classism

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.

Confessions of a Privileged White Girl

People talk about privilege. I grew up swimming in it.

If you combined Elmore City, Stepford, Devil’s Kettle, Pleasantville, and Montrose, multiplied the fake factor by a hundred, and threw in a little bit of Puritan Massachusetts for good measure, you might come close to understanding the terrifying time capsule that is Wheaton, Illinois.

In Wheaton, there’s a church on every corner, a luxury car in most garages, and a ferocious dedication to maintaining the illusion of suburban utopia. Its sky-high home values come with a median income in the six figures and no shortage of classism. With a population that’s 83% white, diversity isn’t the town’s strong suit. In fact, for those who lived there, 83% might sound like a stretch… if only because of the way the city’s population has segregated.

The latest designer styles and smartphone models in hand, kids draw clique lines by pew lines and battle for congregation conversion against lockers after attending their first class public schools. When the movie Savedcame out, we were all convinced it was based on our hometown. I’m not kidding. There were conversations in the film that I’d seen play out word for word in the hallways.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s no shortage of sin in Wheaton; it just gets swept under rugs or placed so far down in the artificially constructed hierarchy of upper-middle class morality that they don’t have to worry about it while they lament the fall of traditional “American” (read: straight, white, Christian, cisgender, affluent) values. Wheaton expats, and even some of those who never quite got out, refer to this lovely town as “The Bubble.”

Wheaton is where I grew up. My family wasn’t wealthy by Wheaton standards per se, but we were comfortable. My dad worked, and my mom was able to stay at home with me and my three younger siblings. I was able to get an amazing education, participate in a wide array of after school activities, take advantage of rich cultural opportunities, and enjoy childhood in a relatively safe community. Going to college was never a question – just a fact of life. On top of all that, I was white, straight, cisgendered and able-bodied with a generally socially acceptable physique.

In other words, I was privileged. Really. Fucking. Privileged. As in, the kind of privilege you expect resting on the shoulders of a clueless caricature off the silver screen.

———-

There was a problem with that first class education of mine, though. Let’s see if you can spot it.

We learned about the Civil Rights Movement. The takeaway? Segregation was gone and racism was dead. We learned about suffrage and the bra burning feminists of the 60’s and 70’s. The conclusion? Women were in the workplace now and sexism was a thing of the past. Prayer had be relegated to before school circles around the flag pole, so clearly, religious tolerance had been achieved. We basked in the knowledge that we were living in an era of equality. We were blind to color and gender and class. The driving ideology tasted like a resurgent American dream: everyone has a fair shot, and anyone can achieve anything if they pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

This conditioning was omnipresent and well-intentioned, but ultimately little more than wishful thinking. The hope was that by raising a generation to reject discrimination as an artifice of the past, discrimination would cease to exist. Certainly aspirational. In some ways, maybe they thought that, with the way we’d been making progress, by the time we’d grown up, this carefully cultivated selective blindness would be without consequence because we’d have finally arrived at some state of social utopia. Whatever.

Instead, it masked the very real inequity faced by people in our society, compounding its impact and sending out ripples across public policy and discourse.

If I’m blind to difference, I have nothing to learn from the experiences of someone who is different from me. If choose to hear their narrative, I usually compartmentalize it as their individual experience, and not representative of the whole. It doesn’t matter how many narratives add up, because they are all individual experiences, and not representative of the whole.

And that assumes I’m willing to hear the narrative at all. If I’m blind to difference, if I am insistent that difference is irrelevant, I may dismiss those narratives out of hand. Because I never hear their narratives, I never humanize the experiences, which makes it easier to dismiss statistics that say there is a systemic problem as indicative of personal problems instead.

When someone dares to share that narrative anyway, I find ways to explain why it’s not inequality. Those ways usually involve telling the speaker that whatever they’ve suffered is their fault somehow.

See, if the problem isn’t the system, then the problem is the person.

If it’s the person, and that person isn’t you, it’s not your responsibility. If it’s the person, and that person isn’t you, you, as a person, are probably better than them in some way. You’re smarter or you work harder. We shame the person who never had a fair shot. We tell them it’s their fault.

So when black people have a higher unemployment rate, a lower median income, a higher rate of incarceration, or a lower graduation rate, that’s clearly their fault. When a woman is sexually assaulted outside of a bar, she shouldn’t have been wearing that skirt or drinking that drink, or maybe she should have been carrying a gun. When women make less than men year after year after year, maybe they shouldn’t have so many babies. When gay men are assaulted for kissing outside a bar, they shouldn’t have been flaunting it.

These thoughts aren’t always articulated, especially so directly, but it’s these kinds sentiments that fuel the defensiveness encountered when the idea of privilege gets raised. It’s an ego thing. The idea is that if the game was rigged from the start, our accomplishments or struggles are somehow discredited. So we personalize the narrative of someone less privileged into an attack, and default to the position that the system isn’t rigged and the person is the problem.

It’s certainly easier that way, isn’t it?

———-

To say college was a bit of a culture shock after growing up in Wheaton would be the understatement of the century, but I was lucky enough to be surrounded by intelligent, compassionate, patient people with the biggest hearts in the world. They were teachers, friends, and family all at once. There are more than a few of them who are deserving of their own posts, but we’ll save those stories for a different day.

My education regarding privilege is far from over, but I certainly hope that I honor those who taught me so much about race, gender, classism, and more as I try to be better today than I was the day before. Still, the past year has continuously highlighted how much more I have to grow.

I’m struggling with all of this. I’ve been struggling. I’ve been coming to terms with revelations that don’t fit comfortably on the frame of the self-image I’ve built for myself.

I know I’m not the only one who’s struggling. I know there are others who continue to avert their eyes to avoid the struggle as much as they can for as long as they can. I know there are others still who have a sucker punch waiting for them somewhere along the road.

So I thought to myself, why struggle alone? Why struggle in silence? Why leave others to do the same? Struggle needn’t be lonely. More to the point, we may find our struggles shorter if we face them together. Right?

I think about how often I have measured myself by the male gaze and I shudder, cringing at the thought that I may have already taught my daughter to mirror my behavior. I think about how I’ve shrugged off sexist behavior in a professional setting in an effort to keep the peace, and I feel ashamed. I think about how frequently I have excused misogynist behavior among my male friends because of how they treated me individually, and I am angry with myself. I think about how I’ve danced along to songs like “Blurred Lines,” and I’m inwardly sneering. I think about the unwarranted judgment I’ve cast on the decisions of other women, and all I want to do is tearfully beg their forgiveness, whether they were aware of my transgressions or not. I think about how I have been color blind myself, dismissive of the distinct, important experiences of women of color in feminist circles, and I fume over my own arrogance.

I have so far to go. I just want to keep listening and learning and improving.

But the only reason I can say that is because I’m privileged enough to do so comfortably. And that’s fucking bullshit. While way too many of us are busy learning about injustice in the abstract, way too many other people are busy living with it. We need to pick up the fucking pace.

———-

I wound up getting sucked into a conversation about privilege the other night with my siblings, Luke and Brittany. This is usually a cringe-worthy event in the Nelson family, and since we’d spent the afternoon and evening drinking at a barbeque, it was particularly dangerous territory. Brittany is very passionate about social justice issues, and can become especially emotionally charged on the subject of privilege. Luke, on the other hand, is what you might imagine a cartoonish representation of straight white male privilege to look like. He’s a good-looking, 6’4” former athlete who works in sales and may have overdosed on the Wheaton Koolaid growing up. When the two of them engage on the subject of privilege, Luke tends to take her criticisms as personal attacks. It probably doesn’t help when she says, “Well, you ARE part of the problem.”

Typically, I end up trying to play mediator in these scenarios. Maybe it was because I was still a little raw from the #YesAllWomen conversations, maybe it was the whiskey, but this time around, I didn’t bother attempting to keep the peace. When the conversation veered to the subject of male privilege, I weighed in.

“Luke,” I said, testing the waters. “Let’s start with this: I’ve never walked into a bar without having someone grope me.”

“What? No,” he said, shaking his head.

“Yes. Every single time.”

“How come you never told me? I’d have kicked his ass! Er, asses!”

“Because you’d have kicked his ass. And even if you wanted to, you don’t have enough time to beat up that many people. And even though you want to, you shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t need you to.”

The look on his face said things were starting to register. Brittany jumped in at this point, saying, “I tried one time to go for a run at night. There was a guy following me. I was so scared I went a couple blocks out of my way so I could be sure I’d lost him and he wouldn’t know where I lived.”

When Luke gave her a quizzical look, she replied, “It would never occur to you to do something like that. But it’s what we’ve been taught to do for our own protection.”

“That’s privilege,” I said. “At least, an example of it. It’s not that you, personally, necessarily did something terrible. It’s that your experience is dramatically different because of the lot you drew in life, and that’s not really fair. When we talk about privilege with you, we’re asking you to acknowledge that fact, reflect on how your decisions may unconsciously be impacting the experiences of those who are different from you, modify your behavior accordingly, and help us call out people who are being assholes. But before any of that, we’re just asking you to listen. Really listen.”

I teared up a little as he nodded his head. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything we’d said on the subject really click with him, and it meant the world to me. He’s still got a long way to go, but that was a huge moment.

And all I can think is that it sucks that it took the suffering of a woman in whom he could see himself for the shift to happen.

———-

Sometimes, I get overwhelmed by the scope of the work that needs to be done. Men I’ve always liked and respected will tell me they don’t believe me when I describe my experiences with sexism. Friends will insist that reverse racism exists. Some random jerk will holler obscenities at me out their car window while I’m walking with my daughter. I’ll get another email from a guy who is hell-bent on explaining why men have a harder time of it than women, or some anonymous troll screaming about how I’m destroying the world who sounds a little too much like Elliot Rodger for comfort, and all I want to do is stop caring. It’s too much. It’s too exhausting.

But there are too many people who don’t have that luxury.

I’m going to keep listening. I want to hear your stories if you want to tell them. But I’ve got to keep talking and I’ve got to keep writing because we can’t keep waiting for the right time to have the uncomfortable conversations we so desperately need. I’m going to fuck up. And I’m asking you to call me out when I do, even though you don’t owe me that courtesy.

One way or another, we’ve got to do better.

35 Things About Elliot Rodger

elliot

  1. Elliot Rodger killed six and injured thirteen in a Santa Barbara mass shooting before killing himself on Friday, May 23rd, 2014.
  2. Elliot Rodger was a straight 22 year old male from an affluent family who was described as white, but is of Malaysian Chinese descent on his mother’s side. [edited]
  3. Elliot Rodger was may or may not have been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder; reports vary.
  4. Elliot Rodger was also mentally ill, and in treatment with multiple doctors.
  5. Elliot Rodger was a raging misogynist who believed that there was “no creature so evil or depraved as the human female.”
  6. Elliot Rodger espoused these misogynist ideals due to what he viewed as sexual rejection by women to whom he believed he was entitled.
  7. Elliot Rodger was a massive racist – idolizing white, blonde women, and enraged by white women dating men of other races.
  8. Elliot Rodger was a classist who associated wealth with personal value, assuming he could buy affection.
  9. Elliot Rodger didn’t get this way on his own.
  10. Elliot Rodger didn’t get this way for one reason alone.
  11. Elliot Rodger was incredibly privileged.
  12. Elliot Rodger did not become a killer because he was privileged.
  13. Elliot Rodger became frightening when his privilege morphed into entitlement due to toxic ideologies.
  14. Elliot Rodger became dangerous when his entitlement collided with mental illness.
  15. Elliot Rodger became lethal when he was able to arm himself.
  16. Elliot Rodger was able to arm himself because he was never involuntarily committed, despite being reported to authorities as a possible danger to himself and others.
  17. Elliot Rodger was never involuntarily committed because he was viewed as harmless by the interviewing officers, despite his extensive footprint of hate on the web.
  18. Elliot Rodger was likely viewed as harmless by the interviewing officers because feelings of entitlement and expression of animosity towards women and minorities are not perceived to be real threats.
  19. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because the only thing separating him and the other millions of men expressing the same kinds of ideas online and in real life is that Elliot used a gun.
  20. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because he is the classmate we never even realized was attempting to ask us out.
  21. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because he is the coworker we tried to let down gently.
  22. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because he is the man buying shots at the bar we turned down because it was girl’s night out.
  23. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because he is that first date we bailed out of because we didn’t feel comfortable or safe.
  24. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because he is anyone we never knew we wronged. #YesAllWomen
  25. Elliot Rodger was looking to terrorize a group of people in order to advance social ideals, but despite that being the definition of terrorism, is not considered a terrorist.
  26. Elliot Rodger would probably be labeled a terrorist if his social ideals were associated with a religion not called Christianity.
  27. Elliot Rodger would probably be labeled a terrorist if he’d used a bomb instead of a gun.
  28. Elliot Rodger would probably be labeled a terrorist if his skin wasn’t white.
  29. Elliot Rodger might have been labeled a thug, though, if he was black.
  30. Elliot Rodger targeted white people, which might be why he’s received more attention than any of the shooters in the 117 gun deaths and 666 gun injuries in Chicago year to date.
  31. Elliot Rodger makes us more comfortable if he’s just mentally ill because it makes the problem individual, excusing our culpability in building, accepting and advancing the culture that created him.
  32. Elliot Rodger makes us more comfortable if he’s just mentally ill because it means we don’t have to do anything about it personally.
  33. Elliot Rodger existed because we didn’t take it personally.
  34. Elliot Rodger will happen again if we don’t take it personally now, because cultural shifts start with personal decisions.
  35. If you’re not taking it personally, you’re part of the problem.