Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Black Panther and Black Power

Sorry for the sparse posting. It's basketball season and I publish 2,000 words a week from November to March on D3hoops.com; if I had no other responsibilities in life, I could probably also bang out another 2,000 words here, but, sadly, that is not the case.

I do want to write this, though, because I think it's important. Black Panther is coming out this week and what the world needs most is another anonymous white guy's opinion of it. I'm excited to see this movie. I've been excited to see this movie since the director was announced and even moreso as the casting came to light. This is a big time movie with a higher level of talent than any superhero movie before it. Robert Downey, Jr is a fantastic actor, but that's not why he was cast in Ironman.* I've been excited for this movie because I like movies.

TIME has a great piece by Jamil Smith on the movie and it's place in history. It's short and by no means exhaustive, but it does juxtapose the movie with Stokley Carmichael and the Black Power movement. As a white person, I'd been blissfully unaware of the connotations this movie presents of an un-colonized African nation with both the power and technology to take over the world.

It's a radical idea and a scary one for most white people - even those who recognize that it's a bit shameful to be scared. White people don't want black people to have real power because we're afraid black people will use that power in the same way white people have used it for the last 4,000+ years.

That's the long and short of it.

I won't claim to be "woke" or even entirely sure what that means, but I do think I'm more in tune with the sad realities of race than most white people (not that this is a high bar). I've been race-issue-adjacent on occasion, which feels embarrassing to even say - and I only do so to point out that I've at least spent some considerable time thinking about issues of race, even though I'll never be able to even approach the barest glimpse of what it means to be black in this world and I often entirely miss the point.

I see the joys expressed that Black Panther represents black people as heroes in ways that young black kids rarely get to see in society. I can recognize the truth of that statement and the ubiquitousness of people who look like me in pop culture, but I'll never get it. I can't. You just can't experience something you can't experience. The very fact that there's an experience we can't have is enough to make white people angry and expose our entitlement.

This is supposed to be an introduction, but it's already too long. I meant to simply say people with power tend to use it badly and when we use our power badly, it tends to work out better for people who look like us than for people who don't. This is the crux of what I want to say. Ceding power to people who look different from you is rightfully scary - not because people who look different are, in fact different, but precisely because they're the same.

The biggest privilege that comes with white privilege in the privilege to be human. Robert Downey Jr turned his life around and he got the opportunity to do that largely because he's part of the privileged class - he gets to make mistakes and be forgiven. Chadwick Boseman, titular star of Black Panther, also played Jackie Robinson in a movie, a guy who was picked to break baseball's color barrier because he was deemed least human - that is, most able to endure punishing, racist abuse without reacting in completely justified anger.

I prefer the philosophy of Martin Luther King to the philosophy of Stokley Carmichael largely for theological reasons. King was a minister of the gospel and preached an idealized version of humanity because he believed that it is the inevitable future of humanity and our best course of action is to live into that coming future reality as best and as soon as possible. Regardless of race, justice, or equality, this is the concept to which I've dedicated my life.

Carmichael saw the world as it is - a massive power game - and advocating playing that game by the established rules. If skin color were removed from this argument, we'd call it a civil war, memorialize the combatants on both sides and erect nostalgic statues to the losers out of respect for their commitment to their ideals. Why? Because we expect humans to make mistakes. We expect human beings to be wrong. We have grace when people mess up, because we're also people and we also mess up.

We have grace if they look like us or think like us or have some connection to us, anyway. If they don't, we make them a villain, removing their humanity, and raising the bar of acceptable behavior inhumanly high.

The "rights" and the "wrongs" of the black power movement are no different in kind than the "rights" and the "wrongs" of the US response to 9/11; the one difference is that one of them is an "us" and the other is a "them." Tribal identification makes all the difference.

We like to say that we're all the same, that we're all human - that all lives matter, perhaps - but as correct and self-congratulatory as those statements are in theory, they're just not true in practice. We like having good guys and bad guys and it's pretty easy to write off the flaws of one and the positive traits of the other simply because we've got more affinity for the former than the latter.

I do believe that white critique of whatever we describe as "black empowerment" today is largely valid, but what makes it unfair is that those same critics refuse to hold "white empowerment" (or maybe better named "continued white entrenchment") to the same standards of critique. This hypocrisy simply cannot recognize whatever part of "black empowerment"** is actually valid without revealing said hypocrisy. It's a Catch-22 that has almost no repercussions for those in power and far too many for those without.

I genuinely don't believe we need another white voice chiming in on Black Panther or Black Power, but I also feel some obligation as a white person to say what so many white people simply won't. Theory is all that matters to those in power, because we've got reality locked down. Theory matters very little for the unempowered, because reality is all they've got.

So there's a movie coming out, with a largely black cast and a black director that represents real progress on a lot of fronts. It's worthy of support, even if it's not Citizen Kane or The Dark Knight or even all that good. It doesn't have to be the perfect statement on black power or identity or experience to be a valid celebration of those things.

Some white people are afraid of this movie, I guess because it's symbolic of the societal power we're increasingly being asked to give up? We're understandably nervous because we'd like to be sure the "new" world is better than the old one, before we really commit to it. Guess what, white people? A world in which we're not entirely in charge will not feel "better" than one where we run the show. Here is where we have to take our own advice and trust the theory to come through for us, even if reality seems a bit uncertain.

Equality on our own terms is not equality. We've had thousands of years to learn that lesson. We learned it the hard way and other people paid the price. I believe every person has a right to their fear, but I also believe we have a responsibility to reject acting out of fear. That costs us something; it has to. But I don't think any world worth having comes without sacrifice and we've not yet done our fair share.

I don't particularly like that reality any more than anyone else, but I also can't ignore it.^

*We forget this now because he's pretty respectable and super rich, but, at the time, Robert Downey Jr was coming off yet another sobriety slip and literally could not be insured on a movie set. He basically had no other options, but, fortunately, he was talented and white, so second chances abound.

**I recognize that this looks (and feels) a bit condescending as a term, but I don't know any other way to name what I'm trying to name that will be apparent to everyone reading this. It's too easy to get sidetracked by arguments over terminology that we miss the larger point. I do apologize if it's offensive and fully admit my white privilege is primarily why I can get away with it.

^Apologies to anyone who feels like this post is condescending or inappropriate. I feel like just about anything I have to say about race is probably both of those things - I just don't know how else to process and progress without communicating actual thoughts and ideas.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

D3hoops Top 25 Ballot - January 22, 2018

For those of you unaware, I am a voter in the D3hoops.com Top 25 poll for NCAA Division III men’s basketball.

I know Dave McHugh blogs his ballot every week and God bless him for it; this sure takes a lot of work. I’ve done it once before and while I’m not opposed to doing it more often, there are only so many hours in the day.

I chose this week mostly because it’s the first ballot I feel totally confident defending. While I know things will still change between now and March (some quite drastically), I think we’ve seen enough games to at least gauge where we are pretty well.

Without further ado:

1. Whitman – I don’t think Whitman is the best team in the country. Without Harrison and Wiggins they lack size and depth, along with some more intangible qualities that give me real pause when I think about how they’d match up with some of the teams from the Central region. However, they play well together and with great consistency; they’re experienced; and they’ve only lost one game in the last two season – and that just barely. Until someone else really proves themselves, the Blues get the benefit of the doubt and then some.

2. St. John’s – This team keep winning. They play a simple, but effective system, the kind that often has a third round ceiling in the NCAA Tournament. However, this is not a typical year and with every additional win, especially in a tough conference, the Johnnies make me more of a believer. They lost one game, by two points, on the come down from a huge early season win over St. Cloud State (in which they looked dominant). They’re running a tough MIAC like its nothing and they deserve this spot.

3. WashU – This is one of the more dominant teams we’ve seen in a while. However, when the Bears are off, they are really off. If you’re laying odds for a Salem run, the only thing that would give you pause about choosing WashU is the geography of the bracket. It’ll take a tough team to emerge from the Midwest come March, but I still think this team is probably most capable. I want to see how they weather the road trip to Atlanta and Rochester this weekend, but this team could be very special – especially if we don’t see any more of those head-scratching losses.

4. Wittenberg – In November there was no way this was even a ranked team. I made a note to vote for them in the 2019 pre-season poll, since they’re largely comprised of super talented underclassmen. The big guy in the middle has sure found his form, though, and the bearded guy on the sideline is coaching his tail off. Four feels high, but Wittenberg has yet to face a challenge they couldn’t meet, so who am I to judge?

5. York (Pa) – High ceiling, high margin for error. York doesn’t have much of a bench, but the starting line-up is solid and spectacular. On their best nights, this team’s mixture of discipline and aggression can give anyone a headache. It’s one of those teams you could see making a run or bowing out unexpectedly early. Not a squad anyone would want to face, though – and few, if any, teams anywhere in the nation have two skilled bigs like Reich and Myers.

6. Augustana – This is not the team I voted pre-season #2 and not the team we saw in Salem. I mean, they are the team, but they’ve yet to reach the level of play we expected. Maybe that’s ok, since they peaked late last year and there’s still plenty of time. January has been rough, but they’ve been pulling out wins when they need them and the first semester was very strong, even if they didn’t look quite right.

7. Illinois Wesleyan – I think this team is better than they’re given credit for and while I still have some questions about the defense, they’re winning games when they need to win them, especially in conference. I am concerned about the loss to WashU and the poor showing at Emory’s tournament, but they’re trending in the right direction and they’re loaded with talent.

8. Swarthmore – Really off their game the last week or so and playing without Nate Shafer – a true super sub and the most talented freshman big I saw last season. Swat has but three post players and keeping two of them on the floor is a high wire act. The guards are solid, but not spectacular. When they’re on, the Garnett play as a unit and minimize mistakes (not to mention outrebound everybody). I’m chalking their current level of play up to a January slump, but this is a team that could fall fast if they don’t get back on track.

9. Whitewater – Yes I voted for five WIAC school and yes they could appear in almost any order. Whitewater had some roster confusion to start the year, but they’ve really locked in after the holidays. Losses are a part of life in Wisconsin and despite theirs, this feels to me like the strongest, most consistent overall team – at least so far. Things change fast, though, and they’ve got a whole conference gunning for them.

10. Middlebury – Not sure exactly what to say. Early season wins looking a little less impressive as we move along, but none of the three losses is bad. They’ve also beaten a string of difficult, above-average opponents, even if none of them have individually been noteworthy. Consistency, coaching, and talent win out. I’ll admit, this one is probably skewed more to the eye test than any other, but Middlebury has proven itself in the recent past and I’m willing to ride with them for the time being.

11. Stevens Point – No, I don’t feel good about this. Five losses are five losses, even if none of them are embarrassing. I wouldn’t have them so high if UWSP hadn’t proven time and again that their system is world class, regardless of who’s in it. I can’t believe they’re succeeding without their best player or a whole lot of size – a win over Oshkosh this week would really help my confidence in them.

12. Oshkosh – A very solid first semester and a head-scratching roller coaster post-holiday. Last week was terrible, but they’ve got three solid chances to prove themselves upcoming. Some years the WIAC eats itself alive because no one’s good; some years it happens because everyone’s good. For some reason, it feels like the latter this time around.

13. Wheaton (Il) – I really don’t feel good about this. But I have to remind myself the team I watched early on is not the same one that’s been winning of late. The talent was always there and the results say they’re figuring out how to put it all together. The rematch with Augie this week will be very telling.

14. River Falls – Every time I doubt Alex Herink and company, they turn around and prove themselves again. A tough early schedule with lots of wins has turned into a barely keeping their head above water conference slate. This is another benefit of the doubt squad that will have to prove something moving forward.

15. Wesleyan – They already lost since the ballot came out, so they’ll be dropping next week. They’ve got a strong ensemble, but the cracks are being exposed in the second semester. They have just one really good win and all three (now four) losses are to teams worse than them.

16. Whitworth – Missing their best player and clearly outmatched by Whitman, in some sense this season feel futile for Whitworth. Geography puts their chances of surviving round two very low. Still they have good individual players and a decent bench. Their only two losses are to better teams (although Wheaton probably wasn’t better at the time). They’re ranked too high, but so is just about everyone else.

17. Platteville – Lots of wins to start the year with little of value to show for it. Conference play has given us a little more to work with, but they’re really going to need a win over Whitewater this week to keep position.

18. Baldwin Wallace – Here’s one where I’m going against the eye test. I’ve seen two or three of their games and been unimpressed, still there’s clearly talent there and the schedule has been tough. I don’t like the loss to Muskingum, but otherwise they’re taking care of business about how you’d expect the #18 team to do it.

19. Emory – Some injury issues early and, I suspect, some difficulty working out roles, Emory has come on well. The visible improvement from November to January is important, plus they’re beating strong teams solidly and lesser opponents handily. This team may well be under-ranked here, but I want to see what they do with WashU before making a drastic move.

20. Eastern Connecticut – Tarchee Brown is fantastic. He looks like a linebacker playing basketball and he’s incredibly skilled. What the stat sheets don’t always communicate is how well the supporting cast complements him and the ability of other guys to step up when needed. Size is a bit of an issue, but they’re experienced and confident and the kind of team it’s both easy and dangerous to overlook. They won’t match up well with everyone, but they can play with anyone.

21. Emory & Henry – Skeptical and dubious, but it’s hard to ignore 16-1 forever. The ODAC is definitely down, but not so much that a run through it can be overlooked. I want to see consistent wins through the rest of the season and any losses will be harshly judged, but they earned this spot for the time being.

22. MIT – They’ve had some injuries, although not all at the same time. When this team is on – meaning they execute the offense efficiently – they just don’t make mistakes and can come close to beating Harvard, as they did in November. We’ve only seen glimpses of that team since then and we’re going to need to see more. Still, you sort of trust these guys to do what needs to be done – their two losses are by a combined seven points, and they’re the smartest guys in the room.

23. Hamilton – Here’s the first of three teams I don’t think deserve to be ranked, but I also couldn’t justify putting anyone else here (and Gordon won’t let us turn in blank spots). I believe the Amherst loss is more indicative of what the weak schedule produced than the win over Wesleyan. They get the final weekend at home, so maybe there’s an advantage to be played there, but I’m not buying in.

24. Lycoming – At 100%, this team is scary. They do have a tendency to play down to opponents and they’re not playing a schedule that’s even remotely challenging. At 90%, this team is eminently beatable; I’m losing confidence they’ve had enough serious reps to play at 100% consistently.

25. Sul Ross State – This team is probably more like 27th or 28th in my mind, but it’s close enough that I wanted to give them some national recognition. Two of their four losses are to non-d3 opponents and the other two were a difficult November road trip. We never quite know how good the ASC is because they play so many conference games, but Sul Ross has beaten good teams with great consistency. Their games have not really been close, either, especially of late. I think they’ve got something – the question is if they can sustain it through March, something the Texas schools have had difficulty doing in most years.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018


My daughter has a school event in a couple weeks. It's called the Winter Ball, it's basically a Daddy-Daughter dance, but really is dressed up like Kindergarten prom. They did one for sons and mothers a few months back. You get dressed up,
have a dinner, I guess there's music. It's a big deal and it's become the largest ball of stress in my life the last few weeks.

My daughter hasn't mentioned it yet, but they're planning to promote it heavily in school, so it's coming. She also loves dressing up and dancing (she's a regular hit at all the middle school dances she gets to attend). I've got a lot of problems with this thing. One, it's from 6-8 on a school night, first of all. Our daughter pretty much needs to be in bed by 7:20 or she's an absolute terror the next day. I mean, it's her teacher who will have to deal with her (after we battle to get her dressed and out of the house), so in some sense, I can pass the buck on good parenting there. I've also got a meeting that night, which I could miss, but would keep me from doing as good a job as a member of this committee I've given quite a bit of time to over the past couple years.

Those are sort of neither here nor there issues - they'd happen with any events at the same time, regardless of content - I just wanted to vent about the added stress they cause. The real issue is what this whole thing says in the first place.

I get a Kindergarten dance. I'm not typically a proponent of school dances, but "dating" isn't really a thing anymore and they've become something other than the pressure to couple up that was more prevalent in the past. It's a chance for kids to blow off steam and have fun. I'm all for that. My daughter loves to dance - the whole thing seems great. Why are we making it into a gender specific, fancy event? It really feels like Kindergarten prom and that just seems like a terrible idea.

It's cute. Don't get me wrong. I understand the appeal. Little people all dressed up, taking pictures with their parents. The image and experience of little kids dressed up like adults is heartwarming and fun. I remember that series of black and white photos that circulated some years back of the little boy and girl dressed up in formal wear. It's the whole reason BabyGAP was ever a thing. Little people looking like big people is super cute.

Is that really good for our kids, though?

Society really seems to want our kids to grow up fast. I know the media trend is to point out how much slower kids are becoming independent now than in previous generations, but we're also realizing that "adulthood" doesn't biologically start until at least 25. Still, we've set up a culture in which kids are supposed to look and act and engage in things that just aren't for kids. It's a mixed bag, because we seem to be giving kids the time they need to become independent adults, but we're spending this whole extended childhood dressing them up like adults (both in the fashion sense and the societal treatment).

I'm not advocating for a sheltered experience. Not at all. I think we do far too much to "protect" our kids from things they should dealing with from an early age. We haven't hidden the notions of death or sex from our daughter. There's not much she can understand about either at five years old, but we're certainly not keeping her in the dark. What bothers me is what appears to be a total loss of any understanding of childhood, that kids are developing and learning and growing. They're not just little adults.

I'm sure my wife would laugh that I'm even writing about this, because the thing I'm most guilty for in parenting is not understanding my daughter's developmental level and expecting her to be more mature than she really is. I'm not saying I'm an innocent here - I guess I'm trying to implicate myself in our collective cultural failing.

It's hard enough to be a kid in our society, a real kid, with all of the pressures and exposure that happens by pure accident - or at least unintentionally - do we really need intentional, specific measures by which we're treating our kids like mini-adults?

I know there are some voices out there who advocate moms and dads taking daughters and sons out for practice "dates" to help them understand how they should be treated and how to treat others. I'm not sure that's a bad idea, really, but is it appropriate for 8 year olds, simply because our culture has already taught them by then what dating is and told them they should be looking to partner up with someone?

It just feels like we're rushing things. Yes, I'm as upset as everyone else with the lack of responsibility this generation of young people expresses (which is probably a frustration every single generation for all of time has always felt, we should remember), but I wonder if some of this "extended adolescence" might not just be kids realizing that they never had the childhood they deserved, because they grew up in a society that wanted them to be cute little adults from the very beginning?

I don't know if any of this makes sense or if it's just Ryan caring too much again, but something about this event feels off and I'm trying to make sense of it. I really, truly don't know what to do. It's not going to be something we can avoid and, as I said, the only uncomfortable messages my daughter will get are implied and not overt.* She's not going to know anything's out of the ordinary here and I guess that's the real problem.

*I guess outside the ridiculous sexism of splitting this into daddy/daughter and mother/son. Seriously, if you need to do a boys night and girls night, that's fine, but why stipulate the gender of the person who accompanies them? I mean, my wife would be happy and unconflicted taking my daughter to this thing - and I wouldn't have to feel guilty about missing a meeting, problem solved. This is as much for the parents as it is for the kids, so why not let ALL the parents participate. Gosh. I should write a letter - that will promptly be ignored, because I'm a crazy nut and my daughter will be in a different school next year.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Love, Generosity, and Obligation

So, I took about a month off from the blog - not on purpose, mind you, but things get busy this time of year. I wasn't on a break from writing - D3hoops kicks up in December and I wrote some pretty good pieces over there - even if you're not into basketball, there's a couple interesting columns, on leadership and relationships and a really unique one on Native American basketball players that's one of the best things I've ever written.

Anyway, I was hoping to get this piece done before Christmas started, since it's kinda topical, but we're not done with Christmas yet, so I made it under the wire. I'm not exactly sure where it happened, but I've developed a reputation as someone who's "not a hugger." As much as I despise categorizing people, we all sort of know the people who don't mind being touched and those people who really don't like being touched; it's often a pretty stark distinction.

I get that I've got some emotional disconnection and tend to entirely miss body language, social cues, and tone of voice, etc, which makes me more difficult to read and connect with - I get that. At the same time, I'm a little sad I'm lumped into that latter group, because hugging is something I genuinely appreciate. There is that love languages thing that was popular for a while and I always come up pretty high on the "physical touch" part of it - there's something about human connection that resonates deeply with me. In college, for good or for ill, I had a thing where I sort of just surprised people with random hugs at unexpected moments. In retrospect, I deeply hope it wasn't creepy and it really was a seldom and random thing. Anyway, all that to say, sometimes people just need a hug - either you or someone else - and I'm down with that.

It's most awkward at the holidays because that's when I tend to be around family. There's lots of hugging around family and that's cool. I think I've developed this reputation as not a hugger, though, since most of my wife's family, at least, has moved to the handshake with me. I get that I've encouraged this, because the welcome and farewell hug line is not something I've typically embraced.* They've sort of got the hint that it's difficult for me. Which is true, but not for the reason people seem to assume.

It's not that I'm not into hugging, it's that I'm really turned off by obligation. As someone who finds deep meaning in physical touch - a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the knee or a really good hug - I think I'm extra sensitive to when those moments are genuine. Some people do the handshake with an elbow grab as a power move, or put a hand on your shoulder to encourage positive vibes - with an ulterior motive, in other words, even if its not sinister or even conscious.

It feels the same way with hugs, a lot of the time. Our society says hugging is something you do - if you're the touchy type of person - most commonly as a greeting or farewell. It's the socially appropriate time to do such a thing. But that's my real problem. I struggle with those hugs precisely because it's an obligation - I can never be sure if the person on the other end really wants to hug me or is just doing it because it's what you're supposed to do. Even if someone is indifferent - like they genuinely don't care one way or another - that just seems wrong to me.

I'm all for hugs when someone needs one or thinks I do. I just don't like not knowing whether someone is really into it or not.

The same goes for gift-giving. My wife is always on me for not being the best gift-giver. I think I'm pretty good when I really set my mind to the hunt and make it work, but so much of our gift-giving feels like obligation. I'm more in the camp of, "If I see something this person would like, I get it, regardless of the time of year or lack of occasion," maybe even the "I'm really grateful for this person right now and want to show that gratitude with a gift," kind of thing - not so much the "this person mows my lawn on occasion and Christmas is a gift-giving holiday, so I better get them a gift," vibe.

Growing up, my aunts and uncles didn't send me Christmas gifts - not unless we were actually spending Christmas together under the same roof. They might've sent the family something, but it wasn't something I ever experienced or expected. Maybe part of that was because there were a lot of cousins and we didn't see each other all that often and it might've gotten expensive - I don't really know - but it makes a lot of sense to me that you get Christmas gifts for people you'll be with on Christmas and not for anyone else (unless you really want to do so).

It's the obligation part that I struggle with. It is a real struggle, though, because I get that this isn't a perfect science. If I want to get my brother something, but don't feel any real compulsion to get something for his wife or my other brother, that creates an awkwardness that's both real and problematic. Likewise, if remote family always sends me something and I never return the gift-giving favor, that creates real tension. As much as I believe a gift shouldn't require a reciprocal exchange, that's sort of humanity is wired - it's the same across cultures and throughout time, almost a sociological phenomenon.

I used to be an incredibly stingy person. That's was my real gift-giving conundrum early on - I just didn't want to spend money on things people really didn't need. I've never been the type to want gifts myself, really, either - I'd much rather get one really well-thought-out thing than a bunch of cool stuff that feels more obligatory. At this point, though, it's not about the money - we've even set an unspecified line item in our household budget for gifts, because we don't want to limit our generosity or stifle the desire to give to others (my wife and I are both frugal and cost-conscious enough that this works ok for us; I wouldn't recommend it for everyone).

I'm happy to give things to people, but I want to be able to give things that have real meaning and not simply out of obligation.

I do understand the opposite perspective, though, too - some people give because the act of giving itself shows care and selflessness. I'm genuinely thankful for people who give me things - I get and appreciate that the act itself says something important about the relationship - I just wonder, though, how much relationship plays into things and how much obligation and expectation has to do with it. That's my struggle.

The best gift-giving experiences I've ever had have been those situations where you're assigned one person - a secret santa kind of thing - everyone volunteers to participate and you have one person to buy for. It becomes a challenge to match the person to the gift. The larger the list of people to buy for, though, the higher chances you just won't find something meaningful for everyone. That's what really bums me out.

I know I'm one of those people who's hard to buy for and I genuinely would not care about getting nothing (I'm also easy, because a large volume of gummy candy makes me about as happy as humanly possibly, if all else fails) if the choice is between that and obligation. I wouldn't feel less loved or less cared about if everyone else got a gift and I got nothing. When I say that, people don't believe me, but I promise you it's true.

There's no real answer here. I've not come to any conclusion or revealed the answer to the mystery that is how my brain works. It's more of an explanation and exploration. If anything, maybe it's a challenge for us to step away from the world of obligation and perhaps treat people more as individuals, rather than social beings with whom we have to observe a common set of rules. If everyone is really unique, perhaps we can develop our own unique habits and interactions that don't follow a set course ascribed for and to all of humankind?

Or maybe it's all bunk and I'm just a jerk... either way, Merry Christmas!

*Pun intended

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Language and Privilege

I'm sure this happens more than I realize (I'm a well-educated, American, straight, white male after all), but two instances of racially charged language have cropped up in recent months that's gotten me thinking about how privilege applies to language.

The first was the leaked quote from Houston Texans owner, Bob McNair, during the NFL protest conversations. McNair said he didn't want "the inmates running the prison." Now, he says he was referring to the NFL office employees dictating policy and procedure to the owners - and, in light of all the detailed reporting by ESPN and others on those meetings, this was a huge bone of contention for the owners and I rightly believe him - however, in a room full of concerned black men, specifically protesting unfair treatment of the black community by police, the phrase itself carried incredible consequence.

The reality of the situation is that African-Americans, and black males in particular, are more likely to get arrested and convicted for actions than white people who do the same things. The sentences are longer and they're less likely to get parole. Skewed numbers exist for interactions with police as well. We've seen scientific proof that there's a cultural and societal bias against dark skin - even by those with dark skin. It's a race problem, but it's beyond even the differences between different groups of people. It's an all of us issue (and one that I've written about here as best I can).

For today, though, the point is that words matter. I can understand what McNair is trying to communicate. I've used that phrase a time or two as a synonym for getting the cart before the horse - to indicate that motivation and control are coming from the wrong places. I tend to say inmates running the asylum, but, honestly, that's just as insensitive. The reason, though, why I or Bob McNair or any other privileged white guy can see that phrase as innocuous is because it's not real for us. I know very few people who've been to prison and the possibility that I, myself, might end up on the wrong side of the law is just so incredibly improbable that it doesn't feel real.

That's just not true, for even the most well-bahved, law abiding man of color in the US. The numbers vary from 1 in 3 to 1 in 5, for the most part, but the odds of a black man in the US spending time in jail is astronomically high - and the stories of unfair or incorrect imprisonment are too common to be taken lightly.

My privilege allows me to use words as analogy that have real meaning to others who don't enjoy my privilege.

I was hoping McNair would use his incident to make a similar statement. Privilege is one of the most difficult concepts to talk about for those of us who have it. It's the most difficult thing to get across to people; it's at the root of the argument around the notion of "all lives matter." Honestly, the conversation around privilege is probably the one our nation needs before we can ever get to a place where real discussion of race can happen.

It bleeds over into the words we use. For people at the top of the social heap, words are just words. They have meaning, but usually just in a representative way. I can say inmates and prison without ever really putting a face, experience, or reality to those ideas. That's just not true for everyone and we've got an obligation to be aware and sensitive to those realities.

Bob McNair probably got a little bit too raked over the coals in learning this lesson, but I do hope he's genuinely learned one and understands his players better than he did before.

The other incident, though, is one that didn't get the same kind of press. A few weeks ago, the University of Tennessee was looking to hire a football coach - Greg Schiano was floated as a possibility (in fact, basically as the choice) - he ended up not getting the job because a lot of alums and fans protested his involvement with Penn State and the terrible child abuse and inaction (if not coverup) that happened there over a period of years.

We can argue about Schiano's real involvement in the process, but it came up in a deposition that a coach had heard from another coach that Schiano had reported child rape during his tenure on the football coaching staff at Penn State and did nothing when nothing was done. He's denied those allegations and there's an argument to be made about the real power a person in his position would've had to change anything - and also an argument to be made about whether that should matter in an instance where a child was being abused.

That's a conversation for another day. My concern was the repeated use of a phrase, "lynch mob," to describe the Tennessee fans who most vociferously opposed Schiano's hire. There were some words of caution, but largely those words went unnoticed.

I get it, from one perspective, if the testimony is true, the guy did barely anything when he knew a child was being harmed, but there's a long way from third-hand allegations to proof or even criminal action. People have the right to make whatever judgments they want, but this one was quick and without a lot of support. That's where the lynch mob analogy makes historical sense - lynch mobs killed black people, without trial, often for very petty reasons or none at all.

Again, though, only white people can use a phrase like that without context. Privilege allows us to say criticism of Schiano looks like the lawless murder of black men. Of course it's not meant literally, but aren't the differences between the two enough to avoid that phrase? For most of my life, I probably would've said (as many have), "Get over it, you're being too sensitive." It's a position privilege allows us to take.

When language is disconnected from our real experience, we fail to recognize it's power. It's not just a racial thing - how often does the word "rape" get used to describe destruction? We might save the word "holocaust" for something truly awful, but is it really as awful, appropriately awful for what we're describing?

I was substitute teaching in an 8th grade class the other day. In an overheard conversation where one African-American kid was talking to the student sitting next to him. He said, "Sometimes, when I get angry, I feel it deep down, like I'm all white inside." Maybe I'm giving him too much credit, but if it bothers you that white is associated with hatred or darkness, perhaps ask yourself why you're only thinking about it now.

(The answer is privilege.)

Words matter - and some words matter more to some people. It might not seem fair, but it's real. It's the price of privilege and it's not much of a price to pay.