It’s November 14, 2015. I’m trying to understand the world I live in and I’m running into problems. This afternoon I went to Haymarket, a warm and inviting coffee shop. Since it was crowded, I decided to get my coffee to go, and headed to the Smith library to read Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Northampton is quaint and beautiful. The crisp fall air along with steadily diminishing sunlight make for a joyful pair. My walk to the library was like any other day; the only polite and minor interruptions came from a few homeless faces. These faces are old and young, black and white, healthy and unhealthy, starving and full, optimistic and pessimistic, courageous and scared, but most of all merely human. I lower my gaze and look at the ground in front of me. I am ashamed to look at any of their eyes. I am guilty.
Once I was comfortably seated in the library, I logged onto Facebook. Before examining my newsfeed, unsurprisingly full of posts, comments, opinions, news items, op-eds, and blogger responses, I sent a message to a friend in Paris to make sure that she was doing alright. Having established contact with her last night, I had been relieved to get confirmation that she was out of harms way. We had a poignant conversation ranging from all the things that she was going to do when she got back to New York to our fears and hopes about what the Western response would be.
Shortly after this conversation, I saw a post from my alma mater, Wesleyan University, pop up on my news feed. President Roth clarified to members of the community that all of Wesleyan’s study abroad students in Paris were safe and accounted for. He rightfully started his message by saying that, “[m]any in the Wesleyan community have been focused on the horrific attacks in Paris on Friday night, and our hearts go out to the victims, their friends and families.” The bulk of his post highlighted the intent of the attacks and the appropriate way in which the Wesleyan community should react. He stated that the attacks in Paris, “were meant to create terror in everyday life, and we have seen similar attempts in various parts of the world over the last several years.” Furthermore, and in a somewhat optimistic sense, Roth highlighted “a determination to struggle against the tyranny of violence.” He said that “[e]ducational institutions depend on eliminating violence, and I trust that the Wesleyan community will stand in solidarity with people around the world in this effort.” Indeed, this post put forward a noble sentiment—to stand in solidarity with people around the world. However, I was confused. What world are we talking about? And, what does solidarity mean?
It’s my first semester at UMass, Amherst. As a doctoral student in the Political Science department, I’ve been entrusted as one of the TA’s for a wonderful class taught by a brilliant professor. Just two weeks ago, I was talking about inequality. I rattled down a list of facts to my students. Some of these facts: 22,000 children die everyday because of poverty related “issues,” 750,000 Americans are homeless on any given night, one-third of America’s children live in poverty; you get the gist. On Monday, we will be talking about Katherine Boo’s book, a look into the world of a Mumbai slum. An ethnographic account of the harsh realities of inequality as experienced on the ground in India. Coming from a privileged family in India, life for me was pretty easy. Sure, just like any other living being, I endured some amount of grief. However, I was always suspicious of my grief; when I walked down a street in Calcutta I couldn’t fathom comparing myself with beggars. Let alone the street, when I was home I felt guilty of the fact that my family had servants. Some of my students, during my section on inequality, tried to pushback on a rhetorical question I had asked—was inequality acceptable? They made arguments about hard work and incentive structures. A little bit of inequality seemed to be okay and natural. After all, that’s the way the world is. In response, I remarked, “In my opinion, inequality is unacceptable.” People in India work hard, servants work hard, migrant construction workers in the Middle East work hard, minimum wage employees in the United States work hard, illegal immigrants work hard; hard work was not what was lacking. There were deeper structures and practices that seemed to place people on a grid. Moving from positions within that grid seemed to be difficult. Inequality, in my humble opinion, was not a cause; rather, it was an effect. A symptom of a disease or, to be more precise, symptoms of diseases.
Not once did President Roth mention Beirut or Baghdad. Not once did he ever bring up the numerous other places affected by ISIS over the past year. I ask for your apology in advance, President Roth is a place-holder. This is not about him. This is not about Wesleyan. This is about me.
As a modern Indian subject with predominantly Western values and a somewhat fancy Western education, I think I understand why it is easy for “us” to either empathize with Paris, or to express concern and be sympathetic about the lack of media coverage of the attacks in Beirut and Baghdad. The progressive game seems to focus on critiquing the West (and rightfully so)—the Orientalist media establishment, the blatant racialization of Muslim bodies (or anyone that “looks” Muslim), the blatant disregard of the West’s own involvement in the Middle East, the military-industrial-complex, colonial-capitalism. We need these critiques because they help provide us with narrative about how and why the world is the way it is. We can point fingers. We think we know the structural enemies; the real enemies. Of course, knowing these critiques is not enough. What comes after is vital. Can we imagine a new world? Can we imagine a different world?
This past Thursday, I gathered at the Student Union at UMass, Amherst and witnessed undergraduates from all walks of life articulate what they believed to be unjust and what they thought should be done in the wake of such injustice. Students called for solidarity to fight against racism, the student debt crises, capitalism and the power of financial institutions, the victimization and subsequent denial of survivors’ rights, the occupation in Palestine, patriarchy and heterosexism, the explicit denial of trans* bodies, and rape culture on American campuses (among other demands). In light of the victory achieved by students of color on the University of Missouri campus, momentum across college campuses nationwide has been growing. Watching these students tackle oppression in its ugly, varied, and interlocking form gives me hope. They have a vision and maybe we should trust them. A moment of hope.
While I was walking back to my apartment from the library, lost in my thoughts, I overheard a loud conversation among three middle-aged white people. One lady told another lady, “Don’t lie to me. You aren’t clean.” As the man in this group laughed, the other lady retorted, “I don’t deny tricking. I used to do it, but now I’m clean.” I quickened my pace and got out of earshot. Back in my thoughts, I was lost.
Issar is a member of the Class of 2012.