Last week I went to an event at Hidmo, an Eritrean restaurant in Seattle's Central District with great community involvement--an open mic night about pain, oriented toward people with sickle cell disease, but open to all. I didn't talk much to anyone there, friends included, especially because I was tired and lost in thought. But the people I did speak with briefly on the way out were extremely kind and welcoming. I hope I see them again.
It was a good experience for me, and I think for everyone, but it made me even more aware of my whiteness than I've ever been. Then it allowed me to stop thinking about it. This was clearly in response to educating myself on issues of race, privilege and whiteness, but also to thinking more about other types of "minority" groups--including the one I belong to: people with physical disabilities.
But the first thing that happened: a black woman kindly moved her daughter to another seat to make room for me. I didn't ask, being awkward and unsure of where to sit, but I was sure to thank her. I do often encounter people moving for me because I walk with a cane, and I'm generally grateful. But it's hard not to think about it when there's a connotation of white male privilege right in the face of a woman of color. It was also a reminder that you can't actually disentangle things like race and abledness.
This started me off feeling very awkward about entering the place with two other white people. (my partner, M, and my friend, H). I'm always hesitant to speak, but this made me more so. White men, in open forums, almost always dominate time and speak more than other people. Classroom discussions, whatever. So in spaces of mixed anything (gender/race/class), I feel it's very important not to dominate discussion or take up time that someone else could use (white men have had centuries in which to do this--give someone else a chance already! Anyone who wants to argue that this isn't true, by the way, is already engaging in apologism for the silencing of women, people of color, and many others).
I started off just trying to not act like an entitled white person entering a space filled with people of color, something I've been reading more about and making more effort to be aware of. I think I mostly succeeded.
(Note: It's certainly not the same feeling a black person must get when being surrounded by white people. For one, that happens a lot more often; for two, the history of racist violence just isn't there for white people--no matter how nervous we might get thanks to the unfounded fears and prejudices we pick up in our racist society.)
In spite of the beginning, the way race and disability intersected became powerful. In some ways it heightened my awareness of my whiteness, but in many ways the night took me beyond the realms of race and color, distractions from the fact that we're all just people. That we share some common pain. Some, but not all.
And gradually, I was overwhelmed with pain. My own pain wasn't the big deal--it was the pain of sickle cell disease that occupied my thoughts--a disease I knew only a little bit about, before this night. I could relate to a lot of it as someone with Muscular dystrophy (in the case of my fairly mild Becker's MD, it's something I think of as a condition or impairment, more than a disease). Some of the people who spoke were not performers, per se, but shared with us their experiences, which had as much impact as anything else could. Some were certainly practiced performers, and damn good, I thought. One man was "put up to" writing something by his wife last minute--it was also damn good.
For something that I started out knowing only from a vague description, this night had a huge impact on me.
I was worried about taking time away from others (and more generally about getting in front of people), but later I I realized that by saying just a few words, I could have showed solidarity beyond sitting at the back of the restaurant. My friend, H, did so, and I'm glad for that (even if she forgot what she originally meant to say!). I think it served to remind us all that some people with chronic medical conditions should be aware of each other--disability affects all groups of people, and ultimately we're all part of the same struggle despite different needs and symptoms. It's a reminder that we're not alone.
Maybe in the future, I'll be less apprehensive about speaking, but I was weirdly reminded of the few occasions I tried to speak in Mormon church meetings as a kid--which didn't help. Or maybe, in the future, I'll defer to others. I don't think either way is necessarily wrong, but I am content with what I did.
It pulled me away from any tendency for narcissism. I do deal with pain. It's not as bad as fibromyalgia (which H has) or sickle cell, but I could relate to what a lot of the men and women who stood up shared their experiences with us. Hospitalization is common for people with sickle cell, which is not the case for me. But I could understand the lack of energy, not being able to do some things, sometimes. Not always being able to predict what you can or cannot do, not knowing how tired you'll be. These are familiar things.
This event made me think. It made me feel. It made me human, made me empathize and relate to others I didn't know, or even really know about. It was a dose of humanity I didn't know I needed.
The most shocking result for me was that I realized how long it had been since I contacted a friend I made on the internet who I'm pretty sure was affected by sickle cell. I wonder how she is, and I found myself regretting not being better about staying in touch with people. It's hard to reconcile leaving the past in the dust with this kind of feeling. I had plenty in common with this friend. And really, socializing over the internet kept me alive for some years, until I was better able to socialize with other people face to face (I had a number of emotional issues that made it difficult, and my departure from Mormonism didn't help with people I wanted to interact with. Anxiety made college difficult). I hope she's doing well, now, and maybe I should find out.
I'm thankful to everyone who put that event at Hidmo together. It wasn't for me, but it was good for me. It doesn't have to be for me to free me. If it makes others free--our brothers and sisters free--it frees the rest of us, too.