I Got 99 Problems, but to Bitch Ain’t One

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Learn to look, because compassion is understanding itself. 

– Thich Nhat Hanh

It occurs to me that I have nothing to complain about.

It also occurs to me that I don’t know from injustice. I mean, other than in theory, as it applies to other people, stuck in other lives. But in practice it is, for all practical purposes, foreign to me.

Black Lives Matter. Equal pay for equal work. A woman’s right to choose. The plight of the refugee. Gender discrimination. All these things speak to me. But I cannot speak to them.

What I can do–really, all I can do–is listen.

Because at the end of the day, the real professionals aren’t the “expert” talking heads on Fox or MSNBC, or the eggheads in the halls of academia, or the do-nothings in Congress. And it’s definitely not me. No, the real professionals are the people living these circumstances from day to day, the ones who can’t escape the situation simply because it is who they are, whether they like it or not.

I can watch, as I did yesterday, documentaries on the Holocaust; I can read books about slavery and Jim Crow; I can feel the weight of my own history, the white albatross of my existence, hung about my shoulders. But I cannot really comprehend the weight that my history has hung about the shoulders of these others.

So, I watch. And I listen. And I trust that my teachers, caught in a structure of real suffering, real injustice, know of what they speak. It is painful, to allow others to inform me of my complicity in matters that seem beyond my control, but these are words I must hear. I must yield to the experiences of those whose experiences can never be mine. Even if those experiences feature me in the role of antagonist.

This is not to say that I have no opinions on the subjects in question. But my opinions, however honestly considered, are also fatally flawed; they are based on feelings I cannot wholly feel, with which I can only sympathize, never empathize. And sympathy, while perhaps warm and fuzzy, is ultimately ineffectual. It is theater.

Racial theater is somehow the stand-in for actually confronting the problem. It lets us move on feeling like we’ve done something without challenging the order of things. And we tell ourselves after watching the special or listening to the conversation that we are all better people for doing so–that we are, at least, a bit less racist. But our racial habits remain completely intact. (Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.)

I don’t want to tell you not to take it personally. That’s the point: we never do. Not really. There is a difference between taking offense at something and taking that something personally. To take it personally is to make it our own, to the extent that we can. And we make it our own by recognizing that it is not, and making room for those to whom it really belongs.

It hurts, to be told you are ineluctably part of the very injustice you abhor. It hurts, but the truth often does. It stings, but it’s necessary. It is hard to step out of my own way, to stop listening to the sound of my own voice long enough to really hear someone else’s.

When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it. (Shunryu Suzuki)

Sure, I have problems. Everybody does. But are they really worth bitching about? My house drives me crazy…but I have a house. I really don’t like my job…but I have a job, and it pays well enough.

I don’t have to beg people to accept my marriage as valid “in the eyes of God.”

I don’t have to fear deportation or being turned away from a nation’s borders because I happen to resemble others who have done evil things, regardless of my innocence or guilt.

And unless I do something really, really stupid, I don’t have to worry about being stopped, frisked, Tasered, and/or shot by an officer of the “law.”

For some people, existence itself is a problem. For them, life is one long experience of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, because there is no “right” place for them to be. For no other reason than that they don’t look like me, or talk like me, or dress like me, or worship whichever deity I would prescribe.

Me? I’m white, straight, and male in the United States of America.

So who the hell am I to talk?

Sins of My Fathers

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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…