Oh, Those Hilarious White People!
Up at 5:00 a.m., I start in on the day’s news.
There’s a piece on meditation, in the New York Times, which opens with a description of a group of “Patagonia-clad white people,” which I assume is a play for laughs. The Belladonna Comedy is running an article on “Parenting Tips for Raising a Confident Mediocre White Man.” The New Yorker hits me with “Does the Paint World Need Another White?”
Wait — scratch that last one!
That’s actually about paint.
It’s not yet 5:30 and my Race & Gender-based Media-Unease has kicked in before I can finish my first cup of matcha.
My daughter has a phrase she uses to distinguish serious upset from trivial.
Of the latter, she’ll say, “it hurt my-stupid-fucking-feelings!” which nicely names that situation where you know that being genuinely, “legitimately,” upset is probably a bit of a reach — but you still get that nasty taste in your mouth and that life-shortening jolt of elevated blood pressure.
I realize that, “We need to lighten up on straight, white, middle class, middle aged men! Who’s with me?” is not likely to rally a lot of people behind me.
Wait — scratch that, too!
Part of the problem — and a big part: It’s likely to rally the wrong people behind me.
It’s poor form, in progressive circles most especially, to make a complaint like that.
That’s what they do, the Trumpy masses, the desperate last-gasp white supremacists, the entitled nervous natalists fretting over their — long-deserved! — loss of privilege: they whine and bleat about the exact opposite of the real problem, the real problem being the persecution of longstanding of pretty much anyone who is “not them.”
Not white, not male, not cis, top of list.
They don’t matter.
What does matter: It is a bad tactic (in the moment) and it is an especially bad strategy (in the long term) for the left to so fervently embrace the essentialism for which we have long excoriated the right.
“Men are bad parents!” isn’t any less of an offensive — and counter-productive — generalization than “women can’t drive!”
And playing essentialism for laughs doesn’t make it less of a problem — ridiculing men away from childcare, for example, hurts women and children as much as, or more than, it hurts men.
Can’t You Take a Joke?
People who take the time, and expend their moral outrage, to “put overly sensitive white men” in their places (I will be under my bed when you come for me; first room on the left, top of the stairs) take recourse to a variety of responses.
I understand the arguments; I really do.
Most fall under the broad rubric of “This is Justice!” There’s:
Punching up is different from punching down!
Now you know how it feels!
It’s your turn!
As a card-carrying, male, “humorless feminist,” my very fave is that old chestnut:
Can’t you take a joke?
For the record: yes; yes, I can.
Broadly? We should be able to say anything we want about any person or group — as long as it’s funny; y’know, not counterfactual, slanderous, or threatening.
In my observation, however, we do not live in an age of Humor Without Borders. So “how we police humor” is the relevant question at hand. Didn’t start the conversation; just jumping in.
What’s the Goal?
I want a free, open, just society, in which we don’t judge people — in which we don’t hold people back — based on irrelevant personal characteristics: gender identity, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
I have fought for those things — as did my parents and grandparents before me, with words, presence, and money — for more than fifty years.
It is more than a little dissonant when people flying the same banner, claiming to support these values, regularly turn around and trash some people on the basis of race and gender.
It hurts my-stupid-fucking-feelings.
It’s not funny.
Most important of all: It is driving people away from progressive causes.
For the most part, successful, progressive, civil rights movements — for women, for African-Americans, for LGBT people — have been built on a three-legged stool: the group seeking redress; an appeal to egalitarian values; a full-throated call for allies to Join Us!
Egalitarian values are looking a little ragged around the edges lately, and not just because of the nefarious activities of the plutocrats. It is one thing to be “called to account” for your personal behavior: I am wrong or inappropriate on a daily basis; point to a specific issue and I’ll eat whatever I have to eat. It is something rather different, however, to be told that — for some of us — race and gender make us “wrong from go.”
If I reflexively tag young, black men as “threat” or young Latinxs as “undocumented,” I am “called out,” and rightfully so, for my racism. If someone, based on my race and gender, automatically identifies me as a “privileged oppressor,” the response should be the same — and just kidding excuses that person’s prejudices exactly as much as it would excuse mine, which is to say: not at all.
Equal treatment — in my archaic, if circular, phrase book — means . . . equal treatment.
[I will waste no time here explaining why to be told “Oh! You’re one of the good ones,” just makes things so much worse.]
Back to the three-legged stool: In terms of alliances?
Seems to me we are blowing up as many as we are building. There is some degree of “inviting in” still being practiced, but it often has a pretty caustic tinge to it: “If you want to be a white, male, ally: come in; confess that you are part of the problem; sit down and shut up.”
When that’s your first experience of a meeting focused on solidarity with oppressed people?
Finding time to attend a second meeting drifts down your calendar pretty quickly.
And, as a practical matter, if you get kicked out of an “identity discriminating” group on the left? There is an “identity discriminating” group on the right that will welcome you with open arms — and give you a free tiki torch after just three meetings!
Back in the mists of time, we recognized bridge building as essential to the success of equity movements of all kinds. Jack Greenberg, for example, a white attorney of Jewish heritage, sat second chair to Thurgood Marshall, during the arguing of Brown vs. Board of Education before the Supreme Court. Gloria Steinem argued, during NOW’s formative period, that the group should be called the National Organization for Women (not “of women”), to underline that “non-female” support was welcome.
Working for genuine equality, judging everyone for what they do — not what they are — and inviting people in, instead of fencing them out, is a time-tested formula for successful, positive, change.
What do you get when you work for “selective” equality, when you judge some people on the basis of identity — and shun, shame, and ridicule other people on the basis of . . . identity — when your reflex is to discourage, rather than nurture, alliances?
The answer is as sad as it is simple: