By Gwen Dipert
I live in so many bubbles: I’m a New Yorker living in Durham, North Carolina, which is apparently now a Portland-like Silicon Valley, with a splash of Brooklyn. A bubble within a bubble within a bubble. Ad infinitum. This nugget of insight is not a particularly new one, as every pundit, comedian, blogger, and journalist we know is quick to identify. I think everyone in my circle of acquaintances understands that a passion for social justice is wasted by tossing around ideas in echo chambers and by starting hashtag movements. How, pray tell, do groups of people “move” on the web? Can you sense already how such arguments so quickly descend into utter apathy?
I participated in a more embodied form of movement when I rescued myself from New York City 4 years ago and moved here. Raleigh-Durham was a land of opportunity, where living alone and eating out were not unattainable fantasies. Unfortunately, the secret of this wonderful place is out, which means horrible things for traffic. Just horrible.
I’ve been active in my community through volunteer work since I started considering myself a full-fledged member of it, which was after about a year. The poverty, violence, and drug problems in Durham are no secret. My brother, who owned a home a few blocks down from me, heard gunshots occasionally. My parents weren’t entirely wrong to worry, but the simple and depressing fact is that most of these problems are extremely localized. Some of the most gentrified locations in Durham are just a few miles away from neighborhoods, akin to family units, where devastating fratricide continues to occur.
Like most of my liberal, Yankee brethren who have swarmed the area in the past couple of years, I checked the news in the middle of the night on November 8th and convinced myself I’d had a bad dream. I now avoid strong coffee and NPR in the mornings. I take my news in small doses to avoid descending into all-consuming anxiety.
That said, I’m a straight, white, well-educated, and privileged woman. How could I possibly have much to complain about? I can rattle on and on about the subjugation I have faced in my life because of my sex, and the fact that as a woman in the tech industry I’m probably not getting paid what I’m worth. But I don’t live in a consistently present atmosphere of fear. Avoiding solo runs at dawn or dusk is not an epic infringement on my autonomy. I’m not afraid of getting pulled over, for example, and I feel comfortable using the bathroom appropriate for the “gender” to which I was “assigned” at birth. My (mostly) invisible privilege envelops me like a cloud.
The overwhelming sentiment I felt on November 9th was twofold. I felt I had just witnessed a national tragedy. I also felt that I had failed the friends of mine who have been targeted, relentlessly and aggressively, by an alarming emergence of ignorance in this country, now perpetuated by many non-urban communities of this state. I don’t very often find myself in such places (see: bubbles), but I distinctly remember visiting one after pulling over for gas while on a road trip. I was rendered speechless by the landscape, because I was truly in a different country, one that knows only desolation and neglect. Everything I saw was worn, or brown, or abandoned. It’s hard not to feel some measure of compassion for that kind of suffering.
The regular infiltration of disturbing local politics and acts undertaken by our state legislature are their own strange culture shocks. I went from living in a state where I was proud of the people who represented us, to one where I was ashamed. I feel heartened by the fact that Durham is the kind of city whose bars have replaced male and female signs outside of bathrooms with Prince’s Love Symbol or welcoming “People Room” labels, but unlike the time I spent “up north”, the reality of intolerance now hits very close to home.
After the election, I knew I had to act, but one of the things I couldn’t picture myself doing was asking those friends I felt I’d let down to practice compassion for the vengefully narrow-minded. How could I avoid stepping into a condescending, white savior-like role? The best I can do, I’ve found, is respectfully engage with everyone in my community regardless of their political affiliations. I’ll listen to anyone, including those politically distant friends from whom I’ve witnessed extraordinary acts of generosity and kindness both prior to November 8th and after.
If I’m the only staunch liberal in a room full of North Carolinians who endorsed a platform of hate and fear, I need to represent the ideology well. I think we can all agree at this point that facts do not work. Appealing instead to the empathy I know in my bones they possess is the best tool I have, and I’m sure as shit not burying that tool, or moving elsewhere, any time soon.