I was reading James Baldwin’s Everybody’s Protest Novel, in which Baldwin roasts Uncle Tom’s Cabin (an anti-slavery novel written by a white woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe) and, he raises what – for me – is *the* problem with pop discussion on privilege today.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. Uncle tom’s Cabin— like its multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants — is a catalogue of violence. This is explained by the nature of Mrs. Stowe’s subject matter, her laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture; an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete; and what constriction of failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality — unmotivated, senseless — and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that motivated her people to such deeds.
When I read that paragraph for the first time, I felt like Baldwin had shined a light into a part of me that was screaming. In fact, that paragraph is so good, I’m going to quote from it again.
Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.
Sentimentality is the mark of dishonesty. How true that reads, and how relevant. That thought extends outward beyond race, beyond oppression even, to hit at something deeply out of line in our culture. Why is it that 28% of “young adult” novels are purchased by people between 30 and 44? Why do so many of the videos that pop up in my facebook feed contain the message “try to watch this about crying?” Why do we want to watch deaf women hearing music for the first time, or cats reunited with their owners, why do straight people get group-think obsessed with gay marriage?
the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart
Where, along the way, did we lose our ability to fully feel our ordinary lives? Why do we seek out extreme stories of emotion, to compensate for the deadness that has entered our hearts?
it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.
What is acting as a signal of secret and violent inhumanity? James Baldwin saw this inhumanity in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and now I see it everywhere. In particular, I see it in the discussion of privilege. So, if the “underprivileged” want to call out other people’s “privilege” – like, that’s fine and possibly even healthy. What pisses me off, however, is the way privileged people tend to “own” their privilege, how they attempt to construct a more flattering self identity by being “allies” of less privileged classes. Ultimately, however, it’s not *really* in their best interest to improve the state of these less privileged classes, because these “allies” need less fortunate people to perpetuate their own identity as an “ally.”
Or, another way to put it, is if there was no injustice in the world, there would be no liberals. Liberals feed off injustice, their identity, their purpose in the world is to fight injustice. And, I say this as a liberal white woman – a liberal white woman who wonders, “who will I be when we achieve equality?”
It is notable that Harriet Beecher Stowe campaigned for the expansion of women’s rights after the civil war, not to improve the lives of the recently emancipated slaves who she had so passionately argued for before abolition. What she seemed more interested in, and what James Baldwin called our out on, was *injustice* rather than *people*, or *slavery* rather than *slaves*. Discussions on privilege usually focus on the institution, and seem rooted in identity and narcissism rather than a desire for connection. Louis CK “checks his privilege” in a recent video about fat women, but the video isn’t about fat women, it’s about men. The fat woman’s rant starts with “it really sucks to be a fat girl,” but then launches into the issues *men* have that makes them not want to date fat women. “You think your dick is going to fall off if you hold hands with a fat girl?” the fat woman asks. Good question – but, we can’t ignore the fact that this is Louis CK’s show, that the space he made to discuss what fat girls feel was dominated by what *men* feel to be *with* a fat girl – coming from the mouth of a fat girl. He used her to ask questions he didn’t dare about himself, but he didn’t really shed much more light on what it was like to *be* her.
So, still – with all this discussion – the biggest questions are left untouched. As Baldwin pointed out, Stowe left unanswered the most important question of all – “what it was, after all, that motivated her people to such deeds”?
How could white slave owners get up every day and brutalize other people? How could this happen? How were they not driven to despair, or depression, or in any other way motivated to stop? How could they have desired their own prosperity at such a sharp cost?
I can’t answer that question right now, but it’s a question that needs answering and requires attention. Instead, I’ll ask another question which is more relevant to today.
How is it that we accept the mass incarceration of black and latino men? How are we ok with having nearly 60% of the prison system being filled with racial demographics that only make up 1/4 of the US population? How are we ok with the fact that one in six black men has been incarcerated at some point in their lives? (See source.)
Do you believe that one in six black men deserves to have been in prison at some point? To put someone in prison is to rob them of their life in the most straightforward way. As a country, we are committing a mass theft of life from men of color. How do we accept this?
If you’re like me, you may not have even thought about it for a long time. I’m nearly 30, and I didn’t really think of these issues until very recently, but I have known since middle school that black people went to prison more than white people. What was that knowledge accompanied by?
Honestly, fear. I am afraid of black men. Not the ones I know, but strangers – and, definitely the ones in prison. If you conjure up the image of a black inmate, you have conjured up someone I am afraid of, and this fear blocks my empathy. I’ve never heard another white person admit they are afraid of black men, and I’m ashamed to admit it on my blog, but it’s true. It’s true, and I know many other white people must also be afraid of black men, and this fear is keeping black men in prison. Liberal, “privilege owning” white people won’t say this out loud, and will probably condemn me as a racist for admitting it myself, but by not admitting it I would only be protecting my image at the cost of ever figuring out what is actually happening.
So, should I just get over this? Well, I’ve tried, actually, and there’s one problem. The men who shout sexual slurs at me in the street are overwhelmingly black and latino men, and my lizard brain can’t help but notice this fact. When I walk by a black man in the street, I tense up, because part of me thinks he’s more likely to shout at me than a white man is. Now, there are some exceptions here – a black man in glasses? A black man in a suit? I don’t fear these men. But, a black man in torn clothes who is clearly unbathed? I am afraid of him.
We can’t address white racial bias without addressing the long term affects of discrimination. If black men are more likely to go to prison, they’re probably also more likely not to really give a shit about violating the social norms that sent them there. White men don’t say bullshit to me in the street because they’re afraid of what other people around them will think, and because they benefit from playing by conventional rules (when it’s anonymous on the internet though, all bets are off.) My own fears and biasses interact with reality, interact with how people who have absorbed a lifetime of oppression actually behave in the real world.
So, why do we accept the number of black men in prison? Because we have made too many of them criminals, and by making them criminals once, we have given them an incentive to *keep* being criminals. Now, our biases that “black men are dangerous” seem justified, and polite society won’t openly admit this bias which only makes it even harder to fix.
To go back to slavery, I still can’t answer this question as to what made white people do it – but, I’ll take a stab at why they accepted it. Slaves lacked education, they had absorbed more physical and mental trauma than most people today can even conceive of, they were mourning from a loss of their own culture, and so they acted differently from white people, and differently from free people. Instead of seeing this behavioral difference as being directly caused by their actions, white people read this behavior to be an indicator of innate differences between the races that justified slavery.
Yet, white people must have seen that only because the *wanted* to see that. Why did white people want to see black people as slaves? Why did they want to see other cultures as inferior? I believe the answer to that question goes deeper than the material benefit they gained, that maybe it ties back to Baldwin’s point about excessive sentimentality and a fear of really living, but I’m not quite sure how.