During this quarantine, I've been re-watching a lot of television, as I'm sure many others are.
Before you continue reading, please note that this post belongs predominately to the school of 'White people encouraging other White people to consider their White behavior' literature. If you don't fit that demo and/or that doesn't sound like a fun read, you've been warned.
I recently restarted Parks and Recreation, and the behavior of Leslie Knope in Season 2 Episode 01 triggered some self-reflection.
If you search the name "Leslie Knope" you will be inundated with articles and think pieces about how the character is the prime example of what we want in government. A kind, passionate, and perhaps overbearing at times, mid-level bureaucrat of the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana.
And I agree with that character assessment. Having watched the show while it aired between 2009 and 2015, I had no beef with Knope. She had her flaws like any well-rounded character, but the through-line of her character was a fiercely liberal attitude and the core belief that government should serve the people.
In Season 2 Episode 01, Leslie Knope holds a wedding ceremony for two penguins. It is later revealed, to the surprise of both Knope and the viewer, that the penguins are both male. Knope faces backlash from the public for supposedly making a political statement, and her initial reaction is to remain neutral by denying her support for same-sex marriage. This episode aired September 17, 2009.
In full sincerity, when I re-watched this episode, I felt betrayed. The values and personality I have grown to associate with the character conflict with her outwardly homophobic actions. Only after Knope receives an outpouring of attention and support from the Pawnee queer community does she refuse to annul the marriage of the penguins and attend a party at a gay bar. She never explicitly affirms her support for same-sex marriage, and the penguins are ultimately moved to a new zoo.
I was not entirely surprised as this episode aired in 2009, a full six years before same-sex marriage would be legalized in all fifty states, but it punched a pit in my stomach that made me see that I might be doing the same thing in 2020.
My public engagement with anti-racism has been poor to say the least. I have selfishly let any impulse to actively, repeatedly, or publicly voice my support for anti-racist causes be quashed by my fear of saying something incorrectly, making mistakes, and looking bad. Rather than think critically and make attempts to navigate the BIPoC discourses of 'don't take up space or center yourself', and 'it's not a good deed if you speak about it', and 'keyboard activism isn't activism', I let the anxieties of how I look online and the hyper-millennial cancel-culture mindset warp that discourse and conclude that White silence is better than putting forth an effort and making mistakes. And that's complacency.
Seeing 2009 Leslie Knope refuse to support the queer community made me feel sick and disappointed. And what she was doing is no different than what I'm doing now. Staying quiet and not making waves.
I let myself retreat to a place where I was satisfied by sitting in my corner and 'doing my part' by simply not thinking racist thoughts, not performing racist acts, and consuming BIPoC media and perspectives wherever possible. And while that may have been personal edifying, it has done absolutely nothing to better the very real lives of PoC.
There's no way to know what form of political engagement will become attractive ten years from now, but that's no excuse for me, or anyone, to not loudly, repeatedly, and unrelentingly participate in anti-racist activism. Especially during a global pandemic where activism in the streets is not an option for everyone.
The last thing the world needs is another long diatribe from a White person starting with "I've been doing a lot of thinking...", but perhaps another might find this helpful. I think we all operate on a spectrum of selfishness; after all, it took having my own demo getting ripped on by Knope to snap me out of my own complacency. So please consider this a call to action for myself, and a call to action for anyone else who belongs to a marginalized identity and has avoided being an anti-racist cheerleader.
Complacency is worse that the possibility of screwing up. It's better to cringe eleven years from now because of the mistakes you made that helped you grow rather than because you sat around doing nothing. I can do better; Knope can do better; and I don't know who's reading this, but perhaps you can do better too.
Thank you for coming to my TedTalk.
The Marsha P. Johnson Institute (MPJI) protects and defends the human rights of Back transgender people by organizing, advocating, creating an intentional community to heal, developing transformative leadership, and promoting their collective power.