So, I spent the week at a documentary film festival. Which featured, as these things do, documentaries about current social issues, like race and class in this country. Which lead, inevitably, to white people complaining that they can’t use the n-word, or they feel uncomfortable when someone calls them a bigot or a racist.
Before we continue, I’d briefly like to discuss Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs; and feel free to skip ahead if you’re well-versed in this concept. Psychology researcher Abraham Maslow put forward this idea in the 1940s, that said that all humans have a similar set of needs and priorities, starting with the most basic (food, shelter, etc.) and then working up to things like love, fulfilling career, and fulfilling your full potential, as a human being. Obviously, if you’re sick, starving, or spending your time ensuring there’s a roof over your head, you’re not going to have the resources to waste on being disappointed on Tinder. If you’re at Tinder, you’re unlikely to have the emotionally-fulfilled life necessary to feel safe writing that stupid one-hit wonder song you’ve been pondering since age 14.
All of which is a lead-up to; I really desperately wish my life was so good, so completely fulfilled, so otherwise perfect, that I had the time, resources, and mental energy to worry that my friends viewed me as anything less than ideal. Te-hanasi Coates had an incredibly insightful discussion on why white people should not use racially-charged terms ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QO15S3WC9pg), but racial minorities can. And it basically boils down to this: If you’re a member of the majority, you get to go into almost any social setting or space or economic area in society, unquestioned. However, there is one word — or set of vocabulary — that you are barred from using because it has, historically, been used to frame rhetoric and discussions designed to keep minorities down — and you’re suddenly angry that there is one tiny place you don’t get to go, or do. And that’s offensive to you.
On behalf of all minorities, everywhere, in answer to the countless questions that seemed to boil down to, “What can I do in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems and evil, and I don’t like being called a bigot or Nazi when I do racist or prejudiced things,” I’ll go on record now and say, “Let’s make a deal. You can call anyone anything you want, in any context you want, the minute we all get a guarantee that we’ll live to 60 years old, get a job that adequately meets our basic financial needs without destroying our bodies, and can date anyone we want without fear of reprisals, lynch mobs, being kicked out of a hospital, or just dying a horrible, early death. We’ll happily trade mild profanity for that.” If the most disquieting thing about “inner city culture” is that rap music uses the f-word and that makes you unhappy, cry me a fucking river, you privileged motherfucker. Coates, in that discussion, BTW, encouraged white hip-hop fans to engage in that discomfort with racial slurs as a little insight into what it’s like to be a minority in America (one of the more fascinating documentaries I got to see was on the survivors of the Parkland shooting, who are now suffering immense, lingering psycholgical trauma and difficulties moving on with their lives)(it’s kind of comforting, in a weird way, to see my own struggles — what happens when your all-access pass to society is arbitrarily and suddenly revoked, and you’re left in limbo — mirrored elsewhere; you’re not alone, folks).
Quick run-down of the first ten minutes of every day for me: I check my e-mail and social media to see if any of my cancer friends are dead or in the hospital. This is a recent development in my life that’s come around post-cancer diagnosis (the hallmark of privilege in modern society is that you’re unaware of it until it’s gone). If I was a racial minority, that would include an update to see if anyone had been arrested. If it’s a really good night, I’ve gotten a full eight hours without insomnia, leg-cramping, or nightmares, and I have a full allotment of mental and physical energy to devote to the day. On a more-common day, it can literally take an hour just to physically crawl out of bed. On a really good day, I don’t get any messages that start, “Stephanie died last night,” or, “I’ve had a recurrence, and my oncologists don’t know what to do.”
To paraphrase Margaret Atwood (and my apologies, I’ve made this analogy before)(I only got two hours of sleep last night, so I’m not at my best), men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them. If you are not a white, able-bodied, male Baby Boomer, we’re terrified our company will decide to cook the books by depleting the payroll and making us do the work of three people in half the time. We’re worried the predatory lending and insurance policies you enacted will bankrupt us and lead to our death. We’re worried the anti-vaxxer soccer mom next door will get measles, we’ll get it, and we’ll die. We’re worried that Greta Thunberg’s understating her case, and society will literally melt down in the next ten years. If you’re over 70, you’re starting to get a very little taste of what life is like for us if you find yourself thinking, “well, in 10 years, I’ll — crap, that’s it.” You’re upset that people swear or that you’ll be called a bigot; we’re terrified we’ll die badly and early. And, statistically, we will.
So, in response to the numerous responses I’ve seen this week that can be boiled down to, “I’m worried I’ll be labeled a bigot,” all I’m hearing is, “I’m afraid that the system of labeling and then limiting people based on that label might come back to haunt me.” And there’s an easy, very simple solution: don’t be a bigot. If you are secretly racist, and no one ever finds out you’re a racist, nothing bad happens to you. If it seems unfair or stifling that you have to keep that aspect of your life or views secret and pray no one ever finds out, welcome being a gay person in 1970. And be grateful you have passing privilege; not all of us get it.
In response to the second most-numerous response I’ve seen, “What can I do,” you have to understand, if you’re asking that question, that’s an automatic indication of immense privilege. We are in Germany in 1937; there are a lot of possibilities open to you, if you just spend two minutes on Google. You can literally put your money where your mouth is, and make a donation to any number of charities dedicated to these issues. You can organize boycotts of any company that pays their employee a sub-standard living wage. A lot people asking were LDS or evangelical; you can literally withhold your tithe and write a trite note to the Bishop (or Xenu; whoever)(one of the problems with a decent education in comparative religion is that all organized religions start looking equally crazy when you start analyzing them) that you will, instead, donate that money to charities working for economic justice and legal equity, until the church joins the 21st century in tackling the challenges we collectively face. One of the better films I saw this week involved an ALS patient in Los Angeles, whose community rallied around him to provide the sort of financial and logistical support chronic disease patients need to survive, and their attitude was, “Well, today it’s Juan who needs help, we’re going to help him, because tomorrow, it’ll be one of us.” I have never seen a better summary of how human society works than that. It’s a social insurance net — we can’t kill woolly mammoths or keep saber-toothed cats from eating grandma alone; so we come together to do all that.
The traditional, harmful response on the part of the majority is to eliminate anyone seen as an outsider — either through outright murder (Trayvon Martin, Stonewall, Compton’s Cafeteria, etc.), or through creating a system that gradually degrades and kills us (pre-existing conditions, the school-prison pipeline, etc.). When I hear elderly white people complaining about being labeled bigots, or expressing fear that their safety or financial security will be compromised due to their indifference, I’m hearing that they’re now becoming aware of the social costs of being locked out of society, and they’re afraid they’re on the chopping block. So, in addition to my suggestions (donate time and money to charities or groups dedicated to solving these problems, keep your horrific, genocidal beliefs in the 14th century, where they belong), you could also work to create a society that equally values all people, regardless of status, and guarantees everyone equal opportunity. Here’s the amazing thing: when there is no limiting stigma attached to being disabled, black, young or old, or brown, there will be no dangerous repercussions to being a bigot. Funny how that works.