Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Too White For This One

I have a friend who wants me to write about Emory University President James Wagner and his gaffe this week, when he wrote about the three-fifths compromise as an example of two sides coming together to find common ground -- and not as, you know, an example of two sides coming together to define black people as three-fifths of a human being. This immediately became something of a meme, at least in Atlanta's scholarly community, where people spat their lattes when they read Wagner's column in Emory Magazine.

If you liked that, then you're going to love next month's "Warsaw Ghetto rationing as an example of sensible austerity." No? What about "Trail of Tears as an example of low-carbon impact travel?" 

But anyway, my friend wants me to write about this, and I'm not gonna. I'm not gonna because I think a whole blog post about how someone is an insensitive asshole would be kind of boring, but also because, well, I'm kind of a white chick. Objectively, I can recognize that what Wagner said was shocking, but I can't feel it viscerally. I'm not physically connected to that pain. I don't get the righteous privilege of offense at Wagner's statement, because I didn't grow up knowing that my ancestors, my own great-grandparents maybe, had been regarded as sub-human not just by a few bigots and ignoramuses, but by an entire country that had gone to all the trouble to enshrine that belief in their Constitution. (How much of a person are they, exactly? Two-thirds? Nah, that seems like a little much. Better shave a little off the top there, make it three-fifths.)

One of the things I always used to tell student writers was that speakers matter. Context matters. Words are not random missiles fired off into dimensionless space, and they don't arrive buried in our backyard like golden plates for us to interpret wearing our own special magic goggles. (Yes, a Mormon joke, get over it. Textualists get to make fun of Mormons like scientists get to make fun of creationists.)

Context matters. The classic example of how boggling this is to adolescents is when one of their black friends uses the n-word. How come I'm a bigot if I use that word, but he can say it all he wants? they ask resentfully. The idea that meaning can depend on who is speaking, and not just on what is said, is a hard one for them (and for many adults, if we're being honest.) If I address a middle-aged black man as "boy," that word carries instant freight: the hard tonnage of history, and the persistent infantilization of black men by white people. But if that middle-aged black man's grandfather calls him "boy," those same three letters mean something completely different. A term of contempt becomes a term of endearment.

The corollary to this principle is that hearers matter, just as much as speakers. As a woman, I'm always going to hear nuances and resonances of sexism that a man might not hear -- not because he's a jerk, but just because he hasn't had the lived experience of sexism that a woman has. Ask him if a given statement is sexist, and he might shrug and say in all honesty, I dunno, seems all right to me, while the woman next to him has steam shooting out her ears. Same thing with racial issues; I'm never going to be able to hear what a black person might hear, and all my angst-ridden liberal sympathies won't make it so.

A basic rule of life: if you're gay, you get to decide what's homophobic and what's not, and I'm not going to argue back at you how no, you just don't understand. Jews get to say what's antisemitic and what's not, and disabled persons get to decide whether my cripple joke was super funny or just offensive. (For the record I don't have a cripple joke.) The rule is that the group in question has a right to define how they are spoken of, and this code of linguistic deference has another, older name: courtesy. IT'S FUCKING COURTESY, DOUCHEBAGS.

So I'm not going to tell you why what Wagner said was ass-deep stupid. I don't get to tell you that he spoke from the kind of knee-jerk white privilege that finds other people's pain terribly remote, and oh-so historically interesting, don't you see. I don't get to tell you that his words reduced black people to the objects rather than the actors of history, or made them into fascinating little chess pieces flicked about by the finger of dispassionate white folks working out their larger and much more important political compromises.

I don't get to say any of that, because it's not mine, and because black people are saying all that this week better than I could anyway, and you should be reading them on this issue, not me.

So there you go: 800 words, all to tell you how I'm not going to talk about it. (Insert sexist joke here.)

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