Sunday, December 11, 2016

I Want to Wake Up: White Privilege & The Road of Good Intentions

When I saw U2's Zoo TV tour back in 1992, one song featured a series of seemingly random words flashing on video screens.  Provocative words, inspiring words, throwaway words: Sex, Abba, Tofu, Bomb, Chaos.  Then, phrases began to emerge:  Everything you know is wrong, Tread Softly.  It Could Never Happen Here.   Eventually, this gem popped up:  "Everyone is a racist except you."

I never forgot that line because, well, that's true, isn't it?  We never imagine ourselves as the racist, the homophobe, the misogynist, the xenophobe.  "I'm colorblind."  "Live and let live."  "CoExist."  They're idealistic sentiments...but I'm coming to realize at the not-so-tender age of 49 that they are merely a starting point.

I'm a straight white male.  I've never had to sit beneath the high throne of purported birthright privilege.  Society dictated that my kind was top of the food chain, and even though I was never comfortable with the notion, I certainly didn't suffer because of that widespread, albeit misguided belief.

On November 9th, 2016 - for the first time in my life - I experienced what it was like to be marginalized.  At the risk of overstating, feeling rejected for what I hold most sacred.  Millions of us felt it, to be sure.  To experience it for the first time at such a late age in life...I was ashamed.  Ashamed that I'd never truly stood on the shaky ground that quakes beneath the feet of those who are often looking over their shoulder out of a well-earned sense of mistrust in their fellow citizens.  Fearful of harassment, fearful of assault, bullying, or other abuses.  I knew all the words to Elvis' "Walk a Mile in My Shoes", but I'd never actually done it.   And Elvis?  Wasn't he just what America served up because the true inventors of rock 'n roll were deemed undesirables?   An immensely talented white country boy, but merely sequined seconds compared to Little Richard & Chuck Berry.

For more context, let me walk you through a mile in my shoes.  My entitled blue suede shoes:

I grew up in a squeaky white Southern Baptist Church.  It was here I first heard this horrible "joke": "What do you call a bus full of black kids going off a cliff?  A good start." 

It wasn't an everyday occurrence but it happened enough for it to feel like part of the culture, and the jokes were told - almost exclusively - in a slight whisper, as if there might be something about them that was - I dunno - horribly hateful?

It was a minister's wife that shared a rhyme with me and other teens that went:  "Watermelon watermelon, cadillac car.  We ain't as dumb as you think we is."

On another occasion, an adult churchgoer admonished the presence of Congressman John Lewis as the commencement speaker at my college graduation, saying "If I'd known the speaker was going to be that thick-lipped...well, I'll stop there..."     But I knew what the next word out of his mouth was going to be.

Additionally, I had our youth group president mouth the N-word at me throughout rehearsals for a church play, trying to get me to break character and laugh.

I felt queasy whenever this kind of talk was thrown around.  It didn't jibe with those red words in the New Testament, spoken by a gentle brown man who seemed incapable of condoning such hatred.    So, I must've been one of the good guys, right?

By the time I got to college, though, I'd discovered I had not, in fact, earned the title of "good guy".  I wrote an article for the school paper, in which I referred to playwright Tennessee Williams as someone whose lifestyle "I abhorred"...despite the fact one of my best friends and two of my favorite professors were keeping their sexuality under wraps at the school -a private Baptist college - for fear of being outed.

I provided a horribly racist overdubbed voice for an African American staff member in an interview when the original audio didn't come through.  A really pretty girl shot the footage, screwed up the audio, and said she thought it would be funny if someone did a "Fat Albert" voice to salvage the interview.  Cluelessly, I agreed, because I wanted her to like me.  Cluelessly, I took part in a truly hateful process that made me ashamed as soon as she played her final project back for the class.  Cluelessly, I'd just proven myself a racist.

By the time I got out of college, I'd learned a lot of hard lessons about how well meaning people could have HUGE blind spots where bigotry is concerned.  Believe it or not, despite being at a private Baptist college, I'd been exposed to a cross-section of students from myriad cultures and faiths.  I'd had professors who challenged my provincial understandings and forced me to reckon with the immaturity of my assumptions.

Graduate school led me to a series of playwriting classes with a feminist professor who pointed out so many deep-seated flaws in my well-intentioned viewpoints on men and women that I had to rethink ever gender assumption I'd ever made.  Shortly after graduation, I married a feminist, assuring I would never backslide.  I thought I'd finally woken up to injustice and was squarely on the right side of the battle.

My mid-20's, 30's and 40's were driven by a "tsk-tsk" attitude that shunned open racism, fumed at evident sexism, and scowled at rampant homophobia.  I assumed I'd attained a certain social enlightenment.  I wasn't smug, mind you.  I just thought, "Okay, I get it now.  I'm a straight white guy who accepts everyone...and that's how that works, right?  My work here is done."     After all, my heart swells when I watch Jackie Robinson footage, I tout Malcom X as one of my heroes, I bask in my beta-male identity.  I'm the spouse who is barefoot in the kitchen making pancakes for the kids while my wife is the one at Home Depot buying 2 x 4's.  I sported a red AIDS ribbon while weeping through "Angels in America", parts 1 AND 2.  How much more could possibly be done?

Then along comes this next awakening, one that made me realize my progress has been glacial at best.  Being open-minded and accepting, that's wonderful...for starters.  But we're at one of those incredibly crucial crossroads in history - uncharted territory for my generation - where good yet silent people will feel reverberations we've only read or heard about before.   It has been easy for me to detest the likes of George Zimmerman, but I am still likely never going to have to worry about being the one actually hunted down by a racist vigilante.

Shot in the street, fearful of being pulled over, holding onto your hijab on the subway, tucking a Koran beneath your shirt, hesitant to go into one bathroom or the other, darting from your classroom to taunts of "build that wall," bullied for your skin tone, your quiet faith, your wardrobe, your assumed identity.   At some point, every good person has to decide whether their response is "It's a shame that is happening to them" or "I won't let this happen to us."

For me personally, it's time to proactively ask those facing the worst kind of discrimination if they would like me to join them at the proverbial lunch counter, if adding my two feet to their march is in any way beneficial.   I've spent far too much time simply being comfortable with the notion that I was  one of those supposedly "woke" entitled people who empathized from the sidelines.  Unifying memes and yard signs aren't going to cut it anymore.   At best, it's sleepwalking.  At worst, it's being awake, but opting to stay in the warmth of my own bed while other's beds are burning.

There's that great scene in Spike Lee's Malcolm X in which a young white college student approaches Malcolm, explains her desire to support his cause and asks what, as a white person, she can do.  "Nothing," replies Malcolm as he walks away.  I get that.  At times, I'm not invited to the party.  At the Shambhala Center, there is a People of Color Sangha (community) and those meetings are exclusively for People of Color.  They need a space to be open, candid, and connected.  But when those doors open and the meeting is over, will I be there to meet them and say, "So, here I am, if you're looking for another ally"?   Will I listen, rather than assume I already know how to help?   Will I do the same for the women of the world, the LGBT community, refugees, immigrants, the homeless, and others who have spent the majority of their lives feeling somehow set apart?  Will I have the courage and patience to listen, as well, to those whose ideologies are different from mine, so we can find enough common ground to forge an agreeable path forward?

Maybe it's timely that the expanse between Election Day and the Inauguration encompasses  Christmas Day.  For it was Christmas morning when Ebenezer Scrooge had his own awakening, a metaphor for how we conduct ourselves with all humankind.   While Scrooge was an almost cartoonish cold skinflint, I can't help but imagine that Dickens wanted all of us to see the miser in ourselves rather than just the redemptive notion of a holiday.  And whether our emergence from our self-serving cocoons take place over many years or a single night, the experience of realizing one has to do something - one has this singular lifetime to make a profound difference - well, that's something, isn't it?

I feel like I've spent my entire life waking up to an awareness that left my previous epiphany somehow lacking.   I could beat myself up for not having had the empathy required to more richly understand the full catastrophe of life for those outside my comfortable bubble, but that doesn't serve anyone at this moment.   At this moment in time, it's simply about continually waking up, getting up, and being bravely present for those who would welcome someone to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.  This Christmas, all I want is the courage to do this.  All I want is to help move us closer to being a Culture of Compassion.  I want to be a part of a society capable of showing those who rule by fear that they are wrong, and invite them in to experience a different kind of privilege: the privilege of unburdening ourselves of our prejudices.

A little later in that U2 concert I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Bono & the boys played their "new" hit single.  It's since been heralded as one of the greatest songs of the past 25 years, largely because it offers an aspiration that I believe connects with more of our society than we realize.  There are more people who wish to be awake than asleep.  There are more people - on all 'sides'  - who hope for a common good than a fabric-shredding division.

The refrain goes like this:

One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.
One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
One life, but we're not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
One, one.

We get to carry each other.

There's the invitation to enlightenment.  There's the true privilege.


Chuck Holmes said...

Well done, Tommy. I was reading James Baldwin last week, and it occurred to me that those of us who pride ourselves on being accepting and forward-thinking pat ourselves on the back entirely too much. Why does anyone, no matter their race, creed, or sexual preference have a need for anyone to "accept" them. They are there; that's it. The idea that anybody needs our acceptance is just one more manifestation of white, male privilege.

Becca Barnes said...

I so appreciate your articulate and to the point examination of your own privilege. The list of the marginalized has grown exponentially (in the public eye at least)in the days since the election. After the initial shock and anger subsided I took a more careful look at my FB friends who were commenting on the protests that followed the election. I read the comments directed at the protesters. I forced myself out of my progressive bubble and took a look at what some of my white, female contemporaries were posting because, well, I assumed they all thought more like me. I make it a habit not to 'friend' anyone I haven't met. I don't use FB for networking or marketing. I was fascinated to read the things my friends were posting and see how we came at the election from really different places. I've focused on not being angry, although that's an excruciating exercise given every new cabinet appointment, but being more open to give credence to other's viewpoints and opinions. I was operating on the assumption that we were all already on the same page. We're not and I feel pretty dumb for not recognizing that and taking the time to examine our differences. I haven't unfriended anyone! Some people I hid. Several others I engaged with in an attempt to get their take on current events. I decided that's one way that I can do my part to get through this and hopefully come out the ass end with something of our country intact. Figure out what all these people who seemed so similar to me, but voted for Tr*mp, are thinking and feeling. It's a start. It's my way of 'coming together' while remaining a progressive and sometimes ranty bitch.