On apathy and privilege
When working as a docent at the Old Sorrel-Weed house, there came a point in my tenure when I couldn’t speak to guests about the home’s history of slavery without sobbing.
Every time the subject came up, a heavy, tangible energy entered the room. It was a foreign but familiar feeling that I’d first become accustomed to while living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.
It was the feeling of Apathy.
I’d tolerated Apathy in the form of sidewalk refuse: dirty needles, loose crack rocks…even an abandoned dead pitbull puppy.
I’d witnessed its hybrid form: a man with the glass lip of a brown beer bottle embedded deep in his eyeball—the result of a bar fight. He’d just been released from prison for murder and was so adamant about not going back to jail that he’d rather have gone blind or died from infection than go to the ER and get arrested for a parole violation.
How do I know this? I have an honest face and a sign on my forehead that says, “spill your secrets here.”
Apathy caused my apartment broker not to mention that the one bedroom, first floor apartment he had just leased me (for a fee totaling 25% of the annual rent) was located on the number one crack dealing block in Manhattan; that little factoid was revealed by the police one night when I was out walking my dog after dark and they approached me, assuming I was lost.
Apathy was ultimately my moving man, when the crack addict squatting in the basement fell asleep on his mattress with a lit pipe in his hand and accidentally set the building on fire.
For all of its contagion, I was impervious to Apathy. But I was never aware of it, either. I was too busy waving my magic wand of white privilege, on a mission of spreading hope. Because of my lightworker mindset, I was blissfully unaware of the irony that a) white privilege granted me noblesse obliges to teach theater and filmmaking to “underserved,” inner city school kids for $25 an hour and that b) despite my kindest, most loving intentions, I am naturally suspect because I am white.
I should have known that something was up the first time a student shyly asked, “Ms. Erin, are you European?”
White privilege caused me to laugh at such an innocent notion. How could I ever be anything other than a U.S. citizen? Growing up a typically bullheaded, “American” woman, I’ve never viewed myself as anything else.
“No, sweetie. Why do you ask?” I replied.
“Because…you’re…white,” he said, embarrassed.
At the time I didn’t realize that his third grade social studies class was learning about European colonization and imperialism; the history of how people like me had implemented the systemic racism that he lives with daily.
Even though it’s my innate nature to see everyone for their purest, most positive potential, I was clueless to the reality of their daily lives.
“Ms. Erin, what’s it like to be white and pretty?” Astrid sadly asked one afternoon.
Shocked that the question had even occurred to her, I was crushed by the resignation in her voice as she asked. In my mind, she was an eleven year-old Dominican supermodel; tall and gorgeous with flawless skin, a radiant smile and shiny black hair to the center of her back; a future Nobel Prize winning physicist; the smartest, most stunningly beautiful girl I’ve ever met.
But the kids at school were teasing her for being ugly and stupid.
Gathering the group in hopes of getting to the bottom things, they honestly, innocently explained that the lighter your skin, the smarter and more attractive you are. Because Astrid was the darkest girl in the class, she was obviously the ugliest. I did my best to explain all the reasons that their hierarchy was wrong, but given my own position of white privilege, I wasn’t exactly disproving their argument.
“Miss Erin, what’s it like to be white and pretty?”
“Miss Erin, are you European?”
These words haunt me every time I set foot in the old Sorrel-Weed House. They haunt me every time I think about the current state of America.
Realizing that weepy tour guides are a death knell for business, I asked Calvin the house manager to limit my guide work to haunted tours.
As Calvin is also one of the wisest, most compassionate men I know, I found myself asking his insights about why the racial divide in our country is still so deep, despite our sincerest attempts to reconcile. He keenly observed that America is the only nation in the world to end slavery because of a war fought by white men, rather than because of an organized slave uprising.
Expanding on this observation, might it be possible that part of the reason for the recent surge in mass shootings is because our country is subtly divided into people who are oppressed and people who are in a position of privilege who could possibly “rescue” them, but do nothing?
Perhaps what’s happening is an ugly, albeit necessary uprising; one that’s as much about confronting the current atmosphere of Apathy as it is about ending our country’s history of oppression.
Originally published in Connect Savannah