The (old) Licquia Family Blog

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Sun, 22 Jun 2003

The fight between division and unity

A lot of the ideas floating around on the Web bother me. OK, all together now: this is news? But in the last few days, I've read about several things that have really gotten under my skin, and in generally the same way. Most of the posts have the typical flaws and sparkles that grace nearly every blog post, so I don't really want to dwell on them individually. Rather, it's a theme that flows through all of them that causes me grief.

So let's start from the beginning: an aside from this Critical Mass post, which led me to this Washington Post story and this follow-up. It's all about some new academic fad called "whiteness studies". Unlike "black studies", "women's studies", and the rest, this is about studying all the ways whites should feel guilty for their skin color and the societal advantages they bring. Among the apalling quotes, this one stood out: " ... we intend to keep bashing the dead white males, and the live ones, and the females too, until the social construct known as 'the white race' is destroyed-not 'deconstructed' but destroyed." (Noel Ignatiev, from the comments to the Joanne Jacobs post and here.)

The interesting part is that, in one sense, I agree with this. No, not the bashing part. It's certainly true, though, that skin color or eye shape distinguish people exactly as much, physically, as eye color or hair color: no more, no less. It makes as much sense to deny brunettes loans, or cross the street when a green-eyed person approaches, as it does to avoid people with darker or lighter skin. (As a camp counselor in college, I've participated in exercises like this, based on hair color, which were very effective in teaching diversity to the kids.) So "destroying whiteness" is a good thing, if we can also destroy blackness, Hispanic-ness, Asian-ness, and all the other "nesses" as well.

"Whiteness studies" doesn't do any of this. Whites are supposed to keep their whiteness in mind always, in order to feel guilt; part of the point seems to be the assertion that whites don't think about race nearly enough. Does anyone think it helps matters to blame people for a physical characteristic they hold and cannot change? Didn't we learn that lesson last time?

The trend continues in a post by Halley Suitt. The post rambles around quite a few issues, with lots of good points and lots of bad; what caught my eye was the dichotomy between men and women. Men built blogs, but women alone made them worth reading; men made wheels, but women made cars; men committed crimes, and women exposed them; men have supportive wives, but women don't have supportive husbands.

Again, the point was to focus on what divides us, not what unites us. One could focus on the tech-head fixation on process and the subsequent revolution brought by the non-tech writers in the blog story, and be very correct. But, for some reason, techiness is male and writing is female, Mena Trott and James Lileks notwithstanding. So, again, my white maleness puts me at the edge of a vast gulf, built for me by freak accidents of parentage and random chance, with no hope of camaraderie with the other side.

This gulf is made even more explicit in this post. "Unconscious bias" is the rule for the day; those men just can't help being misogynists. The comments are even more revealing: when a man wanders in and challenges her assumptions, he is basically handed a reading list and told to go away. The comments are then marked as a "safe space" for discussion only among people who agree with the basic point. The message was clear: you're a man, you can't possibly talk to us, your place is to loathe yourself, go read these books to learn how.

It gets worse when Halley clarifies the meaning of her post. I believe her when she says that she didn't intend to bash men. But she did intend to bash marriage, by her own admission, looking for something new to replace it. What that is we won't know until her "Alpha Male" series gets around to the topic, which it hasn't as of this writing.

Of the distinctions we find in our society that divide us, only one has an irrefutable basis in fact: the gender divide. Marriage can act as a bridge (though, unfortunately, it doesn't in too many cases). It's not just the sex or children that does this, as too many divorced couples know; it's the commitment to each other, the determination to learn and grow from another person and understand the differences, the choice to be more than oneself, that allows each spouse to be a gateway for the other to transcend the gender gap. And yet we attack even this flawed mechanism of unity. Will Halley's replacement fulfill the same function? Or will the view of her commenters prevail: that we all must be content with being self-centered, and accept other people's otherness as a given?

You know what's really sad? In terms of the facts on the ground, I don't disagree with most of this. I saw racism firsthand while assisting a black itinerant preacher in central Illinois during my college summers, among people who would otherwise vehemently denounce racism. I work in computer technology, a very strongly male-dominated field, and have seen brilliant female co-workers treated like dirt for their gender. Generally, my female co-workers have all been brilliant for one simple reason: they have to be to survive. Similarly, the idea of a "house husband" is still too freaky for some people for some reason. We have neighbors in this very situation right now, and it's not always easy to remind ourselves that the guy isn't a lazy bum leeching off his wife, or that she isn't a bad mother for choosing a career over motherhood.

But it seems that some people see the divisions in our society and build them up. It's as if we thought that tearing down buildings was best accomplished by reinforcing them. I reject this. I know that women and minorities continue to face hurdles I don't, but I seek to tear those hurdles down, not trip myself in an attempt to compensate.

And, most importantly, I reject this notion that vast gulfs exist between me and my neighbors. I will probably never understand PMS, or the fear of walking alone at night, or the horror of burning crosses. But I know that others experience these things, and I don't have to taste their tastes to understand that they are bitter.

Unfortunately, it's not all up to me. As they say, "it takes two to tango". If some people consider "otherness" from me to be the primary fact about our relationship, there isn't a whole lot I can do to force them to be my friend. People can look at my white skin and maleness and decide that my mind is poisoned against them before the first word of greeting. No one should be surprised at this after hundreds of years of considering blackness or femaleness as the othering mark.

But if anyone out there in this camp is listening, consider this: my eyes were not opened to racism by diversity training or "whiteness studies", but by an itinerant preacher who set his shoulder against his burdens without veering from his main goals, and who did not blame me for the sins of others. And awareness of sexism was not taught to me by a women's studies department, but by brilliant and courageous co-workers who accepted me for who I was, despite the jerks who kept treating them like interns. These were people who looked to unite, rather than divide.

It's the fashion today to ridicule faith. Perhaps this is why the debate about equality seems to have foundered, and why so many of us cling to our otherness. For after the dismantling of the institutions of discrimination must come the moment when we believe in each other despite, not because of, the evidence. The alternative is eternal damnation: separation from and distrust of our fellow humans now and forever, for reasons that make no sense save historic precedent.

More than this is needed, though, if we are to have true unity. We must have faith in the basic humanity of those who are different from us, hope that others will act on a similar faith, and love that can overcome the counterexamples. I don't think I'm going to disagree with the assertion: "the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV) Whatever you believe about God and the universe, can you bring yourself to believe this?

"But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.' Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." (James 2:18, NIV)

Jun 22, 2003 | Comments are no longer available