le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

it all depends on the skin you're living in

There's been a lot of chatter and anger and confusion and efforts at soothing in the children's lit world lately, after Daniel Handler's racist jokes at the National Book Awards, when he was introducing Jacqueline Woodson, who won for her Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir, I think, though I have yet to read it (I am very, very far behind and out of the loop with children's & YA books this year). I haven't watched the video or read the complete text of Handler's remarks, because I don't need or want to know specifically what he said, because I can guess, from the dozens or hundreds or thousands of instances of casual racism I've heard over the years.

Over on child_lit, this has been a hot topic of discussion, and I originally meant to stay quiet, to keep out of it, but then I kept seeing people - on list and elsewhere - use the word "mistake" to describe Handler's remarks, and I had to say something, and the something is pasted here.
I've been thinking about this a lot because:
1) I really, really like Lemony Snicket, and when Daniel Handler spoke in Pittsburgh last year, he was phenomenally brilliant and insightful.
2) I think a lot about race, and about all the things white people don't know. The last year and a half, I've learned so many stupid, terrible, hurtful, complicated things - many of them taking the form of what I suppose would be called micro-aggressions - about specifically Black experiences in the US that I am shocked at my ignorance and at the SO. MANY????! ghastly ways white privilege (white power, white advantage - privilege almost sounds too benign) makes itself felt against people who are not white.
3) I'm fascinated by the ways we - and by we I mean white people who study/read/love children's lit - are trying so hard to reconcile those stupid-ass racist jokes with a writer and public figure who, in so many other ways, is fantastically awesome.
4) I keep seeing Handler's remarks referred to as "mistakes." No, a mistake is saying Jacqueline Woodward, instead of Woodson, or something similar. It wasn't a mistake, but I also don't think it was intentional -- I think it was a failure of consciousness that seems to me hugely common and hugely worth thinking about.

To ME what seems most important - or at least most interesting - is that actually the kinds of dumb casually racist jokes Handler made are made ALL THE TIME, and very often by people who are really quite decent, people who probably feel that they are anti-racist, or liberal/progressive, or whatever you want to call it. But white power/advantage/privilege *as a mode of thought* is so, so deeply entrenched in so many small awful ways that, for most white people, it really does not stick out the way more obvious racist *actions* or statements do.

This isn't to let Handler off the hook, but to say: we have A LOT to do. A LOT. It's not enough to be a white ally who knows that "driving while black" is racist, or that just because we have a mixed-race president, racism isn't over, etc.
We need - and by "we" I mean white people who are, or want to be, allies - to sit down and shut up and let the people who feel the effects of white privilege explain to us *exactly* what they're feeling. Like:
Don't share all your good ideas in a meeting, because as the only Black person in the group, you need to have a trick or two up your sleeve in reserve, because you have to do twice as much to be considered just as good as the white people.
Or: Black faculty wearing or displaying prominently their faculty ID, so they don't get stopped by cops and asked what they're doing walking around an Ivy League campus at night.
Or: You have to wear your hair in just the right way, that requires a lot of styling and work, because wearing it natural is "threatening" -- and you might not get hired, or you might not get promoted, if you look "too black."
Or: it's not really a great discovery when a Black person discovers one of their ancestors was a Famous White Man because, hey look, the Famous White Man owned slaves and almost certainly ended up in the family tree via rape.

Maybe other white people think about this stuff all the time, but I kind of doubt it. But Black people live this, experience this, all the time, and we as white people are (mostly unconsciously) MAKING them experience this. That needs to change.

Which, I guess, is an incredibly verbose way of saying #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

But we also need to do more than crank out some Benetton-ad-style books. I think we need to be shown all the things that white privilege has caused, has created, all the things we, as white people, would never think of (wearing my school ID visibly? NEVER ever ever crossed my mind to do such a thing. Never crossed my mind that there could ever be a reason why I'd need to do such a thing, why *anyone* would need to). The diverse books - and films, and tv shows, need to do more than just teach us all that Really, We're All Just People Living in This Crazy World, or Black People: They're Just Like Us! or some gross heartwarming cliche.

Daniel Handler isn't exactly the problem; the problem is the culture and ways of thinking that Daniel Handler is both a product and producer of. And that means that WE are the problem.

I'm tired of calling it white privilege. It's not a privilege, to me, to know that my friend has been stopped for driving while Black. it's not a privilege to be able to walk down the middle of a street at noon unaccosted, when a Black kid who does the same thing ends up with six bullets in his body, dead in a pool of blood on the road for no reason at all. It isn't a privilege to never have to ask myself "Did I get this job/bonus/gift/promotion/award just because I'm white?" While every day, non-white people are accused of "taking" jobs away from white people who were "more qualified" (because of their white skin, presumably), while non-white people have to worry in both directions: Did I get this because I'm black/brown/Asian/Indigenous? as well as: Did I not get this because I'm black/brown/Asian/Indigenous?

One trick therapists use is removing the word "not" from patients' vocabulary. Because when you say "not," your brain - evidently - just erases the 'not' and focuses on the thing. So: I will not eat cake, in your brain, just becomes: I will eat cake. Or simply CAKE!!!!!!!!!! It's the "don't think about a purple hippopotamus" trick.
And I think white privilege, as a phrase AND as a thing we live everyday, has been functioning as a "not."

Calling it white privilege focuses on what we get. It doesn't focus on what non-white people lose, have taken, have stolen; it doesn't focus on the fact that white privilege is actually actively hurting and killing people, and that it is allowed to do so. 

I don't want that kind of privilege. And I don't think that calling the ability to murder black children with impunity a "privilege" comes anywhere close to doing the work that needs to be done, the work of white Americans shutting the hell up, and listening, and feeling, and realizing that we've been benefiting from an almost-invisible (to us) rotten, nasty, system; and that, far more importantly than the benefits we barely see - FAR more important - we are hurting people. Hurting, and killing, real, actual, human beings.

That's not privilege. That's abuse. And it doesn't matter if you are a white person who has never shot a black teenager, if you are a white person who grew up in poverty, a white person who never uses racist phrases or makes racist jokes, a white person who has A Black Friend - you, that is WE, are still causing harm.

post title is a line from "Blink Your Eyes" by Sekou Sundiata. He performs it in this video; watch and listen.

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