Read this..."What my Bike has Taught me About White Privilege"
Then watch this... "Jon Stewart Destroys Fox News for its Mike Brown Coverage"
I loved the bicycle article because it creates a nonthreatening analogy of what it is like to be the minority, highlighting what kinds of things the majority never even consider. My experience in Panama has really driven that home, because much of the things he says about being a bicyclist on the streets of Lansing could be said about being a woman on the streets of Panama.
Jon Stewart's video gives you a crash course on what is going on Ferguson, and his strong opinions on it. Since I was in America when this hit the fan, I saw many news reports covering it and heard lots of people talking about it from both sides. The general consensus of many people I was around is that this was just a gross exaggeration of the African American population taking any chance they could to create media hype and criminalize the white man. They defended the white police officer and his colleagues, saying that no act of violence warranted such a public protest that could spark more violence. They empathized with the tragedy, saying that it was awful that this happened, but chalked it up to an isolated incident, a glorified accident. There are also many people I was around that want to elect Jon Stewart president, so there's that too.
I had a fairly middle ground reaction to this whole thing, rather apathetic, to be perfectly honest, at first. I live in the "third world", it is hard for me to muster my empathy for "first world problems", as I classified this at first. I have been focusing a lot recently on developing my grey space thinking, rather than polarizing things as black or white. I want to try to see every side of the story. My general conclusion was that it was like an internet video gone viral, a lot of hype that was centered in truth, but that would mean nothing in about five minutes.
While I was in the States watching protesters pour milk in their eyes to soothe the tear gas on my parents 70" television, I saw a Facebook post from a fellow Volunteer. In the very town I now live in, a 14 year old indigenous (Ngabe) boy was riding his bicycle on the 2 lane road through this community of roughly 7,000 people. He was hit by a car, and the police were called. Thankfully, he was not killed and suffered only minor injuries. However, this young indigenous Ngabe boy was fined by the wealthy Latino police officer for damage to the car owned by a wealthy Latino driver. (By definition of having a steady job like a police officer and having a car automatically boosts you into the 'wealthy' category in this area.)
But maybe the kid actually did something wrong! Life is never black or white, I'll give you that. Our town has no bike lanes, few stop signs, and no street lights. While there is a speed limit, it is rarely enforced, and any process involving the government is anything but transparent. (And corrupt, more often than not.) Everything about this situation is grey and unclear. But at the end of the day, it is still a kid versus an adult.
Here's what is very clear- there were no protests, no arguing, no investigation of the situation. If that boy or his family had anything to say about their injustice, real or perceived, it happened in the privacy of their own home and went no further. The worst part is that it is possible that they didn't even realize that the system was prejudiced against them, they might even believe they deserved to be treated that way. The boy was probably reprimanded or punished by his family for bringing this financial burden upon them in their already desperate state. He was probably told to be more careful, to behave differently, to not participate in such risky behaviors, and to not go to certain places.
For my first 3 days back in Panama after my visit to America, I had to walk from my hostel to the lab once each day to drop off my poop tests. (Standard yearly medical protocol, I am actually healthy right now for once!) On the most direct route there, a group of street vendors cluster near a big tree to sell things to the drivers at the 4 way intersection with the street lights. Male street vendors.
Monday when I passed them, it was early evening and one guy made some comment. When I passed them on the way back, they all tried to get my name. I rolled my eyes and thought, "Welcome back to Panama". I felt annoyed by it, but more so with myself than at them for letting it bother me, I should be used to this by now. It is something that is so common in my life in Panama that most times it goes unnoticed.
Tuesday, I went in the morning, and crossed the street before I got there, so as to put 3 lanes of traffic between us. It didn't matter- one of them crossed the street and tried to hold my hand as I walked across the street until I told him to leave me alone. On the way back, they all hissed and yelled things. I was angry that day, why is it that I can walk the streets of Chicago alone for 3 days in peace and I can't walk 6 blocks in Panama alone without harassment? (I'll give you a clue, it's because I am a white female.)
Wednesday, I again went at a different time, this time around lunchtime, hoping that lunch hour traffic would keep them occupied and distracted. I got minimal comments on the way there, but on the way back the traffic was too much to cross to the opposite side of the street so I had to walk amongst the 5 of them. As I passed between them they said really horrendous things about what they would do to me after they 'married me'. Gross.
Don't tell me that I should have asked someone to go with me. Don't tell me that I should have taken a taxi. Don't tell me that I should have walked another route. Don't tell me that I should have worn or said or reacted any differently. Don't tell me how I should or should not feel about that. That is all victim blaming, and it is not ok. Stop telling me to be careful, stop telling me to change my actions to compensate. Stop holding me accountable.
Michael Brown was a victim. The Ngabe boy was a victim. I was a victim. We're not flawlessly innocent, but none of us deserved what we got. The cultures we live in hold us accountable for the crimes against us and it needs to stop.
If I were to prevent myself from being a victim of sexual harassment based on my race here in Panama, I would quite literally never be allowed to leave my house, and would have to put up curtains over my living room windows because yes, I have been catcalled while sitting on my couch.
If the Ngabe boy were to prevent himself from being a victim of racial discrimination, he would be required to move back into the reservation of his tribe, where there is little food, little work, and little education. And he could never leave.
If Michael Brown were to prevent himself from being a victim of racial discrimination, how would he even go about doing that in America? Where could he hide?
You are tired of hearing about these issues in the news- rape culture, racial profiling, feminism, equal opportunity, religious persecution, bigotry, etc, etc, etc. They are classified as separate, individual issues and they compete with each other for awareness and funding. The competition is crippling them. At their core, they aren't separate problems. This isn't a small town issue, nor a national issue. This problem transcends all countries, races, cultures, religions, ethnicities, and all of the categories people use to label themselves. They all come down to one thing. It is not the people behind the actions, but the system we've created.
Globally, we need to shift the accountability from victims to their perpetrators with empathy. We need to speak up for the silent crimes, and we need to make a fuss like Ferguson for the hundreds of thousands of people who feel powerless to do the same. For the victims who believe they deserve what they got. Instead of telling minorities to change themselves and hide, we need to teach the bullies to stop. We need to be aware of our own privileges and how we are unconsciously disempowering others and propagating the victim blame culture. We can't change others unless we first change ourselves.
I don't want you to tell me what I should have done differently when I say that I was harassed on the street- I want you to hold your friends accountable for it when you see them do it. By remaining silent on the issue you are just as guilty. When you see a cyclist on the road, change lanes and realize they are navigating 10x as many dangers as you are. When you hear about an unarmed teenager getting shot, question the system that allowed that to happen. Dig deeper and say, 'Why is it that the officer felt the need to shoot this young man? What about his training, life history, or personal beliefs led him to that conclusion?" And then, keep going. Ask, "What can we do to change that behavior?"
Most importantly, when you meet those people who have been victimized by the harsher side of life, validate their experience. Listen to them, believe them, and make sure that they really understand they did not deserve it. Think about how Michael Brown's mother feels having thousands of people come to defend her son, and how the Ngabe mother feels in the silence. Honestly, the reaction to Ferguson may be a good thing. It means that there are thousands of people who believe they have the power to change things.