Divided We Fall
This morning, I sat with my clutch of rising high school seniors, all low-income, minority students, and tried to get them to discuss the Ralph Ellison short story “Battle Royal,” an excerpt from his novel Invisible Man.
I have never felt more acutely aware of how white I am in my life.
In the story (go out, find it, and read it now if you have somehow made it this far in your life without reading Ellison; I think he is where white liberal guilt comes from, and he is an amazing writer) a group of young black men are brought to a rich white men’s social gathering to fight, blindfolded, for their entertainment. The white men are in tuxedos, drinking, “wolfing down buffet food,” and yelling obscenities as the young men duke it out for supremacy. Afterward, the black men are given “the opportunity” to fight each other for money that is strewn on a rug. The rug is electrified (and, unknown to them, the cash is fake), but at the urging of the laughing crowd, they keep fighting each other.
I was trying to steer my students toward seeing the fight as an extended metaphor for society. It wasn’t just an isolated incident, and the rich white men weren’t just pitting young black men against each other for entertainment at a club, they were doing it in a very real way out in life. I wanted them to feel the power of the story. They were absolutely feeling strongly about it and seeing a lot of the imagery, but I wanted them to go further (what teacher doesn’t?).
But damn, I am white as hell. I can only do so much.
It got me thinking about the violence in low-income areas of Boston. Today marks the second day in a row that someone has been murdered in broad daylight in Dorchester. Yet it barely makes the news outside of Universal Hub–it’s just a little tidbit in the deep inside pages, rather than a headline. This kind of intra-community violence is simply accepted and normalized. This is “part of Dorchester.” Part of “what it means” to live in Dorchester, to be poor, and, ultimately, to be non-white. Self-destruction from the inside.
Anyways, all I could think about was how much that resonated with me as a female. I can’t relate to the racial issues going on, but I can extrapolate those same feelings to issues of gender. I look at the way women are pitted against each other, the way we’re constantly dragging each other down–”oh, she’s such a stupid slut!” “She is so ugly!” “She’s such a gold-digger!”–and so on, that instead of having a powerful force of women, we have a bunch of squabbling girls.
I’m not saying we should like each other just because we share common reproductive organs–that’s stupid. I don’t get along with most of the world, let alone most other women. But it would behoove us to give each other the benefit of the doubt now and again. To stop seeing one another as the enemy. It’s so easy to keep us squashed down to being simply trophies when we judge each other just as harshly.
I mean, c’mon, patriarchy doesn’t even have to really do much if we keep destroying ourselves from the inside out.