It has been very surreal to sit in sunny, quiet Brighton and watch the upheaval in the States from afar.
Far is the key word here: it all feels so very far away from me. I know just how much of a privilege that is. It’s a privilege to read the news and not be the news. It’s a privilege to decide not to even read the news, to shut everything down and retreat into work or music or dance, knowing that when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll still have the same privilege and the same options and the same safeties. It’s an unspeakable privilege not to be the person with the knee pressed to the back of their neck, literally or metaphorically, day after day.
I’ve grappled this week with how to speak to that unspeakable privilege. I’ve thought about my obligations as an American citizen (though one who hasn’t lived in America for decades), and as a white woman—and, perhaps most of all, my obligations as a human being with a conscience, as an individual who likes to think she is the type of good person will do the just and moral thing when called upon to do so (while acknowledging that many bad people also think they are good people who are doing just and moral things).
I’ve thought not just about my obligations, but my abilities. What am I realistically able to do from my safe perch on the south coast of England, and what does it make sense to do? How can I best help the people less privileged and far more vulnerable than me? What action can I take that is not just performative, a public demonstration of “goodness” for the sake of social media? How do I resolve the tension between doing something and being seen to be doing something? Or is the visibility of what you do part of what makes it significant? If you donate to an organization but don’t tell anyone, does it make an impact (beyond the financial impact on the organization itself)? If you donate to an organization and tell everyone, what have you achieved? Or, maybe more pertinently, what are you trying to achieve? When is silence a way of making space for voices that otherwise struggle to be heard, and when is silence complicity in oppression?
I don’t have the answers, and the fact that I’ve had so much time and space to sit around thinking about myself and my concerns and my response to the events of the past weeks(/months/years/decades/generations/centuries) is yet another mark of my privilege. In the end, I’ve done the only thing that felt personally honest for me to do: I’ve made donations (thus paying my “awkward-statement-avoidance tax”), tried not to clog up the airwaves with well-meaning but ineffectual platitudes, and vowed to do the work of making the spaces I am most familiar with and passionate about (dance and food, music and language) more safe, open, diverse and straight-up humane.
Meanwhile, back in the green and pleasant land in which I currently reside, the riveting news has revolved around whether a member of parliament attended a “lockdown barbecue” last month (he did, but apparently he didn’t mean to, and he only ate half a sausage—or “one or possibly two sausages” depending on whose account you believe). Also present at the barbecue was the Brexit party chairman—which, oh yeah, Brexit is a thing again now too, after being largely absent from our news feeds and our consciousness for the past few months. That most pointless and self-defeating of national(ist) projects is still humming away in the background, with just three weeks left for the UK government to ask for extension of the transition period, which you’d think might be a smart idea in light of [waves hands around wildly] but which will probably not happen because [waves hands wildly in the direction of Westminster].
And while both the looming Brexit disaster and the ongoing coronavirus disaster (with our R number on a “knife edge” and over 40,000 people dead ) do directly affect me, posing a threat to my livelihood and my life—somehow even all of that is very far away too. My perception contracts and expands and contracts again, feeling its way out into the world and then snapping back to my little desk in my little office in our little flat on our little street, which then becomes my whole world, its limits extending no farther than our neighbors’ houses out front and our garden out back. Anything beyond that seems unreal. I know the bigger world exists, but I can’t see it, hear it or touch it, and it feels like it can’t touch me.
It’s a illusion, of course. It can very well touch me, and I can touch it back—if only by clicking buttons on a screen, hitting keys on a keyboard, sending tiny digital signals into the apparent void in the hope that they eventually encounter something, and maybe change something.