Brett Kavanaugh and Bro Culture: Let’s Look in the Mirror

Sept. 28, 2018

Judge Brett Kavanaugh and I are basically the same age. He’s almost a full year younger than me and a lot more bourgeoise. But the summer of 1982, we were probably pretty similar characters. He was hanging out at the country club in Deleware, and I was hanging out in punk rock bars in London. He was drinking a lot of beer at 17 and I was trying to be vegan at 18. But we were both teenage boys surrounded by Rocky images of masculinity and the patriarchal notion that God or the gods put all the world’s women on Earth for us to enjoy.

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The difference is that I never tried to rip the clothes off of 15-year-old girls. My warped perception of male entitlement only went as far as envying the shower scene in Porky’s. I was sexually shy that summer, but he seemed to have an action plan.

Watching the testimony yesterday morning of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was gut wrenching. I have to think that millions of women (and plenty of men) were both transfixed and transported back to their own moments of violation. The trauma of sexual assault isn’t a wound that is just healed by time. We don’t expect war veterans suffering from PTSD to “just get over it,” yet there seems to be some statute of limitations on the waves of devastation caused by sexual violence. Dr. Ford was calm but fragile, as she relived her deep-rooted trauma. Kavanaugh’s hysterical testimony, full of conspiracy theories about the Clintons and “Democratic hit jobs,” would have been derided if he had been a female, but men are allowed to use their anger as a cudgel in absence of the truth. “He must be right, look how loud he is yelling.” (And aren’t judges supposed to be politically impartial. This is like giving Fox News a seat on the Supreme Court.)

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The underlying message is that the starting assumption is men are truth tellers and women are liars or patsies. Welcome to Anita Hill Redux. You haven’t come a long way, baby. And yes, maybe Ford was mistaken and Kavanaugh is innocent, but his “defense” didn’t convince a single rape victim. No matter how impressive your resume is and how many times you’ve flown on Air Force one and how much you lean on the wisdom of your daughters, good men can do bad things. His credentials don’t shield him from abusive behavior. It’s not good people vs. evil monsters, us vs. them. It’s just us.

As I recently wrote with regard to race, not only do we all internalize white supremacy, infecting each of us with a degree of racism, so to we all internalize misogyny, infecting each of us with a degree of sexism. We might not say it out loud, but we (men and women) are socialized to believe that “male” is the norm (a message delivered by your mailMAN each day), and women are, as Simone de Beauvoir called it, the second sex. I’ve written a great deal about the challenges of being a male feminist when the go-to switch in your head says women are “girls” and secondary or sexual objects. I am a racist and a sexist. Brett and I both learned these lessons long before 1982. The difference seems to be that I seek to purge the sexism within me and he has chosen to deny its existence. I half expected him to pull a Trump and claim, “I’m the least sexist person you’ll ever meet!”

Part of the gendered message we get early on is that men stick together to maintain their authority. “Bros before hos,” the frat boys chant. That male bonding was evident in the predatory behavior of teenage Kavanaugh and his wing-man Mark Judge and it is evident in the Republican men of the Senate Judiciary Committee who are desperate to give this bro a lifetime appointment on the high court. Bro culture reinforces patriarchy from the ball field to fraternity row to the senate chambers.

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But it’s easy to point to Brett Kavanaugh as the supreme douchebag of the land, who may or may not have spent Beach Week ’82 plying underage girls with grain alcohol. Whether or not he makes it on the court, he will always be known as the “rapey judge.” Kavanaugh is “them.” We need to focus on us and how our own internalized misogyny creates the rape culture that allows credentialed dicks like Kavanaugh to rise to prominence. If the rise of the alt-right is an opportunity for this country to explore the damage done by white privilege and normalized racism, the Kavanaugh hearings are an opportunity for us to confront our issues with male privilege and normalized sexism.

Brett Kavanaugh isn’t the problem. He’s a symptom of the problem. As my wife and I watched Ford’s testimony, we wondered if our daughter would be telling her own stories of sexual trauma one day, trying to convince a panel of old men about the lifelong damage created by one single act. Trump and his old boy network are fighting tooth and nail to make sure that #metoo is just a fad and the old regime stands firm, so I am desperately worried my daughter will encounter her own Brett Kavanaugh at some point.

But if we men can take a deep dive into our own sexism, our simple dismissal of women and all things feminine, we might put an end to the uproarious laughter of boys who have a girl locked in a room and see her dehumanization as sport. We might delegitimize the delegitimization of women and girls. We might keep my daughter safe by surrounding her with boys and men who see her not just as somebody’s daughter but as somebody. We might be able to undo what we have done for so long.

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We’re all intersectional (just some more than others).

July 6, 2018

I mentioned that I was developing a workshop on intersectionality on Twitter and one of my social justice-minded followers replied, “Why do you see yourself as a person who is qualified to lead a workshop about it?” The implication was, what would a straight white male know about intersecting forms of oppression? I deleted my snarky defensive reply that I almost posted, reigned in my white fragility, and worked her valid question into my workshop.

Intersectionality refers to the way forms of oppression can combine for people to create obstacles that are missed if we just look at things like racism or agism or homophobia in isolation. I’ve been lecturing about it for 20 years but recently learned it has an illustrative origin, which, like many important theoretical ideas, was born on a factory floor.

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Kimberly Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor was reviewing a discrimination suit filed against General Motors by a group of black women. GM had the case dismissed because they argued that they actively hired both African-Americans and women so, you know, they were good. But Crenshaw learned that the African-Americans that were hired were black men on the factory floor and the women that were hired were white women in the clerical pool. Attempts to remedy racism and sexism didn’t help black women. Their experience was something else, the intersection of racism and sexism.

Sometimes I will ask my students to describe the experience of Asian-Americans. It’s a prompt that is not meant to have a response. There is no Asian-American experience because there is no monolithic Asian experience in America. To equate the lived experience of a fourth generation Chinese-American to someone whose family came from Cambodia in the 1970s or a Muslim from Malaysia or a Shinto from northern Japan is just silly. There are too many important variables to conceive of for even one unifying theme. Throw gender into the mix and it gets even more complex.

Speaking of, the roots of this idea were in the 2nd wave feminist movement when it became clear that “feminist issues” were really just the issues of middle-class white women who wanted to take on sexual harrasment in the workplace and the empty promises associated with suburban housewife drudgery. When women of color said, “Hey, we want to talk about our experiences, too, so we need to discuss racism!” the core (white) feminists said, “No, this is about sexism not racism. That meeting is down the hall.” This led scholar bell hooks to write the founding text of the issue in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. In it she points out the convergence of racism and sexism was a key weapon of the slave traders to further devalue black women and persists to this day.

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Intersectionality has all kinds of dimensions beyond race and gender. Class, gender identity, sexuality, immigration experience, and many other measures add to the mix. Think of how a poor white male experiences white privilege or masculinity differently than a rich white male. Is a gay person with a physical disability going to experience their sexuality the same way as a non-disabled gay person? I can tell you that an undocumented immigrant who is white (like the 50,000 undocumented Irish in America) have it a hell of a lot easier than the undocumented people who are brown. Think of it as a complex Venn diagram where each intersection produces something unique, like the varied ingredients of a smoothie. And typically that smoothie tastes like multiple forms of oppression.

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There’s a lot of blowback on the topic, mostly from white men. Just put “intersectionality” into a YouTube search and see the dumb videos dedicated to “debunking” the actual experiences of others. They scream “Identity politics!” which is a common refrain among those trying to keep the playing field uneven and privileging themselves. Intersectional thinking is actually the opposite of identity politics. It recognizes what is unique about each of our struggles. A first-generation South Asian immigrant who is also Muslim, female, and gay is not served by being put into just one demographic box and should not have to pick any single identity. (“On Mondays I’m an immigrant. Tuesdays are gay days…)

The reason this matters is that marginalized people who have these intersections are even more marginalized because of them. People want to be seen and heard not pushed into the shadows even further. I’m doing these workshops because this has a real impact in the workplace. One study found that people who feel they can be their authentic selves at work are three times more likely to say they are proud to work at the company or agency and more than four times likely to say they feel empowered to do their best work. Being intersectional is good for business! That should get straight-white-male capitalist’s attention.

It’s easy for straight-white-males to dismiss this important issue. What a hassle to have to learn all these new feminist terms, right? I mean, it doesn’t affect them. Or does it? Good news, fellas, everyone is intersectional. Oppression intersect but so do privileges AND oppressions and privileges.

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In this workshop I used myself as example of the intersection of three identities; white, male, and Southern. As a child I learned being a southerner was devalued and did my best to lose any hint of a southern accent. (If you want to hear it, buy me a shot of Jack Daniels.) My whiteness intersects with my Southernness – Southern whites are supposed to be racist and pine for “Dixie.” My maleness also intersects with my Southernness – Southern men learn violence and anti-intellectual posturing at an early age. So you can imagine the learned identity when you put all three together. And that is my struggle that a white male from Oregon might not see.

We’re working at the next level of anti-racism and bigotry here. This isn’t about segregated schools and lunch counters. When we get to addressing micro-aggressions, implicit bias, privilege, and intersectionality, we’re making real progress. There will be the usual pushback from those who have a vested interest in not making equity a reality (“Hey, they had Obama for eight years!”), but I think even those folks can be brought into the conversation. When people are allowed to exist in their own skin, as complicated as it might be, everyone is happier.

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Dropping F Bombs and White Privilege

April 12, 2018

Fuck. It’s just a word. One syllable. Why should we give it power over us? People are born because of that word, and killed, and fired, and fined. (Just ask Bono.) I used to do a whole lecture in my Intro Sociology class on the social construction of profanity in which I would make each student say it out loud. The point was that the taboo on this word is so strong that some folks can’t even bring themselves to say it out loud.  They can think it, or say “the F word,” which is pretty much just saying it. But they fear God or their mother or their own internalized morality and keep their mouths shut. Free yourself! Fuck!

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Sometimes in the classroom I’ll drop an F Bomb for emphasis or just to make sure students are paying attention. “Antiquated gendered double standards. Don’t you think that’s fucked up?” In my mind it makes me more like the students and less like the stodgy caricature of a college professor. More relatable. Let’s break down the fucking wall of pretense. I put my jeans on one leg at a time, too.

I had an “aha” moment about that whole thing in a class I was teaching this week. I was trying to express the frustrations educators have trying to compete with technology in the classroom. I can’t lecture when students are on their phones or staring at God-knows-what on their laptops. I laid out a perfectly biting use of the word in question and it immediately sounded wrong. Like who am I just to throw this word around? I tried to make sure the students understood the context, but it bothered me all night; probably more than it bothered them.

Then I remembered an African-American student of mine at Portland State who always wore a suit to school. I regularly taught his Social Theory class in jeans and a t-shirt. He pointed out that, as a black man, his authority is not assumed like it was for me. He had to dress up to not be put as far down. As many women and people of color know, you have to work twice as hard for half as much when you are not a white male. My white male privilege allows me to dress like Mark Zuckerberg and drop the occasional F bomb without my authority being diminished. It’s good to be the fucking king.

If I was a female or a woman with the same speech pattern, it would be met with shock, disdain, and condemnation for my whole category. “She swears like a sailor.” “Well, black people are kinda thuggish.” And on and on. I would be viewed as from a less civilized demographic. Sluttish, animalistic, etc.. There’s a great video of a 14-year-old boy doing a slam poem called “White Boy Privilege.” He drops some F bombs and then says, “I can say ‘fuckin’’ and not one of you is attributing it to the fact that everyone in my skin color has a dirty mouth.”

My white maleness gives me free reign. Earlier this week I was giving a presentation in Chicago about white nationalism to a group called the Government Alliance on Racial Equity. On the opening slide of my PowerPoint it said, “Randy Blazak, PhD.”  While talking to these folks, I realized it was stupid to put the “PhD.” up there. My expertise is assumed. I just made it overkill. If I was a woman or a person of color, it might have been the opposite dynamic. “Please listen to me. I have a PhD.” I’m often worried people won’t listen to me, but I should remember that my race and gender carries more weight than any letters.

If my goal is to dismantle my privilege, it’s time to lay off the F bombs. If all my students, friends and colleagues don’t have the same linguistic freedom, why should I exploit it? After all, it’s just a word.

Confronting Ableism by “Looking” in the Mirror

February 5, 2018

I’ve got eighteen interviews in the bag for my Recovering Asshole podcast. Each of them has been a step on the path of me understanding my vast privileges. I’ve learned about white fragility and what it’s like to live in a large woman’s body. I’ve gained insight from transgendered, immigrant, and even left-handed perspectives. Perhaps the most revealing interview was the most recent one (#18) about disabilities and ableism. My desire to have this conversation was rooted in my fear about not knowing how to talk about and to people with physical and mental disabilities. My shame was the realization that, in my life, I had probably done more harm than good.

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As a sociologist of extremism, I’ve lectured about the history of eugenics in Hitler’s Third Reich. The first act of the “Final Solution” was the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” All people with an “inherited disease” (which included everything from physical “deformities” to alcoholism) were ordered to be sterilized in an effort to perfect Germany’s Aryan “master race.” In 1939, Hitler began Operation T4 that killed over 70,000 disabled Germans and Austrians in one year, utilizing poison gas as a warm-up for the mass extermination of Jews and others in concentration camps. Of course, the United States had it’s own eugenics programs that included the forced sterilization of “unwanted” populations.

But, as usual, we are appropriately horrified by the extreme manifestations of such bigotries but are unable to identify the same tendencies and leanings in ourselves. “What could I possibly have in common with a Nazi?” we ask as we skip over a news story about the brutal genocide of the Rohingya occurring in 2018.

My podcast interview was with Grant Miller, who is a Portland disability activist who works with a great arts program called PHAME, and is working with Portland Art Museum on disability access issues.  I really wanted to dive into a conversation about how we even talk about people with disabilities. Does Grant “suffer” from a disability? Is he just “differently abled”? As I progressive as I think I am, I realized I didn’t even know what kind of language to use. I always tell folks, when in doubt about subjects like this, just ask the people themselves.

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I prefaced this conversation with caveat that my path towards empathy really began in 2002 when I had a brain hemorrhage and a subsequent stroke. I was in the hospital for almost a month and had to relearn how to walk. Suddenly, I was the guy holding up traffic as I slowly crossed the street with a cane. I reflected on all the times I had gotten angry because of the speedy norm of modern life. Hurry up!

You can listen to the interview yourself (or the read the transcription, which I hadn’t even considered until Grant pointed it out). It’s 60 minutes of me stepping in it. They are not “hearing impaired” people, they’re deaf. People aren’t confined to wheelchairs, they are wheelchair users. (Many people are, in fact, liberated by wheelchairs.) Even the way we use metaphors disregards the experience of the disabled. You can’t “walk in someone’s shoes” if they can’t walk themselves. You can’t have “you eyes opened” to an issue if you are blind. All this reflects our internalized ableism.

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What we have in common with Hitler is the persistent belief that there is an absolute definition of what is “normal.” That if your hands, or legs, or brain don’t work the exact same way mine do, you are some sort of abhorrent deformity that needs to be fixed, no matter how invasive or traumatizing the process might be. My awareness of this was raised by a deaf student of mine at Portland State who shared a brilliant 2000 documentary about cochlear implants called Sound and Fury. Perhaps well-meaning doctors, with new technology on their side, have begun to “cure” deaf people with these fancy Star Trek-looking brain implants. What the documentary points out is that there is a thriving Deaf community that doesn’t need to be “fixed.” If we just bothered to learn their language (American Sign Language), we could’ve just asked them.

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And that’s the theme of the ableism – that “they” (people with various disabilities) should be more like “us” (people without disabilities) to be more “normal.” My city, Portland, had laws in the 1880s that are now known as Ugly Laws. They made it virtually illegal to be in public if you were “crippled” or “deformed.” You could be arrested and fined. There’s an amazing 2007 movie called The Music Within that’s about the birth of the disability rights movement, and there’s a scene in that movie (filmed in Portland) where a man with a severe case of cerebral palsy is trying to dine in a Portland restaurant in 1974 and is arrested under one of these Ugly Laws. That act was the genesis of the movement that gave us the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It’s a powerful scene. How dare this man be disabled in public? He was making “normal” people feel uncomfortable!

Why were they uncomfortable? Could it possibly be their ableist privilege that was poking  them in their chest? But then maybe before getting all high and mighty about a scene in the movie I should look in the mirror.

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I was in high school in Stone Mountain, Georgia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was the period before the ADA began making institutions more accessible but after the period when the best career trajectory for the disabled was in a circus sideshow. (Although, I am old enough to remember the Florida sideshow attraction known as Alligator Boy.) It was a time when kids with disabilities were beginning to be “streamlined” into the general public school population and, like those white students at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, we weren’t exactly welcoming.

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It sickens me to say this, but not only did we give those kids a wide birth, like their disabilities were contagious, we shared “funny” nicknames for them behind their backs. (I won’t repeat any here. Just know I am in tears as I write this.) I know teenagers can be cruel, but I have to think the obstacles these fellow Redan Raiders faced just to make it to the end of sixth period had to have been greater than anything I could imagine. And no doubt they suffered from their social isolation. I missed out not only their potential friendship, but being a better person by witnessing their courage in just showing up. I participated in their marginalization, no doubt diminishing their high school experience, but I also hurt myself in the process. I’m thinking of digging out my yearbook and trying to track them down to see if it’s not too late.

All forms of bigotry are based on dehumanizing people who don’t fit into the dominant group’s definition of “normal.” Blacks, homosexuals, Muslims, and even the left-handed have, at times, been defined as less-than or even sub-human. Slave traders believed Africans had no souls. (That was B.A. – Before Aretha.) People from Latin America without proper immigration papers are “illegals” or “aliens,” not human beings. There is no clearer example of how this tendency works than how we have demonized people with disabilities as “abnormal.” We might not be overtly racist in polite company anymore, but saying, “That’s so retarded” barely gets a reaction. Add racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia to the recipients of those bigotries to someone who is also disabled and you get a recipe for some old fashioned hate.

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Our current way of thinking about disabilities, whether congenital or acquired, is rooted in the medical model. Disabled people have a problem and therefore are a problem, but one that can be, at least partially, fixed. And if not fixed, then we can find a place for them, either out of sight or working (for reduced wages) at Goodwill. The disability community is pushing for a more social model that places the root of the problem, not on the person, but how society is organized to marginalize that person. The barriers can be physical. (Are doors wide enough to accommodate people who use wheelchairs?) The barriers can also be our attitudes, including falling into the classic “us vs. them” dichotomy. There is only us.

According to the 2010 census, nearly one in five Americans experiences some form of disability, and yet so many of these physical and attitudinal barriers remain. I’d like to highlight that that means four in five Americans might be missing out on the benefit of the full participation of the the other fifth because of our fear or ignorance or indifference or belief that we are somehow more “normal”  than the disabled. Thanks to my conversation with Grant, I understand (I didn’t say “see”) this issue more deeply and am ready to be the advocate I should have been in high school. I see you. All of you.

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Me, too, Harvey Weinstein, me, too: Undoing the Normality of Rape Culture

October 24, 2017

Women in Manhattan seem immune to the world’s noise. I’m back in New York, parked at Patti Smith’s haunt, Dante’s on Macdougal Street in the Village. I’ve been trying to shake the weight of daily news but I just happen to be here to do an interview for CBS News. Seeing New York women, badass in black, feels like an opposite reality from the exploitation capital of Los Angeles, but I don’t doubt that most of these women (Is it okay to use the term “broads” in NYC?) have plenty of #metoo stories, as well. Isn’t this the birthplace of the catcall? Or was that Mainstreet USA?

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, one thing is clear. Okay, two things are clear if you count how right-wingers have used Weinstein mess as a sociopathic attempt to go after Hillary Clinton while pretending to care about the victims. Where were these faux feminists when the similar charges were being levied at Donald Trump and half the male personalities and leadership at Fox News? Liberals in Hollywood ran Weinstein out on a rail and the National Organization of Women is demanding his arrest. Bill O’Reilly paid out millions in settlements and is still a conservative hero. And Trump. Oh, all those women (going back at least to 1992) must all be lying.

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But the other thing that is clear is that, once “Me, too” started popping up on people’s Twitter and Facebook feeds last week, this issue was not just a Hollywood casting couch story. It was an American story. I don’t think I have a woman in my life that doesn’t have a sexual harassment horror story, including my own mother. Nearly as many have rape and sexual abuse stories. If anything, thanks to social media and a hashtag, the lid has been blown off the worst kept secret in America. The disempowerment of women and girls by men and boys might be systemic, but it plays out daily on a personal and personally devastating way with no systems involved.

I have no way of knowing how much of a sea change this is. It feels huge. Just hearing conservative women say, “Me, too” is significant. My hope is all those anecdotes are being read, heard, and processed by the boys and men whose eyeballs they pop up in front of. It’s certainly impacted me. There is the anger, of course. My wife posted a story of a male friend who tried to take sexual liberty with her in Seattle. We had just started getting to know each other, but I hopped in the car and drove three hours so she didn’t have to ride back with the creep. Not a rescuer, more like a dude who doesn’t mind three hours on I-5 to help a friend. I’m far from a heroic knight. My armor is tarnished.

That’s because the other emotion has been shame. In the Weinstein stories and the “Me, too” posts I’ve heard echoes of my former self. Nothing as extreme as Harvey whipping out his schmeckel and masturbating into a potted plant or O’Reilly offering to give a sexual massage with a falafel, but there might have been a moment here and there when I assumed consent, reading the subtle signs in the dance of intimacy. There were certainly things I shouldn’t have said, that, upon reflection, were probably a bit creepy or suggestive in the wrong context. And no doubt there was the minimizing of women’s concerns and a few “Don’t be so crazy”s. The fact that I can’t remember any reflects more about the normality of that kind of behavior. Weinstein tried to frame his abuses by writing, “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” He got a lot of shit for that (as he should), but if you were there (or even if you just watched the first season of Mad Men), you know he’s sorta right. That was the (rape) culture then, and that’s it now. But the times they are a changin’.

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My late teens until about 30 when I began dating my first wife, I was pretty much a heat seeking missile. As a kid who grew up learning that sex was the end goal, once it became available, it seemed like there were few limitations. My freshman dorm was the center of a lot of young men and women unchecking their libido. There was a sense of liberation from parents and the sexually repressed Southern culture on the skids. Then the punk rock scene, then going on tour with a band who, once a video became a hit on MTV, had groupies. I’ll never forget kicking a young woman out of our hotel room in Minneapolis who screamed, “You can’t kick me out, I’ve been with Winger!” That was a more clear-headed act in a world with a lot of the opposite.

I’d like to think I was the sober, respectful guy through all that, but was I? What if there was a woman who posted “Me, too” last week and her story is about an asshole she met at a show in Asbury Park, New Jersey who was relentless until she gave in? Again, I don’t think so, but maybe.

I became single again in my late-30s and forties and still had that 20-something drive as I rejoined the world of dating, hooking up, and “Hey, do you want to stay over?” As an academic feminist, I was keenly aware of power dynamics and the unspoken reality that a lot of my fellow feminists won’t acknowledge – Every single relationship has a power dynamic at work. In patriarchal culture, there is always a power dynamic between males and females. Even two same-gender twins will have a power dynamic. Just ask the one who was born second. You cannot avoid power dynamics. Sorry HR people. The issue is how you respect those power dynamics. Do you leverage them to your advantage? Harvey Weinstein sure did. But did I? Ever? Just because there were broken hearts on both sides doesn’t mean I wasn’t a dick at some point. Often?

Founding sociologist Emile Durkheim argued in 1897 that is deviance is functional because it allows for the evolution of society. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience and criminality facilitated the national conversation about civil rights and allowed the country to evolve. We should thank him for breaking unjust laws. Weinstein is no King, but this national conversation he has caused will help us to evolve away from the normality of sexual harassment. “Hey, asshole, don’t be a Weinstein!” I can here it now (and I might have needed to hear it then).

The men who hear and read “Me, too” need to more than say, “That sucks,” or post a sad-face emoji. They need to reflect how they have participated in similar harassment and sexual aggression, perhaps without even recognizing it. And certainly how we excuse our male peers from the ease of sexual domination. A big part of (male) privilege is that the behaviors that reinforce it are often invisible to those who do it (but not to those whom it is being done to). But when the recipients of that aggression, backed by the weight of centuries of male power, are half of our species, it’s time to see it, acknowledge our part in it, and stop it. Just stop it.

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Donald Trump as the Slave Master of the Black Athlete Plantation

September 29, 2017

Sports can reveal so much about where we are in American racial progress: Jackie Robinson, the Mexico City Olympics, Derek Jeter dating white women. White sports fans have made themselves the referees for what black athletes are allowed to do to move the racial equity ball down the field. And they’ll be more than happy to shut down a spectacular rush. And that’s the end of my sports metaphors.

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Enough has been said about Trump’s weird obsession with “ungrateful” NBA players and “ungrateful” NFL players. Except for white people who are in deep denial, anyone that has followed Donald Trump from his Central Park 5 ad, through his relentless Obama birtherism, to his comments about the “fine people” in Charlottesville, knows the man is a racist. He’s the modern kind of racist who says, “I’m the least racist person on earth. I have black friends!”

The way to frame the “I’m not a racist, but…” racism that is flowing down from the White House and across the Facebook feeds of white America is to think historically. They want to make America great again. And for “again,” let’s choose 1857. This was a time when one in four white families in Virginia owned African slaves. And, like the NFL, the best team owners made the most money. There were over a hundred planation owners who owned over a hundred slaves each. The slave labor on those plantations generated millions of dollars in revenue for the white elites, and it wasn’t just cotton sales.

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First, let’s get this out of the way. The NFL kneeling protests have nothing to do with the flag or the anthem. They are about the persistent problem of racism in America, especially with regard to policing. Trump and his army of racist overseer trolls can try to spin it anyway they want, but it’s about racism. (Trump lamented that white NASCAR drivers don’t bother us with this nonsense.)  They can act all butt-hurt about how much the flag means to them, but it’s not about the flag. It’s a common racist trick to make any unwanted racial protest an “attack on America.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights activists of the 1960s were routinely called “communists” who wanted to “destroy” America. Trump’s pathetic attempt to make this about the flag only reinforces the fact that this is about racism. “It’s not what the black people say it is. It’s what I say it is.” And I could spend thousands of words talking about how we disrespect the flag on a daily basis. Ever seen a Kid Rock concert?

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President Trump has fashioned himself as the ultimate plantation owner and these negroes better get back to work. He (and white America) owns them.  Black players are chattel. Trump’s Treasury Secretary,  Steven Mnuchin, made that clear on ABC’s This Week when he said, “They have the right to have the first amendment off the field.” As if the Constitution is suspended when the beasts are on the field. I guess these black bucks should be “grateful” that Trump is giving them their first amendment right when they aren’t picking cotton.

Obviously, racist whites don’t like any type of black protest about the persistence of racism, whether it’s a football player peacefully kneeling during our national anthem, written by a slaveowner, or Black Lives Matter protestors peacefully marching down a street. Racist whites didn’t like it in the early 1950s, when Trump said America was “great,” and they surely don’t like it now, after a black president. Racism has been solved and these blacks are just being ungrateful, right? They should be grateful “we” freed them, right? (Does “we” include the white guys waving Confederate flags? Post-racial America is so confusing.)

I spent some time on sports discussion boards this week, trying to get the pulse of the hard core sports fans. There was a lot of anger at Trump for inserting his weird version of patriotism into a multi-racial game, loved by many demographics. (Ask some of my Mexican family members about the role the Dallas Cowboys plays in their lives.) Many even recognized that when Trump referred to the protesting black players as “sons of bitches” to a roaring crowd of white supporters in Alabama, he grabbed a third rail. The mothers of football players are beloved, much more than ratings-obsessed politicians. There were obviously a lot of racists posts that moderators were working overtime to delete. However, plenty of “I’m not a racist, but…” posts slipped through.

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A trip through Twitter was more revealing. Not that these knuckleheads are actually going to do it, but a survey of #NFLBoycott posts was pretty harsh. Plenty of discussions of “ungrateful niggers.” And how much “we” pay them to entertain, not annoy, us. One white Facebook friend said she almost walked out a restaurant because they had an NFL game on. Of course she didn’t and if she did it would have had zero effect on the NFL or the need to solve America’s racial issues. But the blatant racism on Twitter has certainly been given a green light by Trump and his call to have these ungrateful negroes fired from their jobs.

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The term “ungrateful” is key in this issue. White men earn their income. Eli Manning earns his $21 million dollar salary. Black men are given their income. They should be grateful for their millions. I don’t have millions. Who are they to complain? (The average player in the NFL makes $1.9 million, so there are a majority of players who are not getting payed millions to cover Matthew Stafford’s $27 million dollar salary. If fact take a look at the 15 top paid players in the NFL. Thirteen are white guys,)

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Another friend on Facebook, who was angry about these “ungrateful athletes” said, “But we pay them millions!” (Something one of the indigent white hosts of Fox & Friends also claimed.) I asked, “Who is ‘we’?” Nothing. But the message was clear. White people pay them and the team owners own them. The don’t own Ton Brady, but they own Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, and any other black player raising a fist or taking a knee when they should be picking cotton and swearing allegiance to the the slave owner’s anthem.

In my nearly thirty years of research on white supremacists, one of the recurring themes is the anger directed towards African-Americans who made more money than them. In my original study of skinheads in Orlando, Florida, racists were completely obsessed with the fictional middle-class Huxtable family on The Cosby Show. Their parents had been laid off from a Florida textile mill, but every Thursday night there was this black family on TV that had everything they thought they deserved. “What’s wrong with this picture?” I remember one saying in 1988. During that study, the movie Mississippi Burning was released. There’s a powerful scene in it which Gene Hackman’s character is trying to explain the racist white mentality to Willem Dafoe’s character. It perfectly summed up the skinheads I was living with and many of the NFL fans burning Colin Kaepernick jerseys (who, apparently, has not punished enough).

Donald Trump clearly has a number of personal issues wrapped up in this circus act, including his legacy of driving the USFL, a football league meant to rival the NFL, into the ground. His Twitter barrages rile up his under-educated white base while distracting the country from his numerous legislative failures. Perhaps there’s also some admiration for Rocket Man Kim Jong Il. Nobody takes a knee during the national anthem in North Korea. Trump doesn’t have his dictatorship (yet), but if he can get enough of his knuckle-dragging followers to demand that these ungrateful savages be fired from jobs they’ve worked their entire lives to have, he can call it a win.
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Ratings for all sportscasts have been on the decline for the last few years. It’s because young people would rather watch YouTube videos instead of sports, not because a handful of athletes want to make a peaceful statement about the race problem in America. Watching these idiots burn their sports crap in protest reminds me of the same idiots who burned their Beatles albums 51 years ago because someone told them the Beatles believed they were better than Jesus. (John Lennon had just tried to make a valid point about the declining role of religion in young people’s lives, but DJ’s in Southern U.S. states and the KKK didn’t care about context.)

Racism is real and continues to traumatize Americans on a daily basis. A black millionaire football player is still a black man in America. Malcolm X once said, “You know what a white man calls a black man with a PhD? A nigger.” And here we still are. Those who are peacefully protesting racism by kneeling are honoring the flag and the men and women who died for the right that gives them the freedom to do it. They are the patriots, not Trump and his racist cult.

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It’s all a part of asshole recovery

June 15, 2017

Other than Donald Trump, does anybody truly like the sound of their own voice? Mine makes me cringe when I hear recordings of it. I feel for the thousands of the students who have had to listen to me over the years. But I do love to talk and maybe my jabber has some value in the world. Those students got a lot of stories from my weird life to illustrate points, hopefully finding applications in their own stories. Maybe I should keep talking.

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The reason for talking is that I’m an asshole. But I’m trying to get better. I was featured in a front page interview in yesterday’s Oregonian newspaper. I casually chatted with the reporter about all things related to racism in Oregon. I assumed this was background research for a larger story, but it was an actual interview. I was trying to make the case that institutions are changing from the inside and said, “I’m the last person in the world that says human resource ladies are giving us hope in the world, but they are a reflection of how much institutional change has happened. Every HR department has an equity and diversity department now.”

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I was trying to make a joke about the stereotype of people who work in Human Resources offices and how they are, in fact, agents of change. In print it fell flat. I just looked like an asshole and the online commenters sunk their teeth into my quip. I could’ve gotten defensive, bleating, “It was just a joke!” but I’m in recovery and that means taking responsibility for my mistakes.

There are two types of people in the world, (I love it when people bisect humanity like that) assholes and people who know they are assholes and are trying to not be. I’m trying to be in the latter category and that requires more listening than talking. So why am I starting a podcast about my privilege? Shouldn’t I shut my privileged mouth up?

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Privilege is such a dirty word in our culture. Everybody’s “worked hard” for whatever they have. Try telling a white guy who is homeless that he has white privilege and male privilege. It might be a hard sell. But he does. Devah Pager’s profound 2003 study, “The Mark of the Criminal Record,” found that African-Americans without criminal records faced more job discrimination than whites with criminal records. For years I assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to my Intro Sociology students. (“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”) Most of them were smart enough to get it. Having an unearned privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the playing field that you walked on to is not even.

I had a trick that usually worked pretty well in the classroom. I’d ask the left-handed students to raise their hands. Then I’d have them testify to the multitude of advantages that right people have. Usually the right-handers would be a bit surprised. “Well, I never thought of that,” they’d grunt. Then I’d ask the righties how many had lefties in their life that they cared about. “Is it possible that there’s a similar dynamic with race or sexual orientation?” “Oh,” they’d grunt.

I’m right-handed.  And a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, middle-class homeowner. I’m pretty damn privileged. Some days it doesn’t feel like it, but even on those days I am. If I ignore it or, even worse, deny it, I’m officially an asshole. So I thought I’d make my own recovery a public one. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I can recall some pretty racist moments in my life. I wrote a paper in high school titled, “If they have Black History Month, why can’t we have White History Month?” I was a product of my environment. Now I’m actively anti-racist, but I have to acknowledge there is racist residue (it’s sticky), and it is strongest when I deny my white privilege.

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So I’m kicking off my first podcast, Recovering Asshole. I’m going to talk to people who don’t have privileges I enjoy. Maybe they can help me (and you) be a little less of a privileged asshole. In the wake of the Portland Max stabbings, I thought we’d tackle immigration first. It made sense to talk to my fabulous wife, Andrea Barrios, about her boarder crossing. In the spirit of John & Yoko, we did the interview in bed. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what she went to just to be in this country. I won’t discuss what happened after the interview. (Maybe I should launch Recovering Asshole: After Dark as a paid subscription podcast.)

Recovering Asshole Episode 1: My Favorite Alien

We’re here on iTunes. Please subscribe. It’s free. And share. If you don’t have iTunes, you can find it on Soundcloud. Maybe we’ll get a sponsor. Maybe we’ll bring a bit of empathy into our lives. I know there are a ton of great conversations coming.

I’ve got lots of interviews lined up. We’re going to talk to Muslims, African-Americans, Trans people, gay parents, domestic violence survivors, and, yes, even left-handed people. I’m a podcast fan (Fabcast is my current favorite), so I think I know how to keep the listener engaged. My hope is that people who find Recovering Asshole with share it with their friends (especially the assholes) and it can grow into something that can have an impact.

We’re allowed to make mistakes on this journey. It’s not easy. I’m sorry if my comment about “HR ladies” came off as sexist. I’m using it as a moment of reflection. My tagline for the show is my tagline for life – We’re all works in progress, so let’s get to work.

PODCAST EPISODES ARCHIVED HERE

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