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Posts Tagged ‘where they do that at?’

NPR’s podcast, Invisibilia, just ran a piece about Max Hawkins, “a kind of unassuming white guy.” Maybe you know Max because he arrived, uninvited, at your Passover seder, or the sushi-making party you threw last year. Because that’s his thing: using technology to find and show up at private events.

And—surprise!—strangers welcome him gladly! Relationships are formed, and good times are had by all!

The piece is skewed to read as wacky, charming, renewing-your-faith-in-the-basic-goodness-of-your-fellow-citydwellers. All that. Definitely played for sweetness: young man realizes he lives in a bubble and uses tech to try new things and meet people he wouldn’t have otherwise met. You can listen to it on the NPR site. It’s a great story.

And it enrages me.

For real. On so many levels: as a woman, as a Black person, as a private citizen who doesn’t have a lot of love for colonizers and gate crashers. This story reeks of privilege, and NPR’s inability or unwillingness to call that out in a real way is frustrating in the extreme. There is a half-second nod to Hawkins’ privilege. But that’s it. The idea is almost acknowledged, and we’re told that Hawkins acknowledges it, too … and then we move right back to the smiley, feel-goodness of this zany tale.

But it’s not that simple. In 2017, in MAGA America, it cannot be that simple.

In the past, you could do an interview like this and never have to include even token acknowledgement of the power of whiteness. Why would you? It was expected that stories would be told from the point of view of white folk, quite often from the vantage point of white men. The white person’s point of view was, simply, the “norm,” and the rest of us were welcome to fit ourselves in around the margins if we could, but we were expected to accept our exclusion and erasure and keep quiet. Inclusion? Not possible.

Also impossible? The idea that anyone else’s feelings or interests or privacy need be respected. The white people are having fun, and that was the only point. Never mind if their “fun” disturbed or damaged someone else, one of those nameless “other” people who count so very much less.

This story is presented as funny and clever, something we should all try because surely all of us could benefit from stepping out of our comfort zones and meeting new people. Really? How well would that work for me as a woman alone to go present myself at the homes of strangers? How well would it work of for me as a Black person? How well would it work for a Black man?

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how unnecessary any of this is. In a city like San Francisco, there are plenty of public events that could have helped Max break free of his homogenous bubble. There are gallery openings, readings, performance art installations, open houses. He could volunteer with an organization working in a neighborhood he’s curious about but never visited. He could join his community board and meet some of the old-timey residents who have yet to be priced out by his gentrifying butt. Why am I supposed to think it’s okay for him to insert himself in other people’s lives because his own life feels boring or stuck in a rut?

As I said, the story does take a quick glance over the wall at privilege: “as a kind of unassuming white guy, [Max] actually didn’t [have to worry about people not responding positively.] (And Max acknowledges this privilege.)” Oh. Okay, then. Max acknowledges his privilege. Carry on.

This hat tip to white male privilege isn’t enough. No points for that little wink and nod. What privilege is it that Max is aware of? We have no idea because we’re just given that pat on the head, no actual information. No, sorry. NPR and Invisibilia, you have failed. You need to take that further. In the case of this profile of Max, a lot of my anger would have melted away if the reporter creating this story had stepped away from the cutesy narrative and said plainly:

Max was able to get away with his shenanigans because he is a young white man who is not aggressively muscular and looks goofily non-threatening. Given the realities of our current society’s entrenchment in rape culture, this kind of reliance on the kindness of strangers isn’t recommended for women. Given our adherence to the belief that all Black bodies are dangerous and criminal and in need of neutralization, showing up at strangers’ doors and demanding entrance to their parties is discouraged for Black folks … well, hell, for all people of color.

But my anger runs along another path as well. Yes, the white male privilege of Max being able to feel safe and comfortable putting himself in places he doesn’t belong would be enough to piss me right off. But there’s more. There’s the raging sense of entitlement that allows Max to decide he has the right to show up at strangers’ homes, at strangers’ private events. That entitlement allows him to made decisions about other people’s lives, allows him to decide that whatever he sees that he wants, he can have. And that is just the whitest thing in the world.

It’s easy for me to believe Max Hawkins is a nice guy. Look at his almost cartoonishly goofy face:

He really looks like a nice guy. That’s not the point, however. Nice people do shitty things all the time. Nice people take full, comfortable advantage of their privilege all the time. They may even, like Max, acknowledge that they have privilege. But when Invisiblia reports on all of that without acknowledging any of it, that’s the problem, that’s what sparks my rage.

Back in December, Storycorps raised hackles by framing an awful story as a heartwarming one, just in time for the holidays … and then refused to take full responsibility for their crap when listeners and readers called them out.

Now it’s Invisibilia’s turn. There is no excuse for presenting a story like this without context, without explicit acknowledgement of the ways in which Max’s life-randomizing hijinks are also dangerous, intrusive, and dripping with privilege.

Is it fair for me to expect more from Invisibilia, from NPR? I say yes. The Washington Post’s new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” tells me that the paper must be held to an even higher level of accountability for its journalism, for its honesty, for its calling out of wrongs and lies. Not that it shouldn’t be held to high standards simply because it’s a major national newspaper. But when you slap that kind of high and mighty line on yourself, you are asking to be put under a more exacting microscope. I mean, Fox News was terrible for years, but when they started describing themselves as “fair and balanced,” that was clearly a call for pointing out every instance of their utter lack of fairness or balance.

NPR presents itself as the news organization that goes beneath the surface, that takes more time with its stories, digs deep for the hidden bits that are crucial to understanding, to informed, critical thinking. That standard of reporting has to apply to all of the reporting. That standard of reporting has to be followed even when a reporter is faced with “a kind of unassuming white guy” who’s doing some madcap thing that seems the perfect idea for a fluff piece. You sell your wares based on the promise of critical analysis. Throwing the words, “And Max acknowledges this privilege” at me is laziness. It’s telling me, “Look, we know there’s more here, some deep mess that needs dissecting, but we’re not in the mood. We like this guy and don’t feel like examining the seamy underbelly of his privilege, don’t want to make him feel bad about this adorably crazy thing he’s done.”

That laziness is bad journalism. There are people who don’t understand what privilege is or how it works, who don’t know how to spot it, who can’t see that it’s lurking in harmless spaces like Max’s decision to amp up the interesting-quotient in his life. It’s up to quality, responsible journalism to point that out.

The decision to ignore the negative aspect of Max’s story is bad for Max, too. As I said, it’s easy to believe Max is a nice guy. He probably means well and didn’t set out to harm anyone. The I-can’t-fully-open-my-eyes, nerdboy look of him makes that easier to believe. He’s a nice guy. By not calling his attention to what he’s doing, by not picking apart his “awareness” of his privilege, he gets to continue running headlong down his slippery slope.

Max’s slope? Monetizing his behavior and taking it public. He is developing a “suite of randomization apps.” Of course he is. Because what he’s done is so fun and clever, and of course lots of other people should do the same.

He hopes to introduce [the apps] for public use in the coming months. He has also created a Facebook group that encourages people to attend strangers’ publicly listed events and offers tips and tricks for doing so.

(I’m not even going to list all the ways I’ve already imagined for this to go horribly wrong, all the folks with ill intent who could take full and painful advantage of Max’s apps. No, we’ll just pretend he’s done something fun and clever and of course lots of other people should do the same.)

When we don’t push people to think about the problematic things they’re doing, they will keep doing them. And, in some cases, they will expand them, and make money from them, and get other people to start doing them, too. Swell.

Being a nice guy shouldn’t give you a pass when you’re doing something wrong. By finding Max clever and off-beat, NPR lost sight of the work it’s supposed to be doing, the quality journalism we’ve been led to expect.

I expect my purveyors of quality news to be aware of the larger world, even in a puff piece about a bored hipster who’s created an app for that.



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind. I committed to writing an essay a week … but fell behind behind pretty quickly. I’m determined to catch up, committed to 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

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I have posted a few paeans to my block. I love where I live and the apartment I live in. I love my neighborhood. This is the first place I’ve felt at home in many, many years. Because a post earlier this week tracked my path from my mother’s home to this one, I was remembering my experience of finding this apartment … and that got me thinking about David.  While it’s true that I loved this apartment the moment I saw it, it’s also true that it wasn’t the only really nice place I looked at in Crown Heights.

I saw another apartment first, a big two-bedroom with great light that cost about $300 less a month than where I live now. Why don’t I live there? Part of the reason is that this lovely block and the surrounding blocks felt better to me than that other apartment’s immediate neighborhood … but mostly the answer is David.

David is the man who showed me the apartment, the man who did double duty as realtor and building manager, the man with whom I would have had to interact on something like a regular basis if I lived in that apartment. David failed “The Test.”

I saw David’s apartment on Craigslist and called to learn more. David was pleasant. Gave me lots of information about the place, happily set up a time for me to see it. So I took off on a super-cold, “wintery mix” kind of day … only to find that David had given me lousy directions, had told me to get off at a subway stop four long stops too soon for his apartment, had told me to walk the wrong direction once I came up from the subway. I kept calling him to figure out what was going on, to find out where I was supposed to be. He finally admitted that he was a driver and wasn’t sure of the directions. (Seriously. Where they do that at?)

So I finally got directions from someone who actually knew what they were talking about and got myself turned around. On my way to the building from the train, I called David one last time to let him know I was almost there.  He said he was right outside the building entrance, keeping warm in his car. I got to the building and looked around. There was a man parked right in front of the building, sitting in his car. He wasn’t stepping out and announcing himself as David, but he was the only guy anywhere near the building, so I walked up to the window. He made a half-glance at me then quickly looked away. He turned his body slightly toward the passenger side of the car, clearly bent on not acknowledging or interacting with me. I knocked on the window and he turned an angry face to me.

“What do you want?” This comes muffled, through the glass because he hasn’t put his window down even the tiniest bit.

“Are you David? It’s me, Stacie.”

“Stacie who was just on the phone?”

No, some totally random other Stacie who just happens to be showing up outside your building knowing your name, you jackass. Yes, that Stacie.”

He still didn’t leave the car.  He opened his window … I finally got that “tiniest bit open” I’d been expecting from the start. He put down his window seemingly to get a better look at me.

“Stacie who called about the ad?”

“Look, it’s cold out here.  Are you going to show me the apartment or not?”

“You’re the one who just called.”

“Yes, you completely hideously annoying man.

You know the big, you’re-a-loser “X” that flashes on Family Feud? Imagine that coming into play now, except in this quiz, you only get the one strike. It’s all I need to count you out. David had completely and utterly failed The Test. He heard my voice on the phone and thought he knew who would be coming to see his apartment. I showed up, and he needed to process that he had been talking all that time to a Black person without realizing it.

And up to that point, I’m not angry with him. People regularly assume I am a white person when they hear me but don’t see me. And I can be fine with that, depending on where you go once you realize that I am, in fact, a Black person, once you know that I’m the person who comes with the voice you profiled. The fact that David couldn’t manage to process the reality of me — or at least take himself through his slow and painful process in some way that was vaguely graceful and not so obvious — is where he went off course.

Yeah, the fact that processing reality ended in him being quite clearly displeased to discover my Blackness makes that big, you’re-a-loser “X” glow in a hot, red neon.

(Of course, it’s my fault, you understand. His displeasure. It’s my fault. I should have warned him. Should have said, within seconds of greeting him on the phone, “I, as a Black woman, would like to see the apartment you’re renting on Union Street.” See how simple that is, how completely normal and like actual human conversation?)

I still wanted to see the apartment.  I knew I didn’t want David to be my landlord, but I’d come all that way, through the wintry mix and everything. I wanted to see the apartment. And it was as nice as it sounded online: big rooms, lots of sunlight, new fixtures in the bathroom and kitchen. Lots of closets. A large entrance hall (with a coat closet!). I think there was even a laundry room in the basement. Lovely. Too bad I wasn’t going to live there.

I decided to waste a little of David’s time and asked him to tell me about the neighborhood, asked him who lived in the area. He gave me an informative description of the Orthodox Jewish community … and stopped. Please remember that we’re in Crown Heights. Yes, there is a large Orthodox Jewish community here. But they are not the only folks this neighborhood is known for. There’s a reason the Caribbean Day Parade is held over here, after all. But he talked about the Hasidim and stopped.

“Ok. So that’s the whole population?”

“No, no, there are other people.”

“Oh, ok, great. Who else?”

“…”

Please know that here he could, really, have said anything. He could have told me there’s a large Caribbean community, could have said something straight to the point like, “Oh, a lot of black people,” or something a little more “cute” like, “Oh, a lot of people who look like you.” He couldn’t do it. He just stared at me for a minute then looked away and hemmed and hawed for another couple of minutes.

“Oh, you know … oh, there are … oh, a lot of … you know … neighborhood people.” (his emphasis)

Neighborhood people? Neighborhood people?

Oh, I could have played with him a little longer, asked him to explain what that meant. But he’d already failed the test, forcing him to add glitter and blue flame to his “X” was pointless.

Neighborhood people.

What, really, could be his problem? (Not an actual question.)

Let’s play compare and contrast. The morning after seeing that beautiful apartment, I rode back over to Crown Heights to see the place in which I am sitting to write this. I had been on the phone with the woman who would be one of my landlords. She had given me directions and asked if I knew anything about the neighborhood. We’d chatted a little and then scheduled my visit. I followed her clear, accurate directions and walked down the block toward the house. As I got closer, I saw a couple standing half on the sidewalk and half in the driveway of a house. A woman, a man, two small girls. I figured they were who I’d come to meet. As I walked up, the woman smiled and said, “Stacie? Hi, I’m L____.”

See how easy that was? It’s pretty much 100% likely that Leah (we’ll call her “Leah.” I’ve always disliked those “L____”s) made an assumption about who I was going to be when she talked to me on the phone. When I walked up and turned out to be me instead of who she imagined, she said hello and kept it moving. Like. a. normal. person. would. Like a not-racist person would. Yeah, of course I went there. That was the only “where” we were every going to go.

I’d have saved some money renting from David. I’d have had to pay for basic utilities, plus heat and laundry at his place, so the $300 difference in rent would really have been more like $100, but that would still have been more cash in my pocket. But no. That place wasn’t an option. I was never going to live in David’s building, and that was clear as soon as he didn’t greet me outside the building, as soon as he couldn’t wrap his small, racist mind around the fact that I was me and not whatever version of a white woman he’d had in mind when he’d talked to me on the phone. I had no intention of saddling myself with David, of having to do regular business with a man who didn’t trust me based on nothing but what I look like, a man who acted as if he was afraid to be alone in the apartment with me the whole time I was looking at the place, a man who turned his back when I walked up to his car so that he wouldn’t have to interact with me. No. So much wiser to rent from a family for whom my Blackness wasn’t cause for alarm.

There are plenty of things that make this apartment the better option: the back yard, my own washer and dryer, space in the basement to store my too-much-stuff and set up my sewing table, a full-on pantry closet in the kitchen … and just the general feeling of coming home that settled into me the moment I set foot in the door.

Leah and her family passing The Test wasn’t the only reason I wanted to live here, but it was one of the important reasons. The fact that they have turned out to be nice, intelligent people who I like talking to and knowing is an excellent bonus. Getting to watch their kids grow up, getting to sometimes hang out with their dogs … bonus, bonus.

I joke about David’s inability to name Black people. Mopsy and I talk about “neighborhood neighborhoods” sometimes, or whether or not there’s a good mix of neighborhood people at an event. It’s silly, and we sound silly saying it, and that’s why I like it. But David? Nope, not getting any love from me.

I save my love for Crown Heights. I’m super happy to have wound up in this neighborhood neighborhood. ❤



It’s hard to believe that the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge is almost over!
How does March go by so fast!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

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