Updated: Aug 26, 2020
The Fire This Time: Josh Buchin
America is on fire. In truth, America has always been on fire. The fire has raged for 400 years. But now it feels as if people are finally looking out their windows and noticing the conflagration. While America burns, I’ve been thinking about privilege, one of the main reasons America is aflame. Some people have privilege and others are denied access to what advantage brings. Consider two kinds of ‘entitlements’: the privilege of ignorance and the privilege of choice. Combined, these two permit the larger indulgence of inaction.
It’s maddening how slowly we respond to the suffering of others. Had the level of outrage happening now taken place years ago, perhaps George Floyd would still be alive. Breonna Taylor might still be among us. How many African-American lives could have been saved? But belatedly, people are paying attention. And by people, I mean white people in America. Because if you are a Black person in America, you never have the luxury of not paying attention to race. Your whole existence is defined by your skin colour. And now White people are thinking about race too. The fact that, like most White people, I have spent most of my life never thinking about my own race is privilege. White Americans have always had the liberty to plead ignorance about race, to talk about it only in the context of the other, to behave as if race is something that happens to someone else.
The second privilege relates to choice. I’m reminded of a piece of text from the Babylonian Talmud, the central work of Rabbinic literature, which is the major guiding light for Jews. Composed in Babylonia, now Iraq, the 6th century CE text feels eerily prescient, telling us: “Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one's household and does not, is punished for the actions of the members of their household; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one's townspeople and does not, is punished for the transgressions of the townspeople; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b-55a).
This text tells us something that should be intuitive – all of us, living in interconnected communities, are responsible for one another. However, just because it’s intuitive doesn’t mean it’s easy. I find many excuses not to actively protest. Primarily, my life is not threatened by a police force that exists to subjugate and control my race. Had I been born a different skin colour, my priorities would reflect this. But I am not afraid of the police, have never had any reason to be. My experience is a White one. I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over while driving for doing nothing, to have to keep my hands where the officers can see them at all times, to fear my life is endangered by this encounter. I don’t know the urgency people of color feel right now. As a White person, I have the privilege of choices that many do not.
The privileges of ignorance and of choice combine to soothe me. I don’t have to do anything, retreating into my cave of Whiteness. I can stop Googling “protests,” ignore the New York Times for a few weeks, let everything go back to normal. What I am most afraid of is that this is what will happen. That most White people will feel that too much is being asked of us already – we are living through a plague, after all! – and that trying to navigate 400 years of systemic racism and systematic oppression is beyond the scope of what we can handle right now. I am worried that the fire currently igniting America will subside and leave only embers in its wake. I am worried that the privilege of inaction will win out.
Eventually, life will go back to some kind of normal. But for people of color in America, normal is totally unacceptable. We must continue to show up; not just now while BLM is trending on Twitter, but forever, even when doing so is unpopular again. We must change how we view people of color, starting with an examination of the ways we see our own race. We must advocate for deep structural and systemic change to almost every aspect of American life. Most critically, we must not fall back on our privileges – of ignorance, of choice, and of inaction. Moving beyond our White gaze will be uncomfortable, scary, challenging. But it’s time to give up our privileges, time to find a new way of being in the world with others.
Recommended reading: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo; How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin. .https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/306/306949/i-am-not-your-negro/9780141986678.html
Josh Buchin is a rabbi, scholar, teacher, writer. He currently does all of the above in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org