Sunday, July 4, 2010

What I Didn't Say

Facebook friends might remember a post of mine from about a year ago describing an ethical dilemma of sorts. On my way into the supermarket one early Saturday morning, a thin, strung-out looking woman approached me. She flashed a veteran’s I.D., explaining that she needed some money for gas in order to get to the V.A. hospital several miles away. Her hands and voice shook as she spoke. Should I give her some cash? I wondered. I come from NYC, where cynicism is a way of life. (Note – I was raised by a woman whose favorite summer saying was “Mr. Softee is a crook.”) Somewhere I’d heard never to give strangers money because they would probably use it to buy alcohol or drugs. Still, I wanted to be a good Samaritan – what if she were telling the truth? So, reluctantly, I pulled out a twenty (the only bill I had) and gave it to the woman, who thanked me profusely and drove away. My facebook post asked, should I or shouldn’t I have given her the cash?

Did you assume that the woman in the story was white? Since I didn’t mention her race, you probably did (a topic for a future blog), and if so, you were correct. What I didn’t have the courage to post at the time, but what I still wonder is this – would I have given her the money if she hadn’t been white? Would I have even engaged in conversation with her, or would I have waved her away and kept walking?

Author Lee Anne Bell notes that, “though mediated by class, gender, age, sexual orientation and other factors, whiteness accrues benefits.”* Although she seemed troubled in other ways, the woman that approached me possessed one unearned benefit – her whiteness, which made her feel safer to me. So, the question remains, would I have helped her if she hadn’t been white? I’m not sure, but it’s worth thinking about.

*Storytelling for Social Justice, p. 30.

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