by Maya Bernstein
Wayne was doing time in a juvenile detention facility when his brother was shot on the basketball court across the street from their apartment.
“It was an accident,” Karle told me.
“Like a drive by?” I asked.
“No, like it was meant for someone else. But Wayne’s brother got in the way. He was only a year younger than we are.”
I do the math in my head: Karle and I are eighteen, which means Wayne’s brother would be seventeen if he were still alive today. He was shot two or three years ago. That means he died when he was only fourteen or fifteen.
Karle tells me about more kids she knows who were shot. Kids our age, kids younger. Some of them died; some of them were paralyzed.
Karle and I have a lot in common. We’re both eighteen-year-old girls who have grown up in the United States. We’re both outgoing and friendly. When we hang out, we spend seventy-five percent of our time laughing in the way that only teenage girls can laugh: aimlessly, endlessly.
But we’re also really different. I grew up in the upper-middle class neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Karle grew up in the mostly-poor neighborhood of Fairhill, but she just calls it North Philly. I grew up coddled and nurtured by the best education New York City’s public school system had to offer, while the public schools in Philadelphia suffered from severe underfunding and overcrowding. I am used to farmer’s markets; food co-ops; artisanal grilled cheese stores; and all-organic, gluten-free restaurants. The closest food to Karle is the corner store, which sells junk food and sandwiches, and a bulletproof Chinese restaurant. Perhaps most glaringly, I’m white. And she’s black.
From the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2016, I volunteered at an urban farm in North Philly. The goal of the organization running it, the Philadelphia Urban Creators, is to empower community to make change and take action on the issues that affect them the most, including access to quality education, ending police brutality and mass incarceration, and preserving affordable housing in the area. I consider the kids I met there some of my best friends.
When I return to North Philly every summer, at least one kid I know has a new RIP tattoo for someone they’ve lost. “RIP ROB” and “RIP PHIL” decorate their arms, wrists, and necks. Every time I think about these tattoos, my heart breaks. I want to do something to stop it. I want to use my voice to tell their story. I want all the politicians and nonprofits and teachers to wake up and pay attention to my friends and how they’re hurting. But just when I think I’m about to burst, just when I think I can’t take the neglect any more, I stop myself. Every time.
I am a white, upper-middle class Jewish girl from Park Slope, Brooklyn. I have a story, but the North Philly story is certainly not mine. Who am I to assume that my voice is needed to tell this story? Who am I to assume that I am needed? Who am I to assume that the pain I feel is valid when the experience of it is in no way mine?
I know I’m a part of the same systems of privilege and oppression that they’re a part of. The difference is that I benefit from these systems, while they are hurt by them. At the same time, being a part of those same systems is what enables me to feel their pain. Being an American, being a young person, being a girl—all of these factors make my stomach churn when I see a new RIP tattoo, or hear a new story of someone being shot. And so, here I am. Hurting but knowing the pain isn’t mine to feel. Angry but cognizant of the fact that my anger is on behalf of something I’ll never experience firsthand.
As Karle and I talk, we’re sitting on the Broad Street line on our way back to North Philadelphia from a day in Center City. As the stops get closer to North Philly, more and more people who look like me get off the train. By the time we get to our stop at Susquehanna-Dauphin, all the white people are gone.