Tweeting for Trayvon or Why Our Charity Changes Nothing

I believe that we are all to be committed to the work of creating a just world. I’m afraid that I settle for a cheap version of that.

In the center of San Francisco, amidst the 15-foot bay windows and Victorian ornamentation sits two blocks of small, taupe, housing units. While the surrounding two bedroom homes rent for $5000/month to the Twitterati, these apartments can be had for less than $600. My home is one of the gorgeous Victorians sandwiched between these banal blocks of apartments. And I like it that way.

The San Francisco Housing Authority, created in 1938 to help poor families build better lives through subsidized affordable housing, is responsible for the housing projects in my back yard. In recent years the SFHA has been praised for 70 years of ensuring that urban environments do not just turn into a bounce house for the ultra rich. One of the many reasons that my wife and I moved into our neighborhood (Hayes Valley) five years ago was because we loved the socioeconomic and ethnic diversity that was created by having this affordable housing around us.

When I take my son to the park I hear white, progressive, urbanites say that they want to raise their kids in ethnically diverse neighborhoods, teach their children three different languages, and have them using chopsticks before they enter kindergarten. We share these good intentions. I mean, my wife will only buy toys that have a Spanish to English switch. Verde! Rojo! Triangulo! We teach our son that we have all been created different but that all are equal and can play in the same sandbox. Literally.

This desire to respect diversity and fight for justice was once again brought center stage last week, as George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Those who are honest have used periodical articles, blog entries, and Facebook posts to admit their own subtle or overt prejudice. And perhaps as we have read these articles and watched the news coverage we have felt as if there is a little George Zimmerman in us. Perhaps we have felt like perhaps you are capable of snap judgments based on little information other than appearance and sterotype. I know that I have.

I have been provoked by Trayvon’s story and I feel like I should live differently. But haven’t I already chosen to live in a way that is inclusive of all? My son’s books say abrir and cerrar when he reads them. We live in a ethnically diverse neighborhood with crime and corner store drug deals. I’m living differently!

But who am I living differently for?

We are frequently provoked or moved to action. We are provoked by dramatic videos at church that ask us to give to a missionary in Ethiopia. Our heart strings are pulled by Sara McLaughlin singing over images of scratched up schnauzers. We are provoked by the Zimmerman trial that perhaps we too profile others by the color of their skin, their clothing, or the way they speak.

But what do we do with these provocations?

If the Trayvon Martin story is any evidence we respond through online petitions and Facebook rants. Discovering that you too have a little Zimmerman in you might lead to an evening of heartache and a grin the next time you pass the projects. But I fear that most of us stop here. I fear that our provoked feelings of guilt and the actions that we take following them are more about ourselves than they are making a difference in the lives of those who are mistreated. We take our guilt, load our kindergartners into our SUVs, and drive to the neighborhood with the “good school.”

In a Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian philosopher and activist Paulo Freire says,

“Discovering himself to be the oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed…charity holds the oppressed in the fast position of dependence. This will not do.”

Charity – whether in the form of polite smiles, volunteer hours, or money – simply reinforces the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. Charity changes nothing. Without real relationship people remain objects to use and at best objects to “help.”

I know not one name of anyone who lives in the neighboring housing projects. My decision to live life in a diverse neighborhood is not about creating justice for those who do not have it. I have dehumanized them and made them a trinket that reinforces my urban, progressive, sense of self. That has nothing to do with their rights or freedoms.

Paulo continues,

The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor – when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love.

Sharing a Huffington Post article on Facebook or instigating a conversation about racial injustice while you drink a $12 beer is exactly the kind of abstraction that keeps our neighborhoods, policies, and hearts locked in patterns of oppression. Change only comes when we engage concrete situations where injustice lives. Those concrete situations can only be entered when we learn names, give hugs, and spend time getting to know those who are the oppressed. Or as theNew Yorker says this week,

“People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change”

Relationship is the risked act of love and the crucible for change. Whether it is physical healingemotional healing, organizational healing, or in this case systemic healing of cultures, science (social, psycho, and neuro) is telling us that relationship is required for change.

And regardless of where the home is situated, this relationship is hard to establish within ornate Victorian walls. It is time that I leave those walls. Time that I stop using my neighbors to ease my own guilt. Time to connect with others in a meaningful way that could lead to meaningful change. Change that begins and must continue with me.


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