Saturday, December 5, 2009

We the weak

In the early 2000s--probably 2002--UPN ran a remake of the old "Twilight Zone" series, narrated by Forest Whittaker. I didn't watch many of the episodes, but one I did see was about a man who got in his car one night on a dark street. As he started a car, a black man ran up to his windshield and begged him for help because he was being chased by some mugger or something. The man, afraid, drove away without helping.

Throughout the rest of the episode, the man experienced himself becoming darker and darker until he became black and found himself being chased by a mugger. He ran to a car and pleaded with someone in a car (who, if I recall correctly, was white) to help him.

I forget how the story ended--I forget whether the driver helped the man or not--but the supposed moral of the story was clear: an indictment against our (by which I mean "whites'," I guess) racist proclivities through a what-if-it-happened-to-you-or-if-you-were-in-that-situation trope.

That episode has bothered me ever since because it did not present what to me was a clear case of racism. Given the scene--a dark street, a stranger desperately pleading for help--it is unclear that the car driver's reluctance and refusal to help was determined, in the end, by his racism or by a sincere, if perhaps mistaken, fear for his safety. Very few situations that involve race or involve helping our fellow humans are ever clear cut. They're very messy, and I, for one, do not always--do not usually--do the right thing, and it's unclear to tease out cause and effect, motivation and rationalization, and self-preservation and cowardice.

I have a few times in my life been presented with situations in which I thought taking some action to help another was the morally right, and yet potentially dangerous, thing to do, even if the potential "danger" was merely being shown to have overreacted.

In most of those cases, I refused to act at all. I pretended not to see what was happening or just cursorily explained to myself that the world is unjust and I ought to have done something about it, but really, what can one do?

In one instance, I did act on what I thought might be the right thing. It was just a few days after an acquaintance of mine had been murdered in a suburb of Chicago in broad daylight. One of the strange things about that murder is that others had seen who was believed to be the suspect and found him suspicious but did not report him (the suspect, to my knowledge, has never been apprehended).

Anyway, it was nighttime, and I was in the parking lot of a grocery store in Uptown (a neighborhood in Chicago not as dangerous as some neighborhoods but certainly not the safest), and a woman was, apparently, being accosted by two other people while she was getting into her car. I walked over there, and unsure what else to do, I took out my keychain, which had a "rape whistle" on it, and started to blow it. (For whatever reason, the whistle didn't work very well.) Finally, one of the men pulled me aside and explained that they were security guards and the woman had been shoplifting. Further events bore him out, and I was, to say the least, a bit ashamed, chastened and embarrassed, but otherwise not harmed one way or the other for "getting involved."

Very recently, I was in a situation that put me in a position to potentially help someone. I won't go into the details, but I and the person I was with did a little bit to help. However, I did not do all I probably could have done. The situation itself was murky: was my refusal to do all I could a result of racism (the person seeking aid was black and I am white)? was it a sense of self-preservation (the scene was not, to say the least, a part of town or time of night where one feels safe, and I certainly didn't feel safe in this situation)?

I don't write this as a mea culpa; I write only to say I don't know the answer.

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