Privilege and humor – Whose experience is being mocked?
In case this is new to you, the basic idea of privilege in this context is the idea that different people have different experiences in society because of factors outside their control such as skin color, sex, economic status, nationality, first language, and many more. The difficulty of this concept for privileged people to accept is that they don’t see the extra friction involved for the unprivileged, so it can be hard to understand or empathize. I like John Scalzi’s explanation here.
Four things that have come across my transom in the last couple days.
1. Privilege tournament – YUCK.
The most hurtful thing about Gawker’s “Privilege Tournament” (which invites readers to vote on NCAA-type brackets for who is the least privileged “category” of people, black, Hispanic, gay, etc.) is not its contempt for civil rights discourse, but that the prideful display of a white man’s humor is more important to a large liberal media outlet than compassion for people who suffer the dehumanizing effects of discrimination. Gawker, of course, presents the Tournament as an above-it-all humor piece, and this is exactly the problem: Gawker believes it is speaking from a place of objective remove, but it is, in fact, acting out emotionally. The site is either willfully naive about the daily pain experienced by people whom society devalues or, worse, resentful that white men are being wrongly denied equal sympathy. Either way there’s nothing objective in this perspective.
Not only is white male humility in discussion of race/gender/sexuality absent here, but in its place is a vicious, sneering resentment at the suggested need to be humble. When a white man decides that a conversation about privilege has gotten out of hand, gone to absurd lengths, and needs some comedic cutting down, he is reestablishing white, male dominance, plain and simple. Who is asking who to laugh? Whose experience is being mocked?… (Salon writing about Gawker)
2. Whitewashing – a term for the overwhelming default use of whites as main characters and the assumption that white male is the default.
Seriously, it surprises me that people still don’t get that “whitewashing” doesn’t just mean “taking a character of color and turning them white,” but also applies to “focusing disproportionately on the stories of white people,” “glossing over or altering parts of a story to make it more palatable or make white people look better,” and “treating ‘white’ as the default race”…
Because that’s the thing. People often assume that when someone’s race isn’t explicitly specified, they’re white. People insist that Katniss Everdeen must be white because it is possible for them to rationalize that idea in their head. People think of white as “raceless” and every other color or ethnicity as “raced,” and that’s what we call “eurocentrism.”
And that’s the thing about whitewashing. It’s this idea that a “person” is white, and a “person of color” is black or asian or arab or latin@ or whatever they might be.
It’s why people call John Stewart the “Black Green Lantern” but just call Hal Jordan the “Green Lantern.” It’s why Miles Morales is called “Black Spider-man” but Peter Parker is just “Spider-man.” If you want to throw gender into the mix, it’s why Jennifer Walters is the “She-Hulk” but Bruce Banner isn’t the “He-Hulk.”
3. Junot Diaz on men writing female characters, and whites writing minority characters:
If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: you’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst women writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum. Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”
And I think that this a huge challenge for boys, because they want to pretend they can write girls. Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliche lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited… their sexist shorthand, they think that is observation. They think that their sexist distortions are insight. And if you’re in a writing program and you say to a guy that their characters are sexist, this guy, it’s like you said they fucking love Hitler. They will fight tooth and nail because they want to preserve this really vicious sexism in the art because that is what they have been taught.
4. Clark at Popehat has been writing a series mocking the overwrought press coverage of the government shutdown. His pieces document his daily life, the non-trauma of going to the store for some milk and so on. While there is a bit of truth to them, I also cringe at the ingrained privilege in the pieces, the callow joking idea that if the shutdown isn’t a big deal for him, it must not be that big a deal. I wasn’t surprised at one piece that makes the point about the apocalyptic tales, but he’s done four as of today, and frankly they’re getting a bit grating.