I am a white male who doesn’t know what it means to be a POC.
I am also a white male who feels guilty for having to watch a video of a black man dying at the head of a policemen, to finally see what 70 years of activism, liberal media, social networks, human right advocates, politicians and academics have narrated about police abuses and the bias justice systems in the United States.
In a way I always knew. But now I ask myself: have I ever knew?
Before 2020 happened, I felt so woke. I retweet Youtube videos about massive incarceration of POC, I talk to my husband about NYT articles on marginalized communities, I wear T-shirts representing black heroes in medicine, I remunerate local POC artists, and – wait for it – I have POC friends. I felt I was standing at the right side of the equation. I felt right, and I felt done.
Today I feel neither right, nor done.
After what happened in the past weeks, I will never been able to look at POC like I used to, particularly black folks. And this is a good thing. Or is it? Last week, at an online symposium, my gut twisted as a black scientist took the podium to deliver a tremendous talk on COVID-19 vaccination strategies. I was trying to pay attention to what she had to say, but my head was all about “how does she feel?” / “did she ever experience abuse?” / “why do I care now? Didn’t I care before?” / “I feel ashamed”.
The televised death of Mr. Floyd unexpectedly forced me to see my POC sisters and brothers in a new light. Yet, strangely, I am asking myself why should I see them in a new light at all.
I called this: the hipster conundrum. Excluding some formative years as a teenager, I think I never gave much attention at a person’s skin, their background, where they are from, or their social status. To a less degree, I also have never paid much attention to a person sex and gender identity. I mean: I acknowledge it, but I don’t make it the central point of an individual. I genuinely thought that was the right attitude.
Why did I think that?
Globalization, the liberal ideal and the European Union – which are my bibles – taught a generation of Western millennials to overcome differences and seek homogenization. Eliminating lines and divisions was the tool to build a rightful society. If we do so, we can truly be equal, and equal we go far.
For white middle class millennials, at least in Europe, this ideology was cemented by an unleashed globalization and cheap intra-continental flights. Youtube and Barack Obama did the rest: “I am just like all my peers” I thought. Or – better: “they are all just like me”. The day I realized my friend from Mexico City could sing by heart the same love-songs I grew up with (him in spanish, me in italian), I felt the circle was closed.
Yet, at a moment in time when the cultural references between POC and white folks have never been more aligned, hipsters are now told – rightly so – to reverse such homogenization process, and to focus instead on how we have never really been that close. As narrative on these topics changes, I now feel the urgency to actively seek, identify, and pay tribute to every identity that compose a Western society. Black struggles included.
This process of division, differences and lines seems timely considering the current climate, yet leaves me seriously incapacitated at relationships with a POC. Today is the end of an era for a socially conscious, white middle class nerd, who thought that sharing music idols made him and his Mexican friends equals. This awareness hurts me, confuses me, and makes me feel like a real idiot.
Because of these changes, 2020 is asking me to pay attention to things I find tedious and poisoning: I don’t know where you are from, and I don’t care. Now I should. I don’t want to know how much money you make, or your social status. Now I should. I see the color of your skin, I love it, I care for it. Now I should care about it.
I now feel that these things should have always been included in my daily conversations, and I feel like an idiot to have thought they should have not. However, it is unclear how this will help me – emotionally – to create closer connection to my POC friends. I was pretty sure that we could elevate each-other by creating spaces where we all felt equal, but these facts remind me such spaces never really existed. Or?
Even if we sing the same song… are we truly singing the same song? In this conundrum, the hipster is frozen in motion.
As I expect some white people to fix the mess that some other white people have caused, I am left with this: in a society where folks are treated differently because of their skin, shall I follow the flow and increase the space between me and them (figuratively), or should I remain anchored to the unpopular idea that – after all – you and I are very similar?