Reflections on Farkas I: On Being an Ally

“You will deserve this anger/hurt/frustration/wrath of the people of color you’ve offended. … even in the midst of your hurt and bewilderment, you will be careful not to dismiss the reality of the people you’ve offended. You will resist the urge to defend yourself, shut your mouth, and listen.” (April Hathcock, “You’re Gonna Screw Up”)

There was a lot of reading to do before trying to figure out what I would write in response to Meredith Farkas’s November 2019 blog post “When libraries and librarians pretend to be neutral, they often cause harm” and her May 2020 column in American Libraries, “When Speech Isn’t Free.” An entire issue of the Oregon Library Association Quarterly, the blog Reading While White, a School Library Journal article summarizing Ishizuka and Stephens’s “The Cat Is Out of the Bag,” Debbie Reese’s “Indigenous Critique of Whiteness in Children’s Literature,” and more. It’s still not enough. As a white man who is woefully undereducated on underrepresentation of marginalized groups in kid lit and its impact on members of those groups, I have to work extra hard to overcome a life immersed in white privilege and white culture.

Or do I? Heather McNeil doesn’t seem to think so. According to her last word on the subject (an article positioned at the end of the OLAQ issue on equity, diversity, and inclusion and seemingly meant as a final judgment on the current state of affairs), it’s all gone too far. White folks are tired of being told they’re wrong. We want to receive acknowledgment for trying, and we want marginalized people to accept reasonable limits. McNeil ends her article with the story of an African-American woman in West African garb hugging her and calling her “Sister” after McNeil delivered a lecture on African stories. That’s what she wants: a reward for the effort without further criticism.

I must admit, that posture is tempting. I have done some work. I am tired and overstretched as it is. How dare they question the books I read as a child! And all that. Fortunately, I have friends of color who let me know how much work they have to do on a daily basis, and how my attitude and perspective impacts their emotional and cultural workload. White burnout is a lazy response to this situation just when our world requires us to take responsibility and keep going.

When I start complaining, which I have done, that “they’re banning Dr. Seuss,” that signals me to read again, listen closely, exercise empathy and openness, and reconsider my position. The best I can do right now is to notice how invested I am in my white privilege and choose to break out of that perspective. Are they really asking us to ban Dr. Seuss (as opposed to deprioritizing his works and reallocating funds to diversify the collection)? If so, what are their reasons? Do those reasons have validity? How much care and thought have the scholars put into their work? Do I need to honor that effort by listening more carefully instead of letting compassion fatigue or knee-jerk reactions shut me down?

What about the argument that Dr. Seuss, for example, was just a “person of his time,” caught up in the zeitgeist and excusable in his mistakes? Elisa Gall reminds me that other perspectives existed at that time, giving Seuss (or whomever the example may be, from whatever time) an option: “As long as there has been racism, there have been people fighting racism.”

(Reading While White also reminds its readers up front, first thing, that we should read blogs by marginalized people first, before getting Reading While White’s white perspective. That makes sense. So, why am I quoting white people when others have probably said the same thing? Sheer laziness and a desire to get my own white perspective on the Internet more quickly. I can and will do better, but today I’m doing this. And I feel compelled to say again I’m only publishing my opinions to motivate my own education. I appreciate the couple of people who drop in and read, but I have no ambition for this blog.)

The existence of other perspectives at any given time complicates the older liberal trope that environment shapes personality. In the American culture’s judicial and political systems, for instance, the liberal argument has been that improvements and increased opportunities in especially urban environments will reduce crime. The standard conservative response has been “I grew up poor, too, and I came out alright.” What’s the difference here? Are we consistently abandoning the influence of environment, or are we setting up a double standard whereby white folks (especially the financially comfortable ones) are required to be better than their environment, but others—say, the American Indian drunk or the African-American gangbanger—are excused due to circumstances that shaped their choices? From my white perspective, this does seem to constitute a double standard.

The next question is, is the double standard warranted? Should we apply different criteria to those on top of the power structure than to those on the bottom? I’ll presume for the argument that it is no more or less difficult to let go of power and privilege than it is to “rise above” one’s other constraining circumstances. I will also stipulate that the white supremacist patriarchy (for lack of a “better” euphemism that would be as honest as it is uncontroversial) is as much an external structure to those immersed in white privilege as it is to those marginalized by the system.

Point #1: From feminist writer friends, I have heard that women understand male psychology better than men understand female psychology, which is why male writers more often fail to write authentic female characters than female writers fail to write authentic male characters. When one is forced to survive under a power structure as a marginalized person, one must understand those in power. Otherwise, one cannot internalize the nuances and navigate the treacherous landscape. There is no such requirement for those on top. I, as a white cis-male of middle-class extraction, never need to function outside of my cultural comfort zone, and therefore don’t need to understand those “underneath” me. I can choose to make the effort to understand, but it is not a matter of survival.

Point #2: Marginalized people who do not “do better” than their circumstances probably are often held accountable by their own community. I think it is much more common for people to hide such admonition and encouragement to improve from those outside of the community. Just because we white folks are often not allowed to see Black folks criticize the “bad behavior” of other Black folks and direct them toward behavior the community finds more acceptable does not mean it doesn’t happen. It’s just, frankly, none of our business, and they don’t need our unwarranted judgment on top of their own. Our judgment from outside the community is likely to be on irrelevant and misdirected terms, anyway. Even white folks raised in Black communities (and there are a few) do not have the privilege of understanding Black cultures intimately enough to speak to these situations.

So, is the double standard warranted? I believe so. We are challenged to help create a more equitable society. We are obliged to hold ourselves to higher standards, beyond our comfort zone, to pay a historical debt that is beyond reckoning. To do otherwise is to lack all humility and to stand in the way of justice. We still have a voice in the cultural negotiations, but we need to know when to shut up.

It appears I have run my virtual mouth for a long time without really touching on the substance of Meredith Farkas’s articles. There will be a part II.

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