Getting Burned

The tops of my thighs, the small of my back and the beginning of my chest are on fire. Somehow the afternoon spent outside next to a beautiful California palm tree in group discussions about race, community organizing and fundraising have burned me in a way nothing else this year has.

Strangely, the seven months I spent living in one of the hottest and poorest countries in the world left me largely unblemished. I managed to keep my pale skin safe from the Nigerien sun, hiding it under the long skirts, headscarves and the shelter of being a foreigner in a land so very different from my own. Though the poverty radiated, it was always screened through a layer of cultural differences, hospitality and the pride that kept my village friends from ever admitting that they were hungry. The one time reality managed to beam through my protections–when the skinniest child I’d ever seen walked up to me and immediately collapsed from malnourishment–my friends quickly assured me that the child had merely lost his family and that was the reason for his chicken-thin arms.

Though I migrated directly from almost absolute poverty in small mud hut with no electricity to a nice shady apartment in a relatively wealthy city, India still turned me pink. The slums that surrounded the richer neighborhoods–tin shack settlements “necessary” to house the servants who spent their days catering to the every need of the rich–made my blood boil every time I passed them. The street children who constantly grabbed at my arms every time I walked out of the metro made my face turn red with shame that I couldn’t support them without supporting the beggar mofia bosses who often cut off the children’s limbs to make them appear more pitiful. Instead, I drowned out the beggar’s cries with Bollywood music and let the brightly colored sarees blind me from the stark inequalities that characterize the country.

Though the struggles I saw in both Niger and India have profoundly affected me, it is these past five days of Summer of Solutions orientation week that have made my heart burn. The anti-oppression trainings, intense discussions and presentations have all made me think, but the simple off-hand comments are what has really gotten under my skin:

“I like Alameda, I just don’t like going there cause the cops always follow me for DWB.” It took me a minute to register that simply because my friend is black, he is consistently followed by the cops every time he comes to my neighborhood for “Driving While Black.

“While sure, its alright during the day but don’t walk there at night or you might get taken for a prostitute.” Another friend responding to my comment that the street near the Fruitvale BART station seemed like it wasn’t so bad as everyone always made it out to be.

“The cops are forever stopping and searching my friends and I just for hanging out on the streets. Sometimes they even hit us with the back of their pistols. I got tired of it and started carrying around a CopWatch “Know Your Rights”  booklet. One cop took it and tore it up, telling me ‘it didn’t scare him.'” I knew that the Oakland cops were rough but I never knew just how horrible they could be.

Among other things, these comments have made me realize the extent to which I have largely ignored the daily struggles taking place less than 10 minutes from my house. While I still care a great amount about international work and doing my best to continue to be useful to people in Niger and India, I’m quickly finding that the problems taking place in my own backyard are what is really makes my skin burn.