Wearing White Shoes

This post discusses subjects such as racism and misogyny.
If this triggers you … you probably ought to keep reading.

I read an article last week published in the New York Times by poet and essayist Claudia Rankine. With the provocative title of I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked., she discusses her experiences as a black woman traveling for work and observing frequent – and yet often unintentional – racial bias against her from white men. She recounts one instance in which two white men cut in front of her in line, only for one to comment to the other, “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days.” Another in which a group of white men again try to cut in line, and juxtaposes the actual response of both passengers and crew with the reader’s imagined response had that same group of men been women, or black.

Her article is well-written, thoughtful, and, I suspect, more carefully and deliberately worded than anything I could hope to achieve. Or would need to.

You see, I had never heard of Claudia Rankine. In fact, I originally started this article slightly differently: “… a poet named Claudia Rankine …” was how I was going to introduce her to my readers. I might have even published this post with this phrasing, had I not wanted to know if she had a doctorate or not. A very short Google search revealed more of you probably know of her than don’t. And after having read one essay of hers in the New York Times and spent all of three minutes looking her up, I’ve come to start to realize the extent of my whiteness. I probably will never fully grasp it.

… white privilege is … the simple fact that I don’t have to consider everything I do or say through the filter of my skin color.

You see, the very fact that I’ve never heard of a prize-winning, Yale-teaching poet is itself an aspect of this whiteness. Had she been white, or a man, might I have heard her name a little louder? Might I have inadvertently paid more attention?

Moreover, the fact that I can write and publish my own thoughts on prejudice without fearing insult or injury to my readers is symptomatic of the same thing. As I read Rankine’s article, it occurred to me that she was able to craft her language in such a way that sold a message – and sold it well – without once making me feel guilty – and therefore more likely to disengage. Engaged readers are the key to spreading a message, and I suspect – as she may do – that the New York Times has a lot of white readers.

Of note – although I didn’t spend more than about twenty minutes looking into it, I couldn’t find a demographic split for the New York Times by race; gender, income, age … but not race.

In a dextrous and subtle way, Rankine was able to open my eyes a little more to just what being black means – and to the fact that they’ll never really be fully open. In doing so, she helped me to recognize the way in which my own behaviors – both learned from and encouraged by (typically white) others – are affected by the simple fact that I’m white.

It also made me want to consider my own position on disparity and privilege, because as a white male it’s not something I often think about. My thoughts here are in no particular way well-educated, backed by research or experience, but they’re still my thoughts, so here goes.

Actually, back up a second. Read that last paragraph again.

What if I were black? How might readers’ opinion of my lack of evidence be different?

I believe I’m starting to understand that this is really what white privilege is. The simple fact that I don’t have to consider everything I do or say through the filter of my skin color. I just don’t have to worry.

But to really get it, to understand, it takes a good deal of empathy, and it’s incredibly hard to empathize with a feeling so alien that to you, it doesn’t even make sense. How can I ever understand what it’s like to live every waking moment being first and foremost judged by my skin color? How can I comprehend the conflict of wondering if my successes are going to be judged as leniency for the sake of political correctness, my failures as expected because I’m black?

I want to try something for a moment, and I’d like you to try it with me. I’d like you to close your eyes, clear your mind, and try to remember the scariest, most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to you personally. Try to picture it, remember it, and let that old feeling flow through you. It might not be comfortable, but hold on to that thought.

Got it?

What was it? Was it something physically harmful, like a car crash? Was it a painful accident you thought you might not recover from? Or was it a threat from another person – explicit or otherwise?

The Italian Dolomites, where my ten-year-old brain thought it was going to die.
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

My answer came to me easily: climbing in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy, hanging on to a rope and nearly falling off a cliff. I’ll never forget just how close I felt to death – the surge of adrenaline, the churn of my stomach, the powdery dryness of my hands.

This experience reeks of privilege, when I think about it. The privilege of money. The privilege of travel. The privilege of being able to have such an experience in the first place. And the odds are, if I weren’t white, I probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

But what about you, reader? If you’re black, or asian, or female … what was your most terrifying experience? I wonder if it involves someone threatening or hurting you for your perceived identity – your appearance, as it were.

Here’s the thing: I wonder if segregation might almost be impossibly connected to how humans perceive each other. It’s really, really difficult to comprehend that we share the planet with eight billion other individuals, without finding some way to distinguish between them. The first, simplest way is gender – penis or vagina, two choices. Suddenly you’ve just eliminated half the world as people you have to identify with. Next up – skin color. Man, it’s so easy to just ignore everyone who isn’t the same color as me

Human society is built on these premises – despite promises of equality for all, humans are not all equal. There are rich humans, poor humans, white and black humans, gay humans and bisexual humans and hip-hop humans and death metal humans. We pretty much have to break down society into digestible numbers in order to have one at all.

The problem, perhaps, arises when one group begins to dominate the others. When men dominate women, white people dominate black people; even able-bodied people dominating disabled people. To truly live in a fair and equal world, we need to understand that we are different – but that those differences can’t continue to be leveraged to control or manipulate our positions in society.

There have been times when I, as a white male, have walked through predominantly non-white neighborhoods and felt afraid. I felt out of place, a minority, and in danger because of the color of my skin. I’ve experienced a little taste of this. But I knew that I’d soon be in a place where I would certainly feel much safer: somewhere surrounded by white people.

But this little taste helps me understand that some people in the world feel that way everywhere. I get a little scared when I get pulled over by a cop. I have a little taste of what it might feel like to be black and get pulled over by a cop. I get a little scared walking to my car at night. I have a little taste of what it might feel like to be a woman walking to her car at night. My female colleagues carry their keys between their fingers every night, and we don’t even work in (to me) a particularly unsafe area.

How do we teach our children to understand each other?
Photo by Bess Hamiti on Pexels.com

When we teach children about empathy, we often tell them to ‘walk in another’s shoes’. But I don’t know if I’m terribly fond of that analogy; the only shoes that really fit you are yours. Instead, I think we should teach children to ask questions: why does this person feel this way? What might make me feel the same? And most importantly, how can I tell them that whilst I can’t know how they feel, I understand that they do.

At the end of Rankine’s New York Times article, it struck me that, in writing about her experiences with confronting racial bias, she didn’t really come to a conclusion as to what could be done to solve it. I wondered if she’d had to edit it for length, or if she simply didn’t have a solution.

But now it dawns on me that perhaps there isn’t a fix. Perhaps society isn’t broken, just … off-balance. I once witnessed gender bias first hand at work. Afterward, I was talking to the woman who had been essentially dismissed by a male colleague and she voiced her frustration about it.

I don’t know why she thought to share it with me specifically; perhaps she needed to vent, or perhaps she thought she could trust me. But when she was done, I realized that as she’d been speaking, I’d already begun building defenses for our male colleague. I’d started thinking up reasons other than gender bias for his behavior. And somehow in a moment I realized that none of that mattered, because she still felt slighted as a woman. He could have had the best intentions in the world for interrupting and dismissing her, but he was only able to do it at all because he was a man.

So I just said, “That must really suck.”

I realize it isn’t terribly eloquent, but I’ll never forget her reaction: all she said was, “Thank you.”

Empathy isn’t about feeling the same as someone else; it’s about acknowledging that they feel that way in the first place. It’s about understanding your part in how they feel, intenional or otherwise. I believe empathy is a sorely-needed key to unraveling racial, gender, and all other forms of bias, because it allows to realize that understanding others comes not from shared experiences, but from shared emotions.

Of course, none of this changes who I am. I’m still a middle-class white male in rural northern New Jersey, and I will continue to benefit from that identity for the rest of my life. I will benefit from it not because I want to, but because society will offer me help in ways that it simply doesn’t to others. I will get fewer speeding tickets; I will make more money; I will never wonder if I was endorsed for or denied a promotion because I’m not white. All of this will happen whether I ask for it or not, unless we start to recognize what equality really means.

Equality does not mean women should be paid more because they are women; it means they shouldn’t be paid less for equal work. Equality does not mean colleges accepting lower grades for minorities to boost their campus diversity; it means accepting students based on the merits of their work and individuality, and not their skin color.

I don’t know if we’ll ever live in a truly equal world. I doubt I can do a whole lot to change that. But if I can recognize my own biases and privileges, and not shy away from it under the guise of white guilt, then at least I can understand my part in the world’s inequality – and maybe make the world better for just a few people.

The Fine Line Between Socially Justifiable and Morally Reprehensible

My wife asked me the other day what I thought about the scandal surrounding recently-resigned Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel, wherein photos of him in blackface, mocking Hurricane Katrina victims, surfaced nearly fifteen years after the fact. To be fair, I hadn’t even heard, but it brought up a (short-lived) debate over what is, and what isn’t, justifiable in the long-term.

During the conversation, she brought up the controversy over Brett Cavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and how he was not (successfully) persuaded to resign, despite the surfacing of what was, to many, a far worse crime. Her position was that, in Ertel’s case, despite the offensiveness of his behavior, no one was hurt – something that can’t be said of Cavanaugh. As such, it comes across as painfully ironic that the perpetrator of a lesser crime should suffer more than someone who stands accused of rape.

She pointed out that Ertel’s mockery of terrible suffering was – or at least could have been – nothing more than a poor decision, and not necessarily reflective of his perspective or personality, especially after fifteen years, whereas someone who thinks it’s okay to sexually assault women is, essentially, unredeemable.

It reminded me also of the case against Brock Turner, who was not simply accused of rape, but actually caught in the act itself. A great furore was made in his defense that his own actions were themselves simply a poor decision, and that a single mistake as a youth shouldn’t jeopardize an entire career, life, whatever.

I thought it interesting that my wife was willing to give someone mocking tragedy victims in a racially charged manner a second chance, but not someone who made the decision to rape another human being. She’s right, to an extent – far more individual harm was done by Cavanaugh and Turner than by Ertel – but to hinge the argument on the mental capacity for change – and the assumption that a rapist can’t change, but a racist can – is a potentially dangerous proposition.

I don’t normally take much of a stance on these types of societal problems – I feel too far removed, socially and mentally, to make a valid argument – but in this instance, it’s given me pause for thought. To start with, I want to dismiss the argument of ‘legal’ vs. ‘illegal’; laws are arbitrary, and fluctuate with the whims of what present-day society deems acceptable or not. I’m not going to discuss whether racial mockery is okay because it isn’t explicitly against the law; I’d rather discuss this in the context of what is, simply, right or wrong.

All things are driven by human decision; the decision to get up, the decision to go to bed, the decision to wear this shirt or that sweater, and the decision whether to do what’s right or what’s wrong. Of course, in that sense right and wrong are entirely subjective, and mercy to the whims of what’s socially implanted in our minds; we’re taught (as a whole) that rape is wrong, and yet men do it every day.

Why?

Why is that the decision they go with – to have sex with an unconscious girl, or to physically force themselves on someone who is literally fighting back? In the moment before the act, there is a decision – to do, or not to do. Most people, I think, would choose to not do, but there are, quite clearly, some who choose the opposite.

Is there something fundamentally wrong with the mental wiring in those individuals? Is it something that is inherent to their psychology, that no amount of teaching or conditioning can overcome? Is it simply that they were never taught to control their baser urges, and act without thought – and can they be taught to think, instead? Or, simpler still, is that in-the-moment decision to rape, or to wear blackface, the product of poor upbringing and circumstance – a combination that may never replicate itself exactly the same ever again?

This isn’t an easy debate; if Ertel hadn’t had these photos surface, he would still be Secretary of State – and would the fact of his behavior fifteen years ago change his ability to perform his job? Even if he thought such behavior was acceptable in 2005, does that mean he still does? The emergence of evidence doesn’t change the past – only how we view it. Certainly some people who held Ertel in high regard now condemn him – whilst others who never held an opinion one way or the other now feel sympathy.

If Brock Turner hadn’t been caught, would he have a burgeoning career, an academic future, and a happy life? Probably. Again – it doesn’t change the fact of what he did, only how he is perceived. If Turner had raped that girl and left, never to be known, he would have likely gone on to a perfectly normal life – at the expense of hers. Maybe he would have learned that he can get away with rape, and gone on to commit further crimes – or maybe it would have just become a skeleton in his closet.

To add fuel to the fire, the increasing impossibility of remaining private in a world of perpetual social impressions leads to the question of what’s more important: the act, or the act of being caught. Evidence of the past is becoming ever more difficult to erase, but should it be held against us years – sometimes decades – later? Surely, we’ve all done things we regret; does that mean we’re to be judged for life for those things?

I think there a couple of considerations when condemning – or forgiving – a person for their past. The point my wife brought up – of direct harm – is valid, and worth bearing in mind. What level of hurt did a person’s behavior effect upon another human being? Is it fair that a rapist be allowed a normal life, when their victim’s world is utterly shattered?

I also think the influence a person has on society should be taken into consideration when casting judgement on their past. Whilst no one is perfect, people with a wide sphere of influence – celebrities, politicians, lawmakers, etc. – absolutely must be held to a higher standard. It’s utterly deplorable that Brett Cavanaugh was even considered for the Supreme Court after the accusations leveled at him – in some ways, far worse than the lenient sentence levied against Brock Turner. And in equal measure, someone who behaves in a racist manner – be it then or now (for what it’s worth, Ertel was already a supervisor of elections in 2005) – should answer for their transgressions.

With that being said, I don’t believe that anyone – position of influence or not – should be treated differently in light of their crimes, for better or for worse. Cavanaugh and Turner should have been judged equally in the eyes of the law, and if found guilty, punished accordingly. In both cases, I don’t feel that true justice was served. As for Ertel, it’s no argument to say that 2005 was a different time, because racism is racism regardless of era. Context is important, but can’t be everything. Joke in poor taste or not, this is a person who chose a career in which he is in the public eye – and as such, has a duty to society to uphold the values that that same society deems worthy.

If there is a lesson to any of this, I think it might be this: the truth will always come out, and as such, it’s probably best to be true to yourself, and let the chips lie where they fall. I’ve been blogging since 2011, and there are probably things in my 813 posts that, in hindsight, I might’ve rather not written. Yet I can at least say, with some level of integrity, that what I’ve said was my truth, at that time, and as such shouldn’t be hidden or altered. If what I’ve said makes me reprehensible, then at least I know that’s who I am.

At the end of the day, our behaviors are what define us, and our actions over time are where judgement should lie. We all make mistakes, but a person’s true character can be told from two things: the egregiousness and the frequency of their crimes.

Can someone be forgiven for heinousness in their past? Can people truly change? Or does a person, once sinned, lose the right to repentance?

What do you think?

We Can Still Strive For Better

Apologies: strong language ahead.

I rarely, if ever, post about politics, my friends. I usually don’t have much opinion on the matter, and since I don’t often read about these things, I’m not usually terribly informed.

But what the fuck.

What the living fuck just happened to the United States of America?

Let me start by pointing out that I am about as far from nationalist as it’s possible to get. I don’t much care for the notion of patriotism or even countries in general—I don’t subscribe to the idea of national pride, or that one country is somehow better than another. I prefer to think of the world as a global community of people, all equal in worth, with the ability to communicate freely with each other in open dialogue.

But yesterday’s events just showed me how atypical my point of view must really be. Sixty million people just declared in one voice their pride for the very worst of what the United States has to offer. Another sixty million—of which I am one—declared a modicum of sanity by trying their hardest to elect one of the most competent and qualified women in the world to the most powerful position in the world: but it wasn’t enough.

Sixty million. It’s a number that’s hard to comprehend. Sixty million people think the United States needs to be made ‘great again’. Sixty million people think eight years of peace and prosperity under Obama was worth throwing away, right into the fucking toilet.

Sixty million people think they just got a carte blanche to act out the very, very worst of humanity. Bigotry, hatred, racism, sexism, and a blatant disregard for human decency have just won the day. Never have I seen so many reports of people being despicable to other people under the guise of supporting a political leader. Where are the Clinton supporters telling immigrants to get the fuck out?

‘Make America great again.’ I refuse to refer to the United States as America, because it is outrageously offensive to the wonderful people of Canada and Mexico. What, exactly, is this greatness you’re striving for? White supremacy? Religious indoctrination? Tell me, please—how will Trump make the United States great again?

Speaking of religious indoctrination, I have a message directly for those of you on Facebook posting ‘Bring God Back to the White House’: fuck you. Seriously, fuck you. How dare you claim your faith has as place in my government? I don’t hold your religion against you in any way, but you have absolutely no right to impose it on anyone else, especially through the force of government. Do you want to know what happens when government and religion are combined? Iran. Saudi Arabia. Sudan. Yemen. Places where speaking your mind can lead directly to your death. Is that what will make the United States great again?

In theory—though I recognize it will vary locally—one in two people that I’m likely to meet every day voted for Trump, or support him. This terrifies me. I have never before judged a person by their choice of political leader, but this is different. I can’t look at another person walking down the street now without wondering, was it you? Are you personally responsible for this political disaster? And do you really think it’s so wonderful?

I fear for myself, and I fear for my friends. Many, many of the people I care for are already subject to the persecution that Trump’s supporters have been proudly touting, and now that persecution is—in their eyes—legalized. I have a dear friend from Canada, who is currently suffering from cancer. The United States is providing him with first-class healthcare at the moment. But no: deport him to die. Perhaps a third of my workplace is latin, but no—deport them, too, send them back to Mexico. (Very few of them are actually Mexican.) Hang the blacks.

Too harsh? I have seen this level of hatred flooding social media, despite the liberal channels I tend to focus on. I understand that not all of Trump’s supporters are as vitriolic as this, but you are condoning it nonetheless. You have aligned yourself with the new Nazi party.

Ultimately, of course, there is nothing left to be done about it. We voted. We spoke our minds. And we got what we deserved. I will be keeping a close eye on Trump for the next four years, however, and I can promise you that I will support anyone and everyone who is subject to even the slightest discrimination as a result of his policies.

This is a giant leap backward for the United States, and due to this country’s political and economic influence, to the world as a whole. But the deed is done. And I call out to the rest of you: the nationalists, the liberals, the people who believe that this country is already great: don’t abandon it. Don’t leave it to fester in its own social waste. There are sixty million good people in this country, too, and if we work together we can resist. We can protest. We can deny Trump the control over us that he desires.

Don’t give up. Don’t allow persecution. Stand up for what you believe in, and stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Show the world, the global community that can communicate freely, that you are better than this.

It isn’t over yet.