Pop Culture

Peak Privilege: No, I am the REAL Victim Here

Watching the news cycle has me feeling perpetually ill. It’s not just the headlines, though those are unbearably nauseating on their own. And it’s not the spate of typical reactions – overtly racist and sexist and classist drivel that’s easy to point to as being the bile of bigots. That I’ve come to expect. No, the worst part of it all has been the victimization of the tragically privileged.

Case in point? Mary Ann Twitty, the now disgraced former clerk from Ferguson.

In case you missed it, Twitty is the woman who was fired after the DOJ report revealed she had sent some incredibly racist emails. Make no mistake – these emails were patently offensive. There was a picture of Reagan feeding a chimp a bottle that was described as a rare photo of the former president babysitting Obama. There was one that framed the abortion of a black woman’s child as a boon to Crimestoppers. There were more uncovered by the DOJ, but they only published a handful. There was no doubt that this woman should lose her job.

I’m not going to say that losing your job of nearly 20 years isn’t a terrible experience. It must be even worse knowing you deserved it. But what came out of Twitty’s mouth next… I just… ugh.

Twitty sat down with KMOV in St. Louis to discuss the scandal. When asked if she thought the jokes were funny, she replied:

Funny as in humor wise? Yes. Not because it was racist or biased, just funny because it was just funny jokewise. I feel bad because that’s not, I don’t want people to look at me and say ‘she sent those racist jokes out because she’s racist or biased.’ I am not.

That comment might be funny if not for context. See, the thing is, if you think that the content forwarded was funny, you clearly don’t see the people you were discussing as people worthy of the same respect and dignity you demand for yourself. You see them as less based on characteristics that have nothing to do with worth. That’s racism. You’re a racist. There’s no getting around that. Hiding behind the facade of comedy is the modern Emperor’s New Clothes. You think you’re hilarious; the rest of us think you’re an asshole.

But Twitty didn’t stop there. See, not only is she clearly not a racist, she’s adamant that she is also the real victim here. She was just doing what everyone else was doing. My six year old daughter knows better than to do that. If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you? Didn’t your mother ever throw that one at you as a kid? How old is this woman? Has she not yet learned to take responsibility for her actions?

Apparently not. In fact, Twitty is so invested in her status as a victim that she went on to say:

It took me a while to get over the feeling of being raped and being thrown under the bus. I’m human, I meant nothing bad by it.

Human. Right. Let’s talk about how inhumane that comment was.

Twitty was not raped. Rape is the violation of your body by another human being. There is no consent involved. It’s not a result of something you did; it stems from another’s desire for power and disregard for your agency.

The offense here is high enough that I feel the need to address the offender directly.

Your body was not violated, Ms. Twitty. The pain you’ve endured was entirely of your own creation. You behaved in a manner that showed absolutely no respect for the agency of those who look and live differently from you. You were cruel as a means of building yourself up. The reward for your cruelty? A momentary grin. The consequence was losing your job. Your inability to engage in critical thinking or perform impact calculus (or, ya know, exhibit some basic humanity) brought this on, and is no one’s problem but your own. You consented to the potential consequences when you made your choices. This was nothing like being raped, ma’am. If anything, when extending the metaphor – and rape metaphors suck, so I don’t encourage you to do so – you’re on the opposite side of the coin, claiming to be a victim after committing a crime.

How dare you compare facing the music after proudly broadcasting your racist, classist, bigoted sense of humor to the utter trauma endured by survivors of sexual violence? How can you possibly follow up such a black-hearted comment with a claim of being “human”? Nothing you just said was humane.

I know there are those of you who might feel sympathy in regards to Twitty’s comments about intent. That doesn’t matter. Let me repeat that: intent is irrelevant here. Just because one doesn’t intend to hurt someone doesn’t excuse their behavior. A drunk may not intend to kill someone while driving under the influence. A person throwing a punch in a rage may not intend for their target to sustain significant injuries. Hell, a rapist may not intend to cause their victim PTSD. None of these arguments are foreign to me. None of them are valid excuses. Not under the law, and not as human beings.

Those are extreme examples, but the point remains the same. Even if we take the rhetoric down a million notches, it doesn’t change. Consider it on an interpersonal level. If you say or do something that causes a close friend pain, and they tell you as much, would you ever respond by saying they’re raping you because you didn’t intend to hurt them? Of course not.  Intent. Does. Not. Matter. It doesn’t matter in the extreme, and it doesn’t matter among close friends, and it certainly doesn’t matter when you think you’re not hurting anyone but you are.

You know what does matter? Owning up to your mistakes and facing the consequences.

Twitty did no such thing. After showing a total lack of compassion for those different than her, she didn’t take responsibility for her behavior. After being called out for her total lack of compassion for those different than her, she claimed she was a victim. Worse still, she did so through further callous commentary.

Sympathy is the least appropriate emotion here. Her behavior and reaction to being punished are more akin to a toddler throwing a fit after being put in time out than an adult taking criticism and adjusting her behavior accordingly. In fairness, she’s far from alone. The company ain’t great though: Gamergate folks claiming their hobbies are being ruined by women calling for an end to sexist behavior, White folks claiming reverse racism in the context of privilege conversations, men who think misandry is a real and widespread problem, “Christians” who feel they’re being persecuted because two people of the same sex who are not them are able to get married and see each other in the hospital, judges who think little girls are responsible when raped by their teachers, those organizing defense crowdfunding for the officer who killed Walter Scott in cold blood. I could go on.

Twitty is part of a larger trend among those in a position of privilege who whine when they’re called out for their poor behavior, claiming they are the true victims. They don’t care about history or context. They’re more worried about their own hurt feelings than their role in a problem that’s way bigger than their joke. They don’t understand that their comment contributes to a tidal wave of pain hitting others on a daily basis. They don’t see making people feel uncomfortable or unsafe as a big deal, and certainly not worthy of consequence… probably because they’ve never been made to feel that way.

And for as much agony as Twitty is experiencing in the short-term (while remembering that she brought it on herself), it will pass. Unlike Twitty, the people of color she jokes about face stigma, discrimination, outright hatred, and lethal threats on a daily basis – and not because of something they did, but because of who they are. Unlike Twitty, that’s not something that will go away or fade from public memory.

There is no comparison here. You are not persecuted because someone calls you out. You are being presented with an opportunity for growth, and squandering that by drawing completely inappropriate parallels with people who experience actual discrimination is beyond the pale. And more and more, it’s becoming acceptable to do exactly that.

No headline is more nauseating than this reality.

About Those Oscars

I didn’t watch the Oscars.

It sort of hurt. When I was a little girl, all I wanted was to win an Oscar. Well, that and become President. But times have changed, in some respects. You couldn’t convince me to run for any political office. Any acting I do these days takes place off screen.

In other respects, unfortunately, times have not changed. The red carpet still asks men for their thoughts and women for their designers. The event is still nauseatingly extravagant – an excess that feels uncomfortable, even in my own home, in the face of dramatic income inequality. In a year of powerful contributions from minorities, this season saw only one person of color in a mix of 35 nominees for acting, writing, and directing. The whole affair is a performance in how to be tone deaf.

On that note – bravo, Academy. That’s one helluva show. (Just not one I want to watch.)

None of this is new, of course, which is why it’s so stomach churning. The only truly refreshing element of this year’s Oscars was the discourse surrounding it. #OscarsSoWhite and #AskHerMore trended on social media as the public expressed their dismay over the direction of awards season.  During the show itself, stars seized the moment and used their platform to criticize inequity.

Host Neil Patrick Harris kicked off the show by saying, “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — I mean brightest.” Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette received a standing ovation as she demanded wage equality for women. Best Director Alejandro González Iñárritu made an impassioned plea for sane, compassionate immigration reform. The bitter irony of “Glory” bringing down the house was lost on no one. When Common and John Legend spoke following their win for Best Original Song, they didn’t mince words, either – bitingly criticizing mass incarceration, police brutality, and more. Legend was pitch perfect as he invoked the words of Nina Simone:

It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.

While the moments were laudable, they were spiced with disappointment. Arquette may have brought down the house, but she also framed her comments by tying womanhood to motherhood, excluding childless women, trans women, and more. Her insistence that people of color essentially repay a favor was equally cringe worthy, dripping in the trappings of wealthy white feminism. Iñárritu’s win was flanked by a grossly insensitive green card joke from Sean Penn. Viewers got ringside seats to John Travolta having no respect for personal boundaries of the women around him.

It created a jarring experience for those who wanted to be excited about the high points. Chad Meadows – a dear, brilliant, talented friend who all of you should be reading (his stuff is like the smarter, better written, more even keeled, more effectively intersectional version of what you might see here from time to time) – hit the nail on the head in his reaction piece:

Silence is the lump in your throat that won’t let you stand and cheer. You remember that it’s not you they’re clapping for.

Chad certainly wasn’t alone (despite being peerless with his articulation). On Twitter and Facebook, users lamented these stumbling points, but another complaint got traction as well: rage towards those criticizing the event at all.

These events are about celebrating accomplishment, they’d say. These people have been working their entire lives for this, they’d say. All of the nominees are incredibly talented, they’d say. An acquaintance from high school went so far as to declare she would unfriend anyone who said a negative thing about the event (yup, that included me).

Here’s the thing: they’re not wrong. There’s not a person who wasn’t nominated who didn’t deserve to be. There were real accomplishments worthy of celebration. But you know who else has been working hard towards their dream and has tremendous talent? The thousands of minorities who routinely make up a fraction of the production, casting, and award selections every year.

No one is saying Birdman wasn’t a good movie (well, maybe they are… but not many). What we’re saying when we criticize the event is that the Academy (97% White and 77% Male and 100% old and crotchety) and its kin are squarely out of touch with reality, and that industry members and the public at large deserve better from what is often lauded as the end-all-be-all for achievement in film. And when a whole bunch of privileged white folks get cranky that we’re not just letting them watch the show in peace, it says that their comfort is more important than working towards broader justice.

It also says (to me at least) that we’re doing something right. Sorry Oscar – not sorry.

And He Learned

When he noticed the naked little girl at the beach didn’t look quite like he did and asked why, they answered his questions in simple phrases painted in black and white, pink and blue, and tradition. And he learned that boys and girls were different.

When one of the neighbor kids painted his nails, they got angry. That wasn’t something boys did. And he learned that there were different rules for boys and girls, and that breaking those made people upset.

When he was handed down a pink bike from his cousin, they replaced it with a blue one, because they didn’t want him to be mocked for having a “girly” bike. And he learned that being girly was something to be mocked.

When he cried, they told him to be a man. And he learned that crying, and being not a man, was something less.

When he was being picked on at school, they told him to stand up for himself. They did not tell him how, but they showed him stories with heroes who used fists and weapons to beat the bad guy into submission. And he learned that strength and force were good.

When he tried to be his own hero, they told him he hit like a girl. And he learned that girls were weak, and as a result, bad.

When he got home, they shook their heads because boys will be boys. And he learned that violence and aggression are expected of men.

When he hung out with the adult men in the family and listened to them talk around beers and grills and whatever game happened to be on the TV, they spoke of women’s bodies in the same way they spoke about the cuts of meat sizzling before them. And he learned that women were for men and their tastes.

When he started joining sports teams himself, they bypassed curse words and skipped straight to associating anything worthy of criticism with girls, because you wouldn’t get in trouble for that. And he learned that deriding women as a whole was acceptable and manly.

When he moved up to the older leagues, the comments came with a little more bite. Qualities perceived as “girly” were now categorized as “gay” and “wrong” and something to be avoided at all costs. And he learned homophobia, or a fear of men who he associated with womanly.

When he looked at billboards and magazine ads, they showed him women’s body parts and bodies, altered to be impossible without a face to remind you of their personhood. And he learned to view them as objects.

When he looked at billbords and magazine ads, they showed him men with rippling, photoshopped muscles that didn’t reflect what he saw in the mirror. And he learned to quietly loathe this body that these objects could never desire.

When he watched television and movies (the ones with the heroes), they always got the girl. And he learned to associate manliness with female attention he wasn’t sure he’d get.

When he watched television and movies (the ones with heroes in costumes and not), they always got the girl, even if she didn’t seem all that interested or willing at first. And he learned that “no” was sexy.

When he watched television and movies, they didn’t need superpowers because they always basically knew whether a girl was interested in having sex based on how little she was wearing. And he learned that attire could mean consent.

When he saw the older boys talk about women outside the silver screen, they talked about all they would do to the women in their fantasies if given the opportunity, never once entertaining the idea of consent. And he learned that women were essentially for use.

When he took that sex ed class, they told him how to protect his penis from STDs and his future from young fatherhood, but they only taught his female classmates to be careful about rape. And he learned that consent wasn’t his concern, but theirs.

When he and his friends started getting into video games, they gave him a world where he could be as violent and cruel as he liked without repercussion. He could even rape a hooker, if he felt like it. And he learned that sexual violence could be entertainment.

When he and his friends flipped on a comedy program, they laughed uproariously as the comedian threatened to rape someone who had interrupted him. And he learned that sexual violence could be downright hilarious.

When he started attending parties, they told him that drunk girls were the easiest, and that’s where he should start. And he learned that consent was really optional.

When he lost his virginity, they congratulated him and asked him for a play-by-play of the carnal details, as they would with each hookup to come. And he learned that sex was about him and the act, not her.

When he started dating, they would reference his girlfriend as a ball and chain, deride any show of emotion, and encourage him to man up by shutting her down. And he learned emotional cruelty was masculine.

When he first experienced heartbreak, they skipped past the culprit and jumped to her gender. And he learned that deriding women as a whole was still acceptable and manly.

When he repeated a crack about women belonging in the kitchen and bedroom in front of some of his more progressive friends, they rolled their eyes or sighed or laughed. And he learned that, really, it’s not that big a deal.

When he listened to one of his female friends lament the harassment she had been experiencing to their social circle, they dismissed her as a hyperbolic exception to the rule, insisting that #NotAllMen were that bad instead of actually hearing her. And he learned that it’s ok to act like it’s really not a big deal at all, too.

It’s funny how that all changes when you hear the words, “It’s a girl…”

He thought of the lessons he had been taught, and how different they were from the lessons he would now have to pass on to her. He thought of all the cruel and “manly” things she would see and hear in her life, and how she would be told to celebrate that dehumanization in the name of masculinity. He thought of how she would have to fight to be seen as more than a punchline about cup size in the office, and how she would spend her life shouldering the weight of projected responsibility for the words and choices of the men in her life. He thought of how one day, she would tell of her frustrations to a man who would dismiss her concerns until they were wrapped up in a pink delivery blanket in his arms because suffering is only valid if he can touch it… no matter how loudly we yell #YesAllWomen.

And he cried.

Well, maybe not.

Maybe he had a little boy, and learned nothing at all. Because hey – boys don’t cry, right?

The question now: are we learning?

* * * * * * *

UPDATE:

If your comment sounds something like, “Well, not ALL men…”

Well, I’m not publishing it. Not all men are misogynists? Well, no shit, Sherlock. Not all men are misogynists, but all women are victimized by those who are. THAT is why this conversation needs to take place.

The point of this piece isn’t to say, “This is EXACTLY HOW IT HAPPENS EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.” It’s to get us to reflect on how our choices, behavior, and words influence the world around us, what that can mean, and how we can do better.

If you have something more productive than the obvious to state, then please feel free to join the conversation.