Three things have come together to inspire me to write what follows:
- Mayor Landrieus’s speech regarding removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans. (If you must choose, read that, not this.)
- Diana Larsen’s tweet: “PSA: There is no equivalence between terms “guys” and “girls.” One may refer to males of any age, the other refers to female children.”
- A conversation I was having in another world, about the clothes we wear and how we judge people by them.
Landrieu’s speech should be rated as one of the most important speeches of all time. Here’s just one of many quotes that stand out for me:
These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.
Yes, Lee was unquestionably a great general, and yes, many of the people who fought for the Confederacy were unquestionably brave. And they were on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the growth of humanity from warring tribes toward real community. Truth be told, we’re not as far along that growth path as we need to be. Events every day remind us of that. But, on my most hopeful days, I believe we are at least on the path.
Diana is a woman of great wisdom, charm, and humor. She once said something that I try to live by, roughly “I have never seen a person be the root cause of a problem”. When she tweeted the quote above, I responded
Mm yes and yet I hear so many women call each other girls, and address their group as guys. It’s a puzzlement.
Yes, & like other discounting terms, like “geek,” used to create otherness, it may be safely adopted by target group only to self-describe.
I came back with
I have great difficulty with words that one group can use and another cannot. I suspect it perpetuates divides we’d like to remove.
While all this was going on, I was having a conversation in another world, about things like manbuns, pants with belts below the butt-line, and suits and ties.
As it happens, I get to feeling very judgmental about all three of those forms of attire. And yet, as Chet and I often talk about when discussing our choices in hats, I believe that all attire is costume. The way we choose to dress, whether in manbun, sagging pants, or three-piece suits, is a way of saying what group we belong to, and what groups we definitely do not belong to.
Diana seems to me to be saying that if we belong to the oppressed group, we can say “guys” or “girls” to people to whom we of the oppressor cannot use those words. There’s another word of the oppressor that I won’t even mention, that the oppressed can more freely use.
I confess that when I see sagging pants, I want to oppress them. They grab me in some strange visceral way. And looking in the other direction, I see the necktie as the Yoke of the Oppressor, and I cheer Richard Branson every time he cuts the tie off someone. Do I contradict myself? Hey, multitudes, y’know?
And manbuns? I can’t even roll my eyes far enough. They are so clearly some kind of statement that I can’t even. I admit it, I’m a horrible person.
My wife and I watched Hidden Figures this weekend. Highly recommended, it’s wonderful. And the explicit and implicit prejudice in it was so well done. And it made me spitting mad. Now it happens I was working in a similar job, not at NASA but with the gummint, in roughly that era, and I never saw anything that obviously prejudiced said or even hinted at. At the same time, I rarely saw a black professional man or woman. Said aloud or not, black people rarely ever got a fair shake.
And they still don’t, all too often. Same for women, maybe less so, maybe not. There were, I believe, zero black kids in my high school. In Iowa, not Alabama or somewhere like that. There were, however, young women, about as many as men, and they were pretty prevalent in the math and science classes, too. More then than today, perhaps.
But they still don’t get a fair shake. Brown-skinned people don’t get a fair shake. No one who doesn’t look like me (only young) gets as good a chance as I got.
And that’s not right. Another quote from Landrieu’s speech, this time quoting Alexander Stephens, the “Vice President of the Confederacy”:
[The Confederacy’s] cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Gag me. Obviously, people still believe that today. People still believe that woman should be subordinate to men. People believe that an all-knowing God wants us to kill people who don’t worship as we do. People still believe, apparently, that our brothers and sisters from Mexico are thieves and rapists.
That’s all wrong, wrong, wrong. We’re all born into different conditions, with different starting parameters, and then we’re all raised in different ways. Me, I’m male, white, and very very bright, backed up by educational opportunities throughout my life. To the extent that I’ve spent my resources well, I spent them trying to be smart about computers, and, almost without thinking about it, about words.
I know women who can kick my ass at the computer keyboard, in writing, or in coaching others. I know black people, men and women, who can do the same. I know people from Japan, from China, from Mexico, from India, from Pakistan, from Iran, all over the world, who are better than I am at the things I do best.
That hardly bothers me at all. Oh, sometimes I feel like I should have tried harder, worked harder, maybe studied sometimes in school or something. But mostly I just smile at the sheer joy of sitting with someone who knows more than I do about the things I care about.
And I know people of all colors and genders who know all kinds of things I don’t even know. They can paint or sing or compose or write fiction or write science or help people … all kinds of things I’m not even half good at. They transcend me.
And, frankly, even with all these people transcending me, I do think I’m pretty hot stuff. I don’t feel put down or threatened by these people. I feel lifted up. I feel like maybe there’s hope for us all.
This brings me back to the manbun, the saggies, and even the goddam necktie. It brings me back to “guys” and “girls”.
As long as there are words I can say that you can’t say, or words that you can say that I can’t say, those words are drawing a line between us, a line that one or the other of us cannot cross. Those words are keeping us apart. We need to be brought together.
As long as your hipster manbun makes me think you’re some kind of ass, as long as your saggies make me think more than I wanted to about your ass, as long as that suit and tie makes me think your brain probably expired years ago from lack of oxygen … as long as those differences of mere costume make us feel different from each other, less respectul of each other, we’re not as far along as we need to be. We need to be brought together.
And one more thing, not about the person, but about the role.
Even Donald Trump and his party followed the “rule” about dressing in black when you visit the pope. We all know that our best chance in traffic court occurs when we show up in a suit and tie that look like we actually own and wear them.
And we’re all taught to respect the “office” of the President or the Senator or the Congressman, no matter who inhabits that office.
I’m troubled by that, as well. Does the President of the United States have more value than some random person I can point at here in the bookstore? Well, he could kill more people, if you think that’s valuable. He could feed more people or get more people health care, if he wanted to. (More’s the pity, he doesn’t seem to care about that a bit.)
Does that mean that the Office of President deserves more respect than the ragged dude who just walked past my table here in the coffee shop?
No, and it certainly shouldn’t mean that the man who finds him or herself in that office, or finds him or herself in those ragged jeans and flannel shirt, deserves more respect, or less respect, for where they wound up. Frankly, I think that the “big person” should respect the “little person” more, not less.
Our color, our gender, our clothing, and our made-up offices should not be used to separate us. It is time to come together. It is well past time.
We need to be brought together. We need to come together.
Recall that after my birth, I was left out for the wolves and was raised by a roving band of Jesuits. ↩
Archbishop Bergen was a friend of our family, having been my mother’s parish priest. We were visiting him at his mansion in Omaha and one of my younger brothers was running around. The Bishop said “Be careful of that vahzz”. He went on to say “You know the difference, don’t you, between a vase and a vahzz? The vahzz cost more than $10.” ↩