Thursday, February 21, 2013

Django, the Harlem Shake, and the right to be 'offended'

DISCLAIMER: This is not an anti-white people missive. This is not me saying white people don't have problems or have never faced adversity. This is me reaching out, asking for a little understanding. If you cannot read anything that critically examines whiteness or white privilege, or that asserts that racism does, in fact, exist in a country with a black-ish president without feeling personally attacked, having a complete meltdown and writing a strongly worded, poorly spelled, caps-lock infused tirade in the comments section, go ahead and turn back now.

I love Key & Peele. Love it. I watch that show and I laugh till my stomach hurts... and then I text my friends Emily & Jerry about it and we all share a good guffaw. One night I was over at their apartment and we started talking about the show and about how both comedians are multiracial and the implications of that. Emily said something about how she noticed Key and Peele using "we" when referring to black people, but not really when they talk about white people. She thought it was odd considering they're both part white. 

This has never come up with a white friend before, and I was happy to discuss it. I said something like this: It never feels right to use "we" when referring to white people because you feel self-conscious about it. It's like, you say it, and then you realize that probably no one else in the room considers you white. Having grown up in predominately white areas, the closest "we" I have is the white we. Still, I've said it in classrooms before and immediately caught the raised eyebrows from other people in the classroom. Like, "Wait, who is she talking about?" Sometimes I don't even mean white people. I mean Americans. We settled at Jamestown. We fought the Revolution. Still, it feels unnatural. And it's not that I think I have no claim to this we. It's that I'm worried YOU don't think I have claim to it. Why don't mixed race people use the white we? Well, I can't speak for everyone, but I have a feeling a lot of us just don't think we count. 

I was talking about Django Unchained and the n-word controversy with another friend, Tom, who knows me well enough to know I should prob'ly wait for the RedBox on that movie. I explained to him that it's not so much a matter of being offended as being horribly uncomfortable. 

With Django, people keep on trying to dismiss my reasons for not wanting to see it on the big screen. "But black people are totally into it!" they say. "And it makes white people look foolish, not blacks!" And that's fine. But, for one thing, black people as a group are never behind any one thing. We're not a monolithic entity. We don't have secret black people meetings where we're like, "Tarantino? Yeah, he's cool. The Help? No, no. Too much white savior complex. Blackcess denied." Secondly, there's an added dimension to being mixed race, especially when you didn't grow up in a predominately black community. It's hard to really feel like you OWN black identity, and that you should be cool with the n-word. You might feel like you're more or less white, but you're aware that, in general, nobody else thinks you are. I don't think mixed race people are confused about who they are. We're more self-conscious about everybody else's confusion. Plus, I'm not really super into making people of any race look foolish because of their race. I want the opposite of that.

It takes the politically incorrect redneck meme
to say what most of us are thinking.
I like having these conversations because I've grown up around and associated mostly with white people, or other minorities who grew up around white people. People generally just think of you as "the whitest (insert minority here) they know" or an honorary white person, since white is the default. They get so used to you that they forget that your experience is different from theirs. And that's not something I blame them for. Why should they be thinking about it, really? As I write this, I'm listening to Selena Gomez with my haul from the comic book store at my side, wearing a My Little Pony/Doctor Who crossover t-shirt. I'm not exactly the portrait of your token black girl from the hood, so my white friends forget that it's not just people from the hood who experience the world through a racism-colored lens. 

Sometimes I think using the word "offensive" weakens how people of color really feel about things. It's not the same thing for me to be offended by the n-word as it is for someone to be offended by the f-word. It's not the same thing for me to be offended by a racial stereotype on television as it is for someone to be offended by sex on TV. While morally one might take issue with f-bombs and TV love scenes, it's not an affront to who you are. You don't sit in your living room watching TV, see someone swear, and then think, "Well, now everyone in the world is looking at me or thinking about me and assuming I'm an immoral curse-word sayer." Nobody takes the actions of a small group of white people and applies it to ALL or the majority of white people. This is not to say groups of white people don't get stereotyped (see above redneck meme; see the cartoonish portrayal of any religious group on TV; see wealthy housewives; see... well, anyway.), but those groups are considered deviations from the norm, whereas with minorities, those of us who aren't stereotypes are considered the deviation.

In college, I was once brought to this guy's house to watch the movie Blazing Saddles. It was awkward enough that I was the only girl there, but when we went up to this guy's media room to watch the movie, there was also a Confederate flag spread across the ceiling. I remember my heart racing and stomach dropping. I don't know that I've ever felt so unsafe. Throughout the movie, several of the guys in the room kept making racist comments about the black character in the film. I wondered if they couldn't see me, if they didn't realize I was black, or if they did and they just didn't care. I know a lot of people who absolutely LOVE Blazing Saddles, and I don't fault them for that, but I hate it. I'm offended by it. I'm offended because watching it in that room full of white men genuinely scared me. All amped up on their hatred, I didn't know what they might do. And on top of it, I thought, my God, this is what people in Orange County think of me. 'Cause my friends might consider me the whitest black girl they know, but strangers don't know about my redeeming whiteness. 

In South Africa, Dr. Carrie Lane had our class read this article called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In it, the author makes a list of things she takes for granted every day being white. Most of my classmates had never considered that they receive the benefits of their race without being racist people. It caused a huge shift in their thinking. When you start to realize what the rest of us have to consider day in and day out, it suddenly doesn't seem so crazy that we feel uncomfortable in our daily lives. If I had a nickel for every time some able-bodied, heterosexual, white person said, "Ugh, I wish people weren't so sensitive and we didn't have to be so PC all the time," I'd be able to beat the next one over the head with a sizable bag of nickels. I'm thinking, "Yeah, gee, it must be SO hard for you to have to try not to say or do racist ish. I can't imagine what it's like being so constrained all the time."

Macklemore gets it. Don't get me started about his lack of understanding
of Irish culture, but on this one, he gets it.

White friends, you don't know what it's like to go to South Coast Plaza or Fashion Island and have people openly look at you with disdain because of your skin tone and your hair texture. You don't know what it's like to be told repeatedly by white peers, "Oh, you have a way better chance to get into that school than I do because of affirmative action," as if you didn't work your ass off for your GPA and to fill your CV, and as if, going by merit, they certainly would deserve it more. You don't know what it's like to be pulled over and have the cop lean in the window to ask your white passenger if she's okay. You don't know what it's like to have people pull their children closer when you walk by them; to have them glare at you if you smile at the kid after they just smiled contentedly at a white stranger; to have that kid go from smiling to looking horrified at the sight of you. Heck, even I feel uneasy around other black people because THAT'S. WHAT. I'VE. LEARNED. FROM. SOCIETY. You don't know what it's like to face racism every time you leave the house; to have to prove that you're not that kind of minority in every conversation you have with a stranger. You can't just look at me and say, "I reject your reality and substitute my own." You can't just say that you have never experienced my experience, and therefore my experience is invalid.

On my facebook, a discussion broke out over the Harlem Shake, and whether the residents of Harlem were just being too sensitive feeling hurt by it. It is very difficult to explain the significance of cultural art forms to people for whom art = entertainment; for whom art is just some beautiful thing to distract from the worries of the world. Art = political agency for marginalized people in this country, and when some white DJ comes along, completely distorts the art, and makes it suddenly a hugely popular phenomenon, that is a loss of political agency, a loss of cultural capital for its originators. To you it seems like being sensitive. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery right? But not when imitation has always meant silencing the voices that created the thing in the first place. And let's be clear: That's exactly what's happening here when people watch the video of people of Harlem reacting to the Harlem Shake and respond, "Oh, shut up. Diplo just used the name. It's not even the same dance." Right. So he took something black people made, changed it so that white people like it, and now white people want to pretend black people have no claim to it. Move along, folks. Nothing problematic to see here.

I can't be racist. Look at all my white friends!
White friends, I have grown up among you. Believe it or not, I'm technically one of you. I love you. You love me. This is not about me hating you or thinking you're all a bunch of racists. Not in the slightest. I understand where you're coming from. I understand that you've never had to walk in my shoes and therefore it's hard to see things how I see them. So this is me, asking you to try it. Now you know. Knowledge is power. So is whiteness, incidentally, and if you can come to grips with that, it'll be easier for you get why I feel violated when you touch my hair without asking, why I feel threatened when you casually use the n-word, and why I feel just as uneasy walking through Newport Beach at night as you do walking through the ghetto. When I say that I'm offended, I'm not talking about moral indignation. I'm not trying to be a buzzkill on your good time. I'm telling you that my life is precarious. I'm telling you that every episode of Dateline I've watched and every tweet I've seen saying that Rue from Hunger Games is less innocent because she's black has taught me that my life is not worth what your life is. Can you imagine what that feels like? What I look like makes me more disposable than you. If NOT making that racist joke or dressing as an Indian for Halloween or appropriating whatever culture you don't understand can make the people around you feel more like human beings, isn't that worth it? Freedom of speech is great and no one wants to take it from you, but a little decency goes a long way.

Friday, February 15, 2013

I love women.

She DRIVES THE DAMN CAR and still has
to pose like she's on a poster for an auto show. REALLY.
In my last post, I was critical of the female showrunners who created Canada's Durham County--a show which I found to be, quite frankly, misogynistic at its core. It left me feeling like when you meet a girl who "can hang" with the guys, but it turns out she mostly proves how cool she is by being just as willing to degrade and belittle herself and other women as the men she hangs out with are. Danica Patrick has become the poster girl for that of late. Girls like that and shows like Durham County make it harder for the rest of us, because now we're the lame girls with no sense of humor. We're overly emotional. When we point at something and say, "Hey, that hurts me," everyone else can respond, "But Danica Patrick is okay with it, and SHE'S a racecar driver!" or "But the filmmakers are women, so there's no WAY they can have negative views of women." Oops, my bad. You're right. No one in the history of time has ever held any viewpoint or opinion that ran contrary to their own best interests due to the dominant ideologies of society at large. Must be all my craaaazy woman hormones cloudin' up my thinkspace.

But really, I'm hopping off that soapbox now. I want to talk about something different; something positive about creative women. I want to talk about my recently discovered love for female authors. Or, rather, that I have recently discovered that I have loved female authors for a long time, and I just didn't realize it.

Were you to ask me who my favorite authors are, the first ones out of my mouth would generally be F. Scott Fitzgerald, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Douglas Adams, Erik Larson, and, of course, Norton Juster 'cause PHANTOM flippin' TOLLBOOTH. But lately there's been a shift. I love all of these men, I do. I realized, though, that I was shortchanging a lot of female authors that I absolutely adore.

I noticed this first when I started adding Tana French to my list of favorites. I'm obsessed with Tana French. I read In the Woods shortly after it came out, and from that point forward have pre-ordered the rest of her books so that I could read them IMMEDIATELY upon their release dates. French writes men and women with equal ease, in part because she doesn't go to extreme measures to make her characters sound either male or female. They're just people. I dig that.

This is actually a terrible
movie. For the record.
After adding Tana French to my personal literary canon, I thought about how, approximately three and a half years ago, I went on an Edith Wharton binge. While crashing on my friend Kattie's living room floor in Portland, I started going through the books on her shelf. "Have you read The Age of Innocence?" she asked. I told her I hadn't. "You really should. I think you'll like it." Less than twenty-four hours later, I had read The Age of Innocence. I only put it down, with great reluctance, to sleep. Stupid sleep. The great interrupter of books. Anyway, before too long, I had also read Summer, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth. Just swallowed those books whole. Watched all the movies, too. There can be no denying that Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors.

Shortly thereafter, I went through a Joyce Carol Oates phase. 'Cause I mean, she's creepy and I'm creepy. We're a perfect match. Favorite.

Flannery O'Connor? Also creepy and dismal. Favorite.

So I looked back further. What were my favorite books as a kid, aside from every single thing R.L. Stine put out and the Stephen King books I'd lift from my parents' shelves? Well, there was Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, any of the sordid tales of Lois Duncan, the entire Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds-Naylor. Then you've got Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Ann M. Martin, whoever the heck wrote all those Sweet Valley books. Plus, duh, J.K. Rowling. Sweet jeebus, I've been reading women my whole life and I never even noticed!


Also terrible adaptations. Hey, what's the deal here, Hollywood?

And I mean that. I didn't notice. If you had asked me instead of what my favorite authors were, if I read female authors, I probably would have said that I didn't really. I thought I didn't. I, like so many before me, didn't take them seriously. I mean, we almost never read any of them in school, and isn't high school English class supposed to be the measuring stick for what constitutes good, quality literature? The classy stuff that I was taught to appreciate was written by men. Meanwhile, my friends and I would huddle in the corner of the library to pore over the Alice books in relative secrecy, reading aloud to each other in hushed voices and hoping the librarian didn't hear. Books by men were to be flaunted publicly; books by women were guilty pleasures.

But let's face it: Alice McKinley, Karen Brewer, Salamanca Tree Hiddle, Mae Tuck--they taught me more about what it means to live in this world, about the human condition, about womanhood, masculinity, and so on than Jay Gatsby or Holden Caulfield ever could. I've read Steinbeck and Hemingway and Kerouac, but it has always been Paterson and Babbitt and Creech who I've repeatedly gone back to throughout my life, when I needed to make sense of the world around me.

So I'm coming out of the closet corner of the library and proclaiming it once and for all: I LOVE WOMEN AUTHORS!

Man, that feels good.

I'm curious, though. What about you? I added this nice little poll to find out how you feel about female authors. Feel free to elaborate in the comments, or to suggest some books by women that you think I should read. I just read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and, aside from the abuse of the word "literally," absolutely loved it. You?