“I am she and she is me. Ultimately, I can accomplish nothing without her.”
- from Kel Daroe’s “Black Tax: The Paradox of Being Black and Affluent”
There’s an irritating little hypothetical that armchair philosophers love to pull on the unsuspecting.
Goes like this.
A kid — poof! — appears beside you, dying. Starving, or injured, or suffocating— but dying.
You — obviously — would very immediately act. 911, or CPR, or soup or water — something, for Christ’s sake.
In other words, you’d put in energy and effort and time — and maybe even (technically) some $ — to help this little dying body, is what the irritating little philosopotheticalist is saying.
So then the argument being that: if you’d do this here and now, for the dying body at your feet, then what reason could you give for not doing the same for the dying body halfway around the world — the dying body who, with some energy or effort or time (or maybe even some $ aimed at the right charity or appropriate organization) could also be saved?
This — like all the worst irritating little philosopotheticals— doesn’t really do anything like what it claims it sets out to do.
What its asker really wants to do is just wrinkle your brain a little — in a way that might make you think that the asker is maybe that much brighter for having uncovered this irritating little conundrum, or that maybe he’s, like, that much more attuned to something important, that you very obviously aren’t attuned to at all.
But really all the philosopothetical does, in the end, is annoy you.
And probably also casually compel you, in that moment, to draw up some perfunctory, half-hearted rebuttals, or a little feigned internal defeat, or some neat and tidy rationalizations, or —if you’re having a particularly shitty day — make you look at yourself and your insides and be reminded that you’re only as good as it’s convenient to be, but that that’s pretty much the case for everyone else, so let’s just have another cup of coffee, let’s have another piece of pie.
I don’t bring any of this up to shame you or anything. Like I said, this is pretty much the case for everyone. In other words, it’s utterly, painfully normal to think like this, and react like this, and live like this. Let’s not kid ourselves.
But I bring all of this up because this irritating little, seeming innocuous, titty-punching philosopothetical also does something sneakily, snakily insidious in its whole overly circumscribed set-up — and this sneakily, snakily insidious thing just so happens to be really hard to peel out unless you’re actively looking for it.
Which — because of the philosopothical’s triteliness and rationalization-inducement and over-circumscrision — it basically begs you not to do.
Follow me here.
The philosopothetical’s whole concern is proximity, right?
It’s trying to draw your attention to the fact that proximity of suffering can’t really function as a satisfactory answer or resolving escape.
It’s trying to force you to admit that the main reason you help the body beside us is some reason other than, “It’s the right thing to do!” — since if it were the right thing to do, then you’d be obligated to do that right thing for all the other bodies not-beside us.
And now, you knowing that, can change your ways, and so do the right thing, all of the time, for all the bodies not-beside. Hooray! World saved.
But all of this rests on the assumption that we would, in fact, help the body beside us. That we would try to resuscitate the asphyxiating child beside us, that we would run frantically into our homes to find a First Aid Kit for her wounds, that we would put in some time or effort or energy into saving her quickly-slipping-away life.
Because, if not — then the whole second part about proximity is rendered moot.
We can’t be compelled — by either the irritating little philosopothetical or its irritating little asker — to help the body not-beside (to put time and effort and energy and maybe even some $ into helping said body) if we’re not already, in our day to day, obligating ourselves to help the bodies that are beside.
Now you’re worried you see where I’m going and you’re just about ready to lump me in with the irritating little philosopotheticalist for doing all the things I deplored him for doing.
But hold on. Not to the good stuff yet. Still breathing.
So this then opens up a whole ‘nother avenue of inquiry, don’t it. A simple and straightforward line of thought made so simple and so straightforward because the chains with which it binds us bind us so tightly so as to make impossible escape.
Because although the philosopothetical’s constraints seem tightly bound — and, don’t get me wrong, they are, to a certain extent— they’re never tight enough to do anything more than piss you off.
This — the proximity part of the philosopothetical — spends (or, really, wastes) all of its time conjuring up in your head, when it tells you of the body not-beside, gritty and visceral images of starving children in some global south country; or of beaten-down sweatshop workers under some labor-lawless regime abroad; or of disheveled and abused humans being shuttled to and fro in shipping containers for no doubt nefarious and unspeakable purposes.
In other words, the irritating little hypothetical spends so much time trying to render distant irrelevant that it makes distance the most relevant thing.
It lets you escape its implications by letting you double down on proximity as salve: it lets you off the hook precisely because it’s so easy to dream up all kinds of feelings and thoughts and rationalizations having to do with distance. For example:
- What even is Bangladesh?
- How even do I assess which far-away charities/organizations are actually going to make an impact?
- How ridiculously little of an unsustainable and quickly-undone dent would I make in any attempt to do anything about something I do not fully understand, in places I don’t understand, for people I don’t understand, and how arrogant and self-aggrandizing would I have to be to think otherwise?
- Plus, how shitty is the UN these days, eh?
But then take away proximity.
Take away proximity and suddenly you’re basically faced with this short, dense, urgent, scary, and dreadfully important vector, pointed straight at the heart of this whole thing about bodies.
The A to B to C of it is this: what if the body beside you (the body you may or may not be obligated to save) does not appear beside you at random — poofed into existence by a snap of the philosopotheticalist — to compel you to act?
What if she instead is beside you, because you are beside her?
What if her plight —her starvation or her injury or her impending doom— is your doing?
And what if the amount of energy and effort and time and $ needed to save her directly threaten your own survival?
And what if this is not a hypothetical?
What if this is not a clever little irritating question asked by asker to cement the height of his horse above you but a very literal matter of life and death, for the asker and maybe also for you?
Because what if the whole reason you’re able to read this where you sit or stand or lay your body down is because the body not-yours is dying beside it — slowly, silently, and utterly, painfully normally?
I am writing this because I read a piece written by a dark body, about dark bodies, for dark bodies.
And so I’m writing about dark bodies, on an online platform made possible by a digital system built on the backs of dark bodies, in a world that turns on beating down and disparaging and destroying dark bodies.
Except that the twist here is that this, if not already egregious, is made more egregious by the fact that I am not a dark body.
My body is not beside you dying; it never has been.
There is no unforgivable weight on my undark back. I carry neither fear nor terror nor rage with me as I move about the world because, like Kel Daroe, I have — for unmeritorious reasons — accumulated a set of skills and voices and body languages that allow me to escape those things, when I wish to.
In other words, I move throughout the world as an undark body.
But then the double-twist (back again, 360) is that I am a dark body.
The weight on my very dark back may have been there so long that I can no longer recognize it as thing.
Someday — not now, not today — my body may be beside you, dying.
Or, it may already be.
In other words, what I’m saying is this:
The body beside me — the body that dies in my name — may very well be my own.
The body beside you—the body that dies for you and because of you — may very well be your own.
To put it another way: there is such a thing as post-racial America, and it is our America.
Our America is a post-racial America because the imaginary called race — this awful amalgamation of nationality and culture, and language and skin color, and bloodline and centuries of history of oppression — has finally, triumphantly failed us.
It has failed every single person with whom it has come into contact.
It failed us when it became a tool for justifying intranational slavery across the Atlantic; it failed us when it became a way of dividing rebels who were getting too friendly; it failed us when it turned something as important and necessary as affirmative action into a cheap national punchline; it failed us when it made true, honest-to-God reparations an admirable but laughable aspiration; it failed us when to speak of racism or racists or (God forbid) white supremacy came to mean being a pain in the ass.
It fails us now because it cannot explain to us how bodies with dark skin — with skin like mine, with skin as dark as the voidful evening sky — can somehow never be dark bodies at all.
Never will they be dark bodies the way that the darkest of bodies are dark bodies — huddled for warmth around a fire that cannot warm; kept from food by the supermarket’s clear, cruel sliding doors; falling asleep, perhaps for the last time, at the concrete base of a building vacant, a vast and echoing building unused for the evening, filled to the top of its floors with empty ergonomic chairs and cushy corporate carpet each day receiving better treatment than the dark bodies that die down below.
And so it makes no sense, anymore, to say any of these things, to use this snake hiss of a word — race — to articulate what is right now wholly inarticulable:
There are bodies made dark by bodies not dark — the lives of these light bodies floating in air built on the backs of dark bodies cast into shadow.
Post-racial America is not America after racism, after bigotry, after hatred.
Post-racial America is America as equal opportunity destroyer: it is an America that gives an unprecedented amount of people the power to build their lives on the backs of dark bodies.
It will let you live, if you wish — and it will cost you only your soul.
Because who but the soulless could line up an infinite arsenal of human shields to keep us from our maker?
Who but the soulless could make their bodies persist at the expense of those of others?
And who but the soulless would revel in this?
Who, but us?