Sunday, September 21, 2008

White Males for Justice: League of the Naive

Yesterday at the public library, Jen joined two other speakers -- Mary Ratliff, president of Columbia NAACP, and Eduardo Crespi, executive director of Centro Latino -- for a public forum on racial equality and social justice. Rev. Heather McCain, future priest of the burgeoning Columbia Hope Church (Episcopal), was the heart and effort behind the whole affair, and a hearty round of thanks goes out to her. Latino

Jen did an incredible job -- all three of the speakers did -- giving clear accounts, both personal and statistical, of racism and social inequalities right here in Columbia. Hate letters. Nazi marches. "Preferential treatment" from police (statistics show it's even worse than we'd expected). Scapegoating of Latinos for "stolen jobs" and economic crisis. (Note that hate crimes against Latinos have risen nationwide almost 35% in the last five years).

Remarkably, I was the only white male at the event, and a pretty clueless white male at that. "Progressive" as I fancy myself to be, I don't think I've ever done much more than bitch and moan about racial inequality. Why? Why the pervasive, gee-wally white male complacancy on a matter that we're so complicit in, if only for that same complacancy?

One factor, of course, is isolationism and ignorance. I say one factor, because the two terms are effectively redundant. I as a white male rarely think of myself as such. First, I don't like the implications: I don't like associating myself with the elite group I am, de facto, a part of: rich (at least by worldly standards), white, heterosexual, educated, employed, english-speaking, non-immigrant, able-bodied males, inc. Now that's a drawer-full of silver spoons.

Aside from making me feel spoiled and guilty, this sort of privilige isolates me from steady recognition of what life is like for minorities, because I simply can't empathize with what it's like to be discriminated against. I've always just been discriminated for, and so all my avenues for empathy wind up goose-chases. The best I can do is think of how I'm type-casted as a Dumb American whenever I go overseas. It's a thin thread to hang by, and not much of a headline: "American Tourist in Kilkenny Offered Pint to Sing John Denver's 'Country Road.'"

Motivational speaker material it is not. Which then makes me feel in turn false, presumptuous, paternalistic and naive for wanting to get involved in issues of racial equality at all. Yesterday, I finally realized that such a response isn't so much humility as it is outright sloth. It's time to overcome some inhibitions here and get plugged in somewhere on the matter. But this much is crystal clear: from my own position of isolignorance, the first step in becoming "active" in racial reconciliation isn't activism at all. It's self-education. Years of it.

On that note, thank God I kept my mouth shut yesterday. Frustrated with my own racial isolignorance -- and fueled further by the utter lack of other white males at the event -- I had half a mind to announce a new organization, hatched just that minute and founded on one resounding mantra: "I am priviliged, clueless, and responsible."

The phrase would be chanted at the start of every meeting and muttered with every secret handshake between members of "Rich White Able-Bodied Heterosexual Educated Protestant Non-Immigrant Males for Social and Economic Justice" -- an organization dedicated to building self-awareness of and taking responsibility for one's own privilege and complicity in an unjust social system.

Ah, how well-intentioned!

The idea is perfect. Not perfect to follow through on, of course, but perfect fodder for the back of some grown-up version of Highlight's magazine (remember Goofus and Gallant?). Can you spot the ten reasons RWABHEPNIMSEJ would be ill-conceived? The first answer's provided for you. Have fun!

1. Crappy acronymn.
2. _____________.
3. _____________.
4. _____________.
5. _____________.
6. _____________.
7. _____________.
8. _____________.
9. _____________.
10. _____________.


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Two Dishes said...

Hi Nathan, I found your site via Dave Bonta's Blog.

I wish to raise awareness of the fact that "white" is more correct than "normal".
As in the notion that there is "normal speech" versus "talking black".

In the popular culture, I think some of the books and websites about "Things that White People Do" have done a service by spreading this concept, mixed with some humor to make it palatable.

Nathan First said...

Two Dishes --
Absolutely. It's a sad coincidence that us white folks can look at our skin and see the pasty color of "plain vanilla," as if pigment is some deviation from the norm. The analogy carries over, of course, into cultural differences too -- between races, ethnicities, nationalities -- the "I don't have an accent, YOU do" farce.

"Normal" is just another way of marginalizing the other. If you ask me, the word should be put in stocks and left out in the public square. Now the trick is to practice what we preach, and quit using it (consciously or otherwise) ourselves.