Into the Maw: Reflections on the Privilege of Disillusionment

Fourteen years ago, I found myself at the front of around 10,000 people marching through Seattle. I had just moved there a month prior, and through a combination of enthusiasm and foolishness, I had volunteered to lead the peacekeepers for a protest organized by Not In Our Name (NION). The issue of the day was the war in Iraq, which had not yet begun, and there was encouragingly broad-based opposition to the war across the city at that time.

Let’s be clear: I had no idea what I was doing. I was in a meeting of the small group of NION organizers, and someone needed to be in charge of organizing “security”– a team of people in the march who could help ensure the protest remained safe for all. I volunteered because someone needed to, but like I said: I had no idea what I was doing. Fortunately, through the help of more seasoned activists who had worked in peacekeeping before, including a very experienced woman of color whose name now sadly escapes me, we pulled it together.

When the day came, it was like a human river of hope running through the city. The protest was peaceful, positive, and enormous. Afterwards, someone gave me a picture of myself looking behind me, up towards Capital Hill as the march descended into downtown, flags and banners flying. I’ve lost the picture somewhere along my million academic moves since, but I remember the moment, and that feeling.

Then, the war happened anyway. Core organizers hung on, but things seemed increasingly fractured. People worried more and more about meetings being infiltrated by law enforcement, which was almost certainly happening, and the chilling effect of that began to spread. I felt crushed, defeated. I even stopped cooking with Food Not Bombs, after witnessing the repeated pattern in Seattle as I had in Baltimore: that an effort that was supposed to be anarchic, collective, and self-organizing was driven instead by one very motivated person pushing it forward.  I let a callous grow over the part of me that believed I could make a difference. A decade later, when I moved back to New York City during Occupy Wall Street, I still looked askance at that hopeful encampment, and let my heart stay closed.

Then, a couple of years ago, my colleague John Johnson challenged the astronomical community  to read a primer on white privilege– an excellent book called Seeing White. So, I did. It’s not like I was unaware of the existence of white privilege, or racism, or anything like that– but my father was the first generation of my Polish family born in the US, and grew up abysmally poor in a tiny Polish mill town in Massachusetts. In my heart, I somehow felt like this absolved me of the American history of racism– some excuse along the lines of “well, at least we weren’t here then!” What I came to realize is that for those of us descended from white immigrants– Polish, Irish, Italian, etc– most of our families were able to transcend the bias against them essentially by capitalizing on the fact they could blend into white society. In short, whiteness carries such a premium in our society that we allowed it to divide us from the people of color who shared our same socioeconomic disadvantages. As white Americans, may not want the privilege we have, and we may not even be “privileged” in the sense that we still may be poor or disadvantaged in other ways… but we benefit from the way we let history divide us, when we could have banded together with people of color and let our numbers be a force to be reckoned with.

Somewhere in the past few years, I realized that the disillusionment I felt, along with the subsequent burial of my activism, were outgrowths of my privilege. I turned away because that was an option available to me, but it is not an option for the most vulnerable amongst us. And it is no longer an option for me, because the only worthy use of my privilege is to defend the rights of those who need defending.

This election season, once again, created an opportunity for people to trade on the value of whiteness, to make a choices that divide us when we are stronger together.  As a native New Yorker who grew up in the 80’s, I cannot even begin to tell you how confounding it is to me that Donald Trump would ever be held up as someone who represented the poor of our country, no matter their race. It is like alternative-universe, hall-of-mirrors level bananas to me. But here’s the thing, my fellow white middle class folks: no more talking about how you’re moving to Canada. You move to Canada, or anywhere else, I don’t want to hear about it– because as far as I am concerned it is incumbent upon us to stand up for the civil liberties we have historically had great access to than others, so that those who are more vulnerable than we are may have equal access to them as well.

As a parting thought for my colleagues in the sciences: I urge you not to only professionalize your activism. Yes, STEM needs extensive reformation to be inclusive. But out there in your communities are folks who don’t have access to becoming part of the scientific community, and never will– and they need you too. It’s time we showed up for everyone.


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