This past weekend, I attended the Tucson Festival of Books. It was a great festival, and I was blown away by all the events and author panels that were put together. However, there’s one thing that really stuck with me after the festival was over, and not in a good way. So I thought I’d pull out all my thoughts and let them stew here in this muggle pensieve that I call a blog.
The issue revolved around a particular panel I attended called Race in America. On the panel were Edward Baptist (Cornell History Dept), Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (Notre Dame History Dept), Linda Martin Alcoff (Hunter College Philosophy Dept) and Lalo Alcaraz (cartoonist – La Cucaracha, and writer on Fox’s Bordertown – watch it, the high school football episode almost made me pee my pants).
There were a few things that were problematic about this panel. The most glaringly obvious being that the panel on race wasn’t actually very racially diverse. This came up in the first question of the Q&A session, and much to my disappointment, no one on the panel responded. Lalo sarcastically made the point that none of them put together the panel, they just got invited. That is true. The panelists themselves had no control over who would share the stage with them, and if the festival organizers had actually tried to get someone like Cornel West on the panel, I would’ve had to have a sit-down with them to talk about the importance of setting attainable goals. However, I think it would have been an excellent opportunity for the panelists to open a discussion about the state of the current dialogue on race, and whether they felt enough people of color were having their voices heard. Instead, no one commented.
Had they, the second question would have tied beautifully to that theme, as the woman spoke about the lack of racial diversity in the publishing industry and how no one is hearing the stories that people of color are trying to tell, because they can’t get past the white “gatekeepers.”
At this point, faithful reader, (i.e. mom), I’m going to suggest you watch the following video starting at the 41 minute mark until you hear the woman’s question, Lalo’s response, Felipe’s response, the woman’s counter, and Linda’s response. Otherwise the rest of this post won’t make much sense.
Finished watching yet?
Finished cringing yet?
Didn’t cringe at all? ….Then chances are you are a white male. Don’t feel bad about it! Just read on, keep your ego in check (I’m looking at you, Felipe) and try to understand where this person is coming from.
Let me preface by saying that I am white. If you are reading this and didn’t know that, I would be interested in hearing what kind of google search rabbit hole led you to my blog! Please feel free to let me know in the comments. As a white person, I clearly have never experienced what this woman described. No one has ever made assumptions about my job or status purely based on my race.
However, as a woman, I do feel that I can relate to what she is saying to some degree. I’ve been in many professional situations where my male coworkers were clearly treated with a higher level of respect by other males, while the females were looked upon as less competent, or just ignored. I was in one situation at FEMA where I was canvassing with a male crew member at a dentist’s office. I was right beside my male coworker the entire time, and the dentist did not shake my hand, did not introduce himself to me, and did not address me once while we were visiting with them. I’m sure he thought I was a secretary, due to the fact that a vagina severely impedes a person’s ability to do anything besides type, answer phones, and take notes. That’s common knowledge.
My point is, I get it. But my other point is, I don’t get it. I will never know what it’s like to have people make assumptions about my intellect, my level of education, my personality, my values and morals, and my personal life based on the color of my skin. That is not a part of my reality. The best I can do is listen and trust that she knows better than me what that is like, and try my best to imagine what it would be like to live in her reality.
Which brings me to my problem with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. His comments were not an example of using humor to help us get through tough conversations about race. His comments were super fucking douchey. The problem is, he completely dismissed this woman’s and Lalo’s experiences. With a chuckle about how he would be flattered for someone to think he was good at raising kids or parking cars, he was essentially saying, “You’re silly, and this is not a real problem.”
And this was so. fucking. familiar. This is the reaction I’ve gotten so many times when talking about street harassment. You should be flattered that they think you’re a nanny and not a college professor with a PhD! You should be flattered that some dude on the street says you have a nice ass! You should be flattered that a rich white person in Beverly Hills trusts you to park their car! You should take it as a compliment that the guy passing you on the sidewalk shouts [something I can’t repeat because my grandma reads this blog]!
No, sir, we should not. And who are you to tell us what we should or should not feel? Is it that hard to just acknowledge that you have no clue what the fuck we’re talking about? Is it that hard to just admit that you will never understand, because when you walk around South Bend, Indiana, the only assumptions people could make about you based on your appearance and your accent are that you’re a college professor (ding! ding!) or that you’re the voice actor for Nigel Thornberry from the classic Nickelodeon cartoon The Wild Thornberry’s (I’m still not convinced that you’re not).
At that point, despite your outrageously thick lenses, you did not see Lalo’s face, which was clearly saying “Abort! Abort! Juststoptalkingnow!” and trying to save you from yourself. No, unfortunately, you just kept digging that hole, going on to say “I kind of wish I could share these deprivations and these humiliations…”
Do you, Felipe? Do you??
At that point in the video, the woman wasn’t speaking into the microphone, so the film crew didn’t pick it up, but if I remember right, she was trying to explain to him that not only did people think she was a nanny, they also treated her differently and with much less respect because of it. She then goes on to stress that he will never ever understand how humiliated that makes her feel.
Not realizing just how deep he’s dug himself, he tries to pull himself back out of the hole with a comment about how class prejudice is just as harmful as racial prejudice. That may be true, but it does not counteract the amount of steaming garbage you spewed from your mouth a few seconds ago.
One other thing that the microphones weren’t able to pick up was the audience’s reaction. This talk was mostly attended by senior citizens (side note: this seems to be a common theme for most social justice related talks/gatherings in Tucson – show up, young people!! Where you at?!). If I’ve learned one thing about Tucson’s older population, it’s that they don’t take no shit. I once met with a church’s morning coffee group to talk about the Alitas Program, and after mentioning the conditions of Border Patrol detention, I was fully convinced that if a BP agent had been in the room, a few of those old ladies would have turned him over their knee and gave him a whooping. They didn’t take Felipe’s shit either. There was hissing. Actual hissing from the audience. It was fantastic.
Now the sad part about this is that clearly, he was in the wrong. He said something insensitive, like people do, but he didn’t sign his death warrant. People make mistakes and he could have come back from it. Despite the hissing and the grumbles, he could have made it right by simply saying sorry. He could have apologized to that woman for reducing her very real experiences to a silly joke. He could have admitted that it was misguided to make light of something that is clearly upsetting to her. But he did not. He did what a lot of people with a bruised ego unfortunately do, and he acted like an even bigger asshole in an attempt to reassert his authority to an audience who had clearly lost respect for him.
He goes on to talk very disrespectfully to one of the community members that I know personally – a long-time volunteer at Alitas, and someone that I have a lot of respect for. I will not get into that whole situation, as I am clearly biased and also not well informed about the topic the were debating. However, if you watch the interview that Felipe did after the show (http://www.c-span.org/video/?406242-9/open-phones-felipe-fernandezarmesto) you can see in his response to being called an imperialist, he throws the word “ignorance” around as much as possible in a sad and pathetic attempt to make himself feel like the bigger man, when really he is just resorting to the name-calling that he condemned a few minutes prior to that.
In closing, conversations about race are hard. We are bound to say stupid things. We’re bound to get it wrong. It’s going to be uncomfortable to realize that we may unintentionally have been “the oppressor” without knowing what our actions or words meant to the person receiving them. But these conversations are a chance to grow. They’re a chance to say sorry, I won’t do that again, and then not do it again. But we don’t get anywhere by shutting people down or dismissing their feelings. We have to open ourselves up to other perspectives. We have to give other voices a chance to speak, and when they do we have to really listen.