I am a white, middle-class girl, from a pre-war suburb in a medium size North American city. I didn’t grow up in poverty or hardship. I didn’t grow up privileged, but I’m still pretty damn bourgeois. Which, I suppose, is why I have such guilt. Guilt for being white, for being from a race that, by pure stupid luck of geography, has managed to take over the world. And even within Caucasia, I landed high on the food chain, being from upper middle class Canada rather than, say, blue-collar America.
So when I move through the streets of Venice, past the countless homeless, I still have that guilt. I always feel like I’m slumming it when I talk to the people selling crafts on the boardwalk, the humans that exist outside the structure of society. I feel like I’m treating them as academic subjects, or, worse, as theme park attractions. Eccentric animatrons that bring color to Venice Beach. I’m never going to be anything more than tenth-generation bourgeousie, a middle-class intellectual.
But I’ve been on the flip side of that for a lot of this weekend. Friday, I was riding with Critical Mass, as I do once or twice a month now. And that is my lost tribe indeed. Random cries of “D’ARRRRRRRRRRRR!” and other pirate epithets abound while on the ride. However, the Critical Mass ride gets in the way of the socio-economic class I was born into. While I’m sure a decent percentage of the riders are from the same background as I am, and are now existing as hipsters on its fringes in L.A., the nature of the ride is contrary to one of the main tenets of the North American middle class: attachment to the automobile.
When the Mass went down the Venice boardwalk at night, it was a totally different experience than any I’d had in that space before. It was like being in a slightly alternate version of the boardwalk where I didn’t feel like there was any difference between me and the residents of the beach. We rolled down, merrily waving and calling to the vendors and beach creatures. Not so much out of any solidarity against the middle class, but just to say hi, because we were having fun and wanted to smile and wave at other human beings. And that’s the only time I’ve ever felt like that in that neighborhood. On the Ride, I didn’t feel like I was wearing a sign that announced that I’d won the genetic lottery of being born whole and white in a good home. It’s the first time I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be in a different category from all those people who, by choice or not, were existing very far beyond American society’s reaches.
Then I spent a good piece of today working for CODEPINK, handing out the ONE MILLION REASONS pink slips. And for that, I was immediately on a flip side of America. I’m not a minority opinion anymore, but I am an eccentric, someone outside relation or reality, to most of the people I tried to interact with. People would refuse to meet my eyes, would ignore me speaking to them, would walk away. Some of them were even wearing anti-Bush clothing. I was so surprised, the difference in interaction.
Then again, it wasn’t far off from how I usually interact with the homeless that ask me for change.
In Girlfriend in a Coma, at the end, Coupland’s omnipotent being informs the characters that, because they failed to ask questions and gain knowledge when given the chance, they must spend the rest of their lives asking those questions of others. They will become those creatures outside of society who mutter to themselves, who appear crazy, but who are on a quest for knowledge beyond everything we take for granted. And that’s what I felt like today, as people eyed me suspiciously, a radical freak rather than the usual everyday West Coast middle class girl I am.
I’ve gone out attempting to look counterculture before. I’ve worn goth outfits as street clothes before – mesh shirts and chains and eyeliner. But that was still met with far more acceptance than what I’ve been doing this weekend with Critical Mass and my anti-war efforts. Being a goth or punk or whatever is a middle-class rebellion. Attempting to change the world, to go beyond what’s taken for granted – trying to reshape society without cars, or end a war that’s based in capitalist ideology – apparently takes down the wall between me and the eccentrics, but puts a new one up between me and the segment of America I was born into.
How deep does this go, and how ingrained in it is people’s habits to try to hold onto the scales on their eyes, to what they accept, to their apathy and blindness? And, for every person that looked away from me this weekend as I handed them a Critical Mass or CODE PINK leaflet, was it worth it for them not to have to let the guilt of Iraq enter their minds? Was it worth it to them to keep their cars without conscience? I hope so, but I don’t believe it, and that’s why I do this. No one can avoid the taxpayer funded consequences of the war, or the consumer fueled consequences of building our entire society on individual combustion engine cars. And no amount of refused eye contact can change that for me.