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Demons, Laughter, Power & Privilege: Robin Williams & Ferguson Mo

My head is still reeling as I try to absorb two nearly simultaneous events; another unprovoked murder of a young African American man --this time in Ferguson, Missouri and the unexpected suicide of the beloved comedian, Robin Williams. Laughter helps us avoid being pulled under and feeling overwhelmed by the underbelly of our culture – race -- our inability to escape the tragic history and current reality that we value some people’s bodies more than others. In our underbelly we are so afraid of one another in the US. But laughter almost makes us forget our sad but shared history of dehumanizing and exploiting the labor of people of color as white people built a successful (at least, for some) capitalist society.

Now, three hundred years later those of us with white skin are wary lest this historical reality somehow complicate our (safe and privileged) world. Surely it is this fear coupled with excessive weaponry from the war on terror now accumulating in local police departments that is creating trigger happy cops as well as citizens. If only we could just laugh away those fears.

And of course, people of color are understandably wary because those of us with privilege can (and do) choose to stay blind to the ways our laws (and the selective and violent law enforcement) continue to target darker skinned people.  Shame, guilt, fear and resentment, privilege and power. Why can’t we just laugh together and forget the demons of the past we might ask?

Well, Robin Williams had demons in his life as well --his ability to create laughter around him notwithstanding. Perhaps the mental illness of depression feels like demon possession. And, if the gospels are to be believed, this destroys lives. When an afflicted person can no longer see life’s possibility because of those demons, it is tragic. That is the point Williams reached and ultimately, when the demons win the laughter goes silent.

Laughter is an act of vulnerability. We let down our guard when we laugh uninhibitedly, freely, and wildly, and this, in turn, allows us to see the humanity in one another. Robin Williams was masterful at drawing us together by showing his vulnerability both about himself as well as what it is to be human. We need gifted people who can help us do this. Robin is gone too soon and we sorely need him in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Florida and so many other places where power and privilege are a toxic combination creating racialized violence, where Black families are fearful for their children’s safety.

When we are afraid we are not able to be vulnerable, certainly not in such places where police cannot be trusted not to target those with brown skin. No one –in the white world -- dares to risk talking about the residual guilt we feel at our privilege and our awareness of the racial tension we feel. It is easier to put on the defensive mask and ignore racial inequality, the New Jim Crow system of burgeoning prison populations filled with black and brown bodies, the effects of profiling some and privileging others. But  when the walls stay up our demons remain alive and well.

As Robin William knew too well, demons lurk in places when we do not talk about the pain and  suffering of the underbelly we share. We are all suffering; the privileged and the profiled, albeit differently and with differing consequences.

But the privileged can use our power to make changes both within ourselves and in our communities by remembering and living as if we believe we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God, all of us look like the face of God, and all have the divine spark within. We can remember that none of us is free from our demons – whether of fear, guilt, and shame or distrust and resentment -- while the others are still bound by theirs. Do I have answers? Not really, only that risk-taking is required of those with privilege. We must name the demons in our midst, demons we live with and continue to create. Indeed, we even feed them and help them to grow by not speaking out.

A world that belittles and trivializes some lives as having less value than others is not a world that holds any promise or hope for any of us. It is not the society I want to hand over to my grandchildren, nor can I allow the continuation of grandparents and parents to fear for the lives of their children.

But we do not have to give up and give in to the demonic lies as Robin did, God rest his soul. Privilege requires that we all join hands and demand justice, hold law enforcement accountable and control all violence. But it also requires that we dare to think of the world we could build if we all admitted we remain fearful inside the underbelly of the beast and vow to exorcise the demons that reside there. Then, and only then we will be able to trust laughter again.



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