Monday, March 4, 2013

The Peril of Fantasy.

So a month ago I posted a rather lengthy diatribe about race, white privilege, and my thoughts on the matter. It was mostly born out of my inability to effectively express myself in my day to day life. Which is a refrain that the internet is all to familiar with at this point. Likely none but the strongest luddites among us would be shocked to discover that the internet is full of twenty-something's screaming their creative frustrations into the void.
But there is something to be said for the frustrations of the rare, though ever increasing, political nerd. Not a nerd whose main passion is politics, but the nerd whose passion is the traditional nerdscape but lively hood is derived from the political realm. The man writing policy papers by day and generating elven archers by night. There is a certain heaviness in that. It's that heaviness that spawned my attempt to add to our political discourse.
Not that being a political bureaucrat is inherently difficult or because nerdiness isn't accepted by the general population. It's because of what being a nerd entails, especially If your interests swing towards the fantasy/gaming ends of the nerd spectrum.
You see fantasy teaches us that there are good guys and bad guys. The good guys dress in white, fight the dragons, and save the kingdom. The bad guys torture, rob, and kidnap princesses. There is almost always a clear demarcation. Sure, Game of Thrones mixes it up a bit but on the whole it's paladins and wizards vs. warlords and liches. Three rounds. No holds barred. Team good guy may lose a couple of people along the way, but by and large you're going to end up with a clear win for the pillars of light at the end of the day.
Now you may be thinking that this is how our storytelling culture works in every genre. You would be right. 99.9% of the stories we tell are of good triumphing over evil. But there's a distinct difference when the evil is a undead hellbeast as opposed to evil CEO #7. The CEO is just a man. He's mortal. He's vulnerable. He's beatable. The hellbeast? That's something more. It's our greatest fears come to life. Something ethereal, nightmarish, and inhuman.
We understand the CEO. We get his motivations. Beating that is possible and expected. But where the wheels come off the wagon for the nerd is when you can imagine slaying the dragon. Thinking that you can beat the monsters too. It makes reality more difficult to handle. In politics the monsters aren't dragons or liches, they're problems like poverty and education funding. Believing that those monsters can be slain by any mortal, or even group of mortals can drive anyone to scream into the void.
Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
Neil Gaiman

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Burden of Being the Hegemony

Being straight, white, male, and Christian all at the same time has its flaws. For instance; post college and grad school I spend a lot of my time wondering if my actions fall into the category of "systematic oppression". The answer is almost always "of course not" with the occasional "oops maybe".
I suppose the very act of asking shows an level of concern that implies a conscious effort to not exert the privilege that my pull from the DNA deck affords me. It's like when they say "if you ask if you're crazy then you're probably not". Of course that could be nonsense. I could be oppressing people constantly and never realize it until a Monty Python loving minority starts screaming "Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!!!" A potential wake up call I irrationally fear.
But the fear of becoming a power wielding maniac brings with it several upsides. Knowing that my work may be overvalued due to my appearance gives me incentive to make sure I actually do well. Though perhaps an easier route would be to simply fall head first into the gaping maw of mediocrity and let my alabaster skin carry me to the finish line. Telling everyone who didn't win the cultural genetic lottery that "when there was only one set of footprints...that was when you were carrying me".
Failing to put my back into things would only decrease the effectiveness of my never ending pool of hatred and disdain of people who don't get how awesome it is to be white. Which is unfortunate because those people are like newborn puppies. Adorable in their helplessness, but shitting everywhere.
You see it's impossible to just suddenly grasp your status as a hegemonic overlord. It's the ultimate representation of the allegory of the cave. White guys at every rung of the ladder experience the same thing. The world just operates differently for them and its all they've ever known. It takes an outside event to break the hold that world has over you. Otherwise you spend life thinking "it's like this for me, so it must be like this for everyone". Which is reasonable!!!! No one living in this bubble would ever think to consider that there is another set of experiences that could be had because the ones they're having Are. So. Reasonable.
And why shouldn't they be??? Aren't the experiences that straight white christian males are having what we want all society to be having? Not the thousands of years of oppression or the preferential treatment, but the sort of innate feeling that everything is pretty OK and it will continue to be pretty OK and you can seemingly do what you want and it'll be OK. That's what everyone wants! When you live in the white guy bubble its just difficult to not assume that's how it works for everyone. I don't worry about the police pulling me over or stopping me for no reason. I don't get followed in stores. I never feel really alone because 99% of the time there's a boat load of people around me who are the right shade of color for my brain to feel just fine with my surroundings. Which is great...as long as you don't think about it too long. Which we should be doing more. I feel like I have a general understanding of how this whole Anglo-Saxon vs. the world thing has been playing out. But I also know that I am terrible at realizing it in the moment.
Realizing that you have this feeling while a whole bunch of the rest of the world doesn't? That's the difficult part. The realization can lead down two separate paths; the jolted path and the emphatic path. The jolted path is how you get bigots, racists, sexists, homophobes (Quick story. I mistyped that as hobophobes 3 different times. The world would be much better if that was the real issue) and sorts of other terrible things. These aren't completely the realm of the white guy, but lets face it, we're streets ahead of everyone else in this arena.
The jolt in this instance is a sudden realization that you're suddenly not the most important person in the room. It's having a moment where the burdens placed on everyone else that you never have to deal with suddenly find their way into your brain. Being overlooked for a promotion, ignored by a group, called names, intimidated physically, robbed, heartbroken, mocked, denied, or you name it. A moment in time where the bubble pops, the lights are turned on in the cave, and suddenly the outside world decides that it's your turn in the barrel. It could happen to anyone, or anyone's parents, or their parents parents, or any number of generations back then passed down from generation to hateful generation. One moment. That's all it takes to see what the world actually looks like.
Now one might assume that this jolt would cause empathy in our poor subject, but remember they have never experienced this before. This isn't something the world does. It's inherently unfair, unjust, and un-hegemonic. It will not stand. It has to be someone else's fault. Whoever got hired must have slept their way to the job. The person throwing insults is just a terrible person. Robbed? Must be some sort of low life. But from there it spreads. It's not just one person, it becomes a group. I only see people who look like me in upper management so women must be inferior. The prison population is mostly black and latino? They're criminals. This jolt happens somewhere, at some point, and then it grows and spreads like a disease. From one persons subconscious, to their conscious, to their children. That's where things go sideways.
The other path, is the emphatic path. True understanding of the hegemonic authority afforded white guys can't be taught. It can't be shown. It can't be experienced. It has to be felt. It has to be felt deep down. It comes from your friends, your family, your co-workers. People that you're close to. That you connect with. It comes from watching your mother being passed over for a promotion. From being in the car while your friend is pulled over for the third time in a week. From suddenly becoming aware that your black fiance gets ignored when you go out because everyone addresses you. Or you realize everyone who looks like you is starting when you hold her hand. Or you realize her family is super nice and accepting and your family totally went slightly racist. But I digress.
Important people in suits and ties talk about "white guilt" sometimes. It's discussed in the context of affirmative action, immigration reform, food stamps, community development, and any of the programs put in place to try and make up for thousands of years of one group being absolutely nightmarish to everyone else. But "white guilt" has nothing on "educated, dorky, socially conscious, nerdy young white guy guilt". Especially after reading the latest poverty, crime, education, and demographic statistics followed by two shots of guilt vodka and five "fucking hell" cigarettes. There. Is. No. Comparison.
At shot three you're cutting yourself on the porch covered in sackcloth screaming into the darkness that you're very sorry for everything and is there anyway to make it up to everyone? Perhaps brunch? But mimosas and french toast as it turns out only reinforce the problem. Brunch is the food period of oppression. No kid driven to gang life, or single mother working three jobs, or migrant farm worker being paid below minimum wage is going to brunch. Brunch is for the oppressor not the oppressed.
Shot four.
Cigarette six.
All of this has been a lead up. The DNA. The cave. The jolt. The fiance. It leads to a larger point. Which is....being white is hard. At least being white and realizing it is hard. Not as hard as we've made everyone else's life, but hard none the less. Because, there is an urge to fix it. To start all over and put everything right. To pull out a bullhorn and calmly say that we're very sorry for the trouble but we're nullifying the current implied social contract and starting over from a white piece of paper and could everyone please find a pen because we're asking actual signatures this time if you wouldn't mind ever so much.
But in the end, the nerdy young white christian male with just enough education and a dash of optimism does none of that. Instead he sits. And waits. And drinks. Because he and all the other nerdy young educated white christian males know that it'll be their turn at the controls of the hegemonic nightmare engine soon enough. The old white christian males will die soon. Until then we'll wait...and try our damnedest to remember how guilty we are right now.
But McBean was quite wrong. I'm quite happy to say That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day, The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
- Dr. Suess.