Unlearning the Eyeroll

I just read this piece today called “In Defense of the Gay White Male” — I don’t know whether or not that was the author’s title —by Zack Rosen and it made me pause.  Not because I think gay white dudes need defending or because I loved the essay.  Honestly, the piece read as whiney and sorta boring in many places, evident throughout was the author’s lack of understanding about the basics of power and privilege (read the comment thread for more specifics — it’s pretty great in many places).  But, there’s also a fear the author was trying to get at that’s really familiar for me.  Namely, the fear of saying things the wrong way, or being the wrong person to say anything at all, or just not knowing how to enter into a conversation without exerting my own privilege.  Sometimes this shows itself in a fear that by saying I can see the point in many centrist arguments, I may lose my ‘progressive’ political cred (if such a thing is mine to begin with).

There are times where I simply shut up rather than risk speaking in ‘the wrong way’, there are positions held by strangers and friends that I really disagree with, but am afraid to speak that disagreement because I worry about participating in my own privilege by even saying something (of course, I can’t help participating in my own privilege, but I want to be actively aware of it and intentional about how I take up space because of it).  There are times where I understand why a political thing happened (like the tax compromise) or where I appreciate a centrist moment (like the SOTU address this week), and I feel … like I should be more rad than I am.

I struggle to find a way to give myself the chance to learn by actively engaging but also recognizing that my learning should not be on the backs of other folks.  I have said some incredibly stupid things in my life, and when those stupid things were met with dismissal or derision, I didn’t learn much and often got entrenched in a position simply because I felt attacked.  When those stupid-things were met with thoughtful and considered disagreement, I often learned just how stupid the thing I’d said was at that moment, and always found things I needed to learn about before I next spoke.  I get that understanding the difference between the personal and systemic is central to understanding privilege and power.  But I also get that learning that difference is not automatic in a bootstraps-centric culture like the one I live in, particularly when you are the recipient of that systemic privilege and power.

So, Zack Rosen says:

This is not an article about the ways I am disenfranchised for being white or biologically male. I know that the gay world traditionally and invisibly revolves around people like me and am not shallow enough to begrudge others their own spaces and struggles. But it would be nice to share my own thoughts about race and gender without fear of immediate chastisement for my ignorance.

Rosen is the Editor-in-Chief for The New Gay (which I admit to never having read or even heard of before today) publishes things like this essay, Tokenized: Colonization, Gender and the Self and this piece about DADT that questions the most familiar narratives, also publishes things like this piece on racism in queer communities that utterly misses the boat, where ‘racism’ is poorly understood and white guilt & privilege are evident throughout.  Which is to say it seems like a somewhat-progressive online journal, with some familiar failings (check out the staff, do you see what I see?) and a desire to be more than a mouthpiece for the HRC but a pretty comfortable range of positions.

Part of me thinks: dude, all you have to do is read folks you don’t agree with, or pay attention to the whiteness of your contributing staff or seek out work by folks talking about anti-oppression!  And instead of doing that, you’re posting a piece bemoaning your inability to engage in a discussion where not only your sex, your gender, and your race provide you privilege, but your very job gives you incredible access that you seem to be ignoring! Another part of me thinks: there has to be a way to engage here that leaves the door open for conversation.  I get that I am responsible for my own defensiveness and that my privilege is my own to own, we all are and it always is.  But I also know that if I really want to make change in the world, I have to be able to meet people where they are and not where I want them to be.  So, if a person takes a risk to try and understand — even if that person is self-centered in that attempt — isn’t it worthwhile for me to try and respond in a way that doesn’t feel attacking?

So, the piece concludes with this:

I want to ask how I can help and how I can change without having to atone for crimes I did not commit.

Part of me just groans and rolls my eyes,  because the “I didn’t own slaves” argument is … well, boring and misses the point and too familiar for words.  But there’s another part of me, a part of me that really believes we have to be able to talk with each other and not at each other, and that part of me thinks that my rolling my eyes is a destructive move.  My dismissing someone who is honestly wanting to make the world a better place seems like the opposite of what I want to be doing.  And I think that part of what I find frustrating in many of my communities is exactly this: an eagerness to dismiss, not the Limbaughs and the Dr Laura’s (dismiss away!), but the earnest folks who haven’t quite figured out how to engage in a multi-issue, multi-identity kind of way.  Or who have invested in doing just that, but have come to a different place with it.  Or who maybe just disagree with me about this, and yet are ultimately allies in working to make the world a better place.

I’m not making an argument for protecting the feelers of white folks as a central tenet (or even ancillary tenet) of anti-oppression work.  I’m not suggesting that making white folks feel comfortable should be the priority in queer spaces.  I’m not suggesting that the centrist political viewpoint needs to be privileged.  I’m not arguing against critique of Democrats by progressives.  What I am suggesting is that, in both instances (the earnest white person trying to talk about privilege and power and a discussion about policy, politics, platforms from a progressive standpoint): I think we need to see each other as allies and not adversaries in order to make change.

And a large part of me wonders if unlearning the eye-roll is a necessary thing for those of us on the lefty side of things in order to see ourselves as part of a larger base.  That really comfortable place of superiority that allows for the eye-roll is maybe a part of the problem.  Because those on the righty side of things?  They seem to do better at seeing themselves as a part of a larger whole with which they may disagree, but a part of them nonetheless.  This is an unfinished thought (clearly, this post is all over the map).  I’m putting it out there unfinished, flawed, and probably full of things I should have thought more about because maybe that’s what we need to be willing to do too.  It’s harder to rolls my eyes at someone else when I know I am eyeroll-worthy myself.