I just read yet another blog post by a straight white cisgendered male (SWCM) that goes on at length about how SWCMs need to “shut up and listen.”
To paraphrase Ed Lin, “c’mon white people!”
Now, I don’t read much sci-fi so I don’t know much about John Scalzi, and so this isn’t about his intellect or the quality of his writing which I’m sure are considerable. But I did notice that his post is chock-full of stuff allies like me like to read and write:
- Getting cookies. Since we’re enlightened enough to know that nobody’s going to give us any cookies for exemplary service as an ally, we use posts like these to bake them for ourselves.
- Hogging the mike. Scalzi makes no effort to lend a voice in support of the people who lack his privilege. There’s not a single mention of a book or website or blog entry by, say, a woman of color or anyone queer.
- Dipping a toe into the oppression olympics kiddie pool. Scalzi mentions that he grew up poor. Perhaps to underscore that he really “gets it” and maybe to dull the sharp edge of his own privilege just a little. If we try hard enough, we can all come up with a disability or disadvantage that we can use to demonstrate our understanding of intersectionality.
- Receiving applause. The comments feature a parade of SWCMs who chime in at length about how they get it too.
- Maintaining control. In the comments, his degree of “getting it” gives him a higher ground from which to wield his mighty discussion-ending hammer, like when someone has the nerve to point out that ‘the people yelling the loudest to “shut up and listen” are some of the most in need to practice it.’
Now, just because John Scalzi is a privileged SWCM like me, that doesn’t make him a bad person. But as friends of mine know, one of my mantras is that “everyone wants to be the hero in their own story.”
When we SWCMs are forced to confront our own privilege, one story we tell ourselves is that by educating other similarly privileged people we are fighting oppression. When in reality we have done nothing to save the life of a trans woman, or find a job for a person of color, or get an equal wage for a woman, or enact marriage equality for a gay couple, or keep an immigrant family together, or provide affordable health care to anyone, or give even a token of attention to any person who might actually have lived the experience of oppression we so eloquently and grandly denounce.
Oh, I know it’s supposed to be a good thing for us SWCMs to “get it” and to have a privileged space in which to talk with other privileged people about our Privileged People’s Problems. And yet every time I read one of these self-congratulatory “I get it” pieces (which I confess I’ve written as well) I want to gouge my eyes out with an icepick.
Updated: It’s one thing to say “my sandbox, my rules” but if you’re trying to position yourself as an ally who listens to marginalized people, then deleting the comment of someone with an icon that sure looks like a woman of color and identifies as a “Black, Jewish, Queer, Fat, Disabled Chick” is doing it wrong. At the very least it deserves a click on the gravatar. Also, I suggest perusing Derailing for Dummies. The section You’ve Lost Your Temper So I Don’t Have To Listen To You Anymore seems particularly appropriate.
In EJ’s world, being robbed is like being raped and having to stay a couple of extra days in Dubai is like being in Mexican prison.
A few days ago, when the story first broke about “EJ” and the ransacking of the apartment she rented out on Airbnb, I wrote about how inadequate I found the reporting. One of the points I raised was the lack of questions about “EJ’s” identity.
Now, I never said I believed that “EJ” was a fiction, though knowing how easy it is to invent a fake identity and backdate blog entries, I certainly entertained the possibility. And even if she was a real person, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that everything she stated should be taken at face value. Read more…
By now I assume everyone who re-posted the following quote (in reference to celebrations of the death of Osama bin Laden):
I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
has learned that it wasn’t exactly a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. who apparently is right up there with Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, Kurt Vonnegut and Bill Gates in terms of false attributions. To be fair, the original facebook post had it right: the author’s own words, followed by the quote. Which then got combined and re-posted.
There was a kerfluffle on my own facebook when I pointed this out after a friend quoted it as a comment on a related post of mine.
Now, I agree with the sentiment, the whole thing. And while I didn’t join in the repost of this particular misquote, I’ve participated in such post-fests before. And when I get called out I feel foolish, defensive or embarrassed (or some mixture of the three). Some of the reactions I’ve seen this time around are “well it’s not like this is an academic paper” or “well it’s a good message anyway.”
But I think dismissing the misquote problem by saying “hey, it’s just facebook” misses a big point: that quote wouldn’t have been so widely passed around had it not had “MLK” attached to it. To me, that’s a form of cultural misappropriation just as egregious as the rewritten African American spirituals included in the UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition.
As a white person I’ve been conditioned to think my good intentions will insulate me from criticism when I try to earn points by appropriating the words of people of color. Turning this kind of criticism around and making the issue about my own hurt white feelings is not the kind of behavior that’s going to make anyone want me as their ally.
Snarky’s Machine pointed out to me that Damon Brown tells how to recognize fake quotes like this in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes. Until I read this, I vow to be a little more discerning about reposting and retweeting things attributed to others, and sticking to using my own words.
Even if they aren’t going to make me Internet-famous.
Apparently the appearance of brown or poor people having fun keeping cool was too much for the largely white business owners in downtown Syracuse, who have called the police on city residents trying to cope with the near-90 degree heat. According to the article Clinton Square fountain is not a pool in the Post-Standard:
After people showed up with beach towels and coolers on 85-degree days this week, Syracuse Police launched an education campaign to remind people that the fountain in Clinton Square is not a water park. Police officers rode bicycles and drove cars around the square today to shoo people out of the water.
Police will give friendly warnings for a few days, said Sgt. Gary Bulinski. By the end of the week, police could start writing tickets to people 16 and older and parents of those under 16 who are found in the fountain.
Syracuse Parks Commissioner Pat Driscoll said he and other city officials saw the crowd Tuesday and heard enough complaints to start enforcing the law.
Just to be clear: Clinton Square is a city park, and the “fountain” actually is a pool… it’s officially called a “reflecting pool” on the city parks website, though the fountains do tend to make the reflections kinda wiggly. This same non-pool pool is also used as an ice skating rink in the winter.
The comments after the Post-Standard article feature some of the worst kind of close-minded, racist and classist remarks which I won’t repeat. Suffice to say, there are some people here who feel that it’s better to spend city tax dollars to provide attractive views from office windows rather than make the city livable. That the response has been “call the cops” — even polite, bicycle-riding cops who are giving people a few days’ warning — says a lot about the city’s attitude towards its poor and brown people. Remember this is the city that once tore up its most racially diverse neighborhood to build an interstate.
Now, it’s fair to say that there are safety concerns — insufficient chlorination and possibly dangerous fixtures — that were clearly missed by the pool’s designers who, hello! didn’t anticipate people actually using it for cooling off in the summer. But sending in the police rather than address a clearly defined civic need seems pretty wrongheaded to me.
So, to recap. Here are some OK and not-OK uses of the Syracuse’s city park’s reflecting pool in Clinton Square:
It’s been about ten years since my awareness of my privilege has been safely hidden behind a curtain of “I don’t see races, I just see people.” I had never heard the term white translator, unpacking was something you did on a camping trip, and allies were those other countries that helped the U.S. win World War II.
Then, as part of my ongoing training as a Unitarian Universalist youth advisor, I learned the definition of “privilege” during an anti-oppression workshop.
One of the exercises was to take seven different index cards, and write down on each card how I identified according to seven different axes: Race or Ethnicity, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Age, Ability or Disability, Class, and Religion.
Once that was done, I was to separate the cards into three piles. Into the first pile went the identities that made me feel privileged or advantaged in society. The second pile was for my unprivileged or oppressed identities. And the third pile was for cases where I was unsure or where it depended on the situation.
My stacks ended up looking like this:
|Ability or Disability||Currently Able|
|Class||Educated Middle Class|
My first reaction was shock. Not wanting to feel so alone (marginalized!) I looked around a room of about fifty people, but could see maybe two who I thought might have arranged the cards the way I did.
Faced with the dissonance between the person I thought I was — liberal, egalitarian, kind — and my position as a member of the most privileged of the privileged, I think my second reaction was predictable. Full denial. Don’t I have some kind of disability? I mean, doesn’t my height make it hard to fit into an airline seat comfortably? I’m pretty darned nearsighted. My Asperger’s has mainly been an advantage only in terms of school and work. My religion has made it uncomfortable when I’ve had to work among right-wing Christians.
I didn’t succeed in fooling myself for long. Being able to ride airplanes, having had access to health care, an education and a job — no matter how I tried to spin it, these identities meant I’d had advantages pretty much across the board.
So now what? I did finally realize that sitting around feeling bad about all my privilege wasn’t going to help anyone. What I needed to do was use that privilege against the very system that institutionalized the oppression that gave it to me in the first place. In other words, be an ally. The problem is, you can’t really proclaim yourself an ally. And there’s probably nothing so annoying than the cookie-seeking behavior of a privileged person looking for an oppressed person to be an ally to.
But probably the biggest problem with being an ally is that (surprise) it isn’t easy to break habits formed by a lifetime of privileged behavior. Like when hearing that a white friend had behaved in a dismissive sexist and racist manner, I started trying to explain that he’s an equal-opportunity asshole, but really a nice guy deep down. For all I’d learned, it still hadn’t sunk in that
- I had to stop trying to explain away the lived experiences of oppressed people.
- I couldn’t count among my friends people who refused to acknowledge or address their own isms.
- I wasn’t going to get any pats on the head for doing the right thing.
I think this last one is the toughest for me. After all, if I’m giving something up, shouldn’t I be getting something in return? The answer, of course is: NO, STUPID. Because what I’m giving up is something I never earned.
So, how to stay motivated? For a while, it seemed to make sense to find other white people doing similar work and share my experiences with them: white caucusing. But this really doesn’t work for me. For one thing, I’m rather misanthropic as it is, and don’t need more reasons to spend time with people. And it takes a lot of energy to keep such meetings from turning into the ally olympic competition.
Of course, there are some rewards. There are the relationships that wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t started down this route. And I don’t have the discomfort I used to feel when I find myself in situations surrounded by people of color.
But nobody owes me anything for this. It’s the right thing for me to do. Like eating oatmeal. And if I need motivation to continue, well… I’ll just have to learn to pat my own damn head.