Let’s see. White: check. Straight: check. Male: check. Now, let me sit down and learn something…
Yesterday and today (it’s only 9am as I write this, so, gee, can’t wait for the rest of the day), I saw/see these two articles/essays making the rounds on Facebook. One, titled I read only non-white authors for 12 months. What I learned surprised me, and another titled I Challenge You To Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis, male Authors For One Year. I feel like the main thrust of these pieces would be apparent, even without clicking the links. But the responses I saw in the comments were overwhelmingly of this type: When I choose a book to read, I don’t consider the race, sexuality, or gender of the author. I just want a good story. Sometimes it got ugly, numerous comments (“liked” by plenty) suggesting that non-white, heterosexual, female/trans authors were simply playing their respective “cards” in order to sell books. The latter response is repugnant, ignorant, and shallow. The former, though, is what I’d like to address.
How can anyone read these pieces (or, even the titles, honestly) and still come away thinking the “I don’t see race/sexuality/gender” argument is remotely valid in any way (or, ever, really*)?
According to Wikipedia (that tried and trusted source), “cognitive dissonance” is “the mental stress or discomfort by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.”
I happened to have noted a while ago that I more often see the “I don’t see race/sexuality/gender” argument coming from my fellow progressives far more often than I see it used by folks, we’ll say, more traditionally known to be racist, sexist, and homophobic. This has always been pretty disappointing, but there it is. So, you’ve got these people running around, happy and comfortable in the idea that they are not contributing to the problems of race, gender, and sexuality because they are, indeed, not at all racist, sexist, or homophobic. How nice. Good for them. But, oh, when someone points out to them that their reading list is primarily made up of straight, white, male authors, the cognitive dissonance sets in: “Oh noes. I’m not any of those bad things, and yet, my reading list seems to reflect an underlying predisposition to these bad things! What do I do?” And up goes the idiot mental block. “I shall simply say that I do not see race, gender, nor sexuality, and, like magic…MAGIC…I am above it all. ABOVE IT.”
Just…stop that. Let’s all go put on our big girl/boy/trans pants on and have a look at this as adults, shall we?
You are experiencing the icky discomfort, and yes, shame, of being a member of our society and culture. Not very nice, is it? I know, because I experience it too. *shudder* It’s gross. It was brought home to me with a reading experience I had last night, which I’ll return to later.
But, for the moment, let’s all pretend we’re perfect. Got it? Are you perfect? Good. Relax in that comfort and, in this moment of mental clarity brought on by this happy lie, let me explain the point of these year-long reading exercises. You don’t have to get defensive about them now, because, hey, you’re perfect and none of this applies to you.
The point of these exercises is to break the cognitive dissonance you’re feeling right now (or, were feeling a moment ago, before you turned perfect). In terms of our personal comfort, it’s a trial by fire. Not the reading itself. I imagine the reading itself is rather fantastic. It’s the getting past the recognition that, no, you’re not perfect–you do carry a lot of societal baggage and it affects you in ways you don’t even know, until someone points it out and you go into idiot mental block mode. That is the trial. The point of deliberately going out of your way to find authors that aren’t immediately on your radar (and yes, white, straight male writers are more likely to be on yours and everyone else’s radar because that’s what society puts in front of us–and let’s not fool ourselves with the stupid idea that it’s all based on merit. Hahaa…oh, I made myself LOL with that one. Pardon. ) for a year is so that, by the end of that year, your hard work has paid off. You now know where to find books by these authors (because yes, you have to look for them). You now know that these authors are more than their stereotypes. And, holy shit, maybe you even now know (and aren’t just assuming, because you want to be good, right?) that these authors, who are in some way, or ways, different than you, care about and think about the same things you do. Wow. Common ground. It’s amazing what you learn when you go back to the basics, which is that we’re all human (well, most of us). And hey, that’s basically what has enabled us non-white, non-hetero, non-male readers to read all of that straight, white male lit for all these many, many years. If we can do it all our lives, I promise that you can do it for a year.
What the point of this exercise isn’t? I can tell you, it’s definitely not to shame straight, white, male authors. And it’s not to shame you for reading them. By all means, read what you want. But a relatively simple exercise like this can result in only good things. You’re expanding your reading base in terms of variety and points of view, which, in turn, opened your mind to relationships that you probably thought were closed to you because of cultural differences. You’re a step closer to closing that gap. And the next time someone challenges your inherent goodness with a reading exercise, you won’t get all bunched up and defensive. You’ll say, “Fuck yeah, I’m totally doing that.”
And, in fact, I think I’m totally going to do that (fuck yeah!). Because last night, I was in bed reading. I was reading Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots. I was about 94 pages into a 256-page novel when I just couldn’t (even) anymore. It’s a story of the down and out white men of the 20s and 30s, with a particularly spineless protagonist. Which is fine. But, I found that I could no longer read about how terrible these men had it–and they did have it bad. Homelessness is horrible–the filth, the hunger, the constant fear, the sickness, the exhaustion, the loneliness, the everything. Terrible. And I could have stuck with it, save two things: 1) in 94 pages, I had yet to see any inkling from this protagonist to try something different and perhaps change his situation (for better or worse, the active decision making was pretty scarce), and 2) the gang rape of a black, female fellow transient. As I read, I could hear this little voice in my head saying, “If he rapes her, I’m done. If he rapes her, I’m done.” And slowly, she was incapacitated, thrown down, and:
Now there came into Cass’s heart and dark and terrible desire. Drawn by a power more strong than himself, like a strong hand pushing him from behind, he went closer and closer. About him others moved slowly closer. All moved slowly, and in silence, toward the black woman. The air became charged with the smell of the woman, they all smelled the dark woman, her thighs and her womb: womb, belly, and breasts; her thighs flexing in fear.
They were all of them men; they were men without women.
So, they raped her. Because they are men, men without women, and we all know that women are only good for one thing. He raped her, this protagonist to whom I was supposed to be sympathetic. And I was done.
I understand that gang rapes happen. But I can’t move on to page 95 with a protagonist who hasn’t even got the basic willpower of human decency not to brutalize those below him, as though his own lot were as low as it goes. Because, hell, I can turn on the news and see that every day, today, among the reasonably affluent. It was here, reading this, that it became so glaringly clear that, although I’m sure Algren assumed he wrote for anyone who would read his books, this book was not in any way written for me, a woman. Our cultural blanket inclusion is anything but inclusive. It is the inclusion of straight, white men, which is what we all see as “baseline average/normal” whether or not we are straight, white men. And the vast majority of what dominates our literary landscape is written from the perspective of straight, white men, for straight, white men, whether the authors knew it, or meant to do it. Just like you and I don’t really mean for our reading lists to be chock full of straight, white men. It’s just what it is. It’s the “norm.” Hey, because we’re all included, right? Well…we’re not.
And there I was, enjoying the prose style of this book written by a straight, white man (a leftist who expected Simone de Beauvoir to be the submissive in the relationship, no less), like I have for my entire life, and I just couldn’t anymore. The prose could no longer cover up the alienation I’ve always felt reading these books–these books that, despite how much in them I did relate to, were in no way written with me in mind. I could say that I’m exempt from this reading exercise, because I’m a woman and I know how it feels. But that’s bullshit.
So, consider this a friendly, if irritated, wake-up call to my progressive comrades who generally consider themselves not racist, sexist, or homophobic, but who seek to alleviate the discomfort of their own cognitive dissonance by using the “I don’t see race/sexuality/gender”
argument cop-out.* Cut it out. The discomfort of your cognitive dissonance is but a tiny fraction of the discomfort felt every day by non-whites, women, trans folk, and gays. It’s nothing. It’s like whining about needing a band-aid for your paper cut while the guy next to you is gutted and bleeding to death. Suck it up, tough it out, and in the end, if you can manage the make it through a year-long reading challenge like this, actually be the better person, instead of just assuming you are one. And although I, myself, am bleeding to death, I can look around the emergency room and see that I’m not the only one, and although the blood is all red, the wounds are different, in different places, and some bleed more than others, some less, but all are far worse than a paper cut.
Am I going to stop reading straight, white male authors? Of course not. That’s stupid. But my reading list is definitely getting an overhaul and, poor me, I’ll just have to deal with the extra work of that.
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*Important side note: this tactic of claiming that you’re so enlightened that you’re somehow above the fray and don’t need to consider these things is really comfortable for you (go ahead and pat yourself on the back), but, in reality, it’s detrimental to actually solving the problems of race, sexuality, and gender discrimination. You are part of the problem. These issues are like cancer–it does not go away by denying and ignoring it. Doing that only gives it free reign to grow and wreck everything. And admit it, if you read on Facebook that someone died after deliberately choosing to ignore their cancer, you’d think, “Duh. What a moron.” Well…that’s what we’re thinking about you. Sorry. Truth.