The latest kerfuffle to hit the net seems to be about Avril Lavigne and her new video “Hello Kitty”, and I can totally understand why. I mean seriously, did you see that hair? It’s like she went from punk rock to pop rocks!
Wait, I’m getting some new information in. Looks like the problem has nothing to do with her hair (except for some snarky comments from people who have no substantive criticism to offer) but rather that the whole thing is blatantly, screamingly racist and Avril should be ashamed of herself.
What? I sat through the whole video (admittedly on mute – I’m not a strong man), and despite thinking that Rainbow Brite threw up on her I didn’t see anything to particularly take issue with. So what’s the deal?
Here’s the thing: Americans, and particularly white Americans, are very sensitive and determined to take offense, especially if they can do so on behalf of someone else (it’s the new white person’s burden). The irony of course is that those most likely to try to police others in their actions are, as always, the least likely to bother actually getting more than a superficial understanding of the people and cultures they are trying to “protect” and “stand up for” (see how this sort of language subtly diminishes and disempowers those other cultures? Nah, neither do I.) So if someone is actually paying tribute or homage to that other culture or, god forbid, accurately reflecting it but doesn’t match the preconceived notions these folks have of what someone of that culture should look like (particularly their skin color, gender, features, etc.) then they are being racist.
Did you catch that? If you don’t look how we say you are supposed to look and you aren’t doing what we expect you to do, you’re the one who is being racist. Interesting turnabout there. And all in the name of “protecting” people from… what exactly? Damaging the culture? How exactly is Avril Levine or Miley Cyrus (to name another famous singer recently accused of “appropriation”) damaging the culture by trying to partake of it? (Okay, I wouldn’t want to be associated with Miley either, but still.) It’s not like anyone believes they invented it, nor are they claiming to have done so.
To those who would suggest that these cultural artifacts “belong” to one group or another exclusively, I say with all the eloquence I can muster: horseshit. Culture is a human artifact to be shared, manipulated, adapted, adopted, and remixed by other humans so that we can all grow and benefit from it. What would happen if white people tried to say, “Hey, we invented golf, it’s part of our culture and you can’t have it”? Oh wait, they did, and two things happened. First they got sued, and second Tiger Woods came in and made them all look like idiots.
I’ve “been” a lot of things in my life: preppy, nerd, punk, nerd, goth, nerd (seeing a theme here?), grunge kid, and Average White Guy™. Most all of those have been amalgamations of various different cultural influences, and none of them would exist if purists such as these had their way. Maybe instead of trying so hard to police the behavior of others, they should spend some time working on themselves.
I used to joke that nobody was allowed to be a hypocrite except for me. It was mostly a joke, but like most jokes there was a kernel of truth in it. I had my own hypocritical tendencies, just like everyone else, and somewhere in my mid-twenties or so (right around the time I started casually studying philosophy) I decided it was time to start facing my own hypocrisies and trying to winnow them out of my life.
Now before you give me any great credit for this, let me be clear about one thing: I do not make any claims that this made me a better person. I still had (and have) plenty of foibles, prejudices, and personal issues to resolve, and some of them I cling to with the tenacity of a dog with a bone. The difference is that I try to at least be aware of them and not sugar coat them with some blind lies. For example, I have come to accept that I am one of the worst drivers on the road. No, seriously. I am a menace to society. I’ll talk smack about other people’s driving all day long, but I don’t go around pretending that I am a model to follow. See? That’s what I mean when I say I am working on not being a hypocrite.
It’s not always easy for me, even now, because hypocrisy is easy. For me, it almost always starts by identifying some obnoxious behavior in someone else. One of my great flaws (what can I say, anything I do, I do it with greatness) is to be judgmental, and I do so love to judge. If I see someone else being rude, or loud, or pushy, or racist, or sexist, or any of a number of other things that I find offensive, I immediately categorize them in my head as “asshole, assorted”. Sometimes I even subcategorize them: “Asshole, loud”, “Asshole, racist”, “Asshole, sexist”. My favorite is the ones who categorize themselves into stereotypes, like “Asshole, Redneck”.
Did you catch what I just did there? That’s right, I just stereotyped someone. And isn’t that what sexism, racism, and all the other evil -isms of the world really come down to? And that’s one of the great hypocrisies I have yet to relieve myself of. I’ve at least gotten to the point where I can catch myself doing it, most of the time, but I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I just don’t do it, which is kind of contrary to my most dearly held principles of addressing every person as an individual. Not that I intend to like every individual, but I prefer to dislike people retail, not wholesale. It’s just got a more personal touch.
The one that I have struggled the most with, and the one that I didn’t even acknowledge until fairly recently, was the concept of “straight white male privilege”. Yes, I know, I’ve ranted before about how life’s not fair for men either, and I stand by everything I said. But one of the things that came out of that was that I was finally pointed toward a description of “straight white male privilege” (I put it in quotes like that because I still see it like that; I did mention I’m still coming to terms with it) that finally at least made some sense to me. In fact, I’m going to specifically ask you to go read that article. I’ll wait here until you come back.
All done? So yeah, that worked for me. It clicked. Mostly because before I read that, most of what I had heard focused on how easy straight white men had things in the world, and quite frankly, I’m here to tell you that the people who have it easy are rich. The rest of us have to work for it, just like everybody else. And if you’re smart or (even better) good-looking, that goes a long way too. And there are things that can screw you no matter who you are, like being physically or mentally challenged, or just plain ol’ fashioned bad luck.
And that’s the hypocrisy I’ve been struggling with the most. That refusal to acknowledge that yes, all of this is true, but it’s irrelevant to the conversation at hand. Because rich can happen to anybody, intelligence and good looks can happen to anybody, physical and mental challenges (unfortunately) can afflict anyone, and luck is a fickle bitch. But straight, white and male are all favored classes, and they also “just happen”, but not to just anybody. So I get that now.
And it sucks.
That’s not the world I want to live in. That’s not the world I try to live in. But the fact is, when companies are hiring, they look at my name and they can tell. “White Male” practically jumps off the page. I’m the default setting, and that’s makes a lot of people just that little bit more comfortable. I’m pretty sure I come across 100% hetero in an interview, and that makes a lot of people just that little bit more comfortable.
And it sucks.
That’s not the world I want to live in. That’s not the world I try to live in. But the fact is, I’m only aware of these things when I think about them. It’s not reflexive, because I haven’t lived it. Not that I would choose to; anybody who would deliberately choose to live a life harder than they need to should have their head examined. But I’m working on being aware of it so that I can ignore that “default setting” and approach people the way I intend to, as individuals, get to know them as they are. That’s not to say I’m going to like them, or that I’m going to be anything other than who and what I am. But if I am going to like someone, I want it to be for who they are, not what they are, and if I’m going to dislike someone, I want it to be likewise.
That’s the world I want to live in.