Thursday, June 10, 2010

KWHL's Outrageous "Cash for Tlingets" and Tim Wise to the Rescue

[Patience, Tim Wise comes in at the end.]

I learned when teaching 6th grade that giving attention to bad behavior simply increased that behavior.  My teachers had modeled a technique of putting 'bad' students' names on the board for later punishment.  Rather than focus on the students who were unruly, I found it was a much better strategy to spotlight the one or two kids who were doing what they were supposed to do and put their names on board for later rewards.

So I hesitate to even mention the Cash for Tlingits segment on KWHL.  But sometimes you have to deal with things.   One can argue, as I'm sure Bob and Mark would, that it was just humor and to lighten up.

If all were equal and we didn't have a history of discrimination against Alaska Natives, and if their cultures hadn't been devastated first by Russian seal hunters and then by American missionaries who brought germs along with bibles, the former killing many bodies and the latter killing Native cultures, then it might be reasonable to see this as simple joking among equals.  [Did you make it through that long complicated sentence alive?]  But as long as all the statistics show Alaska Native cultures doing far less well than the white immigrants into their land, things aren't equal, and it isn't funny to those being made fun of.

It's never funny when people in power make jokes about people out of power.  Now, all that said, there is obviously an audience for this sort of humor.   White males, Protestant white males in fact,  have traditionally held the vast majority of positions of power in this country - and still do.  But despite this obvious fact (look at all the presidents before Obama, and all the governorships, all the legislatures, and all the heads of corporations) individual white males don't necessarily feel that powerful.  Individual white males may not be able to develop meaningful relationships with women.  Maybe they aren't doing well at work, or if they are in a good position, they may not be able to make their organizations work as others expect.  Their kids may not listen to them.  Their wives have minds of their own.  It's rough.  Maybe they can't even find a job.

So when women and non-whites say white males have all the power, it doesn't ring true to many who personally don't feel very powerful.

But clearly, given their historic monopoly of positions of power in the US, they must have something going for them.  Either white men are just inherently superior to non-white men and to women OR they have fewer obstacles to overcome than the others.  I lean  toward the latter explanation.  Some people talk about this as 'white privilege' whether it's enshrined in law - like Jim Crow laws or regulations that made minority neighborhoods ineligible for housing loans - or prejudicial custom, like white and male only private clubs and colleges. 

When my daughter at age 8 declared she was biking to her friend Heidi's house via the bike trail to near downtown, I had an aha moment.  As a supporter of equal rights for women, why was I hesitating to approve her independence when I would have let my son make that trip at that age?  Then I thought about all the other things I felt free to do that my wife didn't feel so free to do.  We simply know that men are safer than women in our society.  I felt no fear working in my office at UAA late at night, but women faculty didn't feel such security.  With good reason.  One faculty member I knew was raped in her office at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon.

These are the extra obstacles to 'success' that women (in general) have that men (in general) don't.  I emphasize "in general" because a man weighing 300 pounds might face obstacles that a normal weight woman of equal qualifications might not face.

We can take the obstacles into other areas as well.  Women are expected to look and dress better then men.  To succeed in some professional and social settings they are expected to wear a dress, heels, and makeup, and have their hair 'done.'  Men aren't held to the same high standards.  Men can change their shirt and tie but wear the same suit for a week.  Women can't wear the same dress for a week.  All these, individually minor, activities add up to give women more obstacles, more things they have to do or think about on the way to success than men.  [Update 3:30pm:  Here's an excellent video I found when I was retrieving the Tim Wise video -  below - that beautifully (pun intended) illustrates how women are set up against an impossible beauty standard by the media.]

I can make the same argument for non-whites.   (And yes, there are advantages that women have in some situations.  But historically they have been minor compared to the extra obstacles.)

But people, including white men, quite naturally, want to believe that whatever success they have achieved, they've done on their own, with no special advantages.

But, slowly, laws have been changed to remove some of those obstacles and women and non-whites have, in many cases, taken advantage and have worked hard.  When I retired I was already seeing more women than men in my graduate classes, and that shift is apparently the norm in universities around the country.  And something I hadn't expected to see in my lifetime - a bi-racial president - is now leader of the United States.

And so it is quite understandable that some white males may look at these changes and see their positions in the world as threatened.  Their privileges are slowly  eroding.  Privileges many have never realized they had.  So it actually looks like they are being punished, when it's only the American ideal of equality becoming more widespread.  They have to work harder to keep what they have.  Like everyone else always had to do.

Most of us construct narratives about how the world works in which we are the hero.  If we are well off, our narratives explain how hard we worked to get here and how benevolent we are to others.   Tony Hayward's narrative was revealed when he said, "I just want my life back."  This was understood by many as, "This damn oil spill is interrupting my life of wealth and privilege and the rest of you just don't understand how inconvenient that is."

If we aren't well off, our narratives explain the forces that have deprived us of our due.  The economy wiped out my 401K.  This year's graduates are facing the worst job market since the depression.  Immigrants are taking away jobs from Americans.  We have lots of narratives.

(I once heard about a study that claimed that when men were successful they had narratives that gave them personal credit for that success, but when they had failures, their narratives blamed them on other forces.  It said that women tended to do the opposite - take credit for their failures and not for their successes.  If anyone knows of this research, please leave a comment or email me where I can find it.)

Anyway, all this leads to the point that there is a reason that Bob and Mark have an audience for this sort of racist routine.  Ranting and raving about how awful such people are doesn't make them go away.  I suspect that much of the energy of the Tea Party movement is anger of people feeling their place in the world is being taken away from them.  Some of this is about economics, some of it is about race.

A small organization I belong to - Healing Racism in Anchorage  (HRA) - is sponsoring a trip to Anchorage in September by Tim Wise who has an extremely good narrative on racism in the United States.  I want to alert people that he's coming.  At this point HRA is raising money to help pay for the events in September.  You can find out more information at our website.  Here's the page to join and make a contribution to HRA to help pay for the Tim Wise events in September. 

You can also show your support by becoming a friend of Healing Racism in Anchorage on Facebook.

Here's a Challengingmedia video of Tim Wise:

1 comment:

  1. Nice. Exactly right. I'll look out for events.


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