I gave a short speech today on dialogue and accountability and being gentle with each other while doing what we can. The quality of this recording is poor, but I’m parking it here until I find something better (runs from 0:06 to 7:12).
Lately I’ve been hanging out with someone when they watch Third Rock from the Sun.
For those who don’t know it, it’s a comedy television show which ran from 1996 – 2001. The premise is that a group of aliens are sent to earth, disguised as a human family, to experience and report life on the 3rd planet from the sun. The cast includes John Lithgow, Jane Curtain, and a young Joseph Gordon- Levitt, and the observations about the silliness of human culture is fun, but….
Wired deep into the humor of the show is a fundamental assumption that men will assertively sexualize women (and girls) and it will be (1) assumed to be normal and (2) deflected and laughed off (or (3) welcomed.)
The first scene here (to 1:19) is pretty representative
It seems to happen at least once each episode. I wonder if the writers and actors even noticed.
Sorry, the title is a tease. Really I only have two ways to slump, but I didn’t feel like resisting the allusion to the man who got the job of running (using the term loosely) our country.
My first way to slump was collective. I hadn’t been hit by it yet, that punch that deflates hope. Sure, I have been aware of the relentless march of hate and greed against love and community, but I kept some distance from it by staying connected to efforts to resist it. Then I saw some news story about the likely effects of what is about to happen to research funding and down I went. I don’t know why this was my final straw, but it was. And then I heard from a friend about a large company that will no longer be covering spousal health insurance, right before reading a brilliant piece about how intentional poverty is and how vulnerable so many of us are to it. And then I read about how evolving Artificial Intelligence is incorporating racial and gender bias. And it was suddenly All Too Much.
Yeah, I know, welcome to your world.
So that was my first slump, opening up to my grief about the mess we’re in together.
My second way to slump was personal, about how I live in this world, what I experience, what my options are, what I think it all means. Lately, I have seen collective problems headed my way and they scare me because they look a lot like personal economic disenfranchisement. If grief about our big life softened me up, fear about my own small life knocked me down.
The first thing I want to say about these forces I fear will reach me is that I know they have been the reality for a lot of people for a long time. All that’s different for me in our new world is that now this tide is lapping at MY toes … My WASP, educated, intelligent, naturally slender toes. For all my deliberate efforts to be conscious about my unearned privilege, this still feels like an offense. Kind of like when a white woman jogger was grabbed from behind by a cop for jaywalking and then detained for resisting arrest when she slugged him before looking to see who it was. Kind of like when I didn’t get out of speeding tickets even though I was hyper-polite. Kind of like my irritation that the only jobs to apply for seem to require highly specialized experience or high school diplomas and reliable transportation. On some profound level I have absorbed and believed the story that this sort of stuff isn’t supposed to happen to people like me.
I knew better intellectually, but knowing that more marginalized people have been the canaries in our coal mine is different than finally feeling the effects of the gas that hit them generations ago. I have noticed that the narrowing of the privilege gap is often experienced by the people with privilege (PWP, a new acronym perhaps?) as oppression. I’m happy to report that I have not had that reaction. I have, however, experienced a deep sense of shame: if this happens to me, one of the PWP, surely I screwed up in some way. I have, after all, been told for a lifetime that the tide would never reach me. I wonder if this is part of the deaths of despair story that is now showing up in in social science data. I gotta say, it feels pretty bad.
It is important to clarify that I am NOT saying here that I deserve some special protection from these forces, just that after a lifetime of being told that I wouldn’t have to deal with them it is an emotional adjustment to notice that I unconsciously believed that story. Doonesbury did a pretty great cartoon on this, that previously marginalized people aren’t experiencing our new losses as anything special because they already had less to lose. When I said I need to learn from POC, I wasn’t planning on it being how to emotionally manage economic insecurity. I still think there has to be a better way for all of us.
[In the spirit of ongoing dialogue, this was edited on 4/13 to reflect important feedback.]
There is, in some of my circles, an essay making the rounds which critiques just about every majority-white anti-racism group of which I am aware. The gist of the criticism, as I read it, is that white folks can’t be trusted to do this work well without the supervision of People of Color, and that we are generally pretty bad at setting up and sustaining meaningful structures for such accountability. The consequences of stepping into this work without these structures range from not-enough to harmful. As I understand the author, these negative consequences include an over-investment in giving white people safe places to learn about racism and their (our) role in it, and a deflection of resources from activists of color to these white groups. Also that gaps in our understanding and a human preference for comfort over discomfort lead us away from the emotional, intellectual, and material sacrifices necessary to engage in the ways this work requires of us. And these consequences harm POC.
In the spirit of transparency and growth, I have to own that my initial response to this essay was a predictable sputtering defensiveness. Since I have learned that this sort of reaction usually points to something I need to look at, I’ve been unpacking it with trusted friends since the essay came out. The core of my irritation seems to be with the implication that whites rarely get it right, can’t be trusted, and should at no point be alone with this material. (So, still keeping it about us, not the harm the author was trying to get us to look at.)
There’s a joke I like… “My cousin thinks she’s a chicken.” “Why don’t you take her to the doctor?” “We need the eggs.” I like the joke because it reflects some of the absurdity of how we get along in face of deeply rooted contradictions and challenges, such as the one about how (if) people with entrenched unearned privilege can participate in the process of dismantling that privilege. For better or for worse, right now white anti-racists think (hope) we’re chickens. And we (collectively) really need the eggs. So where from here?
This question wove into some thinking I’ve been doing about the long-term trajectory of my focus in this work. So far, I have mostly tried to learn about and then educate other white people about the history that created our position, the systems that hold it in place, the way these systems create murderous imbalances, and how we participate in and profit from these imbalances. Pending new insights, I continue to believe that this work is necessary and that there are practical reasons to have these conversations in majority-white groups led or co-led by white people who frequently check their understanding with people of color[i]. However/And…. the next question coming into focus for me is how to apply this knowledge to contribute to change: As I wrote a few months ago, “… it isn’t enough to simply help white people see barriers set up against others but not them. It’s time, I think, to turn my attention to taking those barriers down.”
As to what this means about working in majority-white anti-racism groups … I’m not sure. The truth is that I’d rather do the work imperfectly—knowing there will always be corrections to make—than not at all. The next step is to check accountability in groups I’m part of, including believing that we sometimes hurt others so we can apologize and learn from the experience. Hopefully we’ll get some eggs out of it.
[A note on language: Race is a constructed concept that sets intellectual traps if accepted. The term Racial identity, which bases the distinctions on social and psychological labels rather than inherent traits, serves to remind us that humans made this illusion. I use “Black” and “white” for convenience, as we need some language to talk about the issues we are seeking to address. I do not mean by this that I think our racial identities are fixed and determinative.]
[i] (1) White people are more likely to unpack embarrassing material about racial identity if we’re not being listened to by the people the crap is about and we have to unpack it before we can move into the clearer understanding that supports action; (2) There are things about whiteness that only white people know (just like any in/out group dynamic). We can use this knowledge to reach into the thicket and show people some paths out of it. Though we aren’t the center of the collective story, there is a need to sometimes center the conversation on how we do what we do; and (3) there are more white people who need this basic training than there are people of color with this work as their calling. I’d rather have leadership of color giving me outlines and checking me from time to time (if they want), but doing the bulk of their liberation work in the thickets I can’t enter. And, yes, I do write checks for this. And, no, I don’t want any cookies for trying to help correct the balance.
Mary Gergen writes about the concept of Social Ghosts[i], people we still speak to and hear from though they are absent in our current lives. One of my big (huge) ones is my father. Since I get to select which version of him is useful to me, I mostly speak to and hear from person he was when he was around the age I am now, before cognitive decline muted one of the finest minds with which I have ever interacted.
He is particularly on my mind these days for two reasons. The first is that a dear friend of his has just lost her father and I saw his obituary in the New York Times. Though she and I have never had a direct relationship, I sent her a condolence note and she was kind enough to open up a conversation about the having of highly visible fathers.
The second is that I recently decided (again) that I really need to read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The copy I bought last time I decided this has gone missing, but I did find (tucked in a safe corner) Dad’s copy with his marginalia.
I have this book because these were the books I kept when he passed, the books in which his spidery handwriting noted, expanded, and argued with the authors’ ideas, in which his underlines, exclamation points, and particular ways of marking passages point out to me what caught his attention. These are the books through which I can still learn from him, evoking the most powerful social ghost in my world. All the markings are, of course, in ink … the same way he did the NYT Crossword puzzle. He did not lack intellectual confidence.
In some of these books the notes are minimal, maybe half a dozen comments total. Not so with his responses to Dr. Kuhn. His hand has marked at least a third of the pages. In these notes he:
- Identifies Kuhn’s arguments (“The concept of development-by-accumulation” (Kuhn) is “the paradigm he wants to disenfranchise” (Dad));
- Makes note of resources to track down, such as Copernicus’ classic definition of a crisis state.
- Applies Kuhn’ arguments to others’ ideas, most frequently Marx;
- Applies others’ ideas to Kuhn’s points, such as the note inside the front cover quoting Cossier’s The Philosophy of Enlightenment about “the self-development of the idea of knowledge itself”, complete with page number; and
- Argues with Kuhn’s points. These comments generally get too complex to explain here without extending this already-too-long post, but I think the case is made when he responds to Kuhn’s point that previous scholars should not be accused of bias with a succinct “No?”
My favorite note, however, might be the most obscure. It comes at the end of a heavily marked passage about how errors in previous ways of thinking show more clearly when those previous ways of thinking have matured, revealing their errors as anomalies in the theory. He summarizes this point in the margins, but the bit I love is the comment written at an angle at the end of the paragraph: “Very happy…”. I have no idea why he wrote this.
When I studied rhetoric as a grad student, the idea that most drew me was epistemology, the question of how we know what we know. Readers of a particular bent will have already noticed this theme running through what I post here, this importance of questioning what we take to be true.
Reading dad reading Kuhn reminds me that, when it comes to this type of intellectual inquiry, I have not fallen far from my tree. This understanding-of-self-through-relationship is one of the uses of Social Ghosts. The other, of course, is that through a physical book I once again get to talk to my dad about ideas. Still, I wish I could still do it in person.
[i] Gergen, M. M. (1987). Social ghosts: Opening inquiry on imaginal relationships. In 95th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, New York.
Way back when some of us thought The Naked Emperor couldn’t be elected, he boasted that his celebrity status meant that any woman was his for the grabbing. This wasn’t surprising to those of us paying attention; the stories and his verbal and nonverbal communication painted a pretty clear picture. What was surprising (at least to me) was that the population at large didn’t care. This ate at me for a while before it hit me that what freaked me out was that this contained the message that simple human dignity wasn’t mine to claim. Trump, rape culture, us as Things… it’s all part of this denial that women are, I am, fully human. This insight brought me into a feeling of despair and sadness I do not remember experiencing before.
In the next moment light again flashed in the epiphany that this denial of humanity is what the Black Lives Matter people have been trying to get us to see. I had believed them before, and had intellectual understanding, but that punch in the gut connection was a whole new thing. Though my Whiteness bars me forever from complete empathy, meeting in that type of grief shattered yet another layer of the shell that protects me (us) from feeling what racism does.
This mechanism of making the Other less than human is key to all the other screwed up stuff. Today this article on how that works bobbed by in the stream. And I wanted to share it with you.
A few years ago I asked a biologist how she liked her work. She told me it was sad, because her field had the task of “monitoring the decline.” I’ve been thinking about that phrase lately, as we collectively witness the decline of support for so many things that support healthy biological and human communities.
Each day seems to bring with it threat of some new unacceptable loss: Laws that protect bear cubs on public land and their moms while they hibernate; Unexploited federal lands; Federal funding for the arts (including Big Bird!); Legal help for people without a lot of money; Computers for people without a lot of money; Decent public education; Clean water; Clean air; Thoughtful community policing; Affordable, comprehensive health care; Policy informed by data and compassion. If you’re still reading my work after the first few weeks, you probably have your own I didn’t get to here. If you are still reading my work, you are likely keenly aware of the disruption, pain, and death that will come to the least protected of us through these changes.
And all this is hard to hold.
And the power of the forces we are resisting is located in important places, primarily the legislative and budgetary processes of the federal and most state governments. Since they are the ones with the legal ability to collect and spend our money (and to legally shoot and imprison people), they do require attention and response. I am loving the response I’m seeing in the grassroots efforts to find and run candidates who support healthy communities, the resistance at town meetings, and the flood (too small a word) of calls and letters to our elected representatives.
They do not have all the power, not even all the power we sometimes assume they do. When I hear on the news that their proposed budgets would cut arts, legal services, food to poor families, health care to a whole lot of us, and programs to help cops see Black people as humans rather than criminals, then I remember that “would” is conditional, not definite. Then I remember that if we are irritating enough we might mitigate some of the damage.
I also remember that we have the power of the legal system, imperfect as it is; that journalists have the power to name truth no matter how much the Bully Pulpit tries to live up to its name; and that we, collectively, have the power to be decent to each other, to protect each other, and care for the community of life of which we are part.
Yes, there are awful forces moving against things that I love, but it is not naïve to notice that there is also a vibrant network nurturing, supporting, and defending these beloved lives, places, ideas, and values. The magazine that feeds me best for remembering these good works is Yes Magazine. I’ve linked here to their 20th anniversary issue, which lists 50 inspiring ideas to make the places we live more sustainable and inclusive, but it’s pretty much always great.
I’m not sure yet if we’re monitoring the decline or witnessing a birth of something we need to become. I am sure which one I’m going to try to make happen.
(This post is dedicated to Louise Spencer, who is one of the most effective and humble change agents I’ve met in a long time. I am grateful to have found my way into the vibrant network she helps to create without even really noticing how powerful she is.)