On a Train Home From the City that Killed Eric Garner

I’m not at a loss for words. I have enough of them. I have an onslaught of them. The issue is not lacking the words, but discerning which of the many completely appropriate nouns and verbs and adjectives are the most deserving and capable of carrying the burden of such sad days.

This is not the America we were promised, and indeed it’s nothing we have ever seen except in history books, subtly placed beside assurances that such horrors are passed. The privilege to believe that things have been resolved and sorted, because believing is a thing good boys do when things happen in such a way that routinely affirm the merit of their makeup and their get up and go.

Not all good boys believe because not all good boys are affirmed as routinely as that, well, at least not for their goodness. 

It’s hard to truly embrace the reality of the ongoing horrors and mutual, shared failures of American life when the implication is that we – people like me in ways apparently relevant, though why, it is not clear – get far, far more than we fairly deserve. No one likes to be told that they have things unearned; that they’re sucking on the teat of circumstance and happenstance. “Privilege” is suddenly a four letter word despite its persistence at nine. It is assumed to be a word with a malevolent purpose; that assumption quietly operating as a thorough affirmation of the truth that the universe is so desperately trying to impart onto us if only we would be so good to listen.

Truths, really. Like the words I could use instead of the ones you now see… plural. Varied. Frightening, maybe.

It’s not that I have it so good because of the color of my skin, although that would be a completely accurate way to say it. But words matter, and they matter to people who look like me a great deal when it comes to this issue in particular, so I won’t call it “good,” the life laid out for me because I’m white. It’s just … better?

Wait, no. Not “better.” That word doesn’t work as well as it might.

It’s “different” plus whatever word can make it all mean that we get a certain amount of wiggle room – space to exist without being stepped upon by the severe weight of judgment – for us to stretch our legs and survive mistakes that would have ruined the reputations and lives of men and women to whom we are similarly situated. To live in a reality where the idea of personal responsibility has fewer inexplicably deadly consequences. We get all of that and, if we want, we can pretend that our personal wiggle room doesn’t exist because, we plead, the people who have it worse don’t matter when there are people out there who have it so much better.

Yeah. Privilege is the word. There isn’t another that works quite as well.

But it’s not monochromatic. It’s not linear, and not exclusively white or male. At least not always.  It is persistent, and often diverse and widely relevant. And above all, the word does not necessarily accuse and assign fault so much as it is instructive and revelatory. It is the thing that allows so many of us (more often than we might want to admit, and despite the fact that we might feel quite the opposite from time to time) the opportunity to be apart from certain horrors that are happening somewhere else to someone else, and then choose to either feel relief or to feel justified that we are us, and not them; to choose to feel like we’ve been granted no small amount of luck that history has dealt us a more favorable card than some, or to feel that we really control our destiny in every way and deserve each sliver of favor that the universe serves us. And not them. 

The choice of how to react to the myriad horrors, well, it doesn’t really feel like a choice anymore. With so much overwhelming evidence displaying just how our institutions of criminal, civil and social justice value us more than them, it feels like a necessity. Can we really pretend that we earned much of anything? Can we really pretend that we are in a position to judge that they are simply getting what they deserve? Can we really ignore the complete travesty of suffering arising out of nothing more than the ignorance of some among us?

As the beneficiaries of social systems built to benefit their own architects and people like them, can we still pretend that there is no obligation to bear witness to how incredibly screwed up it is that truly lovely, dynamic and civil people can all too easily become others struggling under the weighty boot of American injustice?

So I won’t kid myself. We don’t necessarily have it all that “good,” the people I identify with – but it’s a goddamn tremendous privilege all the same.

The words may not have been right, and maybe I’ll choose different ones tomorrow, but some choices are hard.

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1 Response to On a Train Home From the City that Killed Eric Garner

  1. Elaine Olund says:

    Thanks for writing about this. Well said. So much blindness to injustice.

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