Tuesday, September 11, 2018

White males up the ying yang

     People occasionally ask me to do stuff. Speeches, panels, appearances. Monday I was invited to judge a Halloween dog costume contest. For the second year. Of course I said yes.
     It doesn't happen a lot. I don't want to pretend I'm Malcolm Gladwell. From time to time, people ask. 
     And I try to comply, because it keeps me busy, gets me out of the house, and I suppose huffs a little air on my little flickering ember of local quasi-celebrity. Heck, sometimes they even pay me.
     Monday, besides the spooky pooch parade, someone who had asked me to appear at ... well, it seems some kind of story-telling evening related to a certain community. I don't think I'll say specifically which.  Draw the veil a little. The event takes place once a month at a North Side bar.
      Anyway, last December, this reader asks me to show up the next day to appear at the event. And I say, "Yeah, that's kinda short notice. Ask me another time."  
     Monday up he pops again, messaging on Facebook. The event is set for Nov. 6. Am I in? At first I think yes, sure, I'll show at up at your event. Then I look at the calendar. Nov. 6 is Election Day. Apt to be a busy time at the paper, not the evening I want to be sitting on a stool in a small club blinking into a spotlight. 
     I tell him we'll have to kick the can down the road again.
   "Pick a month to hold a slot," he urges. "There are a lot of white males wanting to tell stories to our audience. At one point I had white males booked for a year plus a wait list."
      I look at this remark and weigh my reaction. You're allowed to think about what you say before responding; too many people forget that. 
     What would YOU say?
     Should I point out the guy writing this to me is white? 
     He'd kinda have to be, wouldn't he?
     I decide to go the low-key route.
     "Hmmm, put that way ... " I write. "If there's a glut, I can graciously yield the field."
     Okay, he replies.
     That might have been the end. But his remark simmered. Low-key is not my style.
     "I mean, I'm not corking up for it," I add. An obscure reference. Burnt cork. Like Al Jolson. Meaning: I'm not going to pretend to be black to do your event. I'm goading him, seeing how he reacts. Too many white guys indeed. We have to ration them.
     He doesn't reply to that. Maybe he doesn't get it. Instead, he again tries to nail me down for a future date. He wants a commitment. 
     I think some more.
     "I'll be honest, I find being put in the slurry of generic white people a little off-putting," I write. "If I said I had a lot of..." and here I plug in his particular group "angling for my attention, you'd feel ill-used. I understand white privilege, but at some point it becomes just another way to undercut somebody different from yourself. I was born white, I'm stuck with it."
     We went back and forth a bit. He did apologize if he offended me, and I said, no, not offended so much as surprised. We parted civilly, on good terms, which doesn't always happen.  A nice guy, trying to ensure a diverse group of presenters, albeit awkwardly. His goal was laudable: a diverse evening. Just not too heavy on the pale end of the spectrum. He wants me, but not too many guys like me, not all at once, since we can be overwhelming. Got it. 
     And yet. Maybe it's residual bitterness on my part from being designated the paper's poster boy for White Privilege. Maybe I have a little trouble seeing quotas as a positive sign of confidence from formerly-oppressed groups. Maybe this is fall-out from having an unapologetic bigot as president. "I can't do anything about Donald Trump, but I sure can do a whipsong on you." But I'm seeing more what I consider White People Suck messages. Which certainly has basis in the realm of historical fact regarding societies as a whole, while still being unfair applied to specific individuals, such as me. There's the issue of the group versus the individual. History notwithstanding, I'm just not ready to allow myself to be draped with the mantle of pale suckiness. An innocent black shopper feels rightly outraged if a store clerk follows him around the store, based on his own racial fears and pre-conceptions: why should I accept the blame for what other white people who are not me did or are doing?
     If I want to hire a guy to paint my house, and you show up with your white face, and I say, "You know, I really wanted to give the job to an erstwhile disadvantaged minority: got any friends of color?" that could be seen as a noble attempt to right historic inequalities. But from your point of view, from the perspective of a disappointed house painter trying to get work, you lost a gig through no fault of your own. And I would be acting in a prejudiced fashion, by punishing an individual for the supposed flaws of his identity group. 
     I don't want to make too much of this. Fox News sorts are already writhing on the ground, crying about white genocide and whatever. That's not what I'm saying here. Maybe this is just one guy extending an invitation in a ham-handed fashion, forgetting that lumping together anyone's race, even a notorious race with a catalogue of horrors as long as the white race's, is not a winning strategy to get a busy guy to give up an evening to entertain his bar full of friends. I may be a white person, but that's not all I am.


  1. Wow.
    I will start referring to you as Fearless Neil.
    I am going to hafta watch the comments here and on Facebook for the next few days to be entertained by the "offended".

  2. How many people these days would immediately associate "corking up" with blackface? I love obscure references - when I get them or when I make them - but they are poorly-suited to discussing delicate subjects like racial injustice.

    1. In the early 60's we used burnt cork to simulate dirt or a bums 5 o'clock shadow for Halloween costumes.

  3. thanks for sharing a thought I've wrestled with for a long time. well framed. if I could id like to say when the opportunity to choose between hiring presents itself if two contractors present the same price for the same work if we choose the pale skin over the dark every time thats questionable but whatever, if you have two contractors and the dark skinned person quotes a lower price and you hire the white guy all else being equal thats likely racism. just saying. we are all in that slurry. I am trying to rise above it. its hard maybe not possible.

  4. Thanks, Neil. In the end we're all individuals, each as complex as the next. Taking any action solely on the basis of someone else's immutable characteristics is not fair to either party.

  5. "....draped with the mantle of pale suckiness". You're the best, Neil.

  6. "I'm just not ready to allow myself to be draped with the mantle of pale suckiness." I'm not sure if that's a fair assessment of your would-be host's remark. Clearly he welcomes white men and their stories, he just doesn't want them to be the prevailing voices in the room, given that they are outside of it.

    That said, if I was in his position, I certainly wouldn't have phrased it as he did. He could have simply said that dates book up quickly.

  7. How many late night talk show hosts have been white males? How many news anchors? How many Governors and Senators? Do you think they were all "better" than the women, or people of color? Or maybe they had an unfair advantage? Would it maybe be okay if you let other people have a turn? I 100% get that it's not your "fault" and it's not "fair". It wasn't their "fault" either. Your painter analogy is apt - you know there are folks that will turn away painters, etc if they aren't white. In 2018. Last summer white supremacists marched and killed a woman in Virginia. White supremacists. In 2017. The President called the white supremacists "very fine people". He calls black NFL players that protest police killing unarmed black folks "sons of bitches". But please do go on about how you have to wait to tell your story, and how frustrating that must be.

    1. Thanks for the current events lesson, Ed. Your last sentence shows that you aren't responding to what I said—I'm not complaining about having to wait to speak at the fucking bar—but to the baggage stacked up in your head.

    2. Ed's off the mark for sure but not that far. The baggage we white folk have relatively recently been "burdened" with having to carry around in our head should IMO not be casually discarded by a willingness to acknowledge that there are others who have been wronged , but it wasn't me who did it. Thus I am blameless and should not get mixed into the slurry. We have all benefited because of our skin complexion and gender. And we continue to. And others are kept from opportunity because of theirs and because of actions that WE continue to engage in. I believe that these are true facts.
      The man with the nightclub is trying to alter that trajectory and it seems you felt weirdly harmed by that. Not by the inconvenience of trying to land in a slot that you hadn't even sought. But because those slots were being Limited for people like us who were seeking them. it sounds like you just don't feel like you belong in the slurry.
      I don't know I could miss understand the entire matter?
      POC and women have experienced this type of circumstance without the proprietor coming right out and saying it up front" hey we've got plenty of people like you around and we're trying to intentionally limit the number we include".
      I wish people would see that we're all responsible still and that imagining that we're not is a misconception.


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