It seems like I have spent my entire life trying to fight off the irrational fears that people have tried to instill in me.
I was advised not to ride the bus in Ft. Lauderdale or I’d get robbed. I was told if I went to Liberty City, I would get beat up. Before I went to Mexico, Estadounidenses told me it was too dangerous. When I was in Playa Chacala, they told me I would be mugged in Guadalajara. When I was in Guadalajara, they told me I would get mugged in Mexico City. In Mexico City, they told me I’d never survive Guatemala.
If I let myself be afraid every time someone told me horrible things about a place or a people, I would never go anywhere or talk to anyone.
The people who were trying to make me afraid weren’t fearful from experience or reliable knowledge. It was all just rumor, sensationalist news reports, and general fear of the OTHER – especially if that other was poor and black or brown. People are so ready to believe negative things about poor people of color that you have to assume they want to believe those things, need to believe those things.
What if that fear went away tomorrow? What if we all assumed, just for a day, that everyone was doing the best they could to get by. What if we assumed, just for a day, that poor people aren’t poor because they are less worthy, less smart, less hard-working, or just plain less? Where would that leave us?
It would leave us with a lot of questions. It would leave us asking how things got to be this way and what forces are at work keeping them this way. It would leave us wondering about how those inequities relate to accidents of geography, skin color, and birth. It would leave us wondering if those inequities aren’t accidental at all. And it would leave us asking who benefits from us distrusting each other so much.
It’s easier not to think about those things. Thinking about those things, for many of us, leads to questioning our privileges, our world views, our lives. And we would rather not do that. So we just live in fear and try to avoid looking at the everyday tragedies.
But every once in a while, a tragedy unfolds that is so catastrophic that we cannot ignore it. So Katrina hits New Orleans or an earthquake hits Haiti and willful ignorance becomes impossible. That’s when our schizophrenia takes hold.
We watch the tragedy unfold on the television and our hearts break. We imagine the horror that those people are going through. We send millions of dollars to relief organizations and stay glued to the news reports. We ask ourselves, why? How could something so horrible happen? And we want to know if it could have been prevented. Most importantly, we want to know if it could happen to us.
Before long, the news reports turn from rescue to rioting. A little scuffle over some desperately needed food is played on a continuous loop. Report after report conflates appropriation of the means to survival with, not just theft, but violence.
And all these scary reports happen just in the nick of time. Some part of the back of our brains had begun to wonder if there was more to the story than just an “act of god.” Perhaps someone mentioned how poor Haiti was and we wondered for a moment why. But before we had to take any trouble looking into it, those “journalists” showed us what dangerous people we were dealing with, incapable of organization or development.
So you see, this couldn’t happen to us. We can rest assured that we deserve our privilege. No need to examine history or economic systems. No need to wonder why these “acts of god” are so much more destructive when they happen to poor people. Just pat ourselves on the back for our generosity and move on.
And when the United Nations and the U.S. government prioritize “security” over medical supplies, leaving doctors to find saws in hardware stores in order to perform amputations, there is no need to question that decision. These are dangerous people. You are sure of it. You’ve been told over and over your entire life.
There is no need to read about the history of Haiti. There is no need to seek out journalists who are actually talking to the people we are supposed to be so afraid of. There is no need to listen to people on the ground who tell us over and over and over and over and over again that the reports of violence are a lie.
Ignorance is bliss.
I’m not saying that there is no real danger in the world. I certainly wasn’t going to volunteer to drive a bus through Zona 18 in Guatemala. But isn’t it time we were a little more skeptical about the daily vilification of poor people of color? Why is it that so many people found my blog looking for information about which non-profits are trustworthy; yet so few people show anything like that kind of skepticism when it comes to news reports making survivors out to be criminals?
So long as we allow fear to substitute for fact, the status quo will go unchallenged. And that suits some people just fine.