On Monday, I spoke to a good friend who grew up in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Like me, she has worked in international humanitarianism throughout the world. On the night of November 13th, she also joined me in the set of people who have been personally touched by a tragedy that the mass media deemed of international proportions. In my case, the tragedy was the Virginia Tech Massacre of 2007, in which I lost a few friends and knew several others who were killed. In the algorithmic world of social media, both of us had seemingly whittled down our Facebook news feeds to those with whom we more or less agree on major social issues. Strangely, a sad phenomenon crept up in both of our feeds following the attacks in Paris – some people thought it was appropriate and necessary to shame those who mourned for Paris with articles, images and status updates about other, less heard tragedies.
Being in a field that is often defined by massive and heartbreaking losses of life, I had a visceral reaction to the sudden outpouring of “care” for other international tragedies. At least in part, this is because of the hypocritical superficiality of this so-called alternative narrative. The fact that so many people posted in an effort to “call out privilege” or to “put mourning for Paris in check” made me sick.
Is there privilege inherent to an American posting a picture of their vacation to Paris to show solidarity with France? Yes, absolutely. Is there a media bias that favors coverage of 130+ people dying in Paris over Beirut or Kenya or Burundi or Somalia or another economically developing country with people of color? Of course. But this is neither the place nor time to use these as weapons to demonize those who are trying to find an outlet for their pain, to stand with their French friends or to simply support a foreign country.
Privilege comes in all forms and, in fact, social media is largely designed to showcase that privilege. When my straight friends post pictures of their anniversary and talk about how they married their high school sweetheart, they are mired in privilege, because as a gay woman, I never had the luxury of dating someone I was attracted to when I was that young. When I post a status update about my upcoming work trip to Africa, that is mired in privilege, because I had the economic means to study and make a career out of what I love doing. As someone who has devoted considerable time and energy to correcting those imbalances, as my colleagues distribute food in war-torn countries, or set up a new public health system, or as local activists empower their own people to speak freely for the first time, we know there is a way, a time and a place to call out privilege. We also know that if a person chooses to acknowledge the pain and suffering of an event that that does not mean this person does not care about others.
Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world. It is one of the most socioeconomically diverse cities in the world. It is one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Paris is a city that has offered a lot of people a piece of itself, and for this reason, an attack on Paris is something that resonates globally. Yes, there are vicious and heinous attacks on many parts of the world. The media needs to do a better job of covering these issues, but people need to do a better job of caring. This means not just passively caring or caring when it’s in vogue. This means caring in a way that is productive, helpful and acknowledges that one person’s fight may not be same for the next person.
The semester of the Virginia Tech Massacre, the people I knew best that died worked tirelessly with me to help raise campus awareness of what was happening Darfur, Sudan. After the Massacre happened, the support online, through the phone and in-person was such a valuable lifeline when I most needed the help. That support told me it was okay to break down crying in the street, or question why such amazing people were killed or that the events would forever alter who I am. Our capacity to love and support is not limited; my capacity to care about Darfur and mourn for my friends was not mutually exclusive. Our capacity to mourn Paris and Beirut and Somalia and Burundi and the other tragedies of the world in a healthy, pro-active way is not limited.
Do not use your newfound knowledge of the world to shame those who stand with France.