Monthly Archives: July 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Singleness

For a while, I have been describing myself as “very single”. I haven’t been in any sort of relationship in 2 1/2 years, and in that time, I’ve only dated a handful of times with no serious outcome. And I know some of my friends get exasperated with my conversations about why I am single, why it is so hard to find anyone to go out on a date with, why, when I do go on a date, a second date rarely follows but not because I don’t want one.

And I’ve been puzzling through this. I went to a party on Saturday and got in a wonderful conversation with a new acquaintance on the subject of dating in general. We both agreed that OkCupid seemed to be the best way to meet men in the Twin Cities, but that “best” is not very good at all. We both lamented the fact that the gay culture in the Twin Cities is so heavily focused on bars (it doesn’t interest me at all).

But then he asked me, “What’s your type?” And I fumbled around with this. “Compassionate… intelligent… ” But he said, “No, what’s your type? What kind of guy are you attracted to?” And I couldn’t really answer beyond what I’d said.

I thought about this conversation after I got home. I wondered if the problem was that everyone was playing Monopoly, and I was trying to get in the game, too, but was using the rules for Scrabble. I don’t know about other cultures in the US, but the gay male culture, when it comes to dating, is deeply segmented according to physical traits and romantic and sexual proclivities. And, in all seriousness, those things don’t matter to me. Most men have some trait I find physically attractive. I don’t need to date an Adonis, I just need to have enough physical attraction to sustain the relationship. It’s about being realistic–there has to be some attraction, but the Adonises are very few and far between. I haven’t made sexual compatibility a factor in dating, either (though not doing so actually ended one relationship I was in).

My primary goal isn’t romance (which is great) or sex (which is also great) but companionship. And for me to know if a guy is going to be a good companion, we have to be around each other awhile. Unfortunately, the amount of time I need to determine this is much longer than most men (who may be more focused on romance) are willing to give me.

For the longest time, I figured there was something horribly wrong with me. All these wonderful guys (and I assumed they were all wonderful since they left before I had a chance to find out anything bad about them) left me; therefore, I assumed I was bad, wrong, damaged. And I had to work really hard on my self-esteem and self-image to get beyond the idea that my value and sense of self-worth depended on others’ opinions of me.

I got to the point where I started being happy about myself and my life. But still, though I thought myself a good guy now, I was still single. And as I saw all the happy couples around me, as my closest friends settled down and I saw them less and less, the idea was sinking in that I would always be single. I’m no spring chicken, and I came out relatively late (by today’s standards, anyway) , so I’ve felt like I’ve been in this massive game of catch-up. And I’ve wondered if it’s too late for me to catch up enough.

At the party, my acquaintance said, “If you want to date, then there will be someone to date.” But that hadn’t been my experience at all. Or had it?

Today a friend of mine posted an article from Cracked (an aptly named website if ever there was one, it is so addictive). It highlights the reasons why someone might not be having success with online dating. And I read through the article, and realized I’ve had one or two of these issues at various points. There was a time when I was terribly needy and lonely, and not fostering good mental and emotional habits. I think (most days, anyway) that is all behind me.

But it was reason #4 that really stuck out to me. My acquaintance said Saturday that if I wanted to date, there would be someone to date. And the article states that some people can’t land dates because they present themselves as having lives so full that there is no room for anyone else.

And you know what? There’s not! I spend a lot of time on school, extracurricular activities, and the chorus I sing in. I don’t have much time. Plus, I have absolutely no idea where I’m going to be in a year–that is up to the grad-school gods to decide. And the application season is heating up, and that is only going to take more of my time. I would feel sorry for any guy who tried to enter my life for a long-term relationship right now. He would find himself suffocated by my trying to get my career off the ground, and stuck with the uncertainty of whether to follow me around the continent for the next little while.

And you know what else? That’s not a bad thing. I’m going to school for a reason. I’m writing for a reason. And those reasons are all good. Just because there isn’t the sort of space and stability for a relationship right now doesn’t mean it will always be that way. And even if it doesn’t happen, even if I’m always single, there are certainly greater tragedies in the world, and I can still lead a rich and fulfilling life.

I think part of the challenge lately has been the drive for same-sex marriage in Minnesota. It has been almost the sole focus for the gay community in Minnesota for over two years, first to turn down an amendment to ban it, then to support a law to endorse it. Those of us who are not presently engaged in relationships sometimes feel totally left out of the picture–I know I’m not the first to express this sentiment.

And so, I’ve felt that if I’m not at least maintaining a pretense of wanting a relationship, even if I’m not really looking, then I’m somehow defective. And again I’m placing my self-perception in the hands of others.

But it took a random conversation at a party and random article from a comedy website for me to realize there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time, and I see myself getting happier by the day. My future is quite bright at the moment. And if I’m happy and working on good things, isn’t that all that matters? I know that singlehood can’t possibly negate someone’s attempts to make the world better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

So, if you are reading this and are single, ask yourself why. And if there are good reasons why, then rejoice!


Life and Death

Yesterday I celebrated my thirty-ninth trip around the sun. I enjoyed various celebrations for a couple of days, spent with friends old and new. It was a time of merriment and gratitude and laughter (with just a hint of debauchery–hey, I’m no angel). Yesterday began my fortieth trip.

Today I found out about the death of a friend. She was not a close friend, but I had wanted to be closer. Though she died nearly a month ago, many of her friends are only now finding out. This reminds me of how the modern age leaves us less connected than we like to think we are. She was intelligent and talented and beautiful, with a biting wit and a great laugh. She was a gifted actress, and I had longed to write a piece especially for her.

Today people are writing on her Facebook wall, wishing “Rest in Peace”. I’m not going to interfere with others’ grieving process. I will say, however, that I don’t believe she’s “resting”. I believe that the part of her beyond her flesh and bones, the part that we cherished as “Monica”, is no more. This is the sort of thing for which religious people often think that the nonreligious are cold and heartless, with such a grim and bleak view of the world.

I do, however, believe in immortality–it’s just not immortality as portrayed in religious texts. Monica has left an indelible print on all who knew her. Many times she entertained, encouraged, and comforted us, and that impact will not be lost just because she is no longer with us. And those good, beautiful things about her influence us, even in the subtlest ways. And then we pass that influence on to the others around us in our lives. And so that influence passes even after I and everyone I know will be dead and gone as well.

She left behind two sons, nearly adults, who, though I don’t know them personally, are by all accounts good kids. And I hope they continue to be good kids. I hope they carry with them all the good things about Monica and pass them on as well.

And as I look 364 days in the future, at which point I would unarguably be middle-aged, I reflect on my own mortality. And I recognize that I might not even see 40. Life is so very fragile, and so unpredictable. Which is why, each day, I must commit myself to living my life such that, upon my passing, I have left behind good things.

So today, I live with joy and sorrow, with comedy and tragedy, with triumph and pain. I carry the loss of my friend and the spark she left inside my soul.

Today I live.


Tomorrow I turn 39. The celebration has already begun. Yesterday, I treated myself to Glam Doll Donuts. Someone once gave me half of a maple-bacon doughnut from Glam Doll, and it was so tasty I vowed to go to the actual bakery. I had the très leches doughnut and the cherry cheesecake doughnut. Their doughnuts are dense and hearty–very tasty, but two easily filled me up. These are much more like full-blown desserts than something you scarf down at breakfast–definitely a knife-and-fork affair. I’m going back again sometime.

This morning I had a surprise: I was treated to the Taco Taxi food truck on Lake Street, just a few blocks from the brick-and-mortar location. Two tacos al pastor and a lime Jarritos–a very tasty surprise indeed. And tonight my friends and I are meeting at a local creamery for some lovely ice cream. I scheduled my party for tonight because someone else had scheduled another, completely unrelated party for tomorrow, and I honestly would rather have gone to that party than anything I would have been able to throw.

So with a birthday I can’t help but be reflective over the past year. This past year, I really hunkered down in the life of a student and a writer. I picked up a few publishing credits, and I started taking this blog more seriously. I also decided that I would go on to graduate school. This fall, I will be preparing my applications for an MFA in Creative Writing. With any luck, I’ll get into one of them.

It was a year largely devoid of romance. I wish it were otherwise, but you can’t have everything you want.

I made a number of new friends, especially at school, yet I’m socializing less than I have in years. Again, something I would rather see change for the coming year. Fortunately, unlike romance, I have a little more say in the issue. I know of places to plug in socially; I’m just not making the effort. So I need to make the effort this coming year.

Ah, the coming year. It’s going to be very busy with the applications. There’s a chance that upon my 40th birthday, I will be at or en route to a much different location. Whilst I’m applying to the University of Minnesota (honestly, I’d be daft not to), I’m also applying to locations across the map, as far off as Fairbanks, Alaska, and even to two schools outside the United States. After I’ve submitted my applications, it’s completely out of my hands where I end up, or even if I end up anywhere. In the meantime, I just have to keep doing what I’m doing, the best I know how.

A Love/Hate Relationship

I love Facebook because it helped me to redeem my past. I was ambivalent about reaching deep into my past for people to “friend” on the site. I knew that I would have to fill them in on the whole coming-out narrative, and figured a lot of them would be upset about it. But I took the leap, and was pleasantly surprised. I learnt to give people more credit.

I hate Facebook because I have to face down what people believe. There is a hell of a lot more in the world than worrying about gay folks. And, unfortunately, it’s in a lot of those arenas that I bump heads with chunks of my friend list. I have to manage an anxiety disorder, and that often means managing what content I read. That entails using filters on Facebook that I’d rather not feel the need to use. I feel bad that I am unable to handle some of what people I really do consider friends have to say.

I love Facebook because it opens me up to new points of view. People can surprise you–especially if they are intelligent and thoughtful and know how to carry on a true debate without erupting into a volcano of ad hominem, quid pro quo, and other fun Latin words. I have certain friends who I love to read posts from, since I never know quite what their take is going to be on something. It enlightens me.

I hate Facebook because it’s a never-ending stream of news stories. There was this fantastic article awhile back (ironically, from a newspaper) that told of the dangers of exposure to news media. One of the issues is that the endless onslaught of tragedies that you can do nothing about can lead to an individual feeling powerless, even about the things they can change for the better. Sometimes I have to distance myself.

I love Facebook because it keeps me company. I am a student and a writer, so I spend a lot of time on my laptop. I also live alone–something I do not like–and a random chat can brighten up my day in the most marvelous way. Why, just today, I had a conversation out of nowhere that led to new personal insights. As an extrovert whose social life is presently lacking, that personal contact is essential.

I hate Facebook because I feel like I have to censor myself there. I’m perhaps a little bit better about this than I used to be. But I’ve run on the assumption that any potential employer is going to find some way to get at my Facebook account, as well as this very blog. (I already believe some of my entries on this blog have forfeited my chance to ever have a real job.) I decided that I’d rather be stone-broke and honest than comfortable and a liar. Still, there are many views and opinions I do not express on Facebook, and many articles I do not repost, because I don’t want to stir up trouble.

I love Facebook because it inspires my writing. Some of my blog posts start out as Facebook posts. Then I realize that what I’m trying to say is too complex an idea for a Facebook post, so I come over and write a blog post instead. In turn, I’m able to post links of my blog posts to Facebook, which helps get the word out about my writing.

I hate Facebook because it’s not designed to express complete ideas. When the site first launched, users were limited to posts of approximately 450 characters. Even though that restriction is long gone, it established the meme that Facebook posts are supposed to be concise. Not all ideas can be articulated briefly. Consider that I just went over 600 words in this post and still haven’t said a hell of a lot. This is a big reason why fights erupt on Facebook–people don’t take the time and use the space to explain ideas in a complete manner.

I love Facebook because it’s instantaneous. When you think about it, Facebook isn’t particularly novel. Virtually every component on Facebook is duplicated from Yahoo, which is what folks used ten years ago for pretty much the same purposes–games, instant messaging, interest groups. The beauty of Facebook is that it pulled these utilities from the realm of those who were more tech-savvy and placed them in everyone’s hands. And look–I can play a game of Scrabble with someone halfway around the world instantaneously. I can chat simultaneously with a friend in Vancouver, a friend in Chicago, and a friend in Madrid. I can go over and link this blog post when I’m done with it and instantly place it in hundreds of hands.

I hate Facebook because it’s instantaneous. This is another big reason why fights erupt on Facebook. In the time it takes for someone to post a comment, and then post a second comment to expound upon the first, a half-dozen people can jump and eviscerate the initial comment, before there’s been a chance to explain it. The ability to reply instantly is the antithesis to listening, which is essential, not just for everyday communication, but for the survival of our species.

I love Facebook because it opens my heart. Every day, there’s something on there that makes me laugh, and many days something that makes me shed a tear.

I hate Facebook because it demands that I maintain a switch on my heart, to shift from happy to sad to happy again in the blink of an eye. In this way, it’s destroying the human heart.

So what do I do? I just have to roll with it. Something else will come along at some point in my life to take its place. (Remember MySpace?) I have to be grateful for the ingenuity that gives me all of these good things in my life. But I don’t have to be grateful for the way it drags my life down.

Ugly Truths and Pretty Lies

An article has been running around Facebook that raises my hackles. The article, 21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity, includes two pictures that really take away my faith in humanity.

From the article “21 Pictures…”–the first photo in the blog entry.

I’m going to make a bet that the author of the article doesn’t know the full story behind the pictures. They just saw something that looked inspiring and then posted them. But looks can be deceiving.

The first two photos feature a “hug-in” by the Marin Foundation. (Founder Andrew Marin is on the right side of the first photo.) The organization is best known for attending Pride celebrations and hugging people (mostly, it seems, young males in their underwear), “apologizing” for the harm the Christian church has perpetrated on the LGBTQ community, and asking for donations to help them with their “cause”. The Marin Foundation officially claims to be “neutral” regarding their stance on whether being gay is okay. The foundation’s cause, though, requires a Rosetta stone to decipher, as it consists of a never-ending stream of vague platitudes.

Let me be your Rosetta stone.

Beneath the milquetoast smiles and lukewarm niceties lies a much darker reality. Please watch this video, created by Andrew Marin.

If you’re not familiar with the language, let me unravel it for you. Basically, Marin is saying that to be attracted to the same sex is not sin, but to do anything whatsoever in keeping with those attractions–to date, to marry, to have sex–is sin, what he calls “the sin portion”. The man has a lot of gall if he thinks this constitutes “neutrality”.

Let me be blunt. I’ve had it up to here with a church that says, “Oh, we have to love the homosexuals, they’re sinning just like everyone else.” There is a bloody world of difference between a conscious act (murder, pedophilia, or anything else that gets lumped in with homosexuality) and a state of being. I could never have a date or any physical contact with a man for the rest of my life and it would still not change my orientation one iota.

Ah, you may say, but to date, have sex, etc *is* a conscious act of will. May I simply remind you that Jesus spent a heck of a lot of time telling people that, when it came to matters of personal morality, to hold oneself to a high standard, but when it came to matters of others’ morality, to mind your own damn business.

So, back to the photos. They may look good, they may look pretty, they may look inspiring. But those two photos represent a very consciously perpetrated lie. And an ugly truth will always be more beautiful than a pretty lie.

Random Thoughts on Race

The issue of race has shown up in a number of news stories the past week or so: the Paula Deen case, the George Zimmerman trial, and Supreme Court cases involving voter rights, affirmative action in education, and the rights of Native Americans. I’ve ended up in a few debates about them. However, I am not a debater, for a lot of reasons. Yet the points that I would like to make to those I have been in discussion with are very close to my heart, and I think it may be worth it to put those points in the public record. (Just a note, the perspective I’m offering here is from an American living in America, though I’m sure most, if not all, of the principles here are transferable to any culture.)

There is such a thing as white privilege. White privilege means that you have been afforded special opportunities through life merely by the color of your skin. In many cases, this affects what you don’t have to go through in life, for example, police and security-guard harassment, and employer mistreatment. The list goes on.

The thing with white privilege is that, if you are white, you can navigate life successfully without once ever having to think about privilege. I’ll talk later a bit about how to overcome one’s own white privilege.

There is such a thing as institutional racism. This has to do with the cumulative effects of centuries of racism. For two centuries, natives of Africa were forced away from their homes and into ships, on which many died, and driven into grueling labor and abominable living conditions. They were stripped of their names and their culture, and afforded absolutely no legal rights whatsoever. The United States fought an ugly civil war for four years in which the issue of the personhood and equality of these abused millions was one of the driving forces.

None of what I have said to this point is not anything you’d find in the average high-school history textbook, though the more gruesome details are usually glossed over. The trouble is that our history books don’t detail what happened after, only little bits if at all. There was a brief bright point during the Reconstruction after the Civil War in which the newly free made gains economically and politically.

Many white folks did not like this, so they started enacting laws to curb the gains African Americans had made. We hear about the separate-but-equal laws that were put in place–African Americans were forced to go to inferior schools, and were to use inferior restrooms, water fountains, bus seating, and so on. This was all intended to send that message that the black man had better know his place.

But the story is far uglier than all this. First, we isolate these stories as a Southern narrative, ignoring the history of racism in the North, where it played out more in housing and employment. This wrongly absolves Northerners of their subculture’s role in perpetuating racism in America.

Second, our textbooks touch briefly on “sharecropping” without ever explaining what it was. In sharecropping, African Americans were allotted land on which to raise crops. The white landowner collected a (large) share of the crops raised as a form of rent. Sounds like a good deal, right? Until you find out what the history books don’t tell you–that it was against the law for the sharecroppers to leave the land, often unless they paid a large sum of money to the landlord. You’ll notice that the sharecroppers didn’t earn money; their payment was crops. Sounds an awful lot like slavery to me.

Then there was debt peonage. Suppose a sharecropper decided to escape. Or suppose an African American citizen who owns his own land crosses a white person. Then the African American could easily find himself in court on trumped-up charges that he owed the white man some money. Much of the court system was structured more informally a century ago–today, we would see some of them as “private courts” without legal standing and with huge conflicts of interest. And thus the African American was ushered into the debt peonage system, in which he would “work off” the debt. This brought about the “chain gangs” working the roads, and also, less commonly known, the vast majority of the mining labor that brought about the steel-industry boom in the South. Prisoners under debt peonage were forbidden any contact with their families, not even letters, and many died from the back-breaking work.

And we like to think that we wiped all of that away with the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. But, just as people looked for ways to worm around the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery, so too today the law works against African Americans and other minorities. We structure our school financing such that those in minority communities have nowhere near even the basic resources for their community schools. If they are lucky, they live where the law allows them to travel far from home to a school with no connection to their neighborhood or their culture. If they aren’t lucky, their school–often lacking even basic resources like functional plumbing and enough textbooks for each student–has draconian security measures in place such that students serve jail time for offenses that would merit a suspension in a white school, what is popularly known as the school-to-prison system.

Then we set up our legal system so that it favors whites. One of my Bible-college professors was a sort of guru when it came to race relationships, and he deeply influenced my understanding of race. In a lecture, he related the story of a racial-reconciliation conference he attended. The speaker asked all of the white attendees to raise their hand if they had ever been driving and the police pulled them over for no reason at all. Not only did no one raise their hand, they were astonished as to why the question was even asked. Then the speaker asked the African Americans in the audience if this had ever happened to them, and every single one of them raised their hand. And then they shared their individual stories of how this had happened to them. (I’m going to touch on this later, as well.)

For another instance, powdered cocaine and crack cocaine have identical effects on the body. The only difference is that powder is primarily sold by whites and crack by minorities For a long time, the punishments for selling crack were far more severe than those for selling powder. Only last year were these laws changed. Similarly, minorities face much stiffer punishments than whites for marijuana possession.

And so we have all these ways for minorities to enter the criminal-justice system, and then we make it so that it’s harder for ex-convicts to find employment and education. Job applications require you to indicate if you have a felony record, and though there is the statement that a record cannot solely bar you from employment, it is also generally accepted that an employer can avoid hiring someone for any reason not covered by law. So an ex-con can have an exemplary record otherwise, but the employer can look at the application and decide she doesn’t want to hire him just because he “smells funny” or what have you, and doesn’t ever have to give the reason why she’s not hiring him.

And then there is the issue of higher education. If you have a drug offense, you are not allowed to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which virtually all universities require for entry. You can be convicted of murder and go to college just fine, though. And, as I already indicated, if you are in possession of or are selling drugs, you are more likely to face felony charges as a minority than as a white.

And so it all feeds into itself. Minorities have trouble accessing the sort of education that increases their chances of attaining higher education and thus improving their employment prospects. In fact, there is a chance that even being at school will mean jail time. They are more likely to face prison time via an unequal legal system, and once out of prison, struggle to attain gainful employment. Thus you have a generation stuck in a socioeconomic class where the goal is to survive, not to thrive. Without good jobs pushing a community to the higher tax bracket that will ensure a better-funded school, the choice is to either stay in the community school or take a chance at bussing or open enrollment–if those are even legal options in that state.

And that may sound like a simple choice, but to choose a school that is not a part of your community or culture can look like an act of treachery. There are also more complex sociological considerations. Consider the neighborhood I grew up in. When I was thirteen, my mother, three siblings, and I found ourselves in a public-housing complex. It was not a good place. You had the option of going outside and getting in fist fights all the time or staying inside all the time. Very few people graduated from high school. More commonly, you’d drop out of high school, have a baby, and apply for your own apartment in the complex, thus ensuring three generations knowing little outside that environment. My mother did not consider this the life her children should have, so ultimately, we stayed inside all the time, worked hard on our schoolwork, and worked to graduate from high school. And almost everyone in the neighborhood, even property management, looked down on my mother for raising her kids to think they’re better than everyone else. My mother thought everyone was better than that place and didn’t understand why people weren’t trying to get out. Oh, and did I mention that, in a city that was nearly 90% white, the percentage of whites was considerably lower in our complex?

And it’s all far bigger than all these legal issues. Look at our media. How often do you have a positively-portrayed minority main character? Why are shows featuring African American casts–a group that makes up 12% of the United States population–relegated to secondary networks and get little notice even when they are well-written? The days of The Cosby Show seem so very, very long ago. Why are Latinos, nearly 20% of the United States population, barely on television at all, and it they are, they are cast as either maids or criminals? One of the main answers, of course, is that these decisions are made based on which populations have the most buying power–and a big reason whites have more buying power is all the reasons I described above.

And did you notice that in the amazing year of 2002, when African Americans won Oscars for both best lead actress and best lead actor, they were for the role of the wife of a prisoner, and the role of a corrupt police officer? And, I’m sorry, but you’re not going to convince me that if that’s the only way you ever see people who look like you portrayed in the media, that it will have absolutely zero effect on your self-image as you grow up.

And throughout all of this, I’ve primarily portrayed the experiences of African Americans. I have not really even touched on the experiences of Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, all of whom have had to deal with racist barriers in society unique to their own groups. You can see how long I’ve gone just describing one group, and frankly, I don’t have enough time today to get into all of them.

Quite simply, we have to undo five centuries of white supremacy in the United States, and we are fools to think that one swipe of a legislative pen or one march will undo all that damage. It will take a hell of a lot of work for many generations.

[Much of the content in this section came out of the fantastic documentary, Slavery by Another Name, which I highly recommend you watch. It’s worth all 90 minutes.]

There is a difference between prejudice and racism. The trouble with using such loaded terms as “prejudice” and “racism” is that we are not all always on the same page in terms of their definitions, and this causes all sorts of problems in trying to discuss these very real issues. So, in discussing these issues, I rely on definitions that are commonly accepted in academia. Yes, I’m going to trust people who have dedicated their lives to the study of a subject in which I am not an expert (and I am indeed an expert in precious little, if anything).

So, using this rubric, prejudice has to do with preconceived notions about a group that cannot possibly be true for every member of the group. “Blacks are criminals”, “Asians are freakishly intelligent” and “Whites can’t dance” are all common prejudices, and all are easily dismissed. There are, of course less common prejudices. And, if we are all honest with ourselves, we are all prejudiced in some way. I know that one of my biggest prejudices is assuming that, if I see a random white person on the street, that they are relatively well off, which, not only isn’t true, but is also kind of bizarre when you consider that I am a white person without a lot of money.

Racism, however, is when a group takes advantage of prejudices and uses them as justification for the creation and justification of laws, both in government and in culture, that ensure that one group cannot advance, over a long period of time. This is why it is said that nonwhites can’t be racist. It cannot possibly be said truthfully that nonwhites have, over a long period of time, asserted their authority in both government and culture to assure that whites are collectively lower than nonwhites.

It’s okay for blacks to say the N-word but not okay for whites to do so. When whites say the word, they are recalling a history in which that term was used by whites towards African Americans as a means of ensuring that African Americans “knew their place”, that they were inferior to whites.

When African Americans use the word in reference to themselves, they are doing what has been called in sociology circles as “reclaiming the word”. I have a ready parallel in my own experience. The F-word that is used to denigrate gays and lesbians is one of the ugliest words I know, and has been used for very much the same purposes as the N-word in terms of pushing people to second-class status. However, I know some gay men who use the word on occasion in reference to themselves or to other gay men. When they are doing this, they are making a statement. They are denying the power that the word has had in demeaning their lives. They are taking the torch meant to incinerate them and turning it into a celebratory bonfire. But a person who is not gay or lesbian cannot possibly use the word in this way, because they have never had their feet held to the fire.

Not all gay men believe this, or use the F-word in this way (for example, I don’t). Likewise, not all African Americans believe in using the N-word this way. However, it is the general standard as it has evolved in American culture. Which leads me to my next point…

If I don’t belong to a group, I do not have the right to determine the standards of that group. I have got into numerous debates about the use of Native American names and imagery in professional sports. (It’s a big issue in collegiate sports, as well, but I’m better versed in the issue at the professional level.) I’ve done some study particularly around the name of the NFL team in Washington, a name so offensive that it’s on par with the N-word and I refuse to say or type it. If you dig into the numerous court cases surrounding the use of the name and imagery, the arrogance is shocking. What it comes down to is that Native Americans confront the white owner of an athletic team that uses an offensive name and a stereotypical image that is meant to symbolize their entire set of cultures. (News flash: Native Americans in the past dressed lots of different ways. They covered the entire continent and collectively were as diverse if not more so than Europe.) The white owner says, “But I am honoring you!” The Native Americans say, “If you were honoring us, we would feel honored, and we very much do not.” The white owner’s reply: “Well, I just don’t understand why you don’t feel honored, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”

And you know what? As I am not a Native American, I really don’t have the right to an opinion about how Native Americans should feel they are represented. To assert otherwise, to insist that another group must think and feel differently about themselves is, guess what, an exercise of white privilege.

And, to cut off this inevitable train of thought at the pass, this same standard does not apply to, say, the Boston Celtics or the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish. As an American of about one-quarter Irish descent, these depictions do affect and reflect me. I don’t find them offensive, and the consensus of Irish Americans is that they are not offensive. And though there is a nasty history of oppression against the Irish in America’s past, an argument that such oppression is happening today, let alone that these depictions have in the recent past been used to denigrate and disparage Irish Americans, is most difficult to support.

The word “cracker” is not racist. Go back to my previous explanation of the difference between prejudice and racism. The word “cracker” has not been used to denigrate European Americans over an extended period of time to ensure that they will be subjugated in society. Whether the word reflects prejudice is another matter, but perhaps might best be taken on a case-by-case basis.

A racist action does not equal a racist person. The charge of racism is so loaded that the one action you can be certain will shut down any change is to call someone a racist. I argue that, in order for a person to be racist, they must exhibit focused acts of racism over an extended period of time. By this definition, there are indeed racists, but I would argue the vast majority of people are not racist.

On the other hand, I think most white people commit acts of racism. Many of these acts are unintentional. We mirror attitudes and behaviors that racist cultural artifacts have handed down to us. But if we do not correct our actions, we contribute to the continuation of racism.

So the next time someone tells you did something racist, I suggest you follow this course of action: Stop, apologize, consider how the act was racist, and work to avoid doing the act again. It takes a measure of humility and effort, but the long-term benefits to society are immeasurable.

The people who can provide the most honest account of a group are the people who belong to that group. If I want to know the views of women, I ask many women. I don’t just ask one, because no one person should ever be expected to represent an entire group, but I can gather a general consensus if I ask many. The same goes for any group, majority or minority, whether by race, sex, gender, orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability, politics, on and on. No group is homogeneous. We are, in the end, all unique.

The converse is also true. I don’t want white people telling me what African Americans or Native Americans think or feel. I don’t want men telling me what women think or feel. On and on. For someone to assert an authority voice for a group to which they do not belong is the height of arrogance and, often, privilege.

Overcoming white privilege takes much time and effort but is worth it. First, you have to recognize it exists. This is not easy since, as I said before, if you are white, you can go through life just fine without ever having to think about it. To recognize it means upending some paradigms that have been handed down to you in your culture.

Then you have to identify how it works in your own life. As you go about your day, think about what you don’t have to deal with as a white person.

Next, you have to be willing to listen. Like I said, the only people who can bear proper witness to a group’s experience are members of that group. Again, this will upend some paradigms, and you must remember that listening is just that, not contradicting, not arguing. Later you can suss things out, on your own. For example, a neighbor of mine railed against public education not teaching that the Greeks stole their entire culture from Africa. On an objective level, not only would he be hard-pressed to provide verifiable evidence, but the statement expresses a misunderstanding of what culture is. But on the subjective level, he was rightfully pissed off that the African American perspective gets cut out of our history textbooks.

Then consider what you can do to disrupt the racist structures in society. Only you can say what you can do–whether it is a small action or a big action, it will contribute to the betterment of society. But inaction equals compliance, so goes the activist creed.

All of this has been milling about in my head for a long time. They are issues I am passionate about and are close to my heart. It’s just that they all spilt out today.