07 September 2015

Watch Who You're Calling White

Last December I wrote about a woman I met at a party. The post had been on this blog for a few days before I took it down because I thought I’d been a bit too harsh on the person in question. My intention was to revisit the writing and put up a kinder, gentler version in which I recalled that my younger self bore some resemblance to my subject. And so over eight months later here is the revision.

When I was 21 years old I knew everything. Older people were hopelessly out of it and uncool and unenlightened and sans a clue. I’d already been to Europe twice and dabbled in psychedelics and of course lost my virginity. I was nearly through with college and was a reporter on the school newspaper. You couldn’t tell me a damn thing. During the decades since I have gotten progressively stupider. With each passing day I seem to learn more and realize that there is so much more to learn and understand. I completed my degree and subsequently got a few more. I got off booze and drugs and married and raised two children and had a career and now a second incarnation of it. I’ve read, listened, meditated, traveled and paid attention. I look back at the idiot I was at 21 with amusement. There was nothing really wrong with that lad, he never hurt anyone and his intentions were honorable. He was just a stupid kid who needed to grow up and develop a little humility. Check that, a lot of humility. He’s done all right. So having taken a look back at myself I now examine another 21 year old who I met at a party. She was a caution.

Here’s a young lady who proudly states that she doesn’t consider herself white but that she can “pass.” That’s what this young women said. This woman with very white skin. No one would ever think other than white. Which is why — of course — thinking yourself a different skin color is utterly ridiculous. Skin color is a social construct. Its what others see you as. You can consider yourself an ethnicity, you can choose a religion, but you are a skin color. I don’t know what it takes to actually think of yourself as a different skin color, but she’s got it.

The thing is she doesn’t want to be white. I know the feeling. As proud as I’ve always been of being a Finn I’ve had times when I thought it would be cool to be black. But I’ve also had times when I thought it would be cool to be a spy, a rock star, a professional soccer player and a billionaire. This 21 year old was proud to be a woman and “queer.” One was obvious the other was her call and I had no reason to doubt her. But the non white claim was pure bullshit. She was clearly trying to identify with as many minority groups as possible and thus be as oppressed as possible. Being white means benefitting from white privilege. That’s a helluva thing to be stuck with when you want to be with the underdogs. So you hang on to your other differences and pretend to have others. A lot of people like to play the victim. It's easy, you gain sympathy and social status. Never mind that play the victim is an insult to those who have actually been victim. Its not cute to people of color when you try to appropriate their experience.

In the course of our conversation this young lady was able to dismiss any differences of opinion she had with my friend and I because we are white men. This ticked me off, I hate being called a white man. At the same time I am and admit it. But please don’t remind me. When you label someone you strip away a little bit — no actually a lot — of who they are.

I’m a lot of things. Okay so I’m a white guy.

Watch who you call white.

I’m also a socialist and a fan of Cal football and a cinephile and barely middle class. I'm a lot more than white, I'm a lot more than a lot of things. So are we all. Speaking of class, isn’t your economic status more telling than skin color or sexual preference? I think it can be. Society forgives a lot if you’re wealthy. White privilege can be virtually wiped out by poverty. Social mobility has been severely restricted of late in the US as the gap between rich and poor has simultaneously widened into a chasm. So while racism is still alive and well in this country — as recent events remind us — so too is classism, and it may be just as, if not, more powerful.

But I think most galling is using a person’s skin color or gender or sexuality as an out. If you have a difference of opinion you have an opportunity to listen, share and maybe one or both of you will change your mind or bend a little or learn something or understand another perspective. That is if you address the words a person speaks and not the label you've assigned them.

This young woman was full of opinions. She was proud of them and proud of the fact that she expressed them in no uncertain terms. Sometimes one can go from expressing oneself to being obnoxious in the blink of an eye. Being overly strident in one’s opinions and not soliciting other people’s and speaking authoritatively on subjects you know little about is a recipe for alienating people who you might otherwise learn from or at least share with.

She called Ernest Hemingway “a hack.” You don’t like his writing? Fine. You can say that. But calling one of our most revered writers a hack is pretentious. Actually it makes you seem like an buffoon. There are famed and highly regarded authors who I don’t care for but I’m respectful enough of those who do like them not to call them names. Instead I merely relate that their writing doesn’t appeal to me and perhaps add why. I've talked to writers about famous authors. Writers will tell you who they like and don't like but they won't dismiss another writer with an insult. Respect.

Don't even ask her opinions of films. She hates virtually all of those directors considered among the greats. It's easy to dislike. Finding truth and beauty takes work. You have to have an open mind and an open heart. This poor woman is closed up already. Not listening to anyone else, not asking, just forming and fossilizing opinions.

She also wants to read more non white male writers. That’s cool. I can totally understand that. But at the same time I wonder just how similar are "white voices"?  Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Celine, Ginsberg and Pynchon. Hey they’re all white guys, right? I don't think all us white males sound alike. I sound nothing like Richard Nixon. But yes, its important to expose oneself to women and non white writers, just don't lump all white writers together. That's too easy.

Clearly there are a lot of young people (as I once was) who should spend more time listening. The problem is, they never know who they are. I sure didn’t recognize myself as a cocky know-it-all who was in reality a know-a-little-bit. Indeed some young people are so blinkered as to think they’re a different color.

I’m a polka dot. 

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