Men, Power Must Change

Along the arc of horrors, where we place the abuses of men and power seems a trivial enterprise, as if horrors can be quantified, compared by degrees.

In her 1992 novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker fictionalized one of those horrors, female genital mutilation; this ritual may seem barbaric, foreign, and somehow not of us to many in the U.S.

However, the expanding spotlight on powerful men who are sexual abusers and predators—Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly—belongs on that same arc of horrors—even if we choose to categorized George H.W. Bush’s behaviors are “harmless” or continue to qualify accusations about Woody Allen and Louis CK because, you know, art.

Reviewing Walker’s novel, Janette Turner Hospital explains:

“Possessing the Secret of Joy” is about the “telling” of suffering and the breaking of taboos. And when taboos are broken, new forms and modes of discourse must evolve to contain that which has previously been unspeakable. Predictable outrage — moral, political, cultural and esthetic — ensues, and the breakers of taboos are both vilified and deified. Alice Walker tackles all these developments head-on in a work that is part myth, part polemic, part drama. It is a work that sits uneasily within the category of “the novel,” though the breakers of taboos must always redefine the terms and the rules of the game. Indeed, Ms. Walker’s book is a literary enterprise whose ancestry runs closer to the Greek chorus and the medieval miracle play than to the modern novel. Its subject matter is ritual clitoridectomy and the genital mutilation of young women.

As James Baldwin witnessed, “the time is always now.” Even though Cosby seems to have survived, and the U.S. elected Donald Trump despite boasting about his own life as a sexual predator, there appears a possibility that we are seeing a crack in the damn behind which men and men with power have ensconced themselves forever.

If Walker’s novel was an attempt to break taboos and prompt change, then now is a moment in the wake of that clarion call about the horrors awaiting all women and girls simply because men are men, and because men are too often too powerful.

Simply stated: How men fundamentally interact with the world must change; how power manifests itself in the world must change. Incremental change is not enough. No longer can men be centered just for being men, and all power must be dispersed, no longer concentrated.

Immediately men must stop placing themselves on the arc of horrors in ways that frame them as somehow not a monster, and therefore, not complicit.

All men are to blame, and all power is corrupt.

We can no longer discount the inherent flaws of men and power as somehow not all men, not all power; and we cannot allow the horrors to be mere celebrity and entertainment—as Joe Berkowitz confronts in a review of Louis CK’s new film (a thinly veiled examination of Woody Allen) despite his own refusal to address years of rumors about his offensive behavior toward women:

In making a case for not believing certain rumors, Louis CK is making a case for not believing women. Bill Cosby is a free man because people didn’t believe women. Donald Trump is the president because people didn’t believe women. Nobody might have believed the case against Harvey Weinstein if not for audio proof of him being disgusting to women. A policy of disregarding these kinds of rumors only protects the powerful men who stand accused. The real Woody Allen is surely aware of how dangerous it is for him if people start believing women. While prominent actors and directors publicly flagellate themselves for not speaking out about Weinstein sooner, even though they knew about his crimes, this man is worried that the avalanche of Weinstein accusers will lead to “a witch hunt.”

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The Witch Trial by William Powell Frith (1848)

Not believing women as victims is the abuse that compounds the abuse—as Adrienne Rich captures in “Rape”: “You have to confess/to him, you are guilty of the crime/of having been forced.”

After Trump’s election, at the very least a “boot in the face” of all women and human decency, Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” resonated with many. Two lines—”The world is at least/fifty percent terrible”—now resonate well beyond her likely intended meaning, or even why the poem spoke to may then.

Men, the “fifty percent terrible,” stand now exposed, hands raised against the widening spotlight as the crack in the dam expands.

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Exceptional?: “the right to criticize [America] perpetually”

The U.S. is exceptional.

Exceptionally hypocritical.

Exceptionally delusional.

In a country where patriots are apt to wave fervently the nation’s flag, we are witnessing (mostly passively) in 2017 a professional athlete who took a knee in nonviolent and silent protest become a professional and public pariah.

Yet we in the U.S. routinely express pride for having been birthed out of protest, the Boston Tea Party, and revolution.

It is 2017, and the home of that seminal protest, Boston, remains the most racist fan base in the U.S. and city for a professional football team with owner, coach, and quarterback all supporting Donald Trump—but without any negative consequences for their overt politics.

Free speech in the U.S. is increasingly circumscribed by nationalism as a proxy for race—”Make America Great Again” as code for preserving whiteness.

Adrienne Akins grounds her examination of national and racial identity in the following:

In Notes of a Native Son (1955), James Baldwin poignantly captured the nature of his intense feelings for his nation of birth in stating: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” (9).

Baldwin, like Muhammad Ali, represents the living ghost haunting Kaepernick’s nightmare—a contemporary resurrection of praise that was contradicted while Baldwin (and Ali) was most prominent and confrontational.

Only in his waning years and after his death did the U.S. begin to concede Ali was the greatest. (Associated Press).

The country that pushed Baldwin into exile issued a stamp with his image only well after his death. See Adrienne Rich’s moving essay on Baldwin and the stamp.

Richard Nixon was elected, many seem to ignore, in the wake of 1960s social unrest, anchored in the Civil Rights movement as well as the counter culture often stereotyped as Hippies.

Nixon’s law-and-order race/class baiting spoke to those most afraid of losing their privileges to the “others”—white America.

Trumplandia is the logical extension of that history—where American exceptionalism, our hypocrisy and delusion, has moved beyond empty political rhetoric (“by gorry/
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum”) to crass nationalism fueled by rhetoric-as-truth (regardless of the evidence otherwise).

The tribalism of crass nationalism denies, as Judith Butler explains, “We are worldless without one another”:

What worries me is that many of us form our sense of obligation toward another on the basis of feelings of identification. If someone else is like us, and that likeness is readily recognizable, then we are more inclined to respond in the way that we would have others respond to us. The harder task is to maintain an obligation to those by whom we feel ourselves to have been injured, to those we fear, or to those whose difference from us seems to be quite severe. This is why I do not think that global obligations can rest on identification, even expanded or expanding identifications; they have to claim us quite regardless of whether or not we feel love or sympathy, for the simple reason that the world is given to us in common and that without each other the world is not given. If the self is the basis of sympathy, our sympathy will be restricted to those who are like us. The real challenge occurs when that extrapolation of the self is thwarted by alterity.

Butler’s insistence for cohabitation feels akin to Baldwin’s refrain about love, a powerful element of his work too often glossed over. Butler argues: “I suppose it is first important to honor the obligation to affirm the life of another even if I am overwhelmed with hostility. This is the basic precept of an ethics of nonviolence, in my view.”

And this bring us full circle to Kaepernick, nonviolent and protesting for equity, ostracized as Baldwin and Ali were in their lifetimes—reduced to “unAmerican” in order to cast him among the Others and to render invalid his refusal to separate his personal and professional ethics (or better yet, his recognition that no one can separate them).

Maybe my opening claims are ill-founded, however. Not that the U.S. is hypocritical and delusional, but that these qualities are somehow exceptional.

Maybe beneath the glitz of consumerism, Americans are merely victims of the worse aspects of being human.

Democracy hasn’t failed, but quite possibly humans are incapable of reaching the high ideals of democracy, equity, and justice.

We have created words for ideas that are just too far beyond our reach as living creatures.

When does one move from “This isn’t working” to “This cannot work”?

Toxic Masculinity, Predatory Men, and Male Paralysis

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

This is my sixth decade as a human, as a white, straight male.

Here I want to attempt confession, possibly seeking greater understanding, but fully aware of the huge complexities of making these claims, raising these personal struggles in the context of my many privileges.

I am treading lightly but committed to rise above the problematic satire of Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs”—which both speaks to me and makes me cringe:

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

My formative years over the 1960s and 1970s were spent in the redneck South. Just as I was reared to be a racist, I was taught very clearly to objectify women, even as that was tempered in my immediate family by direct and indirect messages about respecting and loving women/girls.

Growing up, I was a Mama’s boy, I was very close to my sister (my only sibling), and I had strong and warm relationships with aunts and my maternal grandmother.

As a so-called pre-sexual boy, then, I genuinely learned to feel deep and healthy affection for women/girls—to whom I have always been drawn more strongly than any male bonds.

As a teen, however, I was significantly enculturated into objectifying women, sowing the seeds for potentially behaving in ways that fed into and participated in predatory masculinity and even the various degrees of rape culture.

My classroom was, at first, superhero comic books and then soft-core pornography (such as Playboy and Penthouse)—but the wider popular culture was always reinforcing the worst possible models for how men treat women.

But as all this colored my attempts to be a sexual person, seeking out romantic relationships throughout high school and college, I was also being shaped in how I interacted with the world aesthetically, notably in that I was actively teaching myself visual art by drawing from both comic books and nude photography in the euphemistically named men’s magazines.

One can see a theme in my adolescent artwork:

Storm

Storm from the X-Men

Vargas

I shifted from comic books to men’s magazines and copying the objectifying artwork of Alberto Vargas, popularized in Playboy.

As a teen and young man, I was certainly trapped in very unhealthy but subtle patterns that could only be overcome by gaining critical awareness over my mid-20s into and my mid-30s (when I completed my doctoral program).

Some of that critical awareness was powerfully acquired through my commitment to learning from and teaching important literature such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Margate Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as poetry units I taught on Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.

Ultimately, writing an educational biography grounded in feminist theory stands in hindsight as the crowning experience as I approached 40 for a healthy awakening into fully appreciating toxic masculinity, predatory men, objectifying women, the male gaze, and rape culture.

Just as I would explain about my racial awareness, my sexual and gender awareness remains a journey, and as such, I find myself often paralyzed because, as a man, I represent still the potential for abuse through my status, the threat men pose for women in a society that continues to objectify and marginalize females—especially in terms of failing to listen to women who risk telling of their experiences with predatory men and rape culture.

My adult life has been spent as a partner, friend, parent, grandparent, teacher, and coach—all requiring me to monitor my status of power granted by being male and by my professional and familial positions in relationship with females.

As a coach and teacher, I have been (and continue) to be prone to call young women “darling” in casual moments—rightfully prompting some of my closest friends and colleagues who are women to call me on the language, the positioning.

I remain aesthetically drawn to photography and artwork of women nudes—entirely unsure if I can disentangle my toxic past from what I consider non-objectifying appreciation of art.

And so, as I noted above, I stumble toward 60, a man with good intentions who understands that is never enough; I am often reduced to paralysis in how to navigate the world in ways that are equitable and healthy for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class.

I am genuinely terrified of ever making any woman/girl feel discomfort because of my masculine presence, my inadvertent gaze, my language, or the implicit threat of my status in relationship to her.

Often these days, I must confront these tensions as I snuggle with my granddaughter who I dearly want to grow up with healthy views of gender and sexuality, who I want to avoid any sort of predatory world.

My daughter was raised without corporal punishment, and now her children have been gifted that same dignity.

I work hard to practice what I preach and feel I make contributions small and even large to a kinder and more compassionate world—a world in which women and children need not ever fear men.

But even the best men walk in the wake of the worst men have given this world—the worst men continue to give to this world, and the women and children who must suffer for that.

Each man must moment by moment examine how he is culpable, where and how he stands in this world in relationship to women and children.

The dilemma of navigating the world as a man is couched in the unearned privilege, the potential for an abuse of unearned power that shouts out “First, do no harm.”

For a man committed to that, however, how does he live a full life without being paralyzed by the worst of being a man, behaviors that often go unpunished and even masked to protect some men from consequences.

How does any man avoid paralysis reading about the Stanford rape case or the stories of women as victims of predatory men?

This remains a rhetorical question for any man with an ethical imperative for his life—not a question for any woman or any child to offer their compassion.

For any man, for each man, this is ours to confront, to answer, and to act.

As long as men hold most of the power that shapes the world, it is ours to build a consensual environment in which human dignity supersedes the brute force of power.

Between acquiescing to the basest of male behaviors and paralysis is the true way, about which Franz Kafka wrote: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.”

Pause. Listen. Look carefully before taking any step.


For Further Reading

Experts in the FieldBonnie Nadzam

Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, and More on Assault and Harassment

The Predatory Men of Academic Creative Writing, John Warner

“He knows, or thinks he knows”: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World

True Detective: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World, pt. 2

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

Comments Shared with my Colleagues on the Responsibility of the Intellectual

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible

Since this is a voluntary gathering of concerned faculty, I am going to risk assuming we are here mostly in solidarity.

None the less, I recognize I am offering at least two controversial points and asking that you afford them your immense breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your patience.

First, while it is now popular in this time of Trump for pundits and the media to wring their collective hands about post-truth and fake news, my opening controversial claim is that despite that attention, neither of these is something manufactured by Trump, and fake news is not the primary problem.

Please consider this Twitter exchange between me and Juana Summers, a well-respected journalist at NPR in 2014, the time of the exchange., and now with CNN:

Summers represents here a tradition that journalists and educators, including professors, assume a neutral pose, honoring a call that they remain apolitical.

In that context, let me ask you next to consider an article published in the New York Times  just a week before Trump’s inauguration: In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.

The headline and the article itself are mainstream media, not fake news; yet, what that distinction reveals is that our day-to-day public discourse is often indistinguishable from the click bait and false content we are lamenting in fake news.

O’Connors article cites a study from the USDA, which along with this being in the NYT, appears to be credible and compelling.

However, Joe Soss, writing in Jacobin and professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, has exposed that O’Connor’s article badly misrepresents the USDA study and expresses instead ugly stereotypes about people in poverty, what many in the public believe about people depending on food stamps.

So my first controversial claim, which leads into the second, is that public discourse has crossed the Bigfoot line. While there is a spectrum from fake news (entirely false and created to generate clicks online and thus revenue) to mainstream journalism, virtually all of that fails policy and the public because of traditional and misguided commitments to neutrality, objectivity.

There was a time when the National Enquirer depended on a facile commitment to report without unpacking the credibility of the person making a claim; thus, “Hiker has close encounter with Bigfoot!”

Might we imagine that journalist deflecting: “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the hiker is credible”?

In that era, mainstream media mostly refused to cross that Bigfoot line. But today, major media outlets are debating if journalists should report “Trump makes claim X” or “Trump makes false claim X”—or even more astounding “Trump lies.”

So I want to end with my second controversial claim.

If you google “fake news,” you are likely to read about a Davidson College graduate, and for us, this may trigger our own Yik-Yak founders.

I think this is not a trivial connection as we gather in our concern as university faculty, intellectuals, serving the liberal arts and our disciplines.

Across our campus, across our disciplines, the liberal arts is an argument that each of our fields is one way of coming to know the human condition. From biology to religion, from economics to philosophy, from psychology to education, and everything in between, we are carefully considering not only what knowledge exists, but what knowledge matters.

Our collective knowledge, or collective pursuit of knowledge, is more likely to serve us well than any one alone.

And then, there is the whole world beyond our beautiful fountains.

Therefore, when Donald Trump says torture works, or when his final TV ad in SC blatantly falsified data on the employment and crime rates, I think about fake news, hot new smartphone Apps, and the failures of mainstream media—each of which fails us if we resist looking at this world informed, if we pretend we can be apolitical, if we close our eyes to larger questions of ethics and morality.

The responsibility of the intellectual—and that includes us—is not about taking a neutral pose, but about speaking beyond those fountains, about modeling what it means to be well informed, to honor the truth, as difficult as at that is to attain, and to model for everyone what it looks like to work in the service of humanity, and not simply to say what you are paid to say, not simply to advocate for your own self-interest.

The responsibility of the intellectual is inescapably political, even as we pledge rightfully to be non-partisan.

Now, I end by appealing as an old English teacher, a writer, must—through metaphor.

Activist historian Howard Zinn’s memoir argues that the human condition is a moving train, and any of us who choose to sit quietly are in effect endorsing where that train is heading.

And thus, as Zinn believed and practiced, ours is always a political act—whether in our passivity or our action.

The responsibility of the intellectual?

For me, it is acknowledging that you cannot be neutral on a moving train, and I must add, you must not be neutral on a disaster-bound train—so I urge that we express our concern as action, informed and ethical.

The Resurrections of Adrienne Rich: “in a tunnel of silence”

Graceless
Is there a powder to erase this?

“Graceless,” The National

“Yes, she is a problem for me,” Adrienne Rich opens in her “The Problem of Lorraine Hansberry” (Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985), “as I read and reread the published work and some of the unpublished—copies of letters, interview transcripts, essays.”

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To follow is a series of parallel “As I” sentences in which Rich muses on Hansberry (“a Black woman trying to write both from ‘within the Veil,’ as she once put it, and for a public which included Black women and men, but whose dominant expectations and mythic opinions about the world were shaped by white males”), leading to:

Lorraine Hansberry is a problem to me because she is Black, female, and dead….The problem begins for me when, in reading Les Blancs, I do not know when I am reading dialogue written by Hansberry and when I am reading the end product of the process Nemiroff describes….All this may be forthright and devoted enough, and it may seem graceless to question the end result. But I do question it….But biography by a former husband and literary executor is not the same as autobiography.

This “problem” builds to Rich acknowledging “the limitations of my experience as a white woman.” Rich confronts that “within white feminist criticism itself there have been notable silences, erasures”—and “[t]he Black woman writer, as Barbara Smith has noted, suffers from double erasure.”

In fact, “[t]he study of silence has long engrossed me,” Rich writers in her “Arts of the Possible,” the eponymous essay of her 2001 collection of essays:

The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes it way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice art at any deep levels. The impulse to create begins—often terribly and fearfully—in a tunnel of silence.

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Rich as woman, as gay. Rich as poet, essayist—artist at “deep levels.”

She has presented to us in autobiography/biography that is a poet’s/artist’s work a series of resurrections, exposing who she has been and who she becomes. She has been daughter, wife, and mother; she has been lesbian lover—just as one way through association (the sorts of associations Rich exposed and confronted, “shaped by white males”) to view her metaphorical deaths and resurrections.

Rich struggling through Hansberry is Rich wrestling with her many selves—none of them perfect but all of them the richness of words crafted.

With Rich’s literal death, a new door of resurrections has opened—post mortem biographies, literary criticism, and unpublished works.

But June 2016 brings the most recent resurrection, Collected Poems: 1950-2012.

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It is a simple, understated cover for a work of great physical heft, over 1100 pages in hardback—a work that resurrects Rich the poet in toto. What more could a poet want? What more could a poet dread?

If you have been on Rich’s journey for many, many years—as I have—this volume is redundant but inescapable and invaluable, a Siren’s call to those of us who love books, desire collecting.

rich bookshelf

1119 pages into her body of work, Rich leaves us with words that seem haunted with James Baldwin (see her “The Baldwin Stamp”):

The signature to a life requires
the search for a method
rejection of posturing
trust in the witnesses
a vial of invisible ink
a sheet of paper held steady
after the end-stroke
above a deciphering flame

To read Rich’s entire body of published poetry draws me back to her “Diving into the Wreck,” a tour de force of personal and social commentary as poetic genius.

In death, Rich’s collected poetry presents “a book of myths” as revolt, as liberation—as a problem for everyone holding this heaviest of resurrections that is Rich and is not Rich.


See Also

Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible and Life among the Ruins

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

A decade ago, I was confronted with an incredibly uncomfortable situation when my first-year English class overwhelmingly believed the Duke lacrosse team was innocent and the woman accusing them of sexual assault was fraudulent.

There was a significant mixture of irony in the tension resulting from my trusting that the class—atypically majority male at a university consisting of mostly privileged and white students—was biased by their collective and individual privilege as that conflicted with the eventual revealing that the Duke lacrosse team was in most ways innocent (although I would argue that is a simplistic conclusion supported by technicalities of law): the irony, of course, being that I—white, male, and privileged—was proven wrong about my claims of the U.S. being, in the language of today, a country in which white male lives matter most.

Just this May, another class included, again atypically, about a third black students, some of whom were eager to argue for corporal punishment and then several of the black male students felt compelled to speak up for males wrongly accused of sexual assault.

At that, I asserted that in the U.S. today it remains easier to be a male wrongly accused of sexual assault than to be a woman actually raped or sexually assaulted.

But I could not have anticipated both the Baylor University scandal and then the Brock Turner rape judgment and sentence, which has been followed by a disturbing pair of commentaries by Turner’s father and a female childhood friend.

The light sentence of Turner, by a judge who like Turner attended Stanford University, was justified because of the consequences this rape would have on Turner’s life. Turner’s victim has rebuked this decision in her own statement.

Both the Turner sentence and the Baylor scandal returned me to my examination of The Martian, an unintended allegory of the hyperbolic concern in the U.S. for the white male at the expense of women and people of color.

Having been raised in the sexist and racist South, I have spent my adult life—going on four decades—working against my privilege and learned bigotries.

I am aware of and fearful of whitesplaining and mansplaining, the white gaze and the male gaze in every interaction I have in both the real and virtual worlds. I shudder to think, on social media especially, how often I creep toward the line crossed by vicious male trolls, how often women and people of color see in my words the very things I abhor.

As a writer, I am hyper-aware that my one-more-white-man’s voice is crowding out space for women and people of color; we simply do not need more white male perspectives.

As a scholar and academic, now full professor and tenured with a significant body of published works, I am equally hyper-aware I continue to do the same in academia.

Much of my work has been devoted to calling out racism, but I have also addressed misogyny and mansplaining often. In both cases, I have tried to confront the inevitable “yes, but” from men and whites.

But I look at the one picture of Turner, and I see me—white male. I think about the judge in the case, and I am among the disproportionate number of white males in power in the U.S.

What woman would trust me, especially from a distance? Why would black and brown people believe my solidarity?

And while I am writing about me, this is not about me; this is about the daily doubling down in the U.S., proving that white male lives matter most—and the corrosive consequences for everyone.

That fact—the light sentence for Turner, the failure to hold police officers accountable for taking black lives—sustains a hostile world for everyone; we are pitted daily against each other because the greatest threat to power is solidarity.

I will continue to name misogynyracism, and child abuse—even as that work pushes my voice farther the margins.

As a privileged white male, I am insulated enough that I can offer these observations that remain mostly about my own minor inconveniences that are devastating realities for vulnerable populations and people oppressed because of race, gender, sexuality, or age. As a privileged white male, I seek to use my privilege to eradicate privilege.

But most of all, my greatest act of solidarity remains my role as a student—I listen, I read, I heed.

And even then, I fall short.

I have failed enough women, children, and people of color to last a dozen life times—and “I’m sorry” seems trivial against that.

White male privilege has created a vicious world that needs to be dismantled, and in its place, we must imagine something better, a world brought forth from the mouths and minds of those rendered less human and thus more aware of the beauty and grandeur of being human.

As Adrienne Rich offers, “the sea is another story/ the sea is not a question of power.”

Most people know “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but the Turner verdict and sentencing remind us of what Lord Acton offered next: “Great men are almost always bad men.”

Daily, this is proven true as we watch white males double down again and again on white male lives mattering most.

Confronting Privilege in the New Year: “when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice”

A former student and current wonderful early-career teacher texted me yesterday because someone had shared with her the inane “I’m not going to apologize for my white privilege” article that is all the rage among white privilege deniers.

Nearly as disturbing as the pervasive and corrosive influence of racism is the reality that the more whites are confronted with evidence of white privilege and racism, the more likely whites are to cling to their denial. Research from 2015 confirms:

What happens when people are faced with evidence that their group benefits from privilege? We suggest such evidence will be threatening and that people will claim hardships to manage this threat. These claims of hardship allow individuals to deny that they personally benefit from privilege, while still accepting that group-level inequity exists. Experiments 1a and 1b show that Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.

Throughout 2015, I have been cataloguing the overwhelming evidence of white privilege and racism, but I am discouraged about both the abundance of that evidence and the ineffectiveness of presenting it to those clinging fervently to their white denial.

Humans are drawn to patterns, both the recognition of patterns and the creation of patterns. Maybe anthropologists and sociologists would argue that in part that attraction is about survival and comfort. I suspect this pattern fetish in humans is also at the root of seeking out others like us (see any school lunch room where students are allowed to sit where they please), and I fear it is also the foundation for the very worst of humans—our racism, sexism, classism, and seething anger at the Other.

This is not some historical low point of human history—U.S. slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese internment—but a seemingly credible point of debate among presidential hopefuls and their supporters who are calling from banning Muslims from U.S. soil.

And as the hashtags have continued to increase (#BlackLivesMatter, #TamirRice, and then too, too many to list) so has the backlash, the denial—just as the research above confirms.

We stand at the cusp of one of our greatest pattern urges, the arbitrary designating of the passing of time. Soon a new year will be upon the West (yes, even the calendar is a force of privilege, a way to mask subjectivity as objective, universal), and at least one voice has suggested there is hope: “I believe – I hope – that a great rewriting is slowly, surely underway,” writes Laurie Penny.

Penny’s examination of the latest Star Wars film offers a much more detailed and powerful investigation than my own look at The Martian, but we do tread similar ground; notably Penny explains:

The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.

I struggle to share Penny’s optimism—because of the horrifying specter of the unfathomable nastiness in both our presidential politics and our pop culture, both of which expose the “white interpretive horizon.”

Yet, I think Penny makes a powerful observation that may be the key to believing change is upon us:

Let’s not get carried away here. These stories and retellings are still exceptions. Women are still paid less, respected less and promoted less at almost every level of every creative industry. For every Jessica Jones there’s a Daredevil, whose female characters exist solely to get rescued, provide the protagonists with some pneumatic exposition, or both. For every Orphan Black there’s Mr Robot and Narcos and you know, sometimes I wonder if perhaps I watch too much television. The point is that what we have right now isn’t equality yet. It’s nothing like equality. But it’s still enough to enrage the old guard because when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice. [emphasis added]

White privilege is an iceberg; very little is visible above the surface, and for those of us with that privilege, it is ours to interrogate what lies beneath in order to understand and dismantle it.

“I came to explore the wreck,” explains the speaker of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

As Penny explains when unpacking “[t]he rage that white men have been expressing, loudly, violently”:

Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, it becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.

Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.

Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.

This is our wreck, a story of a people blinded by the myth of meritocracy while steering the ship headlong into the iceberg we pretend isn’t there.

We must write better stories, fictional and real. A new year is arbitrary, yes, but it serves us well to listen to the refrain “the time is always now.”

See Also

What to do when you’re not the hero any more, Laurie Penny

On Nerd Entitlement, Laurie Penny

Hello from the same side, Robin James

The horrifying lesson of Tamir Rice: White America will use “objectivity” to justify the murder of black children, Brittney Cooper

Confronting Privilege to Teach about Privilege

Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology

Responsibilities of Privilege: Bearing Witness, pt. 2

White Denial

High Cost of White Denial (Updated)