Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Remaining Silent Encourages Human Oppression

No laughing matter.
The recent local newspaper coverage of World AIDS Day served as a reminder that sometimes I can be a pretty pathetic ally when it comes to speaking out on issues of oppression like homophobia, sexism and racism. Case in point was an incident earlier this fall at a college football tailgate.
It was bitterly cold but we’d won the game, so it didn’t matter. A group of us regulars huddled in a circle happily discussing game highlights when a stranger from the tailgate next door wandered over. As is our tradition, we welcomed the middle aged man as one of our own.
Boisterous and talkative, he steered conversation in the direction of the imported beer he was drinking. After going on about the rich characteristics of his brew, he offered me a sip. I politely declined. He continued on about its outstanding qualities and taste and circled back around to me again. After declining several more times, I finally relented so that we could move the discussion to other mindless topics. What happened next was shocking.
Right as I tipped the bottle for a swig he cried, “You don’t have AIDS do you?” He followed his question with gut-busting laughter. My initial reaction was to punch him in the face. Instead, I regarded the rest of my crew. There were a couple short, uneasy chuckles but most just stood in quiet discomfort – like I did.
Politics aside, would you drink from this person's glass?
My mind was dizzy in a way that no alcoholic beverage could produce. Several expletives formed in my throat but before they erupted, the creep added, “Just kidding,” then asked if anyone else wanted a sip before taking a gulp himself. A minute later he was gone. What remained was my rage. But it wasn’t directed at him. Instead I was looking inward, wondering how I had let myself get sucked into being the butt of his sick joke. I was completely annoyed that I let the moment pass without saying a word.
To this day I’m unsure what fueled his twisted crack. Was it the fact that HIV in America impacts the African American community (of which I am a part) or the gay male community (of which I’m not) at alarming rates?  Or was his comment a drunk-inspired childhood prank akin to accusing someone of having the coodies? Whatever the case, I was angry because I’ve committed a lot of energy to facing down oppression, no matter what group of people it involves. Yet in this textbook case of prejudice I didn’t say a word.
In my defense (and it’s lame), I tend not to be quick on my feet when my emotional buttons get pushed. Only later did I come up with what I felt were appropriate responses: “People die from that disease, you know.” “I know folks who’ve died from that disease.” Or more to the point, “What’s your problem?”
Not responding to that insensitive jerk that day reminds me I need to up my social justice game. I need to get better at remaining vigilant and to call out homophobia, sexism and racism when I see or hear it in the world. That’s because in less polite company, people can get verbally savaged, physically hurt or even killed – all in the name of intolerance.
In terms of accountability, I wasn’t the only one that day who should have said something. What does it say about society when we let affronts on fellow human beings go unchallenged, just to keep the peace? What has to happen before people of good conscience will act when they witness injustice and oppression?

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