Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
March 3, 2004
Feelin' fine.
Category: Serious

Admittedly, I'm feeling better tonight than I have been in the past few days. Which isn't to say that I'm bubbling over with mirth (I doubt I'd be that joyous even if I sold a story -- still waiting on those rejections from Playboy and Ideomancer...), but I'm not as down as I was this time last night.

That's due, in no small part, to some of the e-mail responses I've received regarding those two recent posts (here and here, or scroll down, as necessary), as well as some kind words and replies that have appeared in other blogs. Particularly, Dawn Eden's latest post (well, it was the latest when I started writing this ;)) is worth a read, and The Anonymous Blogger also makes mention of me at the end of his most recent entry. So thanks to both Dawn and Anon, and thanks to everyone else who's written in with comments and observations. 🙂

Both Dawn and Anon (and I suppose Caren too ;)) note that they'd pictured me very differently -- I found Dawn's detailed image to be very interesting -- and I admit that one of the reasons that I'd been reluctant to post my picture in the past was that I wanted to give people a chance to develop a mental picture of me before they saw my photograph. In the entry linked above, for instance, Anon notes that, regarding the overweight woman with whom he's in contact, "she already has a strike against her in [his] psyche. It isn't fair. It isn't right. It just is." And while I'm not sure if everyone would've had an outright strike against me in their psyches if they'd seen my photo upfront, any assumptions about me from the picture -- at least regarding my skin color -- would've constituted strikes against me, since those assumptions would've been ultimately unfounded and most likely untrue.

So I knew that whenever I decided to post my picture I'd have to write the dreaded "race" posts, not the least because I think one of the best arguments in support of my position is the unspoken argument of my own example. But I also worry that it will cause people to view me in a different light. Yes, you now know my skin color and my views on the subject of "race" (though many of those were already accessible in the two editorials I'd linked on the site), but I'm still the same Wes who does the Crayon Haikus and the 6,600+ word cartoon reviews. And hopefully your knowledge of that -- and me -- will drive home my point that skin color doesn't necessarily tell you anything about a person.

Tokyo's Savior!

Blue hair and a Godzilla head on a broom handle might, though. 🙂

Admittedly, however, my mood hasn't been that great in the past few days. Some of the discussion sparked by my breaching the subject has tended towards the kind that I hate, namely when people begin saying that making judgments about people based on skin color is good -- because it's a way of observing and respecting their "difference" and "otherness". Except by the use of these terms people don't really mean "difference" or "otherness", but rather the sameness shared by members of "racial" groups and their probable similarity to some cultural stereotype -- just not one with which the speakers identify. So I'm sure you can imagine why that kind of discussion would upset me.

Then there are those who step in and say, "It is not my place to say whether racial cultures are right or wrong..." And here I want to respond,

Is it not your place to say whether racism is right or wrong? For that is what cultures that emphasize 'race' support.

And is it not your place to say whether abuse -- and child abuse at that -- is right or wrong? For that is what they encourage. My own experiences -- and those of children I have known -- are a testament to that.

And is it not your place to say whether it is right or wrong that these things continue? For that is what your position entails.

So you can imagine why remarks to that effect would upset me.

And then there are discussions to the effect of what Rhythman has posted on his blog (see the third reply), in which he suggests that perhaps humans have a genetic predisposition towards "racial" prejudice. I commented:

Watch a group of preschool children at play -- kids don't start categorizing each other with respect to their skin color (or their "otherness") until someone teaches encourages them to do so. I have never witnessed any "predispositions" to prejudice. ... I think the laziness of most people, and their unwillingness to think through issues, would also go a long way towards explaining this problem... Plus, with general theories like that you always run into the anomaly -- like myself -- who doesn't fit with your theory. So if you voice a position that says this problem is rooted in genes or "human nature", you're forced to conclude that either a) the anomalies are somehow inhuman, or b) that "human nature" can be overcome -- in which case, even if these attitudes are "unavoidable" at first, they aren't insurmountable.

Rhythman wrote back, "And with all due respect, are you aware of any studies where children have been shielded from harmful adult influence long enough to actually say with any certainty that yes, they grew up without knowing bias? And even if the trait shows up later than sooner, does that necessarily mean that the characteristic was not in the genes from the start?" And of course there haven't been -- not the least, I suspect, because of a number of practical and ethical concerns. But there also haven't been any studies in which a "prejudice gene" was isolated. So not only is there no way to say, with the backing of science, whether it is or isn't the case that prejudice has a genetic root -- to pose a genetic excuse is an answer that doesn't get us anywhere. It may hinder us, though.

Taking a cue from Anon's blog entry, let's assume that we have a woman who's 200 lbs. overweight (he never said how overweight she was; the number is my addition). Everyone's in agreement that losing the weight would be good for her. (This would be the part of the analogy that stems from Rhyth's assertion to the effect of "The important thing is that we both want to live in a world as free of hate and prejudice as is possible.") Now, a genetic predisposition towards obesity may or may not be one of the explanatory reasons for her extra poundage -- we really can't say -- but we agree that even if she is overweight, in part, because of her genes, it's still quite possible for her to lose the weight through rigorous exercise and strict dieting. So if you were her doctor or trainer, and you really thought it was important that she lose the weight, what would you tell her? I submit that faulting her genes -- and telling her so -- would only give her an excuse to fall back on when and if she failed to keep to her exercise routine or her diet. "After all," she might say, "it's not really in my power to control -- after all, it's in my genes." She may even insist that it's quite natural -- and therefore good -- for her to be overweight, and she may even decide that it is obviously "how God intended for her to be." And I submit that similar results would occur if we relegated prejudice to a genetic tendency.

So while I mean no offense to Rhythman, you can understand why I would find his position to be a little upsetting.

But Dawn's and Anon's posts -- and the handful of e-mails I've received -- made me smile. Dawn's boss's reaction also earned a smile from me, and he's absolutely right that people would (and should) _naturally_ have interests that aren't restricted/defined by their skin color. But these days so much of our social interactions and "identities" are manufactured that natural and seemingly obvious things appear radical by contrast.

Dawn moves from skin color to culture in her entry, asking, "But was there really any culture for me or Wes to leave?" In my case, I'd say no. While it may seem that my mother implicitly defines "black" with respect to culture, these things were never communicated to me in cultural terms -- yes, we watched "black" shows together, but we also watched "Jerry Springer". Occasionally my father would join me for a Saturday morning cartoon, and for a while it seemed like we'd watch a movie in the theater every other week. I should add that none of these films were "black" films -- my father also has an aversion to them, for many of the same reasons that I do. And in truth I didn't spend much time with my family at all -- during my middle and high school years I was mostly in the basement playing video games or coding webpages at the computer (I was chief maintainer of a pretty popular Dragon Ball Z website at the time). So I suppose that goes a long way in explaining my detachment from "black" culture. It was never really pushed upon me until recently, and even now it's only voiced in terms of skin color -- which is something I never really cared about, even when I was my parents' mouthpiece.

Peppermint Goth Wes!

One interesting thing, though, is that in one instance (per one of the e-mails I received) I seem to have given the impression that I was raised in a "mixed-race" household. I wasn't. I say that I don't identify with "black" culture, but I don't mean to say that I identify with "white" culture either -- I don't even think there's such a thing, unless we're talking KKK-type stuff. I identify with the culture of the philosophers, or some elements of the gothic culture (see that pic), or elements of the gamer culture. Certainly I love cartoons, toys, things like that -- so that's, say, the "nostalgic childhood" culture -- and I think a lot about the "culture" that goes hand-in-hand with religions. The culture of the writer, the musician, the artist -- these things interest me. And these are the kinds of cultures that I don't take issue with -- cultures that are either based on what people do (play video games, watch cartoons, etc.) or on transcendent beliefs (religion, even art). And anyone who's in line with them can "opt into" them. But I don't care for cultures rooted in heritage and history and that are pushed upon people with respect to their bloodlines or phenotypic appearances -- and little else.

And as for me? Granted, I throw the term "black" up in the scare quotes (and I'm glad they're contagious, Dawn), but it's not what I call myself. If I make reference to my skin color, I generally say that it's brown -- because, technically speaking, it's my hair that's black, and sometimes my nails and eyeliner... -- and it's generally accompanied by a more detailed description of my physical appearance, which at the very least includes my height (about 5'4"), my weight (124 lbs., give or take two), and some mention of my dark and clever eyes and my pouty mouth. But the words "I am" are important -- and I think that it's noteworthy that this is an approximation of the translation of supposed name of God -- and when I say "I am..." I generally like to follow it with something that really says something about me. And, if asked, I can come up with a number of things to say. But even if I were to say, "I am short," (and sometimes I do) you may be a little confused if you've got a lewd mind, and this could mean different things depending on the situation (say, if I owed you some money), but you probably wouldn't think that I was really saying something about who I was or what I valued. That's not true with terms like "black", even with the scare quotes, because I think that there's an inherent confusion bound up with them. So I may use them in the quotes to discuss certain issues, but I don't use them to refer to myself -- and if I use them in reference to other people, I'm generally talking about skin color. But unless we're talking about a "racial" issue, I don't even use them then.

I remember one conversation with an old crush -- the one mentioned briefly in "'Mother'" -- in which she mentioned a friend of hers whom I'd met on several occasions at the residential college writing group. Sarah (I mention her name because Sarah's a pretty common one and I've known tens of them ;)) had always seemed like an interesting girl, so I asked my crush to tell me a little more about her.

"You know," she said. "She's just a nice, normal Jewish girl."

I told my crush then -- and it still rings true -- "I don't understand what that means."

Which brings us back to another question Dawn raised in the course of her post -- "What does it mean to be Jewish?" I recently asked that same question of someone a month or so ago. I should preface this conversation by saying that my interlocutor -- who attended college with me -- has only been speaking of his "Jewishness" in recent years. When I was in school with him, he only mentioned it once, during a discussion not unlike the previous ones, except religion was also part of it. And I'm critical (naturally) of all things, including the beliefs of Christians and Jews (but of course I mean no offense and am always eager for serious discussion on these matters), and upon voicing some of my difficulties with the latter he charged me with being anti-Semitic, adding, "And as a Jew, I'm personally offended." In response to my obvious shock, he went on to say that the views I was voicing were "identical" to some of the Nazi viewpoints -- though of course I never spoke in support of genocide. (And I don't think that everything that Hitler said was bad -- as noted towards the end of "'Mother'", he appears to have been fairly well-informed regarding the concept of "race".)

Admittedly, I think that my old schoolmate simply decided to start calling himself "Jewish" in recent years because it works to his advantage. For example, he noted trying to use it as a means to get another one of our acquaintances to think better of him -- because he was suddenly also a member of a minority group. Our mutual acquaintance laughed in his face -- and rightfully so, I think. So here's the more recent conversation with Joey (that's not his real name), edited for relevancy and grammar:

Wes: What does it mean, Joey, to be Jewish?

Joey: I'm jewish because my mother is jewish, and she is jewish because her mother is jewish, etc. That is what it means.

Wes: Regarding being Jewish -- if all it is is some inherited quality that essentially means nothing, why do you throw it around as if it does? Truly being something is something active. It's something you do. And at least the practitioners of Judaism and Jewish culture, while I may disagree with them on a number of issues, do something, so that when they talk about being Jewish, it's not just empty words.

Joey: I do not understand it, but I am Jewish. What I described above is the definition -- sorry if you don't like it. It means something because it meant something to my great grandparents.

Wes: "I don't understand it" and "What I described above is the definition" clearly show that you haven't thought about the issue -- you just throw it out to your "advantage", except now you don't even think about whether it would be advantageous, you just throw it out by habit.

Joey: Save your moral outrage. I am not exploiting anything. The fact that I wanted to find common ground with [our mutual acquaintance] is not exploiting it. The reason I say it so much is not to exploit it, but because I am proud of my jewish heritage.

Wes: Common ground? You don't have any common ground on that issue. And you're "proud" of it -- why? What do you know about Judaism, hm? Jewish culture? I'd be willing to bet that I know more about these than you do. And I know relatively little.

Joey: I don't have to practice the religion to be Jewish or know "the culture" whatever that means either to be Jewish or to be proud of it.

Wes: No, you don't. I guess you don't have to actually care about something to be proud of it. Right?

Joey: I care immensely about it, and I am proud. I try to get my mother and grandmother to talk about their family back in Austria, and they become angry, especially my mother.

Wes: There are things called libraries, you know. How many courses have you taken on Judaism at Yale? There are a number of them. How often do you go to Slifka events?

Joey: I'm not going to find anything about my family in Austria in a library or any Yale course.

Wes: So you care about your family, then, but it's not the meaning of "Jewishness" (etc.) that you care about. It's your family. So stop going around talking about how Jewish you are and play up your familial heritage. ... But you don't know much about that either, really, as you say. So stop being proud of things you don't know and don't understand or don't care to research. Be proud of what you do and concentrate on that.

Joey: I'll be proud of whatever I want, and I'll talk about my Jewish heritage when I want. Spare me this self-righteous claptrap.

Wes: Did you ever mention your "Jewishness" to [our mutual acquaintance]? I can see why he might have been offended. Heritage and culture really mean something to him.

Joey: It means something to me too.

Wes: No, I mean it really means something to him, as in he studies it, he reads about it, he attends cultural events, etc. When he says he's proud of something, he knows what he's proud of, and he's done things related to it that he's proud of. I disagree about how much pride is warranted, and whether these things should be as important to him as they are, but at least he's sincere about it.

Joey: I don't have to emulate Sea-rag or anyone to be proud of being jewish. I can be proud however I want. I've never claimed any great knowledge or expertise, but I am Jewish and I'm proud of it nonetheless. I am sincere about it too. I've never been insincere about it.

Wes: When you can tell me what it means to be Jewish -- and not just something about being descended from Jewish people, or about it being inherited (do you have as much pride in the color of your eyes? the shape of your face? your body hair?) -- then we can talk about the subject, and then you can call yourself sincere.

Joey: Fuck you and the high horse you rode in on. I disclosed my discomfort with Sea-rag, and my efforts to get him to like me, because I have a hard time making friends in general, and I thought you were my friend and might understand me. Now you are using it against me to make some petty self-righteous philosophical point. I thought I could tell you that I'm proud of being Jewish, because that's how I really feel even if I am an ignoramus. I feel proud of it regardless of what you think, and I am proud that my great grandfather Louis Gottfried came to this country with no money in his pocket, was turned away from hotels for being Jewish, and he overcame all this to become an engineer and eventually a millionaire. Since I thought you're my friend, I thought I could say it without you judging me.

Wes: You can say that -- but listen to me -- that's quite different from being proud of being Jewish. You're proud of Louis Gottfried. And that's fine -- well, I do think that being proud of the actions of others is a tiny bit problematic, but that's beside the point -- and you can be sincere in that. But it's not Louis Gottfried's "Jewishness" that you're proud of, and you do him a disservice by implying that it is. You're proud of Louis Gottfried's resilience. So be proud of that. Say, "I'm descended from Louis Gottfried, who came to this country with no money in his pocket, was turned away from hotels for being Jewish, and he overcame all this to become an engineer and eventually a millionaire. And I'm proud of that." But unless you mean to imply that his strength of will is indicative of the "spirit of the Jewish people", his "Jewishness" is a moot point.

Joey: You're so fucking corny.

Longtime readers may have recognized some quotes from this excerpt -- particularly the "fucking corny" line -- since I quoted from that conversation in a much older entry. That's the discussion that motivated it, though admittedly I've excised a bit from it -- as said, for relevancy -- since we were concurrently discussing an incident in which he saw Ann Coulter in Grand Central Station on Christmas Day and shouted after her, "Ann Coulter is a racist bitch!" And I was also calling him hypocritical for that, since as of late he's been playing up his "Jewish" heritage without any knowledge of what it -- and with little apparent desire to learn much about it -- since that, I think, is really tantamount to racism. And contrary to what Dawn writes in her entry, you wouldn't look at this guy and think he's Jewish. He doesn't have a Jewish last name. He probably didn't even grow up "[eating] bagels and lox on Sunday mornings," with or without the Times, and I doubt he has any idea what a Seder is. I visited the Slifka center more times than he has, and I've only been twice -- though once would have been enough to trump him there. And I bet if terrorists hijacked a plane on which he was flying and started asking for Jews to shoot, he'd keep his mouth bloody shut.

Back to Sarah, our "nice, normal Jewish girl."

Admittedly, I didn't know Sarah very well at the time (and unfortunately didn't when I graduated and therefore don't now :/) -- and though "nice" might have been an accurate descriptor, already "normal" would've been one of the last words I used to describe her. She faced you constantly yet was always somehow looking away, her eyes darting nervously to and fro, and she mumbled her words and punctuated each string of four with a nervous little chuckle. I thought it was cute, personally, but anyone else would've told you she was weird as all hell. In the writing group, her submission had been the first part of a weird science-fiction epic with feminist leanings (I don't remember it too well, but I can confidently say that it was anything but "normal" -- again, a good thing). And I had no idea she was Jewish -- though I'd thought that might be the case, given that my crush had already told me that Sarah was studying Hebrew. It's noteworthy that here, however, the term "Jewish" really did say something about Sarah -- though it didn't give many specifics (at least as I understand the term, which admittedly isn't all that well). But it didn't say much about Joey at all -- and yet, if I were to challenge strange little Sarah's Jewishness, I somehow doubt that she'd fight as hard as Joey did for the distinction.

During my initial conversation with Joey -- the first time he ever mentioned his "Jewishness" -- I probably said a lot of the same stuff. He noted later in the above conversation, "I've heard all this bullshit before a thousand times, and it's really not enlightening anymore" -- which is, of course, always true of things when you don't listen to them. And during that conversation as well I refused to give him the distinction, using the words, "Look, Joey -- you're not Jewish."

He shouted back, "Fine!'re not black!!!"

I leapt to my feet, clapped my hands together, and cried, "YES! Are we clear on this now?"

All for now. Oh! And check out the new links. 🙂 Many links now! Brief comments regarding a couple: Deb has lovely short photo adventures, and whoever writes Every Topic in the Universe(s?) had a relevant post a short while ago regarding pride.

Ja! 🙂

-posted by Wes | 5:24 am | Comments (0)
No Comments »
Leave a Reply...