The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

My parents have no idea what I do for a living.  I've told them numerous times that I work in the field of Diversity & Inclusion, and my mother just shakes her head and says, "Yes, but I don't know what that means."  And the more I've tried to explain it to them, the more mysterious my career becomes.

Basically, I help organizations to become more diverse and inclusive.  "Diverse" means (yes) more people of color and more women.  But it also means, more gay people, more people with disabilities, more people from different faith communities, more transgender people, and more military veterans.  More of what you don't already have, basically.  And "Inclusive" means that you treat people well.  There are other definitions, but that's pretty much the crux of it.  Everyone might not have the same experience at work, but everyone has an equal shot.

I don't believe it's a terribly difficult concept to grasp.  Admittedly, I've been thinking about it every day for the past thirteen years, and maybe that's why - but doesn't everybody know that we live in a society wherein people who are Black, Latino, Asian, female, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, athiest, Sikh, Hindu, or possessed of a disability have to take a lot of shit that other people don't have to deal with?

Honestly, I think that most people "get" that there are those in this world who are unjustly disenfranchised.  What they don't get, or don't want to get, is the flip side of the coin - that people who are white, straight, Christian, or temporarily able-bodied have this thing called "privilege."

Privilege is like the untouchable third rail of the Diversity & Inclusion conversation.  Nobody wants to admit that it's there - and yet, if you think about it, it must be there.  If someone is "less than," it begs the question: less than who?  If someone is down, then by definition someone else is up.  Simple, right?  Not for some people - and by "some people," I'm usually talking about some white people.

For those who are new to the concept of white privilege, the best resource I could possibly point you to is a classic essay by Peggy McIntosh called "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."  It's a really short read, and it spells out the issue plainly and concisely.  In it, McIntosh reflects on why it was so difficult for her to get the men around her to admit that their penises entitled them to all kinds of free stuff that society made women work really hard for - and how she started to wonder if she got any free stuff that other people had to work really hard for.  And she started to make a list.  And it turned into a pretty long list.  It included things like, "I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented," and "Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability," and "I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race." And as the list got longer and longer (she stopped at 26 items, but could have clearly gone on and on and on), she realized she was onto something.

For me, the most powerful thing about McIntosh's essay isn't the laundry list of free stuff that society gives to white people, it's that she (like most white people) was completely blind to her own privilege before she made a conscious decision to focus on it.  That's the tricky thing about privilege: not only are we unaware of it, but we're encouraged to be oblivious.  And ignorance is often just as difficult to confront than out-and-out hatefulness.  Because like the proud bigot, the ignorant are fiercely protective of their ignorance.  They don't know and they don't want to know, because knowing makes a person accountable, and it's a whole lot easier to live in this world if racism (and sexism, and ableism, and heterosexism, and all the rest) is somebody else's problem.

Privilege is why we have stupid-ass words like "reverse racism."  Terms like "reverse racism" are, to put it simply, complete and utter bullshit.  It's like saying, "I can totally understand racism against them, but racism against me is totally fucked up; like, it doesn't even make any sense."  When people talk about "reverse racism," here's what usually happened: 1) members of an oppressed community have expressed resentment toward those more powerful than they, and 2) a white person within earshot gets his or her feelings hurt because after all, they never individually owned slaves (never mind that they reap the benefits of their skin privilege each and every day, as I do, often without even realizing it).

Privilege is why no one on Fox News can admit that some members of the Tea Party are clearly and abjectly racist (see this and this and this and this and this), but can freely and easily use the racist tag to describe Barack Obama.

Not only is this accusation profoundly unfair and untrue, but it illustrates the key point about privilege.  When Glenn Beck thinks that he's the victim of racism, he feels it.  But when the world conspires to make him feel more intelligent, more patriotic, more moral, and just plain better than anyone who's a shade darker than he is, he can't feel that at all.

And I get why white people cling to the belief that they are more victimized by racism than anyone else; I do.  Owning your privilege is tough.  It requires you to reflect on your entire life, and realize that you've been the beneficiary of a lot of free stuff over the years.  And we Americans would like to believe that earned all that stuff.  And you might have earned some of it; I won't take that away from you.  But I guaran-damn-tee you that if you grew up white in America, you got some of that shit for free.  You didn't earn it all.  And once you get it through your thick head that your skin color (or your penis, or your heterosexuality, or your Christianity, or your temporary status as an able-bodied person, or the HIV-negative blood coarsing through your veins, or whatever else) has given you a place of unearned privilege, it's sort of incumbent upon you to level the playing field a little, in whatever way you can, even if that's just educating yourself whenever the opportunity arises.

When I started doing diversity and social justice work, I was motivated by the oppression I felt as a gay person, and I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't really prepared to deal with my skin privilege.  And yeah, at the beginning, I did take the weight of the world onto my shoulders, and I felt a lot of guilt.  And getting through the guilt (but remaining knowledgeable and accountable) wasn't easy. You know what's easy? Playing the victim.  Playing the victim is easy, and it's actually a lot of fun, especially when you get to keep all the free stuff.


Jim Daly: We Lost Marriage.

Much has been made of recent remarks by Focus on the Family President/CEO Jim Daly regarding his organization's quest to keep same-sex couples from marrying.

Here's some of what he said to World Magazine:
We're losing on [gay marriage], especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same-sex marriage. I don't know if that's going to change with a little more age, demographers would say probably not. We've probably lost that. I don't want to be extremist here, but I think we need to start calculating where we are in the culture.
And he goes on to outline what future FoF messaging around marriage might look like:
"The piece of paper that you get at the state to recognize your marriage is worthless. It's like registering your car. But if you're going to be a part of this church and you're married, you're going to be committed to your marriage. There's no easy way out."
Is it possible that I like this guy?

Probably not, because he makes his living moralizing, while looking to written artifacts of Bronze Age nomads who had no understanding of human psychology, biological evolution, or a round planet as the best guide we have to a moral life.  And you know what else: it's easy for him to say that the "piece of paper" that is one's marriage license is "worthless" when it's something that heterosexual couples can so easily take for granted.  But for same-sex couples who desperately need marriage rights in order to share property, protect their children, sit at the deathbeds of their spouses, and inherit from them without being gouged by crippling tax burdens (among 1,000+ other rights and responsibilities), that "piece of paper" can be incredibly valuable.

Still, I like the direction this guy is going.  If nothing else, he seems to finally understand what the LGBT community has been saying for years: we don't want to take over your religions; we only want that piece of paper, and why the hell do you care so much?

Why American Christians have for decades been hell-bent (yes, I chose these words carefully) on preventing loving and committed couples from protecting their families under the law - while the scourges of war, genocide, hunger, poverty, and disease remain unabated around the planet and here at home - is frankly beyond my understanding.  And if there's a sign that they're no longer going to do that, well ... fine with me.


Sticks and Stones

I originally wrote this in 2007, but I liked it and wanted to post it again.  So there.

Last night, I was driving home and listening to NPR, and there was a story about a sock factory in Honduras. And every time Melissa Block said the word "sock" in oh-so-serious tones (because this industry is apparently very important in Honduras), I was reminded that "sock" can at once mean a snuggly thing made of cotton or yarn that keeps your feet warm, but it can also mean a fist in your face.

And my mind wandered to other words that indicate violence, and it seems that they all have alternative, mostly postive meanings as well.

"Hit" could mean a pop song that everyone is listening to right now.

"Punch" could mean a fruity concoction served in large glass bowls at parties.

"Strike" could mean a group of workers collectively standing up for their rights, or even better, hitting all your bowling pins with just one roll of the ball down the alley.

"Belt" could refer to that strap of leather that holds my pants up (always a good thing).

"Stab" could mean a brave attempt at something you've always wanted to do but never tried before.

"Box" could mean a lovely brown paper package tied up with string, which is indeed one of my favorite things.

"Kick" could mean an extra bit of spice (or alcohol) in that dish (or cocktail) you're currently enjoying.

"Bash" could mean one hell of a party.

"Batter" could be a delightful blend of ingredients used to make waffles or pancakes.

"Blow" could mean lightly exhaling onto a liquid soapy material to create bubbles that joyously float away, and um ... let's just leave that one there for the moment.

The only word I could think of that indicates physical violence and cannot be used to describe something lovely and pleasant is "clobber," but even that is very similar to "cobbler" and there's nothing more lovely or pleasant that a warm blueberry cobbler placed next to your Sunday morning cup of coffee.

I don't really have a point, except to ponder this: if language is all we really have to help us make sense of the world, and if this is the language we're using, then is it any wonder that we're so screwed up? Just sayin'.


It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

So, this is it.  Today, the world ends, according to Harold Camping, an 89-year old preacher and biblical scholar with a large following on the radio.  You may not think his following is so large, but compared to, say ... this blog, for example ...

Anyway, at 6pm, there we go.  Actually, which 6pm has been a matter of some dispute.  As the bronze age nomads who wrote the original text of the Bible didn't really have an understanding of time zones, a notion that it can be evening in one place and necessarily must be morning someplace else, as a by-product of the whole the-planet-is-round thing, which in itself came from the we-live-on-a-PLANET thing, the biblical clues left for Mr. Camping simply say 6pm somewhere, which of course could mean anywhere.  I'm pretty sure that as I type this on a Saturday morning in Washington, DC, it's already been 6pm in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee, or any of the predictable Biblical locations.  Then again, many Evangelical Christians believe that, sometime around 1776, Jesus began favoring the United States of America above all other nations (the institution of slavery being so in sync with that whole turn-the-other-cheek business), so it might be that we all just have to wait until Central Standard Time or something.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I don't put much stock in this particular theory.  And yet, I find it fascinating that amid all the talk, mostly jokes in my circle of friends, about the (cue threatening music) impending rapture, even I've had fleeting thoughts of "But what if they're right?  What if people really do start floating skyward? Won't I feel silly then?"

And if the power of suggestion works so well on me, I can only imagine that those who are already inclined to believe that the Bible is the sanctioned word of a Supreme Being don't have to make that much of a leap to believe it's all going to happen.  And yet - if doubt can so easily invade the mind of a set-in-his-ways non-believer like me, I have to believe that Mr. Camping's followers experience moments of doubt, too.  But evidence would suggest that at least some of them - those that have already quit their jobs and made post-rapture arrangements for their dogs and cats (unable to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and therefore unworthy of heavenly assumption) feel 100% sure about Mr. Camping's biblical number-crunching.

And the question I've heard most of all is, "What will they all say/do/think on Sunday morning if/when the world doesn't end after all?"  And I guess we'll have to wait until Sunday morning to find out.  I'm hoping that no one commits suicide, and I think it's a real threat.  I'm not sure how Mr. Camping in particular will be able to summon the nerve to show his face in public again after being so wrong about this.  (Then again, he's done it before.)

As for myself, I'd like to rise above it all, but there's probably one more day of lighthearted joking about an apocalypse that I really don't think is coming.  Y'know, meeting people on the street, with a "Happy Rapture Day!" and having a good laugh about it.  And while I obviously don't see the need to do a lot of repenting today, perhaps I will take special care to really enjoy myself today, to live as the cliche would direct us, as if it were actually my last day on Earth, squeezing the joy out of every moment, comfortable and secure in the belief that I probably will still be around tomorrow.


Friday Jukebox: I'm In Here (Sia)

Has anyone been watching The Voice?  I have, and I've really been enjoying it.  Mostly, I'm enjoying seeing really talented singers who actually deserve a national platform, but I'm also getting a kick out of the judges: Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, and Blake Shelton.  Currently, the show is doing four weeks of "Battles," wherein the judges are cutting their teams in half with the help of trusted advisors.

Christina Aguilera's trusted advisor is an Australian singer/songwriter named Sia - who looked really familiar to me as soon as I saw her in the show, and I quickly recalled that she sang this amazing song over the heartbreaking final montage of Six Feet Under (still the best HBO Original Series ever, in my humble opinion).

So, for this week's Friday Jukebox, I did something unusual and sought out a song I didn't already know.  I was curious to see what Sia was up to these days, and I found this.  I listened to it once, and I liked it.  And here we are. Enjoy.


A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes

This was originally written in July, 2007.  It's from my old blog, one that I'll likely delete once all of my favorites have been republished.

So I learned today that Steve Martin got married in a surprise ceremony at his home in L.A.

Which is totally weird, because Steve Martin is my closeted gay lover. No, seriously.

About three years ago, I had the most vivid dream I can ever remember. It was like a movie; it encompassed several scenes, and the story it told spanned years.

It was all about how I met Steve Martin in a crowded gay bar in Rehoboth except that I was the only person who knew who he was (give me a break; it was a dream). Flash forward to a few years later; Steve and I have been carrying on a torrid affair, and we're talking on the phone. I'm begging him to come out of the closet and be free (altho' even in the dream, I think I really wanted to move to Hollywood and be his arm candy -- suck it, Anne Heche!!) and he's telling me that he can't because he has a career and a publicist and not even his publicist knows he's gay, and blah blah blah, and it's all so boring. Anyway, we resolve the situation by me quitting my job and him buying me a huge mansion in Rehoboth, where we met. And while Steve is off making movies and attending premieres and awards shows without me, I'm hanging out with my adoptive lesbian moms and beach friends and having a fairly good time except when they ask me how the hell I make enough money to live in an enormous mansion while not working and why I always make excuses when someone tries to set me up on a date. And in my dream, I love Steve, I really do, but because of our relationship, I'm now in the closet too. The last scene of the dream took place in a movie theatre. Not a premiere in Hollywood, no -- but the Midway Theatres on Route One in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Steve is munching on popcorn and really, really happy but I'm angry, probably because I'm a closet case and it's all Steve's fault, and he decides that he's going to cheer me up ... by going down on me in the movie theatre. So he's kneeling on the floor and unzipping my fly, and ... well ... you know ... and I'm just staring at the paint peeling off of the ceiling of the movie theatre thinking, "Damn you, Steve Martin, you made me the shell of a man I am today."

Is that completely f#%ed up or what??!!

Freud or Jung or someone said that everyone in your dreams is actually you, and that the conflicts that arise between "characters" in your dreams are actually facets of your personality warring with each other. To this day, I haven't located my inner comic-genius-movie-star-tortured-by-living-a-lie-and-risky-public-sexual-encounters, so I have no idea what my Steve Martin dream was supposed to resolve.

The other night I had an equally vivid dream. I was in a car with my family (sister, father, mother), driving away from somebody's wedding reception (not sure whose), and my father is having a heart attack at the wheel (literally), my mother is yelling at me for getting drunk at the reception, my sister is saying nothing, and I'm defending myself from my mother's baseless accusations (I was so not drunk; I was being funny, and she has no sense of humor -- in the dream) while trying to get everyone to notice that hello, my father is having a heart attack while driving the car that we're all inside of!!

A friend told me that "you are the car and the chaos within is your mind fragmenting between duty to family approval and duty to your own life." And I'm all like, "Yeah ... but isn't everybody?"

All I know is, when I was carrying on a three-year closeted love affair with Steve Martin, he always got my jokes and never thought I was drunk (when I wasn't).


Skin Deep

I have a confession to make.

I'm not proud of it.

I've told a couple of people, but for some reason, it's difficult to put it in writing.  Not that I can't find the words, but y'know ... once things are written down, it's more difficult to deny them.

But there's really no denying it.

(sigh) ... Here goes.

I think Paul Ryan is kind of cute.

Yeah ... that Paul Ryan, the congressman from Wisconsin who has become the darling of the Republican party after writing that infamous budget proposal that basically dismantles MedicareThat Paul Ryan.

Also, the Paul Ryan who a friend described as "looking vaguely like a Muppet."  My friend meant this as a dig, but I agreed with her - in outcome if not in intent.  He does look sort of like a Muppet ... in the sense that he's, well ... kind of adorable.

I've always had a "thing" for guys with sad eyes.  Paul Ryan is probably the poster boy for sad eyes.  When he frowns, he looks very sad indeed, and even when he smiles he looks like he could use a hug.  My boyfriend has sad eyes.  So does David Duchovny, who was my principal celebrity crush of my youth.

And now I must make it clear - I abhor Paul Ryan's politics.  As I was writing the above paragraph, the more principled voice inside my head was screaming at me, "And when he kicks your Grandma in the gut, what does he look like then? Huh??!!"  If I lived in Wisconsin's 1st district, I would not vote for Paul Ryan; in fact, it's safe to say that I would actively campaign against him (and could conceivably contribute to his next political opponent's campaign, should s/he have even a slim chance of winning).  I know what I believe in, and I have very strong convictions.  I absolutely know where I stand.

But I wonder: what's happening to me when I'm paging through Time Magazine, and stumble upon a full-page image of this guy, vaguely reminiscent of a Muppet, but also somewhat evocative of Superman - and I find myself staring at it.  And staring. And staring just a moment more, willing myself to turn the page, reminding myself of why this guy is the personification of everything that's wrong with the overprivileged frat house that is the modern Republican Party, but unable to deny myself another moment gazing at someone who can't be that bad, c'mon just look at him, isn't he cute??!!

Eventually, I do turn the page, but I continue to berate myself.  If I were a better person, I say, my repugnance of this man's value system would trump the pleasing arrangement of his features and render him downright homely.  But clearly I'm not this paragon of virtue I will myself to be.

And I'm reminded of all the guys I've been attracted to in the past, guys I've developed actual crushes on - only to get to know them (oftentimes by dating them) and discovering that their sad eyes, great teeth, and square jaws did not translate into the gentle-hearted, strong-but-silent, full-of-integrity personalities that I had assumed they would be.  And I think about all of the wonderful people I'll probably never get to know because upon first glance, they look sort of ... mean.  Or stuck-up.  And I wonder where I (we?) evolved this tendency of assigning personality characteristics to people based on facial features and body type and how we might possibly learn to evolve our way out of it.  And like most things that lead me down these winding roads inside my head, I'm left with more questions than answers.

But I do know this: Paul Ryan is dangerous.  Even if he is kind of dreamy to look at.



Another blast from the past (Summer, 2007).  Enjoy.

In many of the diversity classes that I teach, I often begin the day by asking people why they registered for the class and what they hope to learn. A fairly common response (always from a white person, and usually from a white man) is that they want to learn to be "color blind."

And I'm always a little stumped by this response.

First of all, I'm not sure it's possible. When I meet someone with dark skin, African features, and kinky hair, I tend to notice that he or she is black. I can't imagine anyone meeting my office mate, for example, and saying the next day, "Was she African-American? Huh. I didn't notice." And if anyone did say such a thing, I don't think I'd respect them for it; I might actually wonder if their low levels of observation border on mental deficiency.

But of course, this isn't really what people mean when they say "color blind." They mean that they want to evolve to a point where race doesn't matter -- where they see people as people, not making assumptions about anyone based on their race. And that's a lovely thought, truly. Except that it usually doesn't work that way either.

If and when a white person (and I feel okay about picking on white people, because I am one and because it's always a white person who makes this statement in my class) acheives this type of color-blindness, he or she might believe that they're just seeing people as people -- but in my experience, they're really seeing everyone as a white person, whether the person is white or not.

The thing is, race isn't just skin deep, and underneath, we're not all the same. Growing up in a black family isn't the same is growing up in an Asian family, which isn't the same as growing up in a Latin family or a white family. These differences are compounded when you grow up in a predominantly homogenous community (Ever been to a black church? ... I've been only a few times, but the experience is 180 degrees from going to a staid, solemn mass with my folks). And even if we were all the same on the inside (which we're not), the external experience of being a person of color is different than growing up as a white person. People of color experience institutional racism nearly every day -- they learned how to survive in a racist world since they could walk and talk -- and a lot of well-meaning white people have no idea what life as an oppressed minority is like.

So -- when these well-meaning white people see everyone as "just people," they often do not have the skills or knowledge to see anyone -- white, black, Latin, or Asian -- as anything other than "just like me." They convince themselves that race is a purely cosmetic condition with no deeper cultural implications, and begin to expect everyone around them to see the world the way they see it, to value the same things that they value, and to behave the same way that they behave. And to a person of color, that looks and feels a whole lot like racism.

As a gay person, I deal with some of that frustration when interacting with lots of well-meaning straight people who want to believe that I'm just like they are, only I'm attracted to guys. The truth is, being gay provides an interesting lens through which to see the world. My thoughts, feelings, and perspectives on a myriad of topics, not just love and dating, are affected by my identity as a gay man. Off the top of my head, living the big gay life has significantly changed the way I view the role of women in society and the dynamic that exists between science and religion, and my feelings about going to five weddings each summer, where I plan to go on vacation (or dinner, for that matter), the G.I. Bill, and how long I'll stay at the office happy hour at the T.G.I.Friday's down the street (not very, in case you were wondering).

And if I ever heard a straight person say, "I keep forgetting that he's gay; it's just not an issue for me," they'd likely be giving themselves points for open-mindedness, while I'd likely think to myself, wow ... you really don't know this person very well.

So I'd like to do what little I can to help people realize that metaphorical blindness is not a virtue; rather, it's just ignorance - except that it's worse, because it's willful ignorance.  And it doesn't help society as a whole; the irony is that it only helps the ignorant, ever more comfortable, not having to think about things which otherwise might give them pause.  Because, y'know ... thinking is hard.