The Social Construct Wars

Between the news from Baltimore and the Supreme Court, social media consumers are undoubtedly gorged with tragedy, violence, and anxiety. All in all, it’s a horribly normal state of being.

We want answers. We want resolution. We want peace and security.

But above all, we want a quick sound bite that we can use to wave away all of these issues – freeing their cobweb-like hold on our minds and congratulating ourselves that we’ve donated $10 to Nepal relief – so we can go about our day as if nothing has happened. Again, it’s all sadly status quo.

And I’m just as guilty of it as anyone. But today something just snapped. I’m tired of reading all of the erroneously overwrought statements about how “certain people” should act. You know, black people.

Sorry, I should’ve whispered “black” or, at the very least, put it in smaller font. Because that’s how we talk about others, in hushed tones, looking over our shoulder for added emphasis. Just like with “gay” people, or “brown” people or, you know, “the handicapped.” Like the people “over there.”

It’s all about distance, even if what’s happening – who it’s happening to – is writing itself into history right outside your door. Because as long as there’s a mental gulf in place, you don’t really have to think about it.

***

A few weeks ago, on a longer than usual trek up the 405, my stop-and-go journey came to an abrupt stop on La Cienega, just before the Beverly Center.

Goddamn traffic. It’s Friday. I just want to go home.

I leered at the base of the hills, the apartment complexes taunting me like desert mirages. But horrible traffic is par for the course. So I prepared to wait.

And as I turned up a random song from Brand New, I noticed a crowd gathering on one of the intersection’s corners.

Something’s happen…

I didn’t even finish my thought before a tall woman with a long, curly wig cut across the crosswalk and fell prostrate in the middle of the intersection. Then the chants started, and protesters began moving into the street waving handmade posters. I cringed.

Of course this has to fucking happen right now. 

And then I heard it.

“TRANS LIVES MATTER! TRANS LIVES MATTER!”

It was like someone threw a bucket of cold water over my brain. I was immediately incensed by my former thoughts. Of course this matters.

But pretty much everyone around me, save a few taking photos, leaned on their horns and yelled unintelligible gibberish out of their partially cracked windows. I inched up as car after car made a U-turn, adding to the vehicular welter around us. Just a few car lengths from the intersection, I kept my gaze fixed on the woman in the street – she’d draped herself across the intersection like a speed bump; she wasn’t moving anytime soon.

Just then, my phone rang. Andy’s voice came through the car speakers before I realized I’d hit “Answer.”

“Hey, what the fuck is going on? I’m stuck on La Cienega.”

“I must be just ahead of you. It’s a protest – a Trans Lives Matter crowd. We’re not getting through.”

“Goddammit! Why do they have to do this today?”

He quieted, and then, like me, realized what he’d said. “I mean, it’s just inconvenient. They have to know that being this close to WeHo, they’ve got plenty of support.”

We decided to turn around about the time the helicopters started circling, and the fire engines pulled up. But even over the sirens, I could faintly make out the chanting.

***

Weeks later, Andy was trying to counteract a case of insomnia at 3:00 AM, but nothing settled him.

“I’m going on a walk.”

I grumbled something unintelligible about not doing it because it was so early. But I heard the lock click over before I finished, and dozed back off. Twenty minutes later, the phone rang.

“I JUST GOT DETAINED BY THE POLICE!”

I bolted upright. Toby snorted awake beside me.

“Wait, WHAT? Where are you?!”

“I’m on my way home. They thought I was a robber or something and put be in the back of their patrol car and asked me all of these questions.”

Now I was completely awake.

“WHY IN THE HELL WOULD THEY THINK THAT?”

“I’ll tell you when I get back. Apparently, there was a break-in somewhere around here.”

“Did you at least have your license?”

He paused.

“No.”

I facepalmed in the dark. This is something that Andy and I always sparred about – always taking some form of ID with us, even when we’re going out front with Toby.

“Just get home safely.”

A few minutes later, Andy came in and relayed the whole story – clearly shaken, and more awake than ever. Long story short, there was a robbery and apparently someone saw Andy walking around the block in his hoodie, and misidentified him as the suspect.

“Are you fucking KIDDING ME?”

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, “Thank the gods you’re the epitome of a WASP.”

It was horribly true. In that moment, all I could replay was the scenario going wrong, not being able to be in touch with Andy, not knowing where or how he was. And all I kept thinking about was how things would’ve been different if Andy were a racial minority. Had he been black, would the police have suspected him more? Would he have even been able to call me? Would he have been hurt?

This isn’t an illogical jump. West Hollywood is about as racially diverse as Orange County. Had Andy been black or Latino or Indian, he most likely would’ve been detained much longer than he was, and possibly arrested. As much as we’d like to think our police officers are above racial profiling, they’re biased people just like you and me.

But through that uniform, those biases can morph into disturbing behavioral practices if left unchecked.

Now, I’m not saying every law enforcement official is a racist, classist, homophobe, or any of the other horrible things people can be. What I’m saying is that officers are people, and everyone needs to be educated and re-educated on a routine basis. I’m just saying that everyone in a position of power may would benefit from an Anthropology 101 primer. Because by page 10, the differences we use on a daily basis to pigeon-hole and judge people are brought into sharp relief for what they really are: social constructs perpetuated by us, oftentimes through state-sanctioned violence.

Gender? Race? Labels for constructs we’ve developed to try and isolate and explain difference and constrain people.

And while we keep perpetuating these constructed differences, we neglect to see or address the root cause of social upheaval – social fissions and fractures that signal that something in this crazy-ass social structure we’ve developed just isn’t working. Instead, we throw a hashtag on it and dust off our hands.

#blacklivesmatter

#translivesmatter

#alllivesmatter

#lovemustwin

We reduce the work that needs to be done to a few characters on our smartphones. And then we disengage completely.

But you know who can’t disengage? People fighting for their lives – black, white, brown, trans, gay, straight, queer, differently-abled. People who take to the streets because their brains can’t handle another damn hashtag; they crave resolution and demand immediate answers from those in power. And their emotions bubble over. I can’t fault people who’ve had enough – who march and demonstrate and do what they must to be heard. Many of us have been there.

Ides of Love

What I can’t stand is the person who piggybacks on tragedy to satisfy their own endgame, to line their pockets, to cast someone’s livelihood asunder, to divert attention away from the real problem.

We’re fallible beings. We make mistakes. But sometimes those mistakes coalesce into a flashpoint for change. Had the Stonewall Riots and so many protests and marches and non-peaceful demonstrations not happened, would the SCOTUS be hearing Obergefell v. Hodges today? Probably not. So who can say that the protests and volatile confrontations in Baltimore aren’t going to translate into something positive?

It’s certainly (unfortunately) true that violence often begets violence. Or at least that’s what we’ve conditioned ourselves into thinking. But what we often let our minds gloss over is that the same unbridled anger that’s been channeled through violence has also helped propel us forward – through the breaking glass, bloodied fists, and smoking wreckage to today.

And tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “The Social Construct Wars

  1. OMG, Matt ! I’m so glad Andy is okay and home safe. But I hear what you’re saying. We tend to let things out of our area just pass through our minds and then go on to what’s for lunch. But there is pain and fear behind that anger. There is much more than a few thugs taking advantage of the situation to loot and burn. Those are the ones we know about and resent, but all the others out there who need someone to hear their voices need to know someone is hearing and cares. My kids live in Baltimore, so of course I’ve paid attention from that point of view. But I also hear the voices of the mothers who’s sons are afraid to go outside. Who are afraid every time the phone rings when their kids are out of the house. Who have to teach their kids how to respond if stopped by the police. And how do we fix it? I don’t know and I”m sure you don’t either, at least just directly. But we need to be thinking about it.

    • Thanks a bunch! It was a weird, scary situation, but we’re glad that things were diffused relatively quickly. Still, it takes jarring moments like that to really make you reflect. I hope your kids are alright! I’m hoping that from all of this comes some sort of change, or a start to change, in the way police engage with all people – and have more requirements relative to sensitivity training and learning more about the communities in which they operate. Here’s hoping!

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