Perks Without Repercussions — Brian Reitz

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May something 2012: my windshield tints the cloudless sky like a real-life Instagram filter, protecting my deteriorating eyes from the everlasting nothingness of mid-Oklahoma. And from, like, the sun. I’m piloting a powerful Japanese automobile through the heartland of one of America’s greatest historical shames, swerving mercilessly in and out of a parade of turtles disguised as antique cars. I’m not going anywhere in particular, but I’m getting there as fast as I can.

Unfortunately, the stoplight ahead turns from green to yellow to red, as those things tend to do, and I stop. A white SUV screeches to a halt on my left and some graybeard motions for me to roll down my window. I oblige. The man flashes a police badge at me. “Don’t drive like a punk.” He glares, waiting for a response he will undoubtedly interrupt, but I’m in recovery mode after reaching the precipice of pants-shitting. He follows me for a few miles, eventually turns off, and I turn back up.

***

November something 2013: I’m riding the DART, which stands for Dallas Area Rail Train or something like that. It doesn’t matter because it’s called the DART. Yeah, I’m riding the DART and I’m terrified.

Three noteworthy characters dominate the train’s musky compartment. A junkie in the corner helplessly claws at his face as blood and squandered potential ooze from his defeated pores. He is somebody’s son. In another corner, a woman who has consumed all of the Bible and even more of the buffet delivers an aggressive sermon at a group of wide-eyed onlookers. I can ignore both of them; yes, these two are harmless.

The third, a woman with dirty-blonde hair chock-full of cheap coloring and a face with more wrinkles than Madeleine L’Engle’s watch, is not. I wait anxiously as she gradually saunters my way. She’s the ticket-checker and wants to check the ticket I don’t have.

The DART would have run regardless of my presence on the train, I had rationalized — Immanuel Kant, be damned. Even the junkie with the itchy face could presumably spare the necessary change. She approaches me, and it’s fight-or-flight.

The lion intrepidly chases the wildebeest through the heart of the jungle, its mane dancing uncontrollably in the wind like wrinkly hands under a strong automatic hand dryer. I must determine in a split-second whether I am the lion or the wildebeest.

“What do you mean ‘ticket?” I ask. “Was I supposed to buy a ticket? Oh, I’m so sorry…I had no idea.” My lion game is on point.

“Oh, sweetie, that’s okay! Make sure you buy a ticket next time.” I exit at the next stop and quickly never come back.

***

May something 2014: I’m at my college graduation, a joyous celebration filled with small talk, forced nostalgia and dread. I’m wearing a bunch of cultish wizard shit because I participated in a lot of unnecessary activities in college. Intertwined purple and yellow rope shows I participated in an honor fraternity. A white nylon sash indicates I participated in a secret society, which seems counterintuitive to publicly announce but. A shiny, mass-produced medallion shows I took honors classes. Whoopty doo. All anyone cares about is a black sash: people who know me know about everything else but what the hell is this thing.

When I came to Mizzou, I entered a scholarship program for underrepresented minorities because I am half-Mexican. Upon the completion of the program, I received the aforementioned sash. This usually confuses people since I look like the sentient offspring of Benedict Cumberbatch, Screech and a Pumpkin Spice Latte.

So I cannot help but wonder — if I looked more like some of my relatives, “like I’m supposed to,” would the Oklahoma cop have cut me so much slack? Would the nice old lady from the DART have let me off with a warning?

Would she have let me off at all, or would I have stayed on the train forever, free-riding the rails of time back and forth on a pendulum of preconceived perceptions?

When a new friend makes a joke about Mexicans being lazy, or dirty, or just in the United States at all, I casually mention, “Hey, I’m actually half-Mexican.” Then, we have a hearty laugh, until he – it’s usually a dude – realizes I’m serious. The tension is palpable. “Bro… you’re whiter than me.” We both laugh, because in situations like that, preachy PC-police are more insufferable than soft-core racists. And we laugh because he’s right. I get the perks of my ethnicity without the repercussions. I get the scholarship money without the racial profiling. I get the colorful culture and inspiring traditions without experiencing the oppression that has spurred their very existence.

***

Here’s where you expect me to offer one or more of a variety of different solutions to combat prejudice and privilege and crooked morality. Let me tell you, no such conclusion feels right. I have sorted facts and anecdotes into opposing streams to illustrate paths to the two main perspectives about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; I have written paragraphs about how powerless I feel when seeking to address issues beyond my, or maybe anyone’s, control; In a moment of sheer desperation, I legitimately thought to conclude with the Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And in that moment, it was a finish.

It’s a disservice to prescribe a basic solution to a pervasive issue, especially to an issue that has seen truly innovative ideas culminate in strikingly ineffective struggles. Do not take this the wrong way: I do not seek to suggest that an acceptable resolution is unattainable. Progress is like a mountain that grows an inch every year, like a turtle that loses its shell but finishes the race, like a thing that takes a really, really long time but eventually, you know, happens. Like that. But not immediately, not universally.

In the aftermath of the Ferguson riots, Ezekiel Kweku penned a deeply compelling piece entitled “The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a Nigger Nation.” Give it a read – it’s well worth your time. For the sake of this essay, suffice it to say he essentially posits that justice is the result of self-interest, rather than a vested interest in equality.

But if you look like me (remember the trendy pumpkin spice latte joke?), advocating for this type of social justice runs against your self-interest. It’s difficult to admit, but it’s not objectively untrue. My self-interests suggest I continue to take advantage of my societal position, to break rules because I will not get caught. Why willingly give up an advantage that makes my life better? This is a deeply individual moral qualm that I imagine many others like me have.

If I cannot find a way to change my self-interests, I must find a way to delude them, and for me, that involves perceiving the world like a sport or a race. If you win a marathon that you began from the thirteenth mile, are you really satisfied with your victory? Finding a way to get everyone to the same starting position is imperative for the race to actually matter, and until then, what’s the point?

Again, this metaphor only displays how I attempt to confront my own self-interest, how I struggle to perceive an issue beyond my understanding. I imagine everyone has their sports, their thing they understand better than they understand the world-at-large. Their thing they understand instead of failing to understand the world-at-large.

I believe it was the wise Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “This is really hard. I don’t wanna!!” But, eventually, he did wanna.

Acting against self-interests is difficult. It is easy to overlook the struggles of others when their issues do not directly affect me, so I must remember what I understand.

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