Sunday, May 20, 2018

Wrestling with identity politics

I'm in the middle, second row, dark shirt; Harry Cuthrell is behind me to the left, Bernard Neally two guys to the left of him; Bill Grayson is the third wrestler right of me, his head slightly tilted.

     My column on graduation weekend at Pomona got a lot of feedback last week, particularly after 
a colleague wrote a response: "White privilege is getting to write a column about the time you felt left out."
     The assumption behind that phrase—"the time you felt left out," as if there were only the one—stuck in my craw, but I didn't want to argue. I'd had my say, now she gets hers. That's how it works, and in the range of unfairness, this was something I could accept with grace. So I retweeted it, mentioning my experience of not lettering in 9th grade wrestling, a sly wink to telegraph, "We all have our woes." 
     My former editor, Andrew Herrmann, said he'd like to hear more about my season as a wrestler.
     Hmm... I don't usually take requests—I'm not a short order cook. But it seemed a story worth telling on a Sunday, perhaps one that can move the discussion along, about exclusion, and effort, and "white privilege." I don't want to re-open the debate. But it isn't as if the issue is going away either. 

     I grew to hate being a fat kid. You're no good at sports. People make jokes. It's unattractive. Uncomfortable. My right upper arm had stretch marks. I had to buy my clothes in the Husky Department. 
     So I tried to do something about it, starting at age 15.
     I joined the junior high school wrestling team.
     The idea was to force myself to exercise.
     And forced to exercise I was. We all were; we had to run "wind sprints." Run a certain distance—to the center of the gym, back, then to the far end, touch the wall, and run back. If everybody didn't do it in a certain amount of time, then we all had to do it over again. And again.
     Wind sprints were awful. You haven't suffered until you've made the entire squad do extra wind sprints because you're so out-of-shape you can't do one in the allotted time. Winded—I guess that's where they got their name—sucking air, humiliated and receiving the angry glares of your teammates.
     Still, I endured. I had made a commitment. I wanted to stick it out. Besides: I liked being on the team. I belonged. We had uniforms, these black spandex body suits. We had headgear. We wore special shoes. We struggled. Guys wrapped themselves in the mats, sweating, trying to make weight. It was dramatic: I remember Wayne Carroll slamming his locker, crying, after losing a match. This was important.
     One practice, drilling a maneuver designed to roll your opponent over, using your head as a lever, I was trying it out on Mr. Reese, the assistant coach, a mountain of a man, and something snapped in his back. He had to be taken away in an ambulance. I felt sorry for hurting him, sure, but there was also an unspoken coolness involved. I might be a fish, but I had sent Mr. Reese to the hospital. He was a huge guy. 
     What I hadn't thought of was that I'd have to wrestle in meets. Against other schools. But that was the general point.
     At 191 pounds, I was a heavyweight. There were three other heavyweights. Bernard Neally and Harry Cuthrell, football linemen keeping in shape in the off-season. And Bill Grayson, who, I seem to recall, lived in the youth home.
     We wrestled each other, every week, to see who got to go to represent the school that weekend. Each opponent was a unique experience. Bernard would stand there, hands on his hips, and order me to shoot in—"shooting in" was the term we used for the lunging motion to go at someone's leg. Rather than trying to evade me, Bernard would just stand there, tensing his tree trunk of a leg. I would wrap myself around it and try to lift. It was like trying to lift a fire hydrant. He would stand there, tell jokes and laugh while I squirmed and struggled to budge his leg. Then he would pin me.
    Harry Curthrell was even stronger. I remember shooting in, and he did something with his hands, a quick motion, and suddenly the blue mat was where the ceiling had been, and visa versa. Then gravity did its thing. In a comic the sound would be written as: "WHUMPF!!!"
     And Bill Grayson, the worst of all. You get points in wrestling, for reverses, for getting on somebody's back, for holding on—"ride time"—they called it. You can never pin the other guy and still win on points. Bill would hardly do anything, and let me rack up the points, do everything but pin him—I'd be winning, I don't recall the score, say 20 to 0. Then they would mark the last 10 seconds of the match—I remember them tossing a rolled up towel, to signal the approaching end. At that point he would come to life and pin me. He knew that I knew that if I could hold on for those last 10 seconds I would win. Finally win. But I never held on. I couldn't do it.
    It seemed cruel.
    So I never got through wrestle-offs. Never competed against another school in a match. But I lasted out the year. Went to every practice, every match. At the end of the year, at our banquet, every guy on the team got a white sweater with a big blue "R"—for Roehm Junior High School—trimmed in gold. Except me, since I had never actually wrestled against another school. Thus I didn't earn a letter, alone among the 57 kids on the team in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades. I remember wondering why they couldn't cut me a break—I was on the team, right? I had done my best all year. I had stuck it out. That sweater would have meant a lot to me. But I understood, rules are rules. 
     It's sort of a woebegone story, which is why I haven't told it before. I don't like painting myself as a victim. And it's a minor exclusion, compared to the larger injustices and tragedies of life. Compared to actual sorrows, it's nothing.
     But like all people, I don't compare my personal sadnesses against the weight of all human sadness, don't measure my life against the full spectrum of all lives. It was significant to me.
    Nor was it the only time I felt cut out. I hate to list them all. But since the subject was raised, and not by me, maybe it's overdue, in a society where slights and sufferings have become a strange sort of currency, chits we flash to show how ... well, disadvantaged we are. Because that makes us somehow worthy, somehow better, almost morally pure, in our own eyes at least. 
     Not that all of them add up to being disadvantaged. But they do show that my colleague's imagination—he's a white guy, he's sitting pretty in the white guy club—is out of kilter with reality, with my reality as I experienced it. Everyone is privileged, compared to someone else, and maybe one reason why the speakers at Pomona College were so insistent about trotting out their bona fides of disadvantage was to obscure, to themselves if no one else, that they might have had humble beginnings, but they're making up for it now, and have ascended into the elite. Most Americans still don't go to college at all. Most people in the world live in poverty, or nearly. Their parents might have struggled, but they went to school in the heaven-like town of Claremont, California. They're now the advantaged, holders of privilege, whether they like it or not, and no amount of blowing kisses at the kitchen staff will change that. Slagging others based on your own assumed superiority is sort of what the privileged do, and if that assault is based on your ancestors coming over on the Mayflower or on their wading the Rio Grande is only a matter of personal style.
      We all have our privileges, and our exclusions, and they seem very tangible to ourselves. I was not only fat, but the sole Jew in my elementary school—being Jewish isn't considered a minority anymore, I suppose because many Jews do well. Like Asians, we've succeeded so much we've voided our minority status card. Maybe so. But that doesn't mean being Jewish doesn't put you on the outside of Christian society, squirming while the rest of the class sings their carols and goes to their church camps. People still fucking hate us, and part of that hate is pretending all Jews are bankers and movie makers and George Soros, basking in privilege. All the obstacles of being a minority and none of the contact cool. Or so it can seem.  One reason my upbringing was so solitary is because half of my extended family was back in Poland, buried in a pit. If that isn't a disadvantage, what is?
    I don't see the utility into making your struggles into a kind of reality show competition. Maybe it's just the human joy of running down the lives of others, sight unseen, in using your story, whatever it is, to bludgeon those you resent for the easy path you assume they enjoyed. I'm not looking for sympathy. Instead, I'm asking: why does your struggle need to trump mine? What is the point of you finding your voice if the first thing you say is that others are somehow no good because they didn't climb the mountain you climbed? How do you know your path is steeper than mine? Why do we have to be in competition at all? That's the part I don't understand. So you can come out ahead? Okay, I tap out and yield; you come out ahead. You win, pinning me in the suffering competition. Now what?
    Once we're done comparing hardships, we need to seek commonalities. We must tire of bickering and find ways we are similar, rather than highlighting differences. That's what bugged me about the Pomona graduation. I did not, as some leaped to assume, resent the hoopla over these various ethnicities and groups. Good for them. I applauded. But what bothered me was the consistent shattering of the student body into its component pieces in order to show off each sparkly shard, without ever making the slightest effort to gather the fragments back up and show how they  might fit together into a cohesive whole, into something that everyone can be a part of. Because I believe they all fit together, somehow. They have to. 



  1. It has never been said better, and it needed to be said. To everyone. Somehow we need to find how we fit together to coexist.

  2. I guess I'm confused but I thought that your problem wasn't that you weren't invited to some of the other graduation ceremonies as your colleague insists. But that you felt disrespected at the ones you were invited to. If that was indeed your point her entire response takes on a strawman argument quality.

    1. Yeah, that's sort of daft too. Saying maybe we should have crashed the black graduation was a wry comment on how tedious the class day dinner was, not a serious yearning for invitation. That's the thing with identity politics -- it takes you out of the nuanced world and into some blindered realm of rigorous misunderstanding.

    2. Identity politics. Tribalism. Isolationism. A nice cozy, cloistered life. Liberals and conservatives alike are guilty of putting up walls. Forward thinking progressives and backsliding nationlists are both guilty of seperatism. Our universities aren't helping matters if they're promoting division. Focus on the common good, and the pieces will begin to fit together.

  3. It seems to me that one of the differences between the experience you recount here and that of your colleague and the other diverse students at her graduation is that this was one area in which you may have felt marginalized, but it was because of your actual ability relative to other competitors, rather than your belonging to an ethnic group. Whereas she, and your son's classmates, have gone through years of being denied opportunities, and sometimes basic respect, because of their background/appearance, not from being judged on their own merits in an arena they voluntarily entered.

    1. This.

      And the celebration is separate so they don't have to face those known prejudices on a day of celebration. Not every student chooses that option, but it's understandable why the option exists.

  4. A fascinating, if somewhat confusing, discussion. Reflective to me of how the world has changed since my youth.

    That the discussion is happening the same weekend the British Royals chose to enrich their Germanic blood line with a bit of Black offers a touch of cognitive dissonance. And I though it wonderfully weird that the Black Anglican Bishop who, for some, stole the show, ended his peroration by summoning the memory of a famous, if controversial, Jesuit.


    1. Not all the Royals were happy about the touch of black.
      Elizabeth and Philip were not amused, and their faces showed it when the choir sang "Stand By Me"...I thought that musical choice was pretty cool. The younger folks are asserting themselves.

      One has to wonder what the Queen was thinking upon seeing her grandson marry a divorced black commoner. She had to be thinking back eighty-some years, to when she was ten. She was definitely old enough to be aware of the huge stink that ensued when her uncle, who had taken the name Edward VIII, was forced off the throne and replaced by her own father, George VI, all because he had to choose between remaining king or marrying the love of his life, a divorced commoner. Times have certainly changed, and it's obvious that the family has changed along with them, even if the present monarch may not have. But her time is short, and whether she lives long enough to see them or not, more changes are certainly coming.

    2. Grizz, you are making a lot of assumptions about whether Elizabeth and Phillip were amused, based on your interpetation of the 90-year-old countenances.

  5. I'm assuming that grimaces and flinching while a choir is singing convey displeasure, no matter the age of the listener. Played the video back three times. Those were not happy faces.

  6. I applaud your trying to do something at such a young age about your weight, inactivity and feeling of exclusion. It may seem insignificant to adults and even to youngsters who never faced a similar situation, but it can be traumatic to teens going through it. At that age it is everything to be accepted by your peers, to fit in, to not be an object of ridicule (at least in their minds). Some teens have commit suicide over less and those who scoff and who have the nerve to diminish what you suffered as a teen are not worthy of your explanation. They don’t get it and never will.


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