There is a scene in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" in which an unarmed, essentially harmless African American man is killed by the police when a fight over his refusal to turn down his boom box escalates. When I saw the film in 1989, I assumed that Lee was using artistic license to make a point about the kind of tragedy that could result, hypothetically, if race relations didn't improve.
That was a reflection of my privilege. Nothing like that had happened to me or to anyone I knew. So it couldn't be real.
It was real, though, and based on an actual incident in which a Pratt student, Michael Stewart, was arrested for graffiti and ended up dead. My African American friends were aware of this.
I was in graduate school when the event and its sequelae took place. I wasn't paying a lot of attention to the outside world. But that was also a reflection of privilege. I didn't have to know about these things. They didn't affect me directly.
I was an idiot.
I have been reflecting this week on all of the learning opportunities I missed out on because I preferred to, and was able to, stay in my insular world. I'm haunted by a grad school diversity training seminar I dropped out of because I felt the presenters were talking down to white students. Even if they were, it was most likely because we were shamefully ignorant about the topics discussed, no matter how "not racist" we believed ourselves to be.
I like to think I'm different now. I have had a lot more experience of the world; I have dealt with many more people and have been forced to confront my ignorance over and over. But it is important to remember that none of this makes me an expert on other people's experiences.
I was shocked by the grand juries' refusal to indict the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Few of my African American friends were. I still have pockets of naïveté and disbelief, because I can afford to.
As Stephen Colbert tweeted, "Global warming isn't real because I was cold today! Also great news: World hunger is over because I just ate."
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