Bedtime for Becky

(This is something I wrote early in February and then decided not to post. I was okay with my decision not to post. The moment for this commentary had passed, I had moved on to other things. Then this afternoon I was on the 4 train headed downtown and overheard a group of older white women saying some problematic things, and I decided to pull this piece out of my “dead drafts” pile and go ahead and post it. Also, I say “older” white women, but I, of course, have no idea what I’m talking about. I guessed them to be 60s and up, but they could have been closer to my almost-60 age. I’m posting it as-is, as it was when I wrote it: unfinished and chock full of disgust.)

So Monday, or as I like to call it: Old White Women Show Their Whole Asses Day. Yeah. First Barbara Ehrenreich, followed in quick-step succession by Katha Pollitt and Elaine Showalter. All of them coming out from behind the screens of their feminist, social justice respectability, flinging off their filmy veils and revealing their bright, shiny racism in all its bare-assed fabulousness.

Thank you all.

I’ll start by saying that no one is required to love Marie Kondo, or even like her. You’re certainly not obligated to read her book or watch her Netflix show or tidy your home. If nothing about her or her work sparks joy for you, that’s perfectly alright. Your life will continue apace, and so will Ms. Kondo’s.

But here’s what you are required to do. You are required to resist sinking into the pillow-soft comfort of your deeply-seated racism and colonizing xenophobia. No one needs to see or hear that mess. Punto. You don’t like Marie Kondo. Fine. If you don’t have reasons to dislike her other than 1) her foreign-ness, 2) her audacity to speak her own language, or 3) her physical appearance matching some old stereotypes you have about Asian women … than keep your thoughts to yourself.

And if you choose to show us your racism, don’t try a) to delete your ugliness without comment and b) replace it with further ugliness and then c) not respond to any of the much-deserved criticism you receive but instead d) try to reposition your ugliness and claim it was meant to express something else entirely and then e) tell everyone who isn’t buying your dainty pile of bullshit that they clearly can’t take a joke.

Oh look, Barbara: you did every one of the “don’ts.” Score!

Pollitt and Showalter had nothing to add to the xenophobia, but they slid so easily into exoticizing Kondo, describing her in just about every infantilizing, diminishing stereotype of Asian women.

I’m not surprised that criticism of Kondo fell so quickly into racism. How could it not have, given the steaming dung heap that is our white supremacist society? I’m not surprised, and still Ehrenreich, Pollitt, and Showalter surprised me.

And that’s my fault. I was surprised because I’d let myself be lulled into a false sense of safety, let myself be fooled into thinking their feminism had any room for women of color.

Every time I think I’ve girded myself against the scourge of White Feminism, I find myself pulled back in … and disappointed as thoroughly and painfully as every time before.

Now, for everyone fixing their mouths to tell me that Marie Kondo is, in fact, pretty and little, and pixie-like, and what the hell is wrong with anyone saying what is quite obviously just a statement of truth? Your “words have meanings” argument doesn’t go far enough. You’re absolutely right that words have meanings … but they also have history and context and carry the weight of their use to perpetuate oppression and othering and dehumanization. And you don’t get to have the meaning without the history and context.

If you wanted to describe me — a tall, fat, Black woman — as a pretty little pixie, there would be no backstory of stereotyping you’d be tapping into. Even the tiniest and most fairy-like of Black women haven’t been typecast in this way, which is precisely why it would probably never occur to you to use those descriptors for me. Describing me as a pixie might even make you sound interesting, turning all the pixie images on their heads. (Yes, I think I will assume this descriptor from this point forward, brand my self as “PixieGriot” instead of GirlGriot. Absolutely.)

So you could mess with people’s heads by calling me a pretty little pixie. But to attach those words to Marie Kondo when the fairy-like, submissive, pocket-sized Asian woman has been a stereotype for as long as there have been white people aware of Asian people … well, that’s not edgy and interesting. It’s just problematic. And, just as we don’t believe any of these jackasses currently in the news saying they didn’t know blackface was racist (looking at you, too, Gucci … you and your blackface mugger clothing), we absolutely don’t believe you when you say you didn’t know there were stereotypes about Asian women that your tweets were mirroring perfectly.

When I talk about white people needing to come get their people, this is one of the kinds of messes I mean. (Don’t think I don’t want you to come collect the assholes in blackface. You know better than that.) I expect white allies to come, gather these women and sit them the hell down. I expect allies to help these women a) shut the fuck up, b) understand and acknowledge why the things they posted were problematic, c) craft and post a real apology, one that doesn’t shift blame or pretend it was all a stupid misunderstanding.

This is easy allyship, but so important. The amount of time POC have to spend dealing with this kind of crap is ridiculous. Hearing or seeing these kinds of ass-out comments takes an emotional toll on us, too. If white folks stepped up and did the work with their fellow white folks, we could avoid all the stürm und drang these moments gin up.

We — people of color — are exhausted from this shit. Completely and utterly exhausted. Because it never stops coming at us. Ehrenreich, Pollitt, Showalter, and Neeson get attention because they’re high-profile, because they had audiences before their big racism reveals. For POC, it never stops. We don’t just get the scandal-mag headlines when a famous person steps into the spotlight. We get the daily slaps in the face from the myriad non-famous people around us.

I cannot help but think there’s no way any of this is news to white people. And yet, every time one of these signal posts of hate flashes on, there are white folks who are expressing shock, who throw up their hands and exclaim about what year we’re in and how can this be happening.

Yeah. Here we are. It’s 2019. And white folks — young, old, men, women — all out here showing their whole asses. And the hand-wringing and exclamations of shock only serve to tell me how much “good” white people don’t stay focused on this work because they don’t have to, how easy it has been for these good people to move on or not notice at all because none of these thousand cuts touches them. The shock and outrage tells me that folks have chosen not to pay attention.

So come on, good white people. Goodness isn’t good enough. And you know this. You need to gather your people. Embrace them. Lovingly take them in hand. Help them see their errors and learn a better way. White feminists … well, you have an even tougher job, I won’t lie. But that’s all the more reason for you to step up, to take on this messy and necessary work. (And remember, it isn’t the job of Black folks and folk of color to do this gathering. Racist yobs can’t hear us, can’t get past their defensive anger to understand anything we say. No. The intervention has to come from white people. There are POC who are willing to do this emotional labor — on exquisitely rare occasion, I am one of them — but that still doesn’t make it our job. No, it remains 100 percent the job of white people.)

Please note that I’m not only asking for white folks to call out problematic, racist fellow travelers. No. Because calling out isn’t the answer. It isn’t enough. Barbara Ehrenreich was swiftly and roundly called out. But she needed more than that. She needed someone to love on her, tell her with calm kindness all the ways what she tweeted was fucked up. Without that caring, out-of-the-spotlight attention and correction, we get Ehrenreich’s string of progressively worse tweets. We get her digging further into her mess.

We are only halfway through February, and this month is already awash in bullshit, already requires hip waders.

And then I decided not to post. There were so many excellent articles written about this mess, I set this piece aside. And then today, I sat in a subway car near six white women, friends who’d been into Manhattan for a nice lunch and a gallery show. One remarked on the fact that the rest of her afternoon would be spent on housework:

Woman 1: “Whoo! Don’t I wish I had that little Kondo bitch boxed up in my closet! Watcing her clean my house would definitely spark some joy!”

<laughter, from all but one woman>

Woman 2: “I seriously can’t stand her self-righteousness. If we needed some child-sized baby-woman to tell us what to do, we’d have asked for it long before now.”

Woman 1: “Yes, but a box in the closet would be great. I have an empty shoe box she could curl up in.”

<laughter, from all but the same one woman>

Woman 3: “She could fold something up tiny and use it for a pillow. All the comforts!”

<laughter, from all of the women>

Which was when I knew I’d have to come home and find this old essay and post it.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

It’s March, so it’s the Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! Twelve years and going stronger than ever. Click over to read a few slices, see what that eclectic group of bloggers is up to. And maybe write some slices of your own this month!

original-slicer-girlgriot

White Women’s Work

So, we had those midterms. The results are both good and troubling. There are a lot more women, POC, and LGBTQIA electeds today. People all across the country stepped up and made some excellent choices. They voted a raft of women into office, including Muslim women, Native American women, trans women, and young women. All of those votes for all of those women are heartening. Truly.

You know that isn’t all I’ll say, though, right? I am thrilled by many of the results, but I can’t miss the rest, or pretend that what happened on Election Day is enough. I can’t ignore the significance of the many Republican efforts at suppressing the Black vote and the poor vote — or the clear success of those efforts. I can’t ignore how comfortably many candidates and their supporters slid into straight-up, full-frontal racism in their push to the polls. No need to have a talk about dog whistles and coded language. People just said everything they were thinking about the uppity Black and brown folks who had the audacity to challenge a white person for office.

“Don’t monkey this up.”
“So cotton-pickin’ important.”
“Someone in the mansion who can take care of it.”
“His family participated in 9/11.”
“She’s encouraging people to break the law.”
“I’m a white racialist.”
“Send her back to the reservation.”

None of this is surprising. It’s not surprising because we as a country have always used prejudice and racism to keep people of color out of office. We as a country have always been racist, always been xenophobic, always been ready to fight for White Supremacy and the holding of power in white, male hands. And it’s certainly not surprising given the current administration and the fact that the country is led by a man who speaks in slurs, who built his political brand on racism.

There was one thing from Election Day that did surprise me … well, surprised me a little. Some woman tweeted out a plea, called on Black women to step up and save the country at the polls that day. (Don’t worry, she was quickly and roundly dragged.)

The idea that a white person would call on Black women — Black people, period — to save this country is amazing to me. First, it’s a numerically stupid plea. African Americans make up about 13% of the US population. Even if all of those people were adults of voting age and every single one of them went out to vote and didn’t have their vote thrown out, Black votes really can’t be an overall strategy for electoral success.

The bigger issue here, however, is the fact that how Black folks are going to vote is, for the most part, not a question. We — especially Black women — do an excellent job of voting in our best interests. We step up and vote to protect our children, our parents, our ability to find and keep decent jobs, our ability to exercise sovereignty and autonomy over our own bodies. We do this again and again and again. We do it because our lives depend on it and we know that. We do it because we don’t have a vested interest in supporting white male patriarchy. That has never been a place of safety for us, and we know that all too well.

The numbers from the 2016 election made the truth of Black women’s votes starkly clear for people. Nearly 100 percent of Black women voted for the Democratic candidate. Nearly 100 percent. Those numbers — and the numbers in Roy Moore’s race — make Black women look like a solid voting block for the left. These numbers are what prompted that white woman to call on Black women to save the day.

But what’s also clear from those powerful numbers is that Black women can’t, alone, win elections. Nearly every Black woman who voted in 2016 voted the same way, and yet the election went the other way. If Black women alone controlled election results, we’d be living in a very different world. We’d have a white house, a congress, and state and local officials who actually represented our interests as opposed to electeds put in place specifically to work against our best interests.

No one should be calling on Black women when the polls open. Ever. No. The people who need to be called in — obviously — are white women. Punto.

White women consistently vote in the majority for while male power, for White Supremacy, for a world in which their rights are erased and their voices silenced. They so strongly align with men and believe their proximity to white male power will translate into their own power, that they come out again and again and again for the upholding of White Supremacy. (Well, that and the fact that many of them are straight-up racists.)

That woman’s tweet on Election Day surprised me because of its willful blindness. This woman was looking over at Black women and hoping some Mammy-savior would come to the rescue, ignoring the reality that she needed to look in the mirror and then at her ya-ya sisterhood of white women.

Because of course this comes back to the truth that white people need to get their people. The work that needs to be done needs to be done by white people with white people. White people have to get down in the dirt and make that happen. Black women aren’t the answers to the questions white people have been refusing to ask for far too long. Black women are out here trying to stay alive, trying to get our kids home safe and our sisters and brothers and husbands and mothers. We can’t also be cleaning up white people’s messes.

The hard task of reaching out to the white women who stand behind Trump lies at the feet of white women. Not another soul can get that shit done.

Get. the. fuck. to. work.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Take your olive branch and go.

As early as November 9, 2016, there were people saying folks who hadn’t voted from Donald Trump should calm down and give the man a chance before we set our hair on fire. So many think pieces telling us that we needed to understand Trump supporters better, that we had ignored these racist assholes people at our peril. Suddenly, all of us who had voted for sanity, American dignity, and a world persona not built on insults, bullying, and hate were being told we were responsible for the outcome of the election because we hadn’t spent enough time cozying up to people who had no trouble voting for a man whose agenda rested atop a mountain of virulent prejudices, ignorance, and lies.

As if.

This week, Roseanne Barr felt comfortable tweeting some racist hate, and a lot of people got very upset about it. There were people contorting themselves to excuse the tweet and people expressing shock and outrage. Both of these response piss me the fuck off.

As a general rule, the moment you flap your lips to defend racism, you’re waving your own “I’m a racist!” flag. There’s no defense for racism that isn’t based in racism. Punto. Anyone dismissing Barr’s tweet as a joke — up to and including Barr herself, of course — proclaimed themselves a racist. Racism is never a joke. It is never meant to be a joke. It is always meant to tear down, to demean, to dehumanize, to harm.

But I was just as angered by the shocked and outraged crowd, the people who were incapable of believing Barr could have said anything so awful, that she could really have meant what she said. First of all, shut up. Who, exactly, do you think believes you? Barr has been a raging fireball of crassly-expressed hate for a LONG time. Her tweet about Valerie Jarrett was fully in keeping with who she has shown herself to be over and over again. To say that you are shocked by that tweet says that you are either a) one of those non-Black people who has been comfortable not noticing or acknowledging anti-Black racism because it didn’t affect you directly and Black folks are so sensitive and need to stop seeing racism in every little thing, or b) one of those non-Black people who has been shocked and outraged every time … and believes that’s the extent of your necessary response, that claiming shock and outrage brands you as not-a-racist and so your work is done and you can go back to your regularly-scheduled programming.

The reboot of Roseanne’s show — a show I loved in its original run — was heralded as an olive branch, a way to reach out to those angry, hate-mongering, butt-hurt white folks who had voted for Trump … and a way to make those same people sympathetic to the rest of us. Putting the ugliness of voting for a man who is bent on destroying this country into the warm and lovable characters we all laughed along with decades ago was supposed to bring us together, bridge the growing divide that makes holiday dinners prickly.

And now Roseanne Barr has brought all that olive-branch-y beauty crashing down in a burning pile of rubble.

Damn racism. It’ll do that every time.

*

I didn’t watch the reboot. People tell me it was funny, and I’m willing to believe that. Why wouldn’t it be funny … you know, if you could ignore the fact of Barr being a racist troll playing a racist troll. I wasn’t interested. (In truth, none of the recent reboots have interested me. The only one I’d buy popcorn for would be the return of Living Single. I’m ready for that, ABC. You’ve got room in your schedule … ijs)

But let’s be clear: the return of Roseanne was never going to bridge any divides. It wasn’t an olive branch, it was a ratings sponge, a money-maker for ABC. Full stop.

In an era of reboots, ABC saw a chance to cash in and did. Big time. They knew what they were getting with Roseanne Barr. They either didn’t care or decided to take a chance that she would be more interested in the warm glow of fan love than the harsh glare of criticism. But Roseanne Barr is a racist white woman, and lord knows, racist white women have a pretty solid track record for spewing hate, and the warm glow of fan love couldn’t hold that back.

And, as ABC knew what it was getting with Barr, Barr knew what she was doing with that tweet. She was banking not only on her celebrity and her history of getting away with shit, but on her white womanhood. Once the shock and outrage started, she could call up some white fragility, say she was only making a joke for Pete’s sake and wait for the storm clouds to clear.

While I can’t say I’m surprised that Barr felt safe — she’s gotten away with this in the past, so why wouldn’t she feel safe? — I also can’t quite believe her stupidity. After all, ABC’s president is a Black woman, and it should surely have been a given that Channing Dungey wasn’t going to laugh off that tweet. (Dungey might, however, have had a good laugh at the Sanofi US tweet after Barr blamed Ambien for her racism. I know I laughed loud and long. Sanofi’s tweet was world class, A-level shade, a firm “not today, Satan” clapback. (And I like to think she’d have been amused by my response: that I hoped Barr was fired in time to run over to Starbucks to get in on that anti-bias training.))

I don’t much care about Roseanne Barr. She’ll be fine, and she certainly neither needs nor wants my care or gives a single shit about what I think. I do have questions for her cast members, however. For Sara Gilbert and her “we’ve created a show that we believe in” nonsense. For John Goodman and his silence followed by his ridiculous “I don’t know nothing ’bout no Twitter,” craptasticness.

Gilbert’s tweet reminded me of Carl Reiner’s priceless tweet after the 2016 election. He told us so much with his:

I, a Jew, was willing to give Trump a chance til I heard his cheif [sic]of staff say he’d not allow his kids to go to a school if Jews attended.

As Myles E. Johnson said so brilliantly in response:

translation: I was willing to empower whiteness/white supremacy until I learned that I may not be considered white in the white imagination.

Reiner’s tweet really was priceless, the encapsulation of the many liberal white folks who felt the need to tell me and mine to shut up and give the agent of destruction a chance. These were the people who reconciled themselves to my annihilation because they assumed their whiteness would shield them. Reiner’s tweet was the 2016 version of the Martin Niemöller “First they came for” quote.

Gilbert’s tweet called attention to the behind the scenes people who were impacted by the cancellation. Maybe that was a way to show us her compassion, her broader world view, her concern for the “family” of the production team. Mostly what her tweet said to me was that the Blacks should just shake it off, sit down, shut up and let her keep getting paid reprising the only role she’s ever played.

As for John Goodman, his statement that he’d “rather say nothing than to cause more trouble”  is pretty bizarre. What does it mean? The way I see it, there are a two possibilities:

  1. He’d rather say nothing than say something that would defend Barr and indicate that he’s a racist, too.
  2. He’d rather say nothing than say something condemning Barr’s tweet and risk pissing off a woman who has been and could again in the future be a source of income for him.

Or maybe there’s a third option: He’s rather say nothing that double down and make a series of equally if not more racist “jokes” to show us that Barr’s tweet wasn’t that bad.

And then his strange, undefined-antecedent comment:

“I don’t know anything about it. I don’t read it.”

I’ll just say that I am on Twitter about once every 43 years, and I knew about this story within an hour or two of all this mess jumping off. Goodman didn’t want to get involved and thought pretending he didn’t know anything about what was happening would be the appropriate shield. The trouble with that — other than making him sound like both a liar and a fool — is that he’s been involved. There’s no way he couldn’t be involved. He agreed to be in this show, agreed to go back to work with this woman, and she has been exactly who she is for many years. His signing onto the reboot was his agreeing to look the other way. There’s no pretending that you’re outside the mess. You cosigned the mess.

And Laurie Metcalf? No idea what that story is. Maybe she, like Goodman, didn’t want to get involved and, unlike him, managed to actually keep quiet during all the drama. Apparently, however, she’s joining Gilbert and Goodman in the push to get paid for the Season 2 that will never be. Really. Asking ABC for that cash. But shouldn’t it be your homegirl who ponies up? She’s the one who cost you your paycheck.

*

The entire dumpster fire of this story. But really, the dumpster fire isn’t Roseanne or Gilbert, Goodman, and Metcalf. It’s all of us. It’s how comfortable Roseanne felt posting that dehumanizing tweet about Jarrett. It’s how quick folks were to jump up and shout their support for her first amendment rights barely a week after applauding the NFL’s decision to silence Black men’s freedom of expression. It’s the everyday-ness of anti-Black racism and the unsurprising surprise of non-Black folks (but primarily white folks) when they are called on their shit.

ABC canceled a show. I applaud the decision, but there is still all the work to be done, all the everything to be done. The needle on dismantling structural racism doesn’t move because one racist gets slapped down. The slap is satisfying, but nothing has changed.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Once more for everybody in the back.

One more poem inspired by that Starbucks in Philadelphia White Supremacy:

Weighted by Fear
(An erasure of Renée Graham’s excellent piece in The Boston Globe.)

To be Black
is to always be
in the wrong place at the wrong time
in America.
In America,
there is never
a right place for Black people.
For Black people,
this is what we live
every damn day.

Everything Black people do is weighted,
weighted
weighted
by irrational white fear.
It’s exhausting.
When you’re Black,
you just know.
You just know
not to do anything,
that would further escalate.

Nothing will ever change
until a majority of white people
stop perceiving Black existence as sinister,
suspicious.
Talking about racism
may hurt white people’s feelings,
but unchecked racism
continues to endanger Black lives.

__________

Oh, I’m taking all kinds of liberties with this form now. It’s still wholly, uncomfortably unwieldy in my hands, however. Halfway through the month, and I still feel like I’m losing the greased pig contest.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

Don’t Try This at Home

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 make 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.