[A NOTE FROM THE EDITORS]
Every month or so, PANK will bring aboard a Guest Editor from another publication to foster dialogue and new conversation. This month, we give Brett Rawson, from The Seventh Wave, the keys to the car.
I don’t know why I went for the wasabi-brine, but as I teared up, a man roughly my age stretched balloons five feet away from two girls playing with tin mud cakes on the ground. His elbows began to twitch, which sparked an aggressive arm-wrestling match with the air until abruptly, he extended a multi-colored dog to one of the girls. She asked if it was a cat, and we were all a little disappointed, including my stomach, which was now on fire. I contemplated the healing power of blades of grass, but instead, I slipped off the cement wall and walked, bleary-eyed, through an aisle of food trucks in search for a water fountain.
I didn’t find one, so I purchased a bottle from a colorful umbrella, and when I turned around, I saw two white tents on top of a grassy hill: outside, three people in matching t-shirts stood smiling, clutching onto clipboards, while just above their heads hung a sign with two words: White Conversations.
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I told them all of this before saying hello, and when I finally took a breath, I noticed I was now being stared at, but more so, that my magazine wasn’t the only thing that has an issue talking about race. Would I like to talk inside the tent? they asked. Oh no, I said backpedaling in place, I work from noon to seven on Saturdays, to which they nodded and smiled. They handed me a card. Come back next week, they said, we’d love to talk with you. I definitely will, I said.
I never did go back for another run or talk, but ever since, I’ve thought about the combination of both: running and talking, and all the words can come in between. I wouldn’t know this until later, but the reason I didn’t talk to them is because I hadn’t yet talked to myself.
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Take white privilege. The term itself doesn’t have a long history: in 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote the paper, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” Among many things, it outlined 46 examples of white privilege. For example, “If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.” She also wrote this: “various interlocking oppressions take two forms: an active form which can be seen; and an embedded form which members of the dominant group are taught not to see. To redesign the social system therefore requires acknowledgement of its colossal unseen dimensions.” At that first comment, I felt defensive, or fenced in, and wanted to pick back up the shovel and keep digging, but with the second, I set the shovel down, walked inside, and stood in front of the mirror.
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Some have, but to mixed reactions: great start, some say; congratulations on the self-congratulation! some say; and, stop being a self-hating liberal, others say. How else could the confession come off sounding? It serves the very self that has always been the subject, and never the object, and owning up to something new to only you isn’t a solution but absolution. It is great to have gotten to recognition, but we’ve yet to get to any realizations. We’re stuck in a spider web of semantics.
Speaking of, I wonder if it has to do with our handling the word have, which frames the phrase as a portrait of physical possession, and few people want to be caught holding the upper hand or be seen stealing something that wasn’t theirs. But the very thing about privilege is that it’s in relation to someone else, which means we don’t always know when we have it, for how long we’ve had it, how we got it or how to give it back, and what exactly it even is that we have, since the thing we have is also half-about what another person doesn’t have. And so in short, it always depends, constantly changes, and never ends.
The point, perhaps, is that by this point, we usually arrive at an impasse, for precisely the what Roxanne Gay pointed out in her article “Peculiar Benefits:” “We talk about privilege with such alarming frequency and in such empty ways, we have diluted the word’s meaning.” And so when we attempt to use the word again, “it tends to fall on deaf ears because we hear that word so damn much the word has become white noise.”
And so no longer does it feel like we’re in a wrestling match, but plastic war.
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I’m sure it sounds unfair to simplify such complex landscapes and realities, but when equity is the very thing at stake, we have to climb a mountain range of maybes to see anything with clarity. It takes great length to see the thin lines between life and death, promotions and unemployment, classrooms and jail cells.
Part of the complexity is that it is one-part a complex—an issue of the ego—and one-part about complexion—the way our skin is seen. White people don’t like it when things get complicated, like their complicity in something as large as systemic and institutional racism, but they also don’t like it when things get simplified, like how the color of someone’s skin can be a fatal difference. They want to continue thinking that their success and achievement are direct descendants of effort and intelligence, not an inheritance that was built upon the back of someone else. In short, they want to remain invisible, white, comfortable, and right.
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We could write this off as some vile form of dialogue, and call this person whatever name we want to, but here’s the thing: when no one is looking, this is what someone is thinking as they read an article about the Oscars that is unaggressive but written by a black woman. People ask why waste your time with these people, and I say, because they are people. Though, of course, I do fantasize about the kinds of things I would write back to Chris. For example, to his reference to “History,” I might leave this:
Chris, you should read The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. It’s a great read. Oh yeah, Nell’s black! Enjoy the rest of the weekend. Your Ilk, Brett
I am not familiar with the idea of white privilege. I am also not the idea of white privilege. I am white privilege. This is not a confession, but a clarification. I remember days when it felt unfair, accusatory, and misplaced to be verbally blamed for something that, I felt, on many visible levels, I was not directly at fault for, nor did I personally contribute to. But it is unfair, accusatory, and misplaced to be physically blamed for something you didn’t do, which is exactly why people of every color, including white, have been speaking out.
A twelve-year-old boy played with a toy in a park. He was shot dead, his sister tackled, and his mother threatened to not move near her bleeding son. Why? Not because he was playing with a toy gun in a park. A police office would not have gunned down a white twelve-year-old boy playing with a toy gun in a park. Why? Because he would have been at a different park, protected by police, not that park, patrolled by police.
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And in this calmer state, I’ve come to see these kinds of comments as a great, contagious flame. Sometimes, the words felt like a hand-forged fireplace poker was repeatedly jabbing me in the ribcage, but I keep my oxygen contained. Anger is the flame of a dying fire, and to give it words is to give it breath. Instead, I watch the words chase each other across the long cave of shadows.
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A year after our trip, I was on my third cup of coffee inside an empty office. I signed into Facebook, and on my newsfeed, the musician had written a post that started, I’m gonna stir things up a bit. He did. He said we have to shut down the borders, toughen up, buy guns, and stop letting people walk all over us. We have to make America great again, he said, and take matters into our own hands, pull the triggers. At my last count, 116 people liked it. But 47 also commented. Some said, amen brother; others much worse. But others were shocked, myself included. Luc, how could you think this way? they wrote. Stick to music, others said, not words. I scrolled down his profile. His previous post, three hours earlier, was a link to a Jamaican band, with the accompanying text: Music: the international language.
A few weeks later, the first post was deleted, but I wonder if the thought is still there, and why people keep booking Trump and His Orchestra of Chaos.
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Brett Rawson is a writer and runner based in Brooklyn, New York. He is co-editor of The Seventh Wave and founder of Handwritten. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Narratively, Nowhere Magazine, and drDOCTOR.