Under the Skin: On the Night of the Charlottesville Attacks, I woke Up.
I was in Victoria helping someone who I care about move back to Vancouver the night white supremists and neo-nazis protested in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was as far away as you could be. I was following the news (jokes/memes) on Twitter while I was out with a bunch of people who I had met earlier in the night. These types of events don't surprise me but that doesn't mean they didn't take my breath away, make my blood boil. The thoughts of "What can we do?" keep running through my mind lately, and I've come to realize some sobering truths.
Not all of these people are holed away from the rest of us. We eclipse them on the street. We interact with them, they're our neighbours, students, people just trying to get through day-to-day life. They might even be someone you care about and love. The rhetoric of punching Nazis in the face (we do not condone violence here at Su) is an easy one to proclaim. It's easy because there aren't many sides to this issue; there's a right side and a wrong one. You can see it clearly. But what happens when the lines blur?
What happens when you know the person, when you've grown to like or care about them? What then? Are we willing to challenge them, to hold them accountable, to help them move in the right direction along the fluid axis of progress? Because if we're not willing to have these conversations, which are difficult, with the people we trust and care about the most, then who can we have them with?
I wasn't facing down a mob of people who thought they were genetically superior to me on August 11th. In fact most people wouldn't think twice about what I saw happen. I had a hard time letting it go. There was this guy out with us on Friday night. I had just met him that night but I had heard stories about him before. In short, he's my friend's friend's boyfriend, so he's kind of infamous in that context. The stories I was told were from a weekend earlier in the summer when a group of friends went to a beach house for the weekend. This guy, I was told, was blackout drunk the entire time. He told the parents of the woman hosting them that he had a magnificent penis. He told the mother of the woman hosting them that he wished he was dating her daughter instead of his current girlfriend so he'd have a hotter mother in law. I was told that when he gets drunk he steals other people's drinks. When I say other people's drinks, I mean all of the drinks. I know it seems typical, innocent, childish. But it breeds the things that cannot be overlooked.
I had these stories in the back of my mind when I shook his hand. I doubt he gave me a second thought. I was rudely reminded of the stories I'd been told when we were at the bar, when he began to slam empty abandoned glasses on tables. His friends laughed. He then saw two women across the bar. One of their drinks was perched on a bench head above them. I watched him maneuver his way over and grab the fullest tall glass. I watched him retreat into his circle of friends and consume the drink in one go. I watched his friends laugh and tell him that he was crazy. I left shortly after. I didn't say anything.
I understand it's just one drink. It's not the same as gathering in a mob to intimidate and terrorize populations of people who are and have been systemically discriminated against and marginalized. I'm not implying this guy is a neo-nazi or white supremist or affilated with any hate group because he drinks too much and acts like a jackass. The only thing tying these events together is they happened the same night. Regardless, I could've done something. I realize the importance of picking your battles because not everyone can fight every fight no matter the size without burning out. I told the girl I was with that this was bugging me and she told me to let it go, that it wasn't my job to police him and that I shouldn't beat myself up. In her defence, she didn't want me ruining the weekend over this and to her credit I was brooding quite hard when I shouldn't have been. Reflecting on it, I realize the reason why I was so mad was that this wasn't a one time thing with this guy. I'm sure if I stopped him or warned the two women it would've caused more trouble than it's worth. But that weekend, when so much of the world felt against me, I wanted to do something, no matter how small.
Thinking back, I'm not sure it was that small because I've known guys like him my entire life. I've grown up with them. Sure, now he's just one of the boys. Someone who busts on everyone. Makes casual sexist remarks, steals a few drinks, makes an ass of himself when he's blacked out and everyone just laughs. Just jokes right? He gets to say and do whatever he wants because he's tall, wears fitted clothes, and has a nice haircut. Because I guess that's all you need in this world.
Here's the thing, though. He's going to grow up. He's going to become a man. And because people have rewarded him for his behaviour year after year after year, because the people closest to him don't seem to care, all he knows now is that it's okay to act this way. That it's okay to treat people like this. Under this tolerance, he's going to grow up to be a full-grown entitled, selfish, and greedy liar. The world is filled with them. The world is run by them. This is the world. This is why someone who reaps millions of dollars tax free from a superchurch can just tweet out "Thoughts and prayers" during a hurricane and not open his doors for those in need until the public scrutiny becomes overwhelming. This is why police who kill innocent black boys walk free. This is why women still aren't believed when they've been assaulted. This is why we are uncomfortable with any conversations that will force us to wake up. Good and innocent people have to fight for their chance to be happy. And sometimes they die fighting for that chance.
I've had more than two weeks to reflect on what happened. I don't believe I'm a better person than this guy. I don't know him, we didn't talk, I didn't ask about him. He's had a different life experience than mine. The truth is if my life had taken a different path I could be someone like him. What frightens me most is I know it would be a series of small things accumulating over time that would make me like him, not some large, life-altering event. I'm fortunate enough to have people in my life that would never let me become that person. I'm grateful to them for holding me accountable; to help educate and remind me on the privileges I am afforded of being an able bodied cis-gendered male from an upper-middle class family living in Canada. I refuse to ignore the things I have learned and experienced. Continuing to make this choice is who I am.
I will never see this guy again. I don’t know if he’ll ever choose to change. All I can do is hope if someone holds him accountable and challenges the way he sees the world, he'll be open to it. Hope and openness aren’t everything, and alone they aren’t enough. But they're a spark, they're one hell of a starting point, and they're characteristics we must cling to, all of us. We all have to start somewhere, and we must do it together.