Monthly Archives: May 2018

When White People Say “I Don’t See Race,” We’re Lying

wypipo

“We don’t see color!” (Source: Honestly? I found this doing a google image search for “wypipo.” Public domain, according to google.)

“I don’t see color! WE ALL BLEED RED.”

People of color, you have almost certainly had white people say this to you, or some version of it, numerous times. It’s a lie. But you already knew that.

White people, of course we “see color.” We see that people are Black, or Asian, or Latinx. So what is our intent when we say “I don’t see color” to a person of color? What we’re trying to say is “We don’t care about your race! We’re judging you as a person.”

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(Source: stonecroft.org)

I know many white people have good intentions when we say this. Our intention is to advertise ourselves as “not racist.” But intent is meaningless. Impact is what’s important. Intent is unknowable, untouchable, and, let’s face facts, easily reverse engineered. Our words and actions have an impact on the people around us, regardless of our intentions.

So what are we really saying when we say “I don’t see color” or “I don’t see race”?

“I don’t see race” means “I am uncomfortable talking about racism.” When you claim that you don’t even see, for example, your friend’s Blackness, you’re refusing to recognize, understand, and accept that her experience of the world is fundamentally different than yours. “We all bleed red” would have more meaning if some of us weren’t bleeding far more than others. Until you can accept that as fact, you can’t be a good ally, let alone a good friend. Racism exists whether you “see” it or not, and it impacts the day-to-day experiences of people of color. It’s understandable that white people are uncomfortable talking about race, but remember that that discomfort is what people of color experience every day in the US. “I don’t see race” signals to people of color that they can’t be their whole, authentic selves with you.

“I don’t see race” means “Your non-white race is a liability, so I am generously ignoring it.” A racial and/or ethnic identity is a beautiful, meaningful part of a person’s identity. When we tell the people of color around us that we “don’t see race,” we’re saying that we are deliberately ignoring an enormous part of their identity. No one would take that as a compliment. We only claim to “not see” things that are liabilities.

“This whole time, I had spinach stuck in my tooth!”
“I didn’t even see it!”

“I dropped a line in that scene.”
“Did you? I didn’t even notice.”

American culture routinely frames European cultures as intrinsically superior to other cultures, a fact that is unexamined by many people who claim they “don’t see race.” They will proudly wear a kilt or celebrate their Viking ancestry, but see it as a praiseworthy act of generosity to “not see” the ethnic origins of non-white people, having never paused to consider how meaningful it is to be, for example, Black. Almost all Black Americans are descended from enslaved Africans, ripped from their cultures of origin, grouped with people from diverse African ethnicities, and forced to speak a new language and worship a new god while being treated like animals. The families they created here were often ripped apart; children sold away from mothers; husbands sold away from wives. No social or familial bond was safe from destruction. And yet out of that horror, they managed to create a unique American subculture that has been one of the most powerful influences on global culture in the history of humanity. Think about the enormity of that achievement for a moment. Telling a Black woman you do not see her race is like telling a queen you do not see her crown. All racial and ethnic identities have rich cultures and histories. “I don’t see race” is saying “I see an important and beautiful part of your identity as a liability.”

headinsand

Hiding from discussions of race does not mean you’re “not racist.”

 

“I don’t see race” means “I’m afraid of being called ‘a racist.'” You cannot hide from discussions of race to avoid racism– quite the opposite. Seeing race does not make you a racist. Stating that you refuse to acknowledge race brings you much closer to that line because you’re rejecting the reality of racism in our culture and its impact on people of color. We live in a racist culture. The culture relentlessly bombards us with racist messaging. Fighting that requires constant vigilance. It requires questioning everything you think about race, everything you read, everything you hear. It requires factchecking statements about race and believing the nonpartisan factchecker rather than the racism. In short, it requires that we see race. It requires active examination of race in both self-reflection and education. If you feel so at sea in these discussions that you avoid them for fear of screwing up and looking like a racist, educate yourself! Read about racism. Read writers of color, and not just when they write about racism. And remember: not every discussion requires your participation. Sometimes you can just listen and learn when people of color are discussing racism around you.

Never try to “play devil’s advocate.” Racism is not a game. It’s an extraordinarily disrespectful thing to say in discussions of race, in no small part because it’s one way people who are afraid of being called “racist” air their racist views. If you find yourself wanting to say, “I don’t see color, but let me just play devil’s advocate here,” stop and spend some time honestly reflecting on what you were about to say.

thisisfine

(Source: KC Green, gunshowcomic.com)

“I don’t see race” means “The problem will go away if we ignore it.” Talking about racism does not cause racism. Despite the efforts of white people like Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), you do not “make America great” by ignoring race-based discrimination. “We need to stop talking about discrimination and start talking about the nation,” Kelly said, revealing his belief that racism is best swept under the rug, and that people of color are not included when we say “our nation.” Kelly went on to shout at Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), “We’re coming together as a people despite what you say,” meaning America is “coming together” to shut out people of color. The bill for which he was arguing, SJ Res. 57, passed both the House and the Senate, and it is once again legal for auto lenders to discriminate on the basis of race. Fighting racism requires active involvement, and that begins by recognizing the people of color around you in all aspects of their humanity.

“I don’t see race” means “Please praise me as a ‘good white person.'” As a white person trying hard to interrogate my whiteness, be a good ally, and work to create equity in our culture, this is the one I most deeply understand. It’s a struggle to walk around in a body every day that symbolizes hatred and danger to others, and the desire to be recognized as “not that”– as a good person– is strong.

The irony, of course, is that our culture frames people of color, especially Black and Latinx men as violent and dangerous. Despite the generations of oppression and violence white people have inflicted on people of color, our culture gives white people the benefit of the doubt, sees us as individuals, and expects our goodness while assuming people of color, especially Black and Latinx men, are weapons waiting to be used against us. When popular right wing site Breitbart was run by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, it featured an entire section labeled “Black Crime,” which was, after public scrutiny, demoted to a tag, then finally deleted. (The stories weren’t deleted– just the tag.) President Trump himself has called non-white nations “shithole countries,” and a man who made a recent failed bid for governor of Georgia toured the state in a “deportation bus” emblazoned with “Danger! Murderers, rapists, kidnappers, child molesters, and other criminals on board,” “Follow me to Mexico,” and “Fill this bus with illegals.” Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit fewer crimes than people born here, but racism is driving the inaccurate narrative that immigrants are dangerous. That kind of narrative, designed specifically to facilitate the oppression of people of color, cannot simply be ignored.

See race. If you want recognition as a good person, you must act like a good person and actively fight racism. Even then, being anti-racism is like being anti-murder or anti-theft. Don’t expect praise for that. Michelle Obama won’t come to your house with a trophy for being against racism any more than she would because you stopped stealing your co-workers’ lunches from the break room fridge.

Michelle-Obama.charles.dharapak.AP

Not coming to your house. (Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP)

Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. Being a good person is its own reward. Fight racism because it’s the right thing to do.

 

 

 

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“Dress Like A Normal Person”: The Weapons of Fragile Masculinity

 

egg.barany.nandor

“Egyensúly” by Nándor Bárány, 1936

Krista Knight is a young playwright well-known and well-loved in the new plays community. She’s well-loved both for her work (her plays have been produced all over the country) and for her personality, which is supportive, generous, and kind. If you scroll through her Instagram (@playtrixx), you’ll see her promoting the work of other writers as often as her own. You’ll also see pictures of her unique, fabulous look– pink hair, flamboyant outfits, wide, happy grin. Everyone who knows Krista loves Krista.

So it shocked the many people who know her when she received this email from fellow playwright Tommy Smith:

krista.knight

 

Almost simultaneously, another man– this one an attorney– publicly berated two women at a deli in midtown Manhattan for speaking Spanish during a transaction because “this is America.” In addition to his obvious racism and his less-obvious wild hypocrisy (his own legal practice advertises Spanish language services), he ends his tirade against these two women with an attack on one’s looks, telling her, “Maybe you shouldn’t eat that sandwich today. Take a break from the food.” (See the transcript here.)

What does a playwright’s wardrobe have to do with her writing? What does a woman’s weight have to do with her language? Both these attacks are illogical. Why suddenly, out of all the many Spanish-speaking people in midtown Manhattan, does a man attack two women for both their language and their appearance? Why suddenly, out of the blue, does a man attack a women for both her writing and her appearance?

Short answer: because misogyny.

Slightly longer answer: Men with fragile masculinity assert their dominance in public spaces whenever they feel their masculinity is threatened. When they feel their masculinity is threatened by a woman– the ultimate threat– they attempt to use the tools of male supremacy to put women in their place. In our male supremacist culture, women are accorded value based on their appearances alone. A man who wants to assert his dominance over a woman and make her feel small while making himself feel big and important– feel the weight of cultural male supremacy– will weaponize a woman’s appearance against her. He believes disparaging her appearance lowers her cultural value while the act of passing judgment on her appearance increases his. Weaponizing a woman’s appearance against her is one of the hallmarks of fragile masculinity.

krista

Krista Knight. (source: kristaknight.com)

Tommy Smith reached out to Krista Knight not because he disliked her plays or her outfits. I’m sure he dislikes both, but few adults would send such a shocking letter to an industry peer based on that alone. Here’s what I believe is going on: Knight’s industry prominence is growing. She is taking up space in what is still today a male-dominated industry, space he clearly feels belongs to him, space he feels entitled to police (“Go fuck yourself. . . . Your plays are bad”). He stresses his belief that she lives on a “trust fund,” and that her life is supported by money she doesn’t deserve, which touches on another hallmark of fragile masculinity– money. Not only is she taking up space in his industry that he feels rightfully belongs to him, but he is angered by the belief that she has more money than he does (“If you lived on the salary of a playwright”).

Under male supremacy, men are judged by other men for their success and their money. It’s an affront to fragile masculinity for a woman– a lowly woman– to have more success and more money than a man. Tommy’s email reveals the belief that he deserves success and money much more than Knight does, yet he’s faced with her rising star and (please be true) her personal fortune. She’s taking up space in his industry and therefore draining attention and resources that he evidently believes rightfully belong to him. Envying the success and wealth of a woman threatens his masculinity, which proves to be so fragile he reaches out to attack her. And like men have done for generations, Tommy reached for the closest (and laziest) misogynistic weapon at hand– her appearance.

aaron-02

Aaron Schlossberg (right) at a pro-alt right rally, May 2017. (Source: hornet.com)

Attorney Aaron Schlossberg was similarly threatened by the women who were speaking Spanish. In the past few days, his support of right-wing extremism has come to light, but just the transcript of the event alone reveals that he’s bought into the right-wing racist lie that Spanish-speaking = illegal immigrant = collecting welfare = drain on US taxpayers. Even a cursory look at the facts reveals how foolish and illogical that line of thought is, especially in New York, where there are thousands of US citizens who were born in the Spanish-speaking US territory Puerto Rico. But Aaron Schlossberg is not interested in logic. (If he were, he would not be having a public meltdown over women speaking Spanish in someone else’s business when he advertises speaking Spanish in his own.) As a right-wing extremist, he’s been carefully taught to see immigrants as a threat to him in general. But what sent him over the edge and into public hysterics at that moment was the sight of two women speaking Spanish during a deli transaction. The cell phone video one of the women shot shows Aaron spluttering in indignation to a heroically calm male employee who appears to deeply frustrate Aaron by failing to side with him. Just like Tommy Smith, Aaron Schlossberg sees these women as taking space that rightfully belongs to him, space he feels entitled to police (“my next call is to ICE to have each one of them kicked out of my country”). Just like Tommy, Aaron’s fragile masculinity is triggered by the idea that these Spanish-speaking women are draining financial resources from him (“they have the balls to come here and live off of my money. I pay for their welfare. I pay for their ability to be here”). And just like Tommy, just like men have done for generations, he attempts to assert his dominance by weaponizing a woman’s appearance against her.

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Tommy Smith. (Source: playscripts.com)

This is Trump’s America. Women and people of color have taken a few small steps towards equity, and white men (and women), who have always been comfortable in their position as the cultural and societal elite, panicked. Equity– even a few steps toward equity– looks like oppression to people who have always assumed the special treatment they historically received was “normal.” They elected a racist, sexist oaf to “get back at” the “coastal elite liberals” they believed were responsible for these modest social justice gains. Now, emboldened by the open racism and sexism of the President, emboldened by even the mainstream right’s approval of racism and sexism, they are lashing out, no longer seeing a need to hide racism and sexism, and desperate to reassert their societal and cultural dominance by putting everyone else “back in their places.” The increase in right-wing terrorism has been a major national problem for years. But there are also millions upon millions of smaller events that come from the same hateful impulse, the same anger at women, people of color, and LGBTQ people “taking over America”– taking space people with cultural privilege feel rightfully belong to them, space they feel entitled to police.

Masculinity can be as fragile as an egg perched on the edge of a wine glass. The tiniest whisper of a threat– real or imagined– is enough to send men like Tommy Smith and Aaron Schlossberg into hysterics. But we are continuing to push forward despite their desperate attacks. Despite the backlash.

This backlash was inevitable. We knew it was coming. And it is horrible– lives are lost, people are ruined, families are ripped apart. The pain is immense, made even worse by the gleeful celebration of the right. But it is a backlash. This isn’t a fight we’re going to win. We have already won. The toddlers are kicking and screaming, but eventually, they will be sitting in that car seat, riding along with the rest of the family, driving toward the future.

 

 

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A Memo to Gatekeepers Regarding Whiteness

Bitter Gertrude is thrilled to host our first guest blogger ever, the brilliant Ming Peiffer! 

 

Hand holding a metallic vintage key
Dear People In Positions Of Power,

When you decide to NOT produce a white artist’s work do NOT tell them it’s because they are white.

Using POC as scapegoats for why you can’t program a white artist’s work not only devalues the POC work you are (finally) giving a chance to see the light of day, BUT it also absolves you of your responsibility and complicity in creating an unfair media world that portrays the world as white and not how it actually is. You’re basically saying, “Normally this would be given to a white person but look where we are! We just can’t! Maybe the pendulum will swing back next season!” And you’re not paying attention to the fact that it “normally going to white person” is not normal at all. And is a prime example of systemic racism and systematic erasure of POC and “Other” voices. (It also signals to me that somewhere you believe this is a passing fad instead of real institutional change you are embedding.)

Moreover, it’s re-enforcing the false narrative that whites are not succeeding right now. C’mon. Look at the TV. Look at your seasons. Look at the rest of the country. Look at the president.

White people are doing fine.

It is certainly easier to blame a faceless POC than hurting the feelings of a white artist you have a relationship with but y’all need to pony up and take responsibility for the necessary and commendable changes you ARE making in your programming and explain to them that your definition of “worthy” work has expanded and that their work simply did not make the “worthy” list this year. And that your previous definition of “worthy” was racist. Was white.

DO NOT MAKE IT SEEM AS THOUGH DECISIONS WERE NOT RACE-BASED BEFORE.

They were race-based before, you just couldn’t see it.

Do the work people in power. You might have to have some hard conversations and disappoint some of your friends but it’s better than creating more animosity towards POC and spreading an abhorrently false narrative that their whiteness is what’s keeping them from success.

It’s hard to be honest but it will be worth it and everyone will make better work because of it.

 

mingpeiffer

Ming Peiffer is a playwright, screenwriter, and activist from Columbus, Ohio. Her play USUAL GIRLS will be produced at the Roundabout Underground as part of their 2018/19 Season. Her work has been developed and/or presented by New York Theatre Workshop, Roundabout Theatre Company, The Kennedy Center, Ensemble Studio Theater, HERE Arts Center, The Flea, The Wild Project, New Ohio, Soho Playhouse, The Gene Frankel Theater, C.O.W., Theater for the New City, FringeNYC, Horsetrade Theater, Yangtze Repertory, among others. Awards/Fellowships include: NYTW 2050 Fellowship, The Kennedy Center’s Paul Stephen Lim Playwriting Award Recipient (i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it), The Relentless Award Honorable Mention (USUAL GIRLS), The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center NPC Finalist (USUAL GIRLS), Playwright’s Realm Fellowship Semi-Finalist, Princess Grace Award Semi-Finalist (i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it), Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award Finalist. In TV/Film, Ming has been a staff writer at Netflix and Hulu, and is currently developing her own series with Color Force and F/X. Additionally, she is adapting Weike Wang’s “CHEMISTRY” into a film for Amazon and a comic book into a series for AMC.

More about Ming Peiffer here

(Top image courtesy of Creative Commons license CC.BY.3.0; bottom image provided by author)
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