tl,dr: Shallow Rewards (continued), race, and empathy

Maybe some of you saw my response to a response to a recent installment of Shallow Rewards. Among the few things that bothered me about the video (none of which were that big of a deal), I quipped that “whenever I watch his videos all I think is ‘white guy white guy white guy white guy white guy white guy white guy.’” This being The Internet, and Tumblr no less, Chris Ott found his way to my post and responded unenthusiastically:

I wonder how tumblr would respond if someone inverted your last statement.  Truly detestable comment there.

Getting called out made me self-conscious, because I quickly apologized to Chris in a follow-up comment. But I also explained that I ultimately did not regret what I wrote, even if I second-guessed the way in which I said it. (Unfortunately that’s about ninety percent of the battle, so I screwed up there.)

The biggest takeaway from this run-in was the ever-present fact that reading communities are not closed circles, especially on the Internet, and especially on Tumblr. I foolishly assumed that, like the lion’s share of the material on this blog, the comment would be read by my followers and those immediately associated with the people who’d started the reblog chain which eventually made its way to my dashboard. But this isn’t an assumption I made with the hope of keeping an allegedly racist comment hidden from the person toward whom it was directed.

I’m on the far periphery of one of tumblr’s many “social justice blogging” communities, the members and associates of which have cultivated a distinctive strain of discourse. (Not that I can take much credit for that cultivation; it’s one I rarely engage, and to my knowledge I haven’t contributed to its development.) Some features of this discourse, like the concepts of “mansplaining” or “being a White Guy,” are rife with meaning among the people who use them, but appear to be extremely problematic to those who don’t. I felt the same sort of discomfort until I engaged with the terms more deeply, eventually learning the ins and outs of their implications. Now I don’t have much of a problem expressing my discomfort with Whiteness qua abstract concept because, within this discourse, there’s a tacit understanding that it is not intended to be an essentialist attack on anyone who either (a) happens to be “White” or (b) exhibits any of the characteristics enveloped by the term. It’s concerned with systemic demonstrations of power and their relations to race.

I don’t know Chris Ott, but what I see of him in the Shallow Rewards series falls right in line with these sorts of characteristics: “condescension, excessive valuation of Firsthand Experiences!!! [something close to solipsism], and out-of-hand dismissal of opposing viewpoints,” as I described them in my reply. It’s no coincidence, if you ask me, that the same sort of behavior marks projects like imperialism or the formation of The Canon (in any field). It’s also the behavior that’s on full display in a lot of my school’s TRADITIONS, which are all rooted in the exclusively white/male social atmosphere of Princeton in the Good Old Days (though, of course, ethnicity and gender are not the only identity factors at play here.) Again and again, I’m shown that systemic relations have a greater impact on individual relations than we often care to think.

That’s why my initial reaction and subsequent response to Chris was marked by indignation. I often find that invitations to “imagine the shoe on the other foot” proceed as if the the playing field of identity politics is level ground. Fact is, it just isn’t. Imagining the shoe on the other foot does nothing to arouse the sense of empathy it’s intended to because, as we might say, a person who might enjoy a considerable amount of “systemic privilege” has much less to lose than someone who is “less privileged” (an arbitration which, admittedly, can easily devolve into pity-partying) when someone expresses dissatisfaction with the multiple identities which constitute their personhood. In fact, Chris’ consideration is not a difficult leap for me to make — not when, throughout my school days (and even in college!) I was repeatedly told, jokingly or not, that being black and doing exceptional academic work/liking rock music/studying ballet/etc. are elements that just don’t gel with one another. Often my ethnicity is what gets most of the focus in these scenarios. If I had a dollar for every time someone’s told me “you’re not really black,” I probably wouldn’t have to worry about paying for graduate school. And to think, this is far from the worst that racism has to offer. I’m lucky.

Yet, in spite of all of this, I have no grounds on which to call Chris A Racist, or to discredit him for discussing music the way he does. On one hand I may consider his mode of delivery more than an issue of style — especially since his critical angle is extremely self-centered for someone who’s attempting to sway a newcomer or outsider’s opinions — but should I ultimately make those characteristics a matter of personhood? Does an aggressively personal approach to analysis make him a bad guy? This is the sort of problem I’m repeatedly forced to confront in my engagement with critical discussions about identity on Tumblr, and in my current encounters with critical theory in general. UWisconsin professor Caroline Levine airs a similar grievance about New Historicism and its related intellectual trends in her piece “Strategic Formalism: Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies”:

For many of formalism’s critics, the charge of abstraction has seemed powerful enough to topple the flimsy formalist house of cards. But cultural studies—apparently the least formalist of literary approaches and the one most attuned to historical differences and particularities—demands a set of crucial abstractions that we can understand in the terms of formalism, broadly construed. […] Much of the analytic work of political criticism has been to notice hierarchies—but it has been, implicitly, to notice repetitions of hierarchies. A single act of violence cannot be understood as political, but if it takes part in a series of such acts, in a context in which hierarchies repeatedly organize experience, then we may grasp it as political. Or to turn this upside down: when a critic points to the politics of an act, a text, or an identity, she implicitly abstracts from its particularity to an iterable, portable set of patterned relationships that organize the social.

I have often heard that as a person of color, I am entitled to space in which I can vent my resentment toward hegemonic oppression in coarse, bitter terms. But I fear that, in making my criticisms of Shallow Rewards a mere matter of “privilege,” I’m eviscerating Chris into a vague categorization. I’m basically turning him into the broad side of the proverbial barn, and in so doing am making him an easy target. I’m also bypassing the fact that he’s…well, a person, who makes conscious choices and has a considerable degree of flexion even within the reality of systemic operations. And for someone who claims to want a more empathetic outlook on social relationships, I think the leap to abstraction may be a dangerous first move. I don’t easily give in to the idea that one person can change structural problems, but insofar as individuals can (and do) confront each other in the clash of public life, isn’t it to my (and his) advantage to use moments of confrontation as learning experiences? And how do we do that without losing sight of larger systemic issues?

I don’t agree that “it’s not my job to teach my peers about race,” as so many people in TSJ circles seem to. Sure, I don’t owe the world a big lesson on racial discrimination, and yes, tons of ink have already been spilled on the subject. But I’m in the same position as Chris: if I’m not getting much out of what I’ve got, how do I lead a newcomer to a more wholesome understanding? Personal experience might be a great springboard.

More importantly: for all our talk of the desire to understand one another, we often leave language out of the picture. Shorthand and in-references are one thing, but concepts which are overtly problematic (whether for the sake of provocativeness or anything else) should probably be used sparingly — or, at least, both parties ought to be willing to engage the terms to their fullest. My criticism is worthless if my intended audience isn’t able to make sense of it. The process will probably be long and difficult (case in point, this post), but empathy isn’t exactly the easiest quality to cultivate.