Cancelling White Fragility: Can Progressives Get an Assist from Madison Avenue?

May 13, 2021

You gotta admit, “Make America Great Again” was a brilliant slogan. Besides doubling as a handy acronym (MAGA!), it was a “politically correct” way of masking the deep racism of Trump supporters who wanted to make America Jim Crow America again. Since Trump left office, Trump supporters in 47 states have introduced or passed voter suppression laws. (Shout out to my ass backwards home state, Georgia!) MAGA fit on hats, t-shirts, and hashtags and immediately conveyed where the supporter stood on transgender bathrooms, racial equity, and the 2020 election. Who came up with this perfect (if fascistic) slogan?

Speaking of “political correctness,” there’s a perfect example of how the left has a language problem. All political correctness is is an attempt to be mindful of the way words and practices marginalize and hurt people in our community. If African-Americans what to be referred to as people of color instead of “colored people,” show them the basic respect of doing it without whining. Those folks have been through some shit! But truth be told, nobody wants to be “corrected.” Ugh. And bothered about getting the he/she thing wrong? A recent study found that nearly 42% of non-binary and transgender youth attempted suicide. By just using a person’s preferred pronoun, you might save a life. Suck it up, snowflake! But there is a cottage industry dedicated to bitching about political correctness as if it was some grand conspiracy to suppress your first amendment right to be an asshole. Your constitutional right to be an asshole remains sacred and defended by both the Supreme Court and the liberal ACLU.

The progressive movement is full of terms, phrases, and slogans that get at the depth of inequity in our society and are intended to start conversations and affect change to transform America into a nation where there truly is liberty and justice for all. But these turns of phrase also trigger right wing trolls and news networks. Over 4 million people watch white supremacist Tucker Carlson each night. If something bothers him, it becomes an instant internet meme spread far and wide by the “proud” boys that want to make America 1950 again. Some of these slogans (and the responses by people who don’t take the time to understand them) include:

Black Lives Matter (“All lives matter!” – Or as my father tried to tell me, “Black Lives Matter means white lives don’t matter.” And yes, he’s a Trumpie.)

Defund the Police (“These anarchists just want criminals to run free!”)

Toxic Masculinity (“Masculinity built this nation!”)

Implicit Bias (“Don’t tell me I’m biased, I have a black cousin!”)

White Privilege (“I’m not privileged. I lived in a car!”)

Micro-aggression (“It’s MICRO! Get over it, libtard! Jeez, you can’t even make a joke anymore.)

And let’s not forget Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” line that became adopted by the not-too-bright Trump base as a badge of honor. If Clinton had tried to be less cutesy and just said, “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the cesspool of bigots,” you probably wouldn’t have seen an army of white people with “I’m a bigot!” T-shirts at Trump rallies. (Wait, I may have to rethink that.)

Sometimes the left’s slogans seem as if they were penned by right-wing agent provocateurs. Case in point, ACAB – “All Cops Are Bastards.” Now I understand that provocative slogan is meant to highlight the tendency in the policing world to prevent officers from addressing the systemic racism that has left countless George Floyd’s dead in the streets. (Police unions, I’m looking at you.) But I personally know many police officers, including BIPOC police officers, who desperately want to infuse policing with social justice values. Let’s not forget that several police officers testified for the prosecution in the trial of George Floyd’s uniformed killer. Are all black cops bastards? Are are all women cops bastards? The average woman who sees a cop carting off the man who assaulted her probably doesn’t spray paint ACAB on local businesses.

Anecdote: In 1987, my roommate and I called 911 in Atlanta. Yuppie ninjas had kicked in our apartment door and we’re going to attack us with num-chucks. Our call the the police scared them off but I had to turn off the music we were blasting before the cops arrived; NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” True story.

Perhaps the best example of this is the term, white fragility, which derives from Robin DiAngleo’s 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. The book is simply about the defensiveness that white people express when you alert them to the reality of racism. They say silly things, like “I was raised to be colorblind” (You weren’t) and “I can’t be racist, I voted for Obama! (You can). The innovative text is required reading in my Diversity class and has sparked insightful discussions among both white and non-white students. It was a best seller among people who read books and rose back to the top of the charts during the churning summer of 2020.

However, bring up the concept of white fragility to white people who haven’t read the book or have no interest in reading any book about racism, and you get a lot of, well, fragility. For easy reference, watch the June 2020 interview DiAngelo did with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. A seemingly interested Fallon allows DiAngelo to explain that all she is trying to do is ask white people to act with humility and grace and address their own internalized white supremacy. The YouTube video’s 27,000 downvotes sets up the 14,000 comments by fragile white people, accusing DiAngleo of racism herself. “The left: Let’s solve racism with more racism” (John Spinelli) “If ‘self-hatred’ was a person, it’d be Robin DiAngelo” (Jack) “This is what happens when you make a career out of gaslighting.” (SWJobson) Each comment perfectly proves DiAngelo’s central thesis about white fragility. Since “fragility” is feminized in our culture, there’s a macho pushback against it. The term “fragility” literally causes men to become fragile.

The “anti-woke” crowd is pretty good with staying on point. From “Drain the swamp!” to “Stop the steal,” it feels like the right has a high-power Madison Avenue team coining their slogans. What if the left had their own progressive Don Draper, instead of the Antifa Darren Stevens is who pens confrontational taglines on cardboard signs? (How about MCAB? Many Cops Are Bastards! Or what about BLMT? Black Lives Matter, Too!) I mean, whatever intern came up with “Stop Asian Hate” should be run out of the slogan business. “What have you got on your resume? Stop Asian hate. So just who do Asians hate and why should they stop? Come back kid when you’ve got something that makes sense.”

I generally loathe advertising, but we’re in a rut here. It’s time to rebrand white fragility. Maybe “I’m Not A Racist Freak Out Syndrome.” Or how about, “I’m Not A Racist But Those People Scare Me Dysphoria.” I don’t know. I’m a sociologist, not a marketing director. We got close to it with “Pro Choice,” but they beat our pants off with “Pro Life.” There’s gotta be better verbiage that doesn’t drive every Karen and Tucker into a “That’s reverse racism!!” spasm-fest.

The reality is these issues are more complex than a handy slogan could capture. They are nuanced and contextual and all the things that scare superficial thinkers that still think “pro-black” means “anti-white.” In my trainings, we get into the weeds, but it takes me an hour just to define the terms. You can’t get all the bullet points of my training on internalized white supremacy on a street banner let alone a bumpersticker.

So let’s pass the beanie and take up a collection to hire a radical marketing genius to help make America not horrible again.

If you’d like to continue this conversation, you can find me here: www.randyblazak.com

At which mass shooting will your loved ones be killed?

November 8, 2018

Cozy and I were at the zoo this week and she was really excited to see the fruit bats. To get to the Oregon Zoo’s bat cave we had to pass the giraffe enclosure. She was so focused on the bats she could have cared less about the giant giraffes. “But Cozy, there are two huge giraffes right there! Let’s stop and look at them.”  She looked back at me, like “meh. I’ve seen those giraffes before.”

Her blasé attitude about giraffes is how America feels about mass shootings. So what?

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When I went to school in the UK in 1980s, people would often be amazed that, as an American, I didn’t live in constant fear of being killed by a mad gunman. “Aren’t you terrified you’ll be in a McDonalds and some guy will walk in and just start shooting?” This is the world’s picture of the United States. It’s a shoot out at OK Corral every day as boys and men unload their sacred weapons into soft targets at schools, synagogues, and college bars. “Meh,” we say, as the bodies stack up. Some of the victims of last night’s shooting in Thousand Oaks were also at last year’s shooting on the Las Vegas strip. How many mass shootings will you survive? Or not?

It’s more than disgusting that this is the hallmark of American culture. We are a nation of boys and men who see homicidal violence as an appropriate way of expressing pain and anger. Most of these boys and men are suicidal so the “good guy with a gun” myth only fits into their plan. Another day, another mass shooting in America. I have written about this too many times and the need to focus on the masculinity-gun violence connection. There will be so many more shootings, so many more grieving family members on TV. And then the next shooting will happen. This is America.

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Pioneering sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918) foresaw the “Meh Effect” in his 1903 essay, The Metropolis and Mental Life. He wrote of a relatively new phenomenon he called the blasé attitude. Life in the city had so much stimuli that we become overwhelmed and just tune everything out as sort of a coping mechanism. I remember the first time I saw a homeless person laying on a sidewalk, I jumped out of friend’s car to help. I thought they were having a medical emergency. My friend grabbed me and told me, “That’s just a homeless person. You see it all the time in the city.” Meh.

Nothing is shocking anymore. We see so much carnage from random gun violence in this country, it’s barely worth looking up from our phones. It must be how kids in Aleppo respond when they hear another bomb drop on their neighborhood. We are immune. Until it happens to us. Until the deep trauma has dropped on our doorstep.

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Because I do this work, I pay attention to the exit signs. Especially when I am out with my kid. When Cozy and I were wandering around Times Square last month, I made mental notes about where to go if a bomb went off or some guy just opened fire on the crowds. I did not, however, make a plan of how to respond if my daughter had been killed and perhaps I should.

The good news is violent crime in America has been dropping since 1993. The bad news is boys and men who shoot innocent people in orgies of violence has not. You are not safe anywhere. Not the movie theater. Not the mall. Not a yoga class. Not a church. Not a kindergarten class. So you better prepare yourself. If you are not willing to work to change the culture of boys and men who do this, you better be ready for when they do and kill someone you love.

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Guest Essay: The Status of Women

May 31, 2018

I like to occasionally feature the work of the only actual award-winning writer in the house, my wife, Andrea. She really pulls the #metoo moment together in this essay.

The Status of Women

by Andrea Barrios

Guest Essay

To paraphrase what Walidah Imarisha stated in her Martin Luther King, Jr. speech: wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world without the triple evils: militarism, materialism and poverty? Without the militarism that has placed neighbor against neighbor in Myanmar, sparking the Rohingya refugee crisis, or the genocide the military carried out under the government’s veil in Guatemala. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where instead of valuing the vain interactions of our online personas trying to out-buy ourselves into acceptance and determine our self-worth measured by likes and followers, we valued more meaningful human connections? A world without the racism that puts up walls between human beings that would otherwise discover they have so much more in common than different. The kind of racism that makes some proclaim that “all lives matter” while they sit idle as young African Americans are shot or suffocated to death and immigrant families are torn apart. Indeed, it would be nice, and even finer if you could live in that world as a man. In a perfect world, men and women’s idea of a perfect world would be the same, but in reality, women have an additional set of visions of what makes a perfect world, and their world does not include sexism and misogyny. In the words of the man with the dream himself, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” Like Imarisha mentions, women might have never seen a world imagined without sexism and misogyny, but lucky for the world, we’ve been taking that first step all along, and will continue to climb our way out of the fiction.

I, like many other women, imagine what our daily lives would be like if those specific evils that haunt us women were to suddenly evaporate. I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where I don’t have to worry about the simple act of walking to and from class without having to clench my pepper spray in my hand, a world where I felt completely free to just walk. I wonder what it would be like to be treated with respect regardless of how I look and how my hair decides to lay that day. A world where my decisions and expressions aren’t attributed to my being a woman or my anatomy. A world where I am not infantilized in the workplace or in the classroom, after all, I’ve stored my girlhood in exchange for womanhood. This world I speak of is nothing like the world I live in, so I have learned clench my fist as I walk, I speak my mind regardless of my bad hair, and although I cannot see the top, I take the steps.

As I take the steps, the freedom I do possess seems to anger my male peers. The way I walk is too confident for their liking. The way my unyielding silence rubs against their unwelcomed compliments is taken as insult. How dare I not say thank you for being acknowledged? Who do I think I am to take up space, to sway my arms without a care. Although I’ve been taught to, I no longer want to hold myself together and shrink into myself. I am the product of all the steps taken by women who came before me. Although the women in my own family have never walked across the stage at graduation, I am here because I am just as worthy of this education, and I am just as worthy of being listened to and learned from.

It is true that we cannot build that which we cannot imagine. The artist sketches out his creation before ever laying a brushstroke on canvas. The writer’s mind collects inspirations and absorbs ideas from everyday life. We cannot build without imagining, but often, the limits of what we can imagine were often not set by us. As a woman, I have come face to face with the limits set by society time and time again. You can be a leader, but be careful not to be pushy or bossy. You can be confident, but not so much that a man might feel threatened by you. As women, we bump into those limits so often that sometimes they run so deep we start to internalize and even embrace them. There are those chains that others impose on you, and those we impose on ourselves. You might ask, but why would someone who knows they are chained not just set themselves free? The truth of the matter is that women don’t hold all the keys, or if we do, they are just a tad out of reach and stretching our arms to reach them, would mean starting a fight with a system that has very defined roles for women.

There are many women taking these blind and hopeful steps. Countless women at all levels creating a path for themselves and others towards equality. The road to equality should not be a solitary journey, although it may feel like that sometimes. In order to create real change and live a closer life to the world we all imagine, we also need men’s help. We need men who are willing to offer a hand as they pull us closer to equality. We need men who will not let other men’s shortfalls become a regular event, especially when they affect girls and women directly. We need men who are willing to defend women’s rights just as much as they defend and guard their masculinity. The only way to move from symbolic solidarity to actual change is to get in motion and to act out and defend women’s rights through action, through community, through art. Action means using any means or talent one possesses and helping women carve out the path to their better world.

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The recent events taking place in our society are lingering echoes of the change that is to come. The echoes of women sharing their #metoo stories, of women and men proclaiming that #timeisup and #neveragain. Women and men are both visualizing a world where women are equal and men are set free from the chains of toxic masculinity. The real world will push back on those ideals, because its shape is so set in stone that it takes grinding and chisels to change it little by little. Step by step. For those of us who never shared our #metoo story, for those of us who are mothers and students, for those of us who are just finding our voice, know that there are steps that have already been taken for all of us, but plenty of space for growth and representation for those men and women that are ready and willing to climb.

Masculinity Isn’t Toxic. Toxic Masculinity Is

March 9, 2018

I first started writing about toxic masculinity five years ago. I presented a research paper entitled, “Two Hours Without My Game Face: Inmates Discuss Prison Visitation and Toxic Masculinity” at the annual convention of the Pacific Sociological Association in lovely Reno, Nevada. The term was new and mostly academic. In the wake of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting, suddenly everyone is talking about toxic masculinity and that’s a good thing. Toxic masculinity is about the corrosive effects of the performance of a certain type of male role. It’s not about all men. But trying to explain that gender is a performance makes some people’s heads explode.

Just like the blowback from those who don’t understand the concepts of white privilege or implicit bias (Mike Pence, I’m looking at you), the howls from the right have been predictable. “Masculinity is not toxic!” “It’s open season on men!” “Toxic masculinity is a myth!” Blah, blah, blah. Fragile masculinity at work. I hope these snowflakey blokes don’t own AR-15’s.

The work on toxic masculinity comes out of the research on the experience of men in correctional facilities, most notably by Terry A. Kupers (and later, my own work). Kupers highlights the seven characteristics of toxic masculinity:

  • Extreme competition and greed
  • Insensitivity to others
  • Strong need to dominate and control others
  • Incapacity to nurture
  • Dread of dependency
  • Readiness to resort to violence
  • Stigmatization of women, gays, and men who exhibit feminine characteristics

These characteristics are common among men who are incarcerated. The predatory environment of prison encourages men to be on-guard and ready to fight 24-7. If you are not victimizing someone, you are more likely to be victimized by others. I noticed it among my interview subjects who would put on their emotional armor before reentering the prison population where they never let their guard down or unclenched their fists, even while they slept. It’s emotionally taxing but requires an emotionless willingness to be viscously violent at a moment’s notice.

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These same characteristics are now being used to describe the hyper-masculinity of school shooters. No, their violence was not caused by violent video games, but their obsession with violent media, including video games, is a symptom of this obsession with carnage, devoid of empathy. There are a number of red flags for the boys and men who become mass shooters and all are represented by Kupers’ characteristics of toxic masculinity. Nobody has ever accused a man or boy who has shot up his workplace or school of being a “nurturing” individual.

Most boys learn some version of toxic masculinity the minute they are told not to cry “like a girl,” or throw “like a girl,” or do anything “like a girl.” The devaluing of all things feminine sets boys up on a path of increasingly alienating choices. We encourage girls to be more like boys because that is seen as a path to empowerment but it might also be a path to suppressing what females have to offer, only to have it erupt in the same wanton violence males commit. (When 50% of school shooters are female, will that be heralded as “equality”?)

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Contrastingly, any boy who even starts to “act like a girl” is castigated as a sissy. “Don’t tell me about your feelings, tell me whose ass you want to kick.” “What? You want to be a ballet dancer? Quick! Buy this boy a gun!” Given the fact that women, on average, live seven years longer than men, maybe we should encourage our boys to act more like girls. I mean, if we love them.

Fortunately, there are other masculinities besides toxic masculinity. This includes peacemaking masculinity, integral masculinity, and queer masculinity. Boys don’t have to become cartoon characters of unfeeling macho men, solving problems with their fists. The easiest example is the difference between bourgeois masculinities (“Tennis, anyone?”) and working class ones. And not all working class masculinities are brutish thugs, screaming “Stella!” (Just think of Dan Conner on the sitcom Roseanne, returning to a TV near you.)

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We men have a lot to learn from women who are more relational and less self-repressing. Women suffering from mental distress don’t go on killing sprees. Research shows that women tend to be better problem solvers, facilitating team resources as opposed to men who declare, “I got this!” and then walk off a cliff. Women listen while men are talking out of their asses. Michael Kimmel, in his vitally important book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, urges parents to, instead of raising young males as “just boys,” raise just boys; boys whose masculinity is defined by their concern for social justice.

This country is turning a corner. The #metoo movement will drive out our rapist president and his “bros before hos” alt-right henchmen. The antifeminist Proud Boys with their “We venerate the housewife” bullshit will cave in from their own toxicity. Patriarchy still has plenty of sexual harassers and school shooters to offer, but the more we can raise our boys to think and act like girls, the healthier everyone will be, especially the people who won’t be dead because they weren’t shot by some boy or man having an emotional meltdown because their dad once told them not to cry “like a girl.”