Living with Injustice

It is not possible to discuss real solutions without talking about some difficult, painful things. Those things include genocide, slavery, oppression, exploitation, and labor camps.

I was taught that America had done none of these things. Even slavery was not really something America did, it was the Confederacy, and the north won, so we were completely free of guilt for slavery. Indigenous peoples were both savage and uncivilized, eating the hearts of missionaries, and sometimes providing food and information to the Pilgrims, who’d been sent to this land by providence.

I learned about the Trail of Tears on a TV show. I learned about Wounded Knee as an adult. When I began asking my parents questions about the conflicting histories I’d been presented with, I was given racist-colonial answers: there weren’t very many of them, they didn’t know how to take care of the land (read: for profit), and they went willingly to make room for the nice white people.

As I study the history that flies in the face of what I was taught, I realize that a lifetime is terribly short, and whole generations, multiple generations, can have their lives ripped out from under them.

When I picked up Sue Monk Kidd’s book The Invention of Wings from my host’s bookshelf, it was a salve for the throbbing, wounded sense of justice that rages in my core. The story follows two women – a girl from a wealthy slave-owning plantation, and the slave her parents try to give her. I didn’t realize until after I read it that it was based in reality. The main character is Sarah Grimke, a woman whose writings were so influential prior to the Civil War that suffragettes would later build their campaigns on her words.

It seemed unrealistic at first. Sarah was one of fourteen children, and she observed the injustice of slavery.

That’s not how it happens, I thought, assuming the book was pure fiction. I’ve been gaslit. Your normal is your normal. Slaveholding children didn’t question slavery. But here she was, a girl who hated her family’s position and willingness to exploit people for their labor. Someone who saw through the cracks, like I did. Someone who heard the screams as slaves were flogged for petty disobedience, who sank into melancholy (what they called depression at the time) over her own inability to make a difference.

Change doesn’t happen instantly. Billions of people are involved. Power structures are enforced with violence. To this day, the descendants of slaves are dealing with the poverty of exploitation, while the descendants of slaveowners still hold the wealth that was “created” with slave labor. To this day, indigenous peoples around the United States have limited access to resources, and have many health risks and a low life expectancy because we still have the land we stole, and we still send them cheap foods that fail to provide a healthy diet.

But reading Kidd’s retelling helped me. It gave me a chance to breathe, to rest. I do not have to solve the world’s problems in a day. I cannot singlehandedly fix the economy and the close the wealth gap. I am not going to convince the most powerful powers of the tyranny they represent. Knowing that something as awful as being exploited, knowing your own life is not your own, may not end tomorrow, reigns in my expectations.

When I started writing about economic disparity, I was in a rush. I spent fourteen hours on it the first day, and my partner had to gently pull me away from the computer. This is so important! I insisted. People are suffering today, now, here! How can I say it loudly enough to be heard against the grinding gears of the machine?

Now I’m studying, listening, and gathering my information carefully. There is no point in rushing, when the fact is that years and decades pass before change takes place. There is no point in depriving myself of sleep, entertaining my anxiety and linking it to my work, or sabotaging other projects for the sake of what I’m passionate about. The reason is simply this isn’t my fault, and I can’t fix everything.

Simple perhaps, but I fight it every day. I want to fix everything. I want to be the instigator of change. I want to be the person who stands up in the middle of things and says, “Hey! Stop hurting someone else to line your own pockets!” But every day, more killer cops are given slaps on the wrists for killing innocent people of color. And every day, my life is as ultimately disconnected from my immediate community, just like everyone else’s. We live next to each other, but do not speak to each other. That is how our society is now. The taboo of money keeps us silent to address the needs of our own communities.

The series isn’t over. There is still much to discuss. But as we pursue solutions, we need to realize a. this isn’t our fault and we can’t fix everything, and b. some solutions are better than others, and c. those solutions may be counterintuitive or counterculture or counter to our education and expectations.

Just because people have lived with slavery doesn’t mean slavery was okay. Just because people survived concentration camps and war and rape and all of the other atrocities mankind does to each other, doesn’t mean those atrocities should not come to an end, thanks to people realizing the flaws in their own ways.

But it does mean that if you want to help, you’ll have to take care of yourself. And sabotaging yourself over a world of sabotage merely helps the system.

I know everything isn’t going to be Utopia overnight, and it may never be. But in the past five years, my views on what an inclusive society might look like have changed drastically. So if all I can do is put a few words together that help push collective consciousness toward a just world where suffering is decreased instead of created, that’d be cool.