Houston Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks.
Hurricane Harvey lasted four grueling days. It lasted so long that people had to start searching for shelter from the storm…during the storm. Every night was bad in a different, terrible way. Even when the storm stopped the waters kept flowing and rising and ruining everything. But people came together and helped each other. It’s what people always do when there is a catastrophe. It’s natural and wonderful.
Whenever I turned on the television or social media to see how my friends and family were surviving I noticed a pattern. Inevitably, as people shared their harrowing stories, there was usually some phrasing of this sentiment, “People were helping each other, no matter which race, religion or color.”
It is a nice sentiment, to be sure, but it’s weird. I wasn’t aware that, at some point in time, people had intermittently opted out of helping neighbors who looked different from them. I also obeserved that most of the people making this observation were white, like me. It reminded me of a famous line form Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
If you are unfamiliar with the context of this line, it is delivered by the character, Gertrude, as she watches the play within the play, The Murder of Gonzago. In rhetorical terms, the phrase can be thought of as indicating an unintentional apophasis — where the speaker who “protests too much” in favor of some assertion puts into others’ minds the idea that the assertion is false, something that they may not have considered before.
I felt like by talking about how racist we aren’t, as demonstrated by helping each other through the storm, we may have indicated how racist we are. Similar to when we try to convince others that we aren’t racist because we have a friend who is a member of the race we are putting down.
“I can’t hate black people because I have a black friend.”
“It is impossible for me to hate gay people because my brother is gay.”
“Saying that Asians are good at math is a compliment, so sayeth my Asian friend.”
I am torn about this because on one hand I am glad that race didn’t come into play when we decided not to let someone drown to death in their own home. On the other hand, that bar is so incredibly low it’s frightening.
“I can’t be xenophobic against Mexicans because I saved that whole Mexican family stranded helpless on their roof.”
It’s the kind of thing that makes you cock your head in confusion when you hear it. Sort of like how dogs look at you perplexed when you are singing naked in the shower. It’s not good or bad…it’s just weird and wrong.
Clearly racism is a bigger problem than some of us are able to acknowledge. So much so that we confuse coming together during a storm as some indication of it’s irradication. Days before this incident a debate roiled througout Texas regarding the recently passed Senate Bill 4 or the “Show Me Your Papers” law. It didn’t look like Texans were coming together on that issue. That topic will roil again. Perhaps it’s only during hurricanes that we can put race to the side and subesquently celebrate how much we put it to the side.
“We did it! We beat racism…and the hurricane!”
Nope. Not so fast. One act of common human decency does not a decent human create.
My house was flooded during the storm by about a foot of water. It was terrible. Rehabbing a home that only flooded a few inches requires the help of tens of people over several weeks. Now multiply that home by 150,000+ and then add about 6 feet of water. I assure you, there is going to be a huge need for labor and I suspect that some of that labor will involve the hiring of immigrants who lack legal documentation. I wonder if the folks wearing their “I Love Everyone Because I Wouldn’t Let Someone Drown” patch will make hay out of whether or not those workers, who are fixing their homes, have an acceptable legal status. Spoiler alert: they won’t or at least they will look the other way. Our obsession with illegal immigration and ridding ourselves of “the illegals” usually starts to fade when it becomes inconvenient or expensive.
I am glad we came together, or are coming together, during a natural disaster. It’s beautiful, but it’s temporary. The hurricane was a reset button but the old program will run once the reboot is complete. The problems we have that the storm exploited — be they infrastructure or interpersonal — are still there, still broken and still in need of repair. When disasters strike humans create the band-aid necessary for survival. But band-aids aren’t solutions. Let’s recover and get better but let’s also change things or risk living through this awful episode again.