Sins of My Fathers


Without ash to rise from, a phoenix would just be a bird getting up.

– Schmidt

I want to talk about race, and gender, and some of the other things I’m not supposed to talk about because I’m white and male. Which characteristics I of course chose for myself when the gene genies contacted me for that traditional prenatal identity consultation. This was after the prenatal press conference in which I explicitly endorsed all the injustices committed by all the white males before me, throughout history.

I have news for you: Hogwarts is not real, and there is no such thing as a Sorting Hat. I was born, and I have acted (for better and for worse) on my own account and no one else’s; my impact as a person can be judged fairly only by that rubric.

But that is not the rubric against which I find myself measured. I am told that, regardless of who I am or what I have done, I am complicit in a multitude of previous sins. I am presumed guilty, and am placed beyond proof of innocence. And anything I say can and will be used against me in the court of public opinion.

I’m told that men shouldn’t be involved in the gender debate, that they should just listen quietly and be educated. Fair enough: quiet listening is necessary to education, and speech before learning leads only to Fox and Friends. But there is a time for quiet listening, and there is a time for taking what one has learned and getting into the conversation, respectfully but actively. Otherwise, there isn’t much point in learning in the first place.

I’m told that Black Lives Matter. And they most certainly do. But I’m also told that this is a claim that must exist in isolation; that to suggest, as a member of the white community, that my life also matters, that indeed all lives matter, is an act of imperialism and violence. I am told by those speaking out for their own worth and meaning as people that if I do the same, I am worthless and meaningless. Meanwhile, on many levels, the whole argument misses its own point, given that we are prosecuting it as a multitude of refugees stands helpless and homeless at our borders, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens stand helpless and homeless on our street corners, and all the rest of us stand idly by demanding more attention for ourselves.

I refuse to accept this. I will not play this game nor will I acquiesce to these rules, any more than anyone should give in to the arbitrariness of socially-imposed classes and categorizations. Justice is never about taking dominance away from one voice and giving it exclusively to another. Justice can only come about by way of dialogue; it must involve both the wronged and the perceived wrong-er.

The debate over feminism cannot thrive if it is framed in a such a way as to intentionally alienate or shut out the male voice, not because women are incapable of solving their own problems, but because men are a fact, unfortunate though it may be. We exist; we are everywhere. And if we’re the problem, then we have to be a part of the solution. Otherwise, you’re repairing the roof by tearing down a wall.

Black lives matter. White lives matter. Middle Eastern lives matter. Unborn life matters. Life matters. Wherever it is found, behind whatever sort of face it hides. This is the underlying problem: we think that in order for one group to matter, another has to matter less. This misconception of meaning has provided the framework for every violent human arrangement in history, from slavery to the Cold War to the War on Terror. Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter is but one more example of this false dichotomy. If we are to reach a point at which either black or white lives truly do matter, then it must be in tandem with one another, and alongside all other life. This is a zero sum issue: either all lives matter, or none of them do.

Recently, I read the following quote by radical feminist Alicen Grey:

It’s painful when I hear/see quotes from men, waxing poetic about how violent and inhumane “we” “humans” are “to each other”. When historically and globally, males account for the vast, vast majority of violence. Mostly against women. I used to wonder, how could these men – fancying themselves profound and in-on Truth – possibly call “humans” violent when they are technically the source? But I guess that’s what happens when the only people you consider humans are other men.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what I say, or in how many positive ways I contribute to the quest for social justice, gender and racial equality, or anything else. I am, in the most literal of senses, worth-less, beyond any possibility of betterment, trapped in the web of my original sin: the penis. I am generational evil incarnate. Regardless of my individual character, I am defined by my class and, consequently, disenfranchised. I am refused the right to contribute on the presumption that anything I say is by definition suspect. I am barred, not just from the conversations surrounding gender and racial issues, but from any conversation at all. How’s that for violent, imperialistic speech?

I hear her, and I appreciate (if I cannot fully understand) the pain that animates her words. Women have been sorely mistreated by men, African Americans have been devalued by white America, and ethnic minorities the world over have been abused and murdered by majorities the world over, for far too long. But anger, while a powerful and constructive tool, becomes merely destructive when wielded as a weapon. This may be temporarily satisfying, but it is not ultimately productive. Alienation as a response to alienation only creates greater alienation.

I will not apologize for things I did not do and have not done. No one should have to. What I can (and will) do is my best with my life to ensure that the unjust actions and words of my predecessors and contemporaries are, through my own actions and words, to some measure counteracted. I will honor, respect, and speak out for the rights of women, African Americans, and any others to whom they have been denied, and I will fight alongside anyone (Alicen Grey included) who is interested in bringing about a more just social order for all people. I may not move mountains, but I’ll go down swinging. I will be your ally.

Assuming, that is, that you’ll let me…

19 thoughts on “Sins of My Fathers

  1. For what it’s worth, I do see your point, Vance. And while I don’t necessarily agree with every little detail, I am glad you wrote this as you’ve reframed this whole issue in a way that I’ve not thought about for the longest time.

    Ultimately? I think it’s hard for all of us to be seen as just ourselves without others trying to project on us their own assumptions about what we are. Not who. What. I think it’s this tendency to slot other people into categories without getting to know them first that gets us into trouble. If you can remove the “person” so that only an “obstacle” remains then… well, we’ll only get a whole lot more conflict rather than the productive dialogue we all supposedly desire.

    I liked this. Thank you for writing.

    1. Tony, you have no idea how much I appreciate your comment. The fact that you, even in disagreement, took the time to actually read what I wrote and think about what I was trying to say is refreshing.

      Honestly, while I stand by what I wrote and why, it is quite possible that, next week or next year, I won’t agree with everything I said, either. But if I never said anything because I might alter my outlook at a later date, I’d never say much of anything at all… :0)

  2. I can understand your frustration. You’re not personally responsible for anything, yet you’re being placed in a category of people who share a few superficial characteristics and blamed for a multitude of evil. However, it’s one thing to acknowledge that there are these things called ‘privilege’ and ‘entitlement’ that run rampant through society, it’s another to modify our behaviour as a result of this knowledge. Interesting discussion.

  3. I’ll have to get back to you on my in-depth thoughts about this. I need to digest what you’ve written here. The fact of the matter is I can see both sides of this. You wanting to be seen as an individual, while at the same time seeing the entitlement of patriarchy and white privilege laced throughout what you’ve written.

    About the Black Lives Matter thing: Of course all lives matter. I think their main point is that it has never been questioned whether or not white lives mattered. Have you ever questioned whether, as a race, white lives matter? I haven’t. Yet from slavery, to education, to equality within the justice system, to well…you name it, black people as a class have at every turn had to question that premise.

    1. Ruth,

      I’m pretty sure I acknowledged the reality of both patriarchy AND white privilege. I’m also fairly sure I argued that I believe white lives DO NOT matter unless Black lives do as well. At least, not to the point that we seem to have assumed that they do for most of history. If I didn’t say it like I thought, let me do so now.

      Not that any of that matters. Not really. I am who you say I am, regardless of who I am or try to be. And all of this has proven it to me once and for all.

      1. Vance,

        I really didn’t intend to offend you. Yes, you did say those things. So I suppose that should be the end of the conversation. Vance doesn’t want to be part of the system. Job done.

        I think if you want to be angry it shouldn’t be a me. It should be at the system that has perpetuated this imbalance.

        No, you didn’t ask to be male. You didn’t ask to be white. But you are and therefore you enjoy the privileges that go along with that if you so choose. Of course, you as an individual may shun those privileges but why? As I said, I do see both sides of this issue. It’s not as if I even expect you or any other man to shun their privilege. I’d just like to enjoy those same privileges. All I’m asking for is equality. I never once implied that you, Vance, actively attempt to deny me that. In fact, I see you as someone who could be an ally. Yet, if I point out a disparity between whites and blacks or men and women you become frustrated. That doesn’t seem like we’re on the same team to me.

        I haven’t said you were anyone. I haven’t labeled you. Just because I can see the system in which we have both been participants at play here doesn’t mean I’m labeling you as sexist or racist. In fact I used myself in the place of antagonist in regards to the system of black/white class. I enjoy privilege that I’m not even aware of simply because of the color of my skin. I go about my life not even wondering once if the color of my skin will prevent me from anything. At all. Nothing. And I don’t even see it as privilege because I take it for granted. I never even wonder if a black person can do this or that thing while I’m doing whatever it is I’m doing. Or if they’d be afraid to do whatever it is that I’m doing.

        At the same time I go about my life knowing that my gender can prevent me from many things. That I’m afraid to do a lot of things because either I’m not supposed to or I need some type of protection that a man wouldn’t.

        I’m a little bit confused by the fact that you wrote a post and published it publicly which you acknowledged from the start would likely draw disagreement and then became offended that there was disagreement.

      2. You know what? You’re right. I shouldn’t be getting upset. I should be happy, since this is the most action I’ve see on any given post in a good long while. That’s not sarcasm, by the way; I mean it. You’re right.

        I’m not upset at you. I’m transferring. So, I apologize.

  4. Your voice is important. Great post. So often in this us vs. them world, while we fight one another on supposed opposite teams we also overlook the fight going on in us vs. us. Black Lives Matter in itself says to all non-blacks that “we blacks matter” but ignores their own issues with black on black violence. Feminists cry out about males but ignore their own issues with female on female violence. And when I say violence I don’t necessarily mean with physical weapons. Our tongues cut like a knife. Our silence towards one another hurts. Emotional mocking and toxic generation dysfunction sickens. Sometimes we are so busy fighting “the other” that we don’t recognize the abuse amongst ourselves.

    1. Thanks, Zoe.

      The point I’m trying to make is that violence is what characterizes all sides of these debates (conceptually, not physically, as you say). If the reaction to whites devaluing African Americans is African Americans devaluing whites, or if the reaction to men’s dismissal OF women is men’s dismissal BY women, then we are not solving the problem. We’re merely moving it, relocating it, and increasing its longevity and persistence. We are, in a perverse sort of way, actually validating it, by accepting the premise, however tacitly, that the twain can never, ever meet on equal footing. The only way to break the cycle is to step outside of it, and that means blacks and whites (and people of all other hues) talking TO each other instead of just AT each other. The same applies to women and men. At the moment, we’re spinning our wheels, at best. And in the process, there is a risk of turning off the very allies desperate to lend a hand by insisting on lumping us in with “all the rest of ’em.”

      1. Perhaps this is one of our main differences in understanding. Zoe is talking about in-fighting and you’re talking about devaluing. To me, both of those things are a result of society’s impact on the underclass, not the other way around. I think we have to meet society where society is. There is in-fighting and devaluing because everyone is trying to figure out how society can be better and how to get there. This “violence” is a symptom of progress, not regress.

  5. Hello. I am white and British. I am trans, too, which gives me a particular perspective on Feminism.

    As I understand it, the objection to “All lives matter” is that as a percentage of the population far more black people are shot by US police than white. ALM is interpreted as claiming it is unnecessary to state BLM. ALM devalues the BLM campaign. But the BLM campaign is necessary, because black people are dying.

    When people die at British police hands, the national press investigate, always. Sometimes, the story runs for days or weeks.

    1. Clare,

      Thanks for reading such a long and blathering post. Thanks also for your response. It is appreciated. :0)

      Please don’t take my post to suggest that I see no value in the Black Lives Matter movement. It is most certainly valuable, and the point it makes is a valid point. What I’m suggesting is that it is not a point that can be made or sustained in isolation. The only way Black lives can be authentically valued is if they are valued as part of the broader spectrum of lives. The same goes for all life, everywhere. This is NOT a violent statement; it is a violent statement to suggest the opposite.

      That being said, I realize also that many of those who respond with “All Lives Matter” are not doing so in the spirit I’m talking about. And my comments about the conversation missing its own point are directed largely at those people. They cannot claim all lives matter if they are unwilling to examine the meaning of the term “all life.” At the end of the day, the Black Lives activists are right: these people are merely cloaking their selfishness in altruism. But I think that underneath that subterfuge there is fear, combined with guilt, combined with anger at being called out in such accurate and incontestable fashion. We have to learn to read between the lines (on both sides of the argument) if this conversation is ever to lead anywhere. And also, there has to be a moment when recrimination gives way to forgiveness and acceptance (also on both sides). Some of us, at least, genuinely mean it when we say that all lives matter, black, white, Hispanic, LGBTQ, and everyone else, and treating us like enemies because we don’t blithely spout slogans without really looking at what they mean or questioning their consistency, is counterproductive in the most literal of senses. I realize that, as a straight white man, I am in almost every way outside looking into all of the above, but the fact that I’m not a royal shouldn’t deter me from pointing out the instances in which the emperor may be a bit underclothed.

      Final point: it’s at moments like these when I would gladly trade all our American political and social hubris for a bit of British citizenship. The Lakes District calls to me… :0)

  6. I think Alicen Grey is wrong. Humans, not just men, are violent. It’s just that men have been the ones empowered by our patriarchal society to do the harming. A matriarchal society would have its own problems and violence would be one of them, though perhaps in a different way.

    I wrote a very long reply to you–too long to contain in a comment, so I made a post. I hope we can understand each other better, friend.

    1. Madalyn,

      Thank you for taking the time to reply. I’ve glanced over your post, but being first thing in the morning, I feel I should wait until the neurons start firing before reading it for complete comprehension (and appreciation). I will say this–I listen more than you apparently realize, even if that listening doesn’t lead to complete agreement. And I have learned any number of things from you, invaluable things that have changed my outlook on a number of issues. If I don’t always respond online, it is because A) I’m human, and my feelings are as easily bruised as anyone else’s, and I don’t necessarily respond to that bruising any better than anyone else, and B) sometimes I just don’t know how to respond.

      “Men” have been the ones in charge for most of human history, and “men” have harmed countless people, but my point is that while I am a “man,” I am not those “men,” and the lumping of myself in with all the rest of them by people who don’t even know me (and in some very frustrating cases, people who do), does not exactly inspire enthusiasm. Surely, there is language that both takes in the harm “men” have done in the past (and the present), while at the same time being more cognizant of the many men (individually) who do their best (and I believe I am one of them) every day to rectify the situation. Perhaps I throw a pity party here; but I think I’m justified (maybe just a bit).

      BTW, if our human history were littered with examples of matriarchal violence, would I be justified in holding you responsible, or demanding that you carry all that weight, just because you are a woman? I think not.

      Note: NOT angry. Friends. In case you were wondering… :0)

      1. Hey Vance, I don’t expect complete agreement. I really, truly don’t. I have learned and grown from our friendship in ways I can’t articulate.

        Talking about issues like these is hard because even when we agree on the essence, it can feel like we’re speaking different languages when we get to the details.

        You’re right. You are a man. You are Vance. You are not Men anymore than you are White America. My post is me following my trail of thoughts after reading your post. I know you well enough to know that not all of what I said applies to you, but I think some of it does on a subconscious level. I think that because I have realized the same about myself when it comes to race.

        Society just isn’t nice enough to speak in ways that take into account the variety found in humanity. It won’t be until we all recognize why that is. We all deserve pity parties, I think, but it is what we do after, as I know you know.

        I hope after reading my post you know that I don’t want you to carry the weight of what others have done. I only want each of us to know what it means to be who we are now.

        As I said in email, there is virtually nothing you can say that my husband hasn’t said. We don’t agree on the details of this stuff, either. It drives me batty, but it doesn’t drive me away. My friendship will always be here if you want it.

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