground but also assuaged his heightened emotions. It would be hard. It would perhaps be superhuman. But if she could have convinced him that it was to his benefit that she was there watching. What if in that moment the witness, cop and handcuffed man all honored everything that it took to get to this moment in time, both the good things and the bad, and made some radical and different response to the stimuli. Could she reassure the cop, reassure herself and her son until the situation has come to its conclusion. I don’t know. Maybe.
We are sold a vision of comfort by a million different images everyday. It looks like the inside of an Acura. Or owning your own house. Or a particular body, hair color, facial features. Or any of another million images that can pop up on the Internet as we are on our way somewhere else. Our short attention spans and distractibility from real pain is the true roadblock to equality. Our culture of whiteness, sameness, social advantages perpetrates itself by poking and prodding our triggers all day long until we spend our money, find that complacency, incur more debt. This is a cycle that cannot be broken by declaring war on whitey, as long as he identifies as such. Because his list of triggers may be just as long as yours. You need to see how the two are firing together. Our triggers are conditioned to be close to the surface in this culture. That is the debt that we have incurred. Guilt is emotional commerce. It signals that it is time to pay attention, slow down, see what the situation is asking you to do on an individual level and also remember what your goal is. Do not ignore your guilt too long and let it get big and out of control. That is when your triggers surface and even most tiny, most innocent fingers can scratch there. Everyone is in danger then.
Take care of yourself, take care of your teachers, take care of the kiddos, teach them how to take care of themselves. Walk through this world as a peace keeper.