I want to talk to you about a man on a boat... a man who does not realize that he is on a boat. More than that, he does not see the water all around him, nor does he see or help those who are drowning. Occasionally, his reverie is disturbed, and he is shocked to see the dead and the dying. Worried about the limited space, he pushes away, frightened that they might crowd him out or steal his boat. Soon enough, though, he floats into calmer waters, surrounded by fellow boaters, and once again cloaks himself in the illusion that he is on dry land, and not buoyed by the water that is drowning others.
This man is useless in a storm. I am grateful that he did not show up in the Gulf Coast this past week.
I, like most of us, have been watching Hurricane Harvey in helpless dread. I have no agency against the wall of water that hit our coast like a clenched fist. There is little I can do about a storm that has overstayed its welcome, filling, then over-filling the gulf region like a bowl left under a running faucet for far too long. Screaming at the TV only scares the dogs, and giving to the affected areas is as reflexive as breathing, even though it'll never be enough.
In this storm, everyone knows where the water is, and heroes are everywhere. Heroes like the neighbors who got into their canoes and went looking for people to save. The neighbors who reached out across the waters in a human chain to pull people from storm-washed vehicles. The neighbors who got on jet skis and charged into living rooms like water-logged knights, there to save Grandma. The neighbors who cradled mother and child, ferrying them to safety. The neighbors of the Cajun Navy, coming in like savior-pirates in their airboats and flat skiffs, pulling families and pets out of the newly formed rivers. These saviors have come in all shapes and sizes and backgrounds and ethnicities, and seeing the cooperation and desire to work together has caused me to hope that maybe our country can be healed.
For a moment, though, I'd like to focus on the white guys.
Many of the white dudes in the Harvey spotlight are obviously going to be from Texas and Louisiana, and one could safely assume that the vast majority of these folks aren't what you'd call fans of Hillary. Make no mistake, these guys aren't just conservatives. Stated plainly, there were a shed load of white Trump Republicans out there pulling black and brown and hijab'd bodies - lives - from the water.
Unlike that worthless man who didn't even know that he was in a boat, these men could see the drowning waters, and they jumped into action.
In my particular field, many of the people I work with live in middle, conservative America, and I can report that most are salt-of-the-earth, shirts-off-their-backs kinds of people. So, when I see that many of the saviors are white guys, likely staunch conservatives, I am not surprised. Good people will pull their neighbors up out of the water, and in a crisis, everyone is your neighbor. This is true, and, as a liberal, to deny it in service of the easy narrative that "those people" are horrible humans who care not for their fellow man is, at best, disingenuous.
Good people, conservatives even, will pull their neighbors from the water.
That is, when they can see the water. And properly identify who is their neighbor.
If you are white, however, you have at some point or another been in a boat, surrounded by drowning water, thinking that you were on dry land. This is not just a conservative problem (even if some really do put their shoulder into continuing this particular illusion), nor is it just a Southern problem. This, my fellow white folks, is a white people problem.
You see, white supremacy is the storm that has overstayed its welcome, and too many good people are riding in boats denying the presence of the water. It's easy to be a savior when you can see the rising tide, and when you can see the person in front of you, chest deep and sinking fast. It's infinitely harder to be an ally when the person next to you is bone dry while complaining of water in the lungs. It's much easier to dismiss that person's anger and requests for help when you don't see them as a neighbor, and cannot understand that which is killing them.
Thankfully, if you can see real people in real water and be moved to do something about it, then you can also choose to see the reality that white supremacy is built into the structure of our country, that it is the water on which many of us have blithely floated for years, and accept that those of us in boats do benefit from it. Rather than complaining about the potential for running out of room at the top, we would do better to drain and heal the landscape so that there is no false shortage of resources. We must first stop denying the presence of the water. We must stop dismissing anger, and asking people to be nice as the air is choked from their lungs. And by God, we must remove our hands from the spigot.
Let us not be that useless man in a boat, unable to see that which surrounds us, unable to identify our neighbors. Let us be heroes - no, let us be allies - daring to see and to listen.