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Posts Tagged ‘white privilege’

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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Last night was the Big Words reading … which means that I went out at lunch yesterday and wrote something to read. Seriously. I couldn’t think of how to approach what I wanted to write, couldn’t think of how to talk about all my talking and thinking about schadenfreude and the realization that I couldn’t sustain the feeling for more than a moment. The pressure of being only a few hours away from a reading can be powerful, however. So — while enjoying some truly yummy broccoli and edamame soup — I wrote this:

Schaden-Fraud

I tend to be a Weltschmerz girl at heart. Weltschmerz, to my mind, is the emotional opposite of the “damaged pleasure” that is schadenfreude. Instead of pleasure in another’s misfortune, us schmerz-y folks feel more pain. To be exact, we are made sad when we see the reality of world awfulness in comparison to the kinder, gentler world we hold as an ideal.

But then there was February 11th at Malheur, the end of the armed take-over of that wildlife refuge, and I was hit by a twinge of … of … what was that almost giddy sensation? Ah. Schadenfreude. There it was, salty-sweet and satiating.

As plenty of folks did, I followed the story of the armed white terrorists who rode into Burns, Oregon and took over the federal site. The Bundy brothers and their followers generated in me a choking anger with their wanton display of white privilege. Because that was what we were watching: a bunch of self-important white folks big-bellying around, secure in the knowledge that their whiteness would allow them to do just about whatever damn thing they wanted — hold press conferences, make demands, use revered Native land for latrines. White privilege. Text-book example. As I posted on Facebook early in their 41-day incursion: “Tell me a group of armed Black militants would have been allowed two weeks to hang out after occupying anything — a federal wildlife refuge, a 7-11, a community garden, a home of their own on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia.”

Black and brown folks, armed with grief and righteous indignation get called terrorists when they protest the killing of an unarmed child, but the Bundy Klan — yes, with a “K” — are called “patriots,” are called a “militia.” Law enforcement meets with them to negotiate, announces the determination to get everyone home without firing a shot. While police officers take less than three seconds to assess Tamir Rice’s threat level before gunning down that baby as he played in a neighborhood park.

A choking anger. A vise grip of fury, despair, and disgust closing around my throat.

I have no interest in being an armed militant. I would, however, like to be able to feel at ease walking in the street when there are police officers around.

But let us get us back to the big word, back to schadenfreude. For all the brave talk and bluster, I was interested — though not at all surprised — to see how quickly Ammon Bundy told his followers to give up and go home once there was some gunfire. These people had proclaimed their willingness to fight, to die for their right … to land that hadn’t ever been theirs, in a place where none of them lived and no residents had invited them or their guns and attitude.

They were so ready to fight … as long as all they had to do was talk about fighting. The moment some actual fighting started, all they wanted was to strike their tents and get home. Instead, they were met with arrest. And when Papa Bundy jetted in, thinking he had something of value to offer, the authorities grabbed up his entitled ass and threw him in jail, too.

And there it was: schadenfreude. The powerful desire to poke at the Malheur insurgents through their jail cell bars and laugh in their faces, to ask: “How’s that privilege working for you now?”

But that’s as long as my dip into schadenfreude lasts. Because before I can even fully imagine myself asking my snarky question, reality pokes me. Because what’s actually true is that their privilege is working perfectly well, and will continue to.

Forty-one days they vacationed at Malheur, lived on land to which they had neither claim nor connection. In Harris Neck, Georgia, unarmed descendants of enslaved Africans moved to take back land the government had deeded to their ancestors. Three days later, they were forcibly removed, dragged to waiting vans and arrested. Three days. No peaceful negotiations, no elevated titles like “patriot.” The Harris Neck claimants were denounced as “squatters.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrested on his front porch. Ramarley Graham shot to death in his bathroom. Aiyana Stanley-Jones shot to death as she slept on the sofa in her living room.

I had a moment’s flirtation with schadenfreude, but that pendulum took a painfully short swing before sending me careering back to Weltschmerz. The Bundys and their crew might pay some small price for their violence-mongering. Will their actions change anything, wake this country up to the threat represented by armed, angry, selfish, and self-important white people who place themselves above the law? I won’t hold my breath. But if that could happen, maybe I’d be able to enjoy more than a nanosecond of the tamarind candy of schadenfreude.


It’s the Slice of Life Story Challenge! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

SOL image 2014

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