This is one of those posts I’m a little bit afraid to write, which at least is the sign of an interesting post, and occasionally the sign of a post that needs to get written. I’m hoping — ha ha heh heh ahem gulp fingers crossed — it’s the latter. (It’s also a way long post, so, erm — sorry?)
Hi, I’m the Internet’s Chuck Wendig, and I’m a racist.
And also a sexist.
And probably a handful of other “*-ists,” too.
I know. You’re saying, “Chuck, but you’re a feminist. And you speak out on Twitter against things like this.” Which is accurate. I do. And it doesn’t change my core assertion that I am these things.
Like, I’m not a super-racist. I don’t have a white robe with a peaked hood. I’m not some kind of uber-sexist, where I have some secret library of Pick-Up Artist books because I think women are actually just here to be the breeding stock for powerful men like myself. (Please note that I typed “powerful men like myself” with an eye-roll so dramatic I got dizzy and fell out a window.)
The thing is, I don’t believe these things at all. I’m not a conscious, overt racist or sexist. In fact, consciously, overtly, I’m against those things. I actively oppose them (though probably not as much as I should, and definitely not as much as I’d like).
And yet, I’m still racist and sexist and other -ists.
A lot of it is internal. Little knee-jerk reactions that speak to old, irrational, utterly dumb preconceived notions and prejudices — like ghosts that haunt the psychic hallways, ghosts I thought were exorcized but who still linger in interstitial spaces. (Want an example? When you walk the streets of New York, you hear a lot of different languages spoken. This is an awesome thing, ultimately, but once in a while I hear my father’s voice in my head: “Speak English.” And it’s like, whoa, where the fuck did that come from? How do I know they don’t speak English? How do I know they’re not trying to learn? Why do I give a shit at all? Half the people in this country that were born here don’t speak English well enough for me, so what the hell, brain?)
A good example is how I looked at my bookshelves a couple years ago and was like, “Yeah, wow, that’s a lot of white male authors on my shelf.” It was an error that needed to be corrected. Not because the books I had were bad, but because I was missing out on great stories and powerful voices — my reading experience was incomplete. My perspective was limited.
But it’s not always internal, either. Occasionally it’s woefully, regrettably external.
Sometimes, a thing just pops out of my mouth. Like a cork. My wife will be like, “You know, that was maybe a little sexist.” And I’ll be like, blink blink blink, whoa, okay, you’re right. I like to think I’m this enlightened guy and then it’s like — oh, yeah, no, I still say ignorant stuff.
Actually, the most recent one for me was transphobia. Like, up until a handful of years ago, I had no idea how transphobic I was. It wasn’t even a thing I recognized. I’d use trans slurs thinking they were totally fine. “Tranny” is a word I used, thinking, well, gosh, it’s just a shortened version of transexual or transgender and that’s cool, right?, not actually taking the time to remind myself that most slurs are insidiously simple like that. Many are just shortened words or quippy nicknames — harmless on the surface, but they’re knives that cut deep. And worse, indicative of use by powerful oppressors who don’t deserve to be the ones to give other people nicknames. (If you don’t understand this phenomenon and you think those words aren’t harmful, imagine you’re a kid, and a bully gives you a nickname that’s just an off-kilter version of your own name. It’s not your friends giving you the name, it’s someone who wants to — and maybe does — abuse you. Even a shortened, simplistic nickname is toxic, cruel, meant to mock you and steal your power.)
This seems like a dumbass idea to admit these things. I mean, the smart thing to do might be to just shut the fuck up about it, quietly fix the hole in the boat, and float on down the river. But this feels important to talk about. It feels useful to admit. Because I think a lot of folks have boats with holes in the hull that they don’t even know about. And here you might be saying, what’s this about? Well, part of it is spurred on by the Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler thing that happened at the National Book Awards. (Short version: in giving an award to Jacqueline Woodson, he then made a racist joke about watermelon. He has since apologized and donated money — here’s the wrap-up.) Part of it is just, y’know, confessional. It’s a hard topic and shitty things like this are good sometimes to drag out into the air and the light if only because that’s how you see them and how you (individually and collectively) deal with them.
So. Back to me, because after all this is a blog and blogs are pretty much me, me, me.
Why am I a racist, sexist, *-ist? Why are a lot of us that way?
I think this comes from a handful of places.
First, how we’re raised. Were my parents racist, sexist, homophobic, all that? You can bet your ass they were. Listen, real talk time? I grew up hearing the whole catalog of slurs. From my father, at least. At dinner, in the car, everywhere. Not just the slurs, but the stereotypes, too. It’s easy to blame him and shake my fist at him — but first, he’s dead now, so I’m pretty sure that yelling at the grave will do little good except rile the zombies that dwell there. Second, ennnh, there’s only so much you can do to change other people. You can try. You should try. But the generations who came before me are fucked up in a whole unholy host of ways. Often because of what trickled down from the generations that preceded them — old ways and ideas are inherited like genes.
Second, it comes from the media. The media is very good at kicking up dust. We’ve long gone past the point of the news offering up news — it’s framed as entertainment but even there, that word doesn’t quite fit. Our media is built around attention, and conflict, and drama, and while those things are quite lovely in our fiction, they’re straight-up toxic when it comes to our culture. The media is driven by the privileged status quo and it reflects that. After 9/11, Islamophobia was at a major high (and remains prevalent). Because the news media is very good at putting forward a narrative that carries that cultural phobia forward — it’s not that what they’re reporting is always untrue, but rather, that it’s a lie of omission. You get white people on TV all the time who are doing wonderful things — “Look at this Mayor, saving a cat from a tree. Look at this firefighter, fighting fires. Bake sale! Rescue dogs! White people doing white people good!” But when Islam pops up in the news, it’s pretty much, y’know, “ISIS AL QAEDA OSAMA (wait he’s dead) SHOE BOMB BEHEADINGS FEAR THE MUSLIM MENACE (we didn’t say that but wink wink no really be afraid).” They don’t often show, “Look, here’s a Muslim guy who opened a museum or who patches potholes for his community.” I mean, they don’t even show, “Look, here’s a Muslim family who stays quiet and has jobs and pays their taxes just like you, so for fuck’s sake, relax.” They tweak that twinge in your gut that, when you’re about to get on a plane and you see a guy in a turban (spoiler warning: he’s probably Sikh), your buttcheeks clench up and you think, OH GOD HE’S A BOMBER, even though that makes literally no sense and is pure, distilled kneejerk racism.
The news has been stirring the transphobia pot for years. “Eddie Murphy was caught with a transsexual prostitute,” and they make it seem like it’s the strangest, creepiest thing in the world. The prostitute is painted as inhuman, alien, someone very distinctly Other. And no one in the media at that time countered that narrative.
(And by the way, don’t think that this media problem is limited to news. Look at most of the winners of Survivor and — mmm, yeah, most of them are white, because of course they stack the show with white people and white people tend to vote out the people of color. Most of our dramas and comedies are predominantly white and straight and frequently male-driven, too. Films? Yep, same problem. I mean, how many women directors are out there? Or women comic book artists? These mycelial, fungal threads are all up in our media culture.)
Third, power structures. Institutions have ingrained power structures and nobody wants those to change. The people in power (who are predominantly white, male, straight) want to remain in power and so they keep people who look like them and act like them in place. It’s like an oblique form of nepotism — no, those other people aren’t your actual family, but when it comes to all these -isms I’m talking about, they’re wink wink like your family.
Fourth, laziness. I think humans are fundamentally lazy. Challenging a worldview doesn’t seem like a lot of work compared to, like, digging a ditch, but breaking one paradigm and replacing it with another takes psychological effort, and we’re not always very good at it.
And here you’re saying, well, I’m excusing the -isms. Right? By identifying causes outside of me, I’m blaming those structures and those institutions which means I can wipe my hands and say, whew, and go back to being whoever I want to be. I can look at the scraggly, unkempt lawns of my neighbors and use it to excuse why my lawn is scraggly and unkempt, too.
But I’m not excusing it.
I’m just trying to say that it comes from somewhere. It’s important to recognize things like that so we can deal with them — individually and, yes, culturally.
Because there’s a fifth thing, an umbrella cause to it all, and that’s privilege. Privilege is pretty easy to see in action — if a straight white dude walks into an Institution of Power (a bank, a college, a TV station, whatever), he has a statistically better chance of finding success there than if he were some combination of not straight, non-white, and non-dudely. Look at it this way: amongst Fortune 500 CEOs, most of them are white guys. So, you either have to admit that there’s a privilege to the power structure or you instead have to opine that white dudes are just better than everyone else, which is fucked up and hyper-privileged and oh, hey, shame on you. (And the same goes with the disproportionate incarceration of black men in the US prison system. You either have to admit that there’s a continued privilege to being, well, not a black guy when it comes to the law, or you have to be a shitty person who says, “Well, maybe it’s just because white people aren’t criminals, haw haw haw,” which, y’know, fuck you for saying that. The privilege is up and down the road for people like me — we get the education, the jobs, the money, the guns, the assumptions of innocence, the breaks, all of it.)
The freaky thing about privilege though is that it’s blinding.
We just don’t see it.
It’s like an accent we don’t hear (“Me? I don’t have an accent. It’s you that sounds weird”). It’s like failing to recognize our own stink.
Privilege is often invisible to those that possess it.
This is due, I suspect, to a few things.
One, a lot of folks with privilege are not perfectly privileged, and so it becomes a whole harder to see and then admit. Like, if you’re a white male who has a shit job and not a lot of money it’s hard to recognize your privilege — in part because you have less of it (in RPG terms, money adds bonus modifiers to your existing Privilege Score).
Two, because guilt is often a hidden thing and we don’t make a lot of effort to drag it out into the light. Inherently we recognize privilege (“That cop let me go, and he wouldn’t have if I was black”), but then do a lot of intellectual squaredancing to cover that up (“Buh, whuh, well, it’s not the color of my skin it’s that I drive a nice car and I work hard and was friendly and lots of other reasons that are actually only indicative of my privilege and ahh crap there’s that word again”). Or worse, you don’t recognize it because, “Oh, see, he gave me a ticket, too, so, hah, privilege isn’t real.” Yeah, okay, sure, you got the ticket, but you didn’t get shot, did you?
Three, an unconscious desire to keep our spot. A meme went around Facebook recently (I know, I know) that showed how one teacher demonstrated privilege by giving everyone in the class a wadded up piece of paper and asking them to shoot a basket into the trashcan at the fore of the room. And the people in the back had a hard time making the shot, but the people at the front had it easy. (I’d also add in the axis that says with every new aspect of privilege you gain — white, straight, male, money, etc. — you get another shot at the basket.) The people at the “front of the class” don’t want to move their seat. Exposing privilege — showing a rigged system — is exposing the benefits you have received. That makes folks uncomfortable.
Four, we’re frequently surrounded by a total lack of diversity — in our schools, in our social circles, at work and in the media — that it’s hard to even figure out that privilege is a thing that exists much less it’s a thing we possess.
Five, the status quo is easy to see, but difficult to see what makes it problematic. The way things are presently often feels very normal — “it is what it is.” Inertia. Acceptance. Reality.
Though, once you see privilege —
Man, you see it everywhere.
(Same goes for rape culture. At first you’re like RAPE CULTURE ISN’T REAL, but once you have your eyes opened to it, it’s like, oh god we live in a horrible reality what the fuck is wrong with us.)
So, what’s the point of this whole post?
You know, I dunno. I’m not saying anything particularly new or revelatory, I realize. I just think it’s important to admit these things — because once you kick over the log and see what squirms underneath you can take to addressing it. But you can’t deal with it until you do that. I’m a privileged guy. I don’t always recognize my own ignorance — in fact, the ability to not recognize it and to continue on like nothing happens is itself part of privilege. I don’t say any of this to excuse it or to just push past it, but rather to shine a light on it. It’s why we need diversity. It’s why we need to challenge ourselves and others to do better. It’s why “outrage” sometimes matters — it’s very easy to feel “outrage fatigue,” but that in and of itself is a privilege because some people have to live that outrage every day. We can just turn it off, but others? It’s there, 24/7.
What’s to be done?
I don’t have any great answers.
I’d say it’s important to listen.
It’s critical to signal boost.
It’s important to believe what other people tell us when they say they’re victims of these -isms that plague us individually and institutionally.
It’s vital to recognize our own privilege and — counterintuitively — work against it.
And I think we need to pass the good ideas onto our kids and not the shitty prejudices that came to us from generations before.
Like I said earlier, we look to other people’s unkept lawns and use it as an excuse not to keep our own, but that’s all twisted. We should do the other thing. We should keep our own lawns in the hope that it encourages others to keep theirs in return.
We gotta do better. And hope others join us.
I’m obviously a writer, so for me, it’s important to see diversity in writing and publishing — and not just in the half-a-nod “We need more white guys writing diversity into their books,” but also in the writers themselves, and within the industry. As such, I now point you to:
I politely ask that you go there, give a little something.
And as I’ve said in the past, maybe take a gander at your own bookshelves, too. And your own work, And, if you’re in the publishing industry, look to your own hallways.
Thanks for reading.