Book By Its Cover

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Just finished watching the first three episodes of the American television program Black. White.. It is very likely the most difficult television program I have ever watched. Five minutes didn’t go by in which I wasn’t clenched up and tight-jawed, and so wound up that I kept fidgeting in my chair and getting up to visit the kitchen or the bathroom or just to look out of the window.

The program is about two families, one black, one white, who, through make up and coaching, switch places as blacks and whites and experience what it is like to live life in the opposite shoe. Watching the different family members go through their individual awakenings and gradual comprehension of what it is like to be black or white really has you sitting at the edge of your seat, especially because some of the transformations get quite intensely emotional. I found myself agreeing with and cursing at both sides, coming as I do from a family of both blacks and whites and Asians, and having experienced all sides of what these people are going through.

More than that, though, the program had me looking intently at myself and my own daily experiences and prejudices that I carry around. The other day one of my readers wrote that they didn’t see any difference between the experience of whites and non-whites, that much of the hostility that goes on is just in people’s heads. I did not want to reply because it is such a common belief among whites that trying to argue about it usually results in denials and resentment, even heated fights. But if you happen to be non-white, the way that other people, even other non-whites, see you and react to you comes out in a million nuances that will just not appear when you are white. There are big differences in how whites and non-whites experience these little and big things in every day life. As the members of the white family in the TV program soon realize, when you live in the white world in general you don’t have to be on guard; you can blithely speak your mind or interact with people around you without worrying that others will not accept you on looks alone. Things like where you walk on the sidewalk or which words you use or how you might inadvertently touch a stranger can make or break your chances to get into restaurants or be served at a store.

But what I really admired about the people in the program and the program itself is how they try to be honest about how blacks themselves hold preconceptions about whites and how those preconceptions can affect everything about how they understand whites. There is one scene where the white woman, Colleen, visits a black neighborhood as a white with her husband dressed up as a black and the hostility that they encounter and the realization that the simple fact of her skin color being different totally closes their world to her and conjures up hatred among those blacks with stronger feelings and closed minds. It is quite sobering to watch her struggle with the anguish of dawning comprehension as her face literally alters from one of someone simply having fun to one of grave recognition of reality. Her husband Bruno refuses to budge, still clinging to his safe, unchallenged, middle class white views of a world existing in relative utopia. Their 17 year old daughter, however, embraces the chances she has and makes courageous efforts to both immerse herself in black culture and be completely honest with them. Of all the people, she seems the most able to gain something from the change. In some ways the white family resembles my mother’s German side of the family, but Germans tend to carry a quieter, more self-effacing outlook on life than the almost oblivious, unassailable self-assurance that the white American family seemed to take for granted, so there were differences.

At the same time you watch the black family and I guess whether you are white or black or something else you will run through a gamut of agreements and objections to their observations and experiences. They resemble my father’s side of the family (Filipino/ South Carolina blacks who have lived mostly in New York’s Brooklyn, the Bronx, and across the river in New Jersey), with the same openly expressed strong opinions and colorful language and awareness of less privileges in life. I found myself almost ready to shout at the the members of the family when they walked into a white place and without anything happening immediately raising their hackles. You could almost feel them fishing for hostility. Since the show has only just begun there hasn’t been much development in how the black family learns to see the white world, but it would be very interesting to see whether they can learn to appreciate the reality of being white. Things are not always what they seem.

Probably the most powerful message I might get out of watching the show is in changing the way I angle my view of situations. So much of politically correct conversation these days acts upon established stereotypes of what entails such no-no’s as racism and sexism. If you go to a movie or watch a television show or read a popular book, you can almost predict to a letter what the women and men and blacks and whites are going to do or say before anything happens. Whites always “don’t get it” and always subject blacks to indignities and losses of chances. Men always miss what women are asking for and trample women’s “empowerment”. The women in the movies have to be strong and morally incorruptible. The blacks in the movies always have to be indignant and full of rage against injustice. There is rarely room for real human beings who make mistakes, learn, hurt others, fail, or question their own identification with their predetermined roles.

Recently, Chris Clark of Creek Running North, wrote a piece about feminism. He ran through a list of reasons why a man cannot count himself a member of the coalition for women’s issues, simply because he is a man. I unreservedly agree with Chris’ assertion that men simply cannot know the details of living as a woman, in the same way that a non-white cannot possibly know what it is to live as a non-white. However, what rankled me about the post, and the consequent comments, was not its defence of women and the need to work to improve women’s situations in the world, but with its assumption that all men are somehow innately misogynistic and that women are somehow morally and socially superior to men, basically lumping all men together in the same way that men are accused of having done to women. That kind of thinking has become almost universal in the States now, so much so that it is extremely difficult for any man to publicly voice his opinion without automatically being voted down as ignorant and opportunistic. In the comments, as in so many such posts on feminism, no one dared contradict Chris, especially not men. The present climate in these debates is that rape and mistreatment of women is a trait all men carry and that men should take it on faith that whatever comes out of their mouths has no worth in the conversation. Either the men acquiesce to the pronouncements made by women, or they should shut up. Forget the fact that there are plenty of men like me, and for that matter, Chris Clark, who have always respected women, often the “nice” men whom many of the women ridiculed in high school and at social gatherings, for not being “cool” or “sexy” or “bad” or “confident” enough. Chris’ post stereotypes all men as the macho jocks that I so hated in high school. Indeed, much of the whole debate takes on the high school flavour of cliques and hierarchies. There doesn’t seem to be any room for diversity among men as there is always assumed among women.

One thing that I find so important about the “Black. White.” show is its attempt to get blacks and whites to experience what it means to live in another’s shoes and then to get the participants to talk about it and to not set the individuals into molds as to how they should react as things unfold. This, more than anything, I think is the crucial point to learning how to live with and deal with social issues such as racism and sexism; all the people involved need to somehow get a view of what it means to live as the other does before they open their mouths and paint imagined pictures of the truth of others. You cannot solve such problems by sitting with your own kind and beating the bush; eventually you have to come out and face those things which you fear to face, namely your own ignorance and unwillingness to give another the benefit of the doubt.

My one question though, in terms of authenticity… how exactly do the participants get genuine reactions with the camera crew hanging around in the background all the time? How much of what is going on is pure entertainment, and how much unadulterated truth?

11 Responses

  1. inlandchi

    It sounds like an interesting show. How can we see it in Japan? Is it on satellite tv, and if so do you know what channel?

    You seem to share the same feelings of some men I’ve met about feminism. That is, we are not all alike, so don’t treat us that way. I agree and think the same holds for the “black, white” situation. I do think that some vocal feminists are in blaming mode, but I understand their frustration. Some of us have been working our whole lives to try to create more equality and yet there is still a manifestly unequal situation for women, and minorities. And now there seems to be a backlash effect in place, with some men acting like women have taken it too far. I think some of that frustration comes from not hearing strong male support. I hope men who, like you, do support equality will speak up. I think equally the “nice” men you are talking about are NOT openly supporting, though they may well be living equality in daily life, because they want to avoid the criticism of other men who are not onside. I hope I’m wrong.

    I’m not sure who those women were who were attracted to “cool” over nice, but I can tell that they must have been young. I think life teaches us that intelligence, kindness, and sincerity are the most endearing and enduring qualities.

  2. Having spent more than twenty years with a very vocal feminist mother who went through a period of rage against all men, but nonetheless made the effort to communicate how she was feeling and thinking to my brother and me, and then having spent the better part of college taking classes in feminism and sitting about with close feminist women friends discussing, sometimes heatedly arguing, so many of the issues, and having taken every opportunity I can to pass on what I’ve learned, experienced, and been subjected to about feminism, I think I can say that I’ve done more to try to help the cause than most men. I’ve even marched in the “Take Back the Night” campaign of the 80’s and helped contribute to battered women’s shelters. So it’s not as if I am not aware of what the problems are or that I’m not acting.

    Part of the problem among men is that there is no history of mutual support and cooperation outside of competitive endeavors. The idea of coming together and openly voicing emotional and personal support makes most men, especially in the west, extremely uncomfortable, even terrified. Trying to get men to gather and show emotional and practical support for feminism is like pulling teeth, for many men it smacks of homosexuality. Which is self-defeating, if men would just stop to think of it.

    A lot of men react belligerantly to the demands of feminists in part because they themselves have nothing solid to fall back upon. There is no organized and supportive solidarity to give them the courage to change. Creating such a gathering ultimately seems to many men to show weakness, a demon that most men struggle daily with as they try to define themselves as men. The ancient culture of the hunter, which defined men for several million years has completely died away into stereotypes that have no bearing on the life we lead today. We still dream of being warriors and hunters in a world that has killed them off, while women have no problem continuing to dream of and elaborating upon their ancient myths of being women, all while living their archetypes not much changed throughout millenia.

    Feminists often maintain that the modern world simply doesn’t need the existence of men (The book “Herland” certainly was difficult for me to read in a class full of very vocal women). When this argument comes up how exactly are men supposed to react? The old pronouncements of men being the protectors and the bread winners no longer hold water. Physical strength, which for so long defined and gave justification to being a man, is no longer necessary. Even the outrageous and temerarious character of all the men who took over the world to form today’s civilization are now regarded as anachronisms, dangerous in a world that needs to learn to cooperate if we are to survive. With all this, men often cling to outdated notions, but have no replacement for it. As women so often love to tell men, men cannot understand what it means to be women.

    I have a theory about the evolution of females and societies in the biological world. Why is it that such a great number of large, highly organized and populous societies among animals is so often dominated by females? Lions do it, elephants, hyenas, meercats, molerats, bats, dolphins, even rats. Among insects, which are perhaps the most successful societal animals, females tend to comprise the greatest number of individuals in the society; males become mere reproductive organs, useless for anything but their sperm contribution. Termites, ants, bees, wasps, and hornets all retain males as tiny drones that do nothing but eat, get in the way, and wait their turn to do woopee with an eligible female when the allotted time comes. Then they die. All aggression and general mischievousness has been weeded out of them and their tiny size ensures that they cause no trouble and don’t drain the coffers and pantries.

    In Samuel S. Delaney’s “future history” book, “Tales of Neveryon”, he proposes an alternative approach to men’s and women’s roles in society, basically saying that today’s concentration on women being the “attractive sex”, with their image of being sexual beings and their focus on beauty and fashion and make up, has got it all wrong. He proposes that it is actually men who should be the sexual beings, and that it is men’s roles to spend their time dressing up, putting on make up, strutting about, being publicly displayed, and serving little purpose other than for pleasure, mindless gruntwork, and sexual reproduction. He goes on to point out that in many tribal societies that is very often how men fulfilled their roles.

    I don’t know, Inlandchi. I can’t imagine myself fitting into the role of a poppinjay. I’ve always driven myself to take responsiblity and to be useful to people around me. But I still, after years of contemplating, have an awfully hard time trying to define myself as a man. You mentioned that you thought it was men who are criticising other men. I don’t really think so. I feel it is women who are criticising men and it the women that the men are attempting to avoid, not other men, because men just don’t tend to constructively criticise each other in that way. They are much more apt to curse and shout and set to punching each others’ lights out. Non-verbal “communication”.

    Is there any hope for men? What does it say about our kind when you have anomalies like Bush at the helms? Are we, as so many married women here in Japan call their husbands, “sodai-gomi”, “oversized garbage” (meaning that it is difficult to find a convenient way to throw it away)? Is there a social enlightenment that men can go through and continue to grow as men?

  3. Miguel,

    Your last two posts illustrate just why we can never know what its like for someone else. They both scream to us that we must have respect for others, meaning that we accept the validity of the other’s position no matter how foriegn or familiar it seems to us!

    This has been weighing on me anyway because I’m returning to the States after two years of bliss here in Japan. I dread all the well-meaning “shoulds” people toss at eachother. And I wonder if I will have the strength to at least resist falling into that mode myself and at best demonstrate acceptance and respect to my fellow Americans.

    Only when one reality clashes with another, we have to negotiate for compromise. But I dare say, we will still never really know what its like for the other!

    When I read about your experience with diebities, I feel touched and humbled. Thank you for sharing with us. I wish you well.

  4. inlandchi

    What’s a “popinjay?” A Shakespearean bird?

    I don’t know much about why women are calling men “garbage” here, but I’ve heard it’s because they have poured their all into their jobs, socialized mostly with work colleagues, and spent little time developing an emotional life with their wives and children. In some partnerships I guess this suits the wife, because she has time to raise the family and explore her own personal development with taking courses, travel and the like with the husband mostly out of the way, and therefore not trying to control her movements. Then when retirement comes, the husband is around all the time, perhaps demanding the same level of services, and maybe trying to re-establish a relationship that has gone dorment for want of care. So I think perhaps at that point some women want their husbands to find something to do with themselves out of the house, so they can continue on with their lives. But I don’t really think these relationships are that evolved. They seem pretty similar to ones from the 50’s back home. I think the problem is not that these people wouldn’t like to do things together if they were in a more equal relationship, but that the man still seems to think he is the “boss” (but maybe the woman thinks she is too). I don’t know. Women here seem to control the household, but the men are the official “head”.

    I hear what you’re saying about men not knowing what to do to change and about being poor at giving each other support, but I think they are going to have to organize something themselves. Some men have done that back in Canada, formed groups for discussion and self-education and I think it’s a good thing. I guess men are going to have to step beyond their discomfort with thinking this kind of emotional work is weakness. Of course, I don’t see anything wrong with men also working within a relationship to try to change. I think women have been trying to do that for awhile now, sometimes with limited success in getting discussions started. Probably it may be better with the younger folks.

    I think you have hit the mark when you talk about cooperation vs. competition. I think the whole world, imcluding government and business would benefit from adopting this method more. I know there is a movement in education toward this and I hope such learning will positively affect the next generation.

    When we talk about feminism and modern relationships I think we have to acknowledge that much of the world is not in the same place as “first World” countries and that there are many places where agression, murder and abuse of women is still the norm. I think I would include in this places where wars are taking place like in Iraq. Wars are dreadful for everyone but I especially think for women and children when they have not the power to protect themselves or even have much say in the policy of their countries.

    You know the whole question is so big and so pervasive and so intertwined with the way we divide power in the world that it is difficult to talk about without going off at tangents, generalizing, and getting into long-winded posts like this, so I’ll stop here.

    But I’d still like to know how I can see that TV program. :)

  5. Can’t watch the show, sicne I don’t have T.V. But I was intrigued when I first heard about it, so I’m most grateful for this update and reaction.

  6. inlandchi

    Yup, please send any info to that address. Thanks. :)

  7. Makes lots of sense. Thanks for sharing.
    I relate especially to the part on men/women relationships… Exactly the same experiences in France, btw.

  8. This is a very disappointing misrepresentation of my post, Miguel. Not only did I in no way either state or imply that all men are misogynistic, but this:

    In the comments, as in so many such posts on feminism, no one dared contradict Chris, especially not men.

    is just flat out wrong. One person after another showed up to state that he or she disagreed with my post.

    Your representation of my post is just one flat out falsehood after another. I welcome disagreement at my blog, and I always have, as you damn well know. But this kind of shit? You’re being ridden by your own issues and not seeing what I actually wrote, nor what the commenters on that post actually wrote.

    Which really sucks from someone I counted as more or less a friend.

    Your readers here are free to read the post to which you linked and judge for themselves. You are free to go fuck yourself.

  9. Thanks Chris, for that delightful insight.

    After all the praise I’ve given you and your writing, and so many times sending people your way for quite a lot of what I considered great writing (as you very well know. I even sent you money for your book!), surely you could have made a little more effort to read my own words a little more carefully and with some grains of salt?

    I just happen to disagree with you. I guess that means, listening to your comment, that I ought just to shut up since I guess I can’t be a friend of Chris and at the same time disagree with things he proclaims. Disagree or, heaven forbid, dislike things Chris says, and you get stomped on.

    That’s as far as I go in replying to you, Chris, until you can be a little more civil with a more-or-less friend.

  10. Disagree or, heaven forbid, dislike things Chris says, and you get stomped on.

    That is bullshit, Miguel, and you know it.

    What you did is completely misrepresent what I wrote. You lecture me about not readfing your words carefully? Here we go.

    You say:

    Recently, Chris Clark of Creek Running North, wrote a piece about feminism. He ran through a list of reasons why a man cannot count himself a member of the coalition for women’s issues, simply because he is a man.

    which is completely wrong. What I said was that despite the fact that I am a member of that coalition for women’s issues – and the first 800 or so words detailed a number of the ways in which I stongly count myself as a member of that colaition – I cannot claim the label “feminist.” That is it. Not the position: I spent almost a thousand words claiming the position. The label, Miguel.

    Next. You say:

    However, what rankled me about the post, and the consequent comments, was not its defence of women and the need to work to improve women’s situations in the world, but with its assumption that all men are somehow innately misogynistic and that women are somehow morally and socially superior to men,

    I defy you to show me one place where I even imply this, much less say it. The majority of my post is on women’s experiences. In fact, I say this in the post:

    At my best, I am an ally. But I am a member of the class against which feminism is aimed. I can do my best to be a traitor to that class. More and more men do, and I think no one would deny that the material support we can provide is crucial, whether talking to other men, offering political and financial and emotional support to feminist activists, or just doing the damn dishes half the time.

    In other words, nothing about men as individuals except that an increasing number of us are doing our part to end women”s oppression, and that work is crucial.

    You say:

    In the comments, as in so many such posts on feminism, no one dared contradict Chris, especially not men.

    In fact, of 54 comments, about a third at least expressed reservations with what I said, with one commenter, Dr. Virago, making a sustained argument against it. Even stronger disagreement with my post took place elsewhere, for instance on Feministe, Violet Socks’ blog, and Alas a Blog. Far from not spurring controversy, the post spurred some of the most thoughtful and sustained disagreement of anything I have written in my life.

    You say:

    Chris’ post stereotypes all men as the macho jocks that I so hated in high school.

    This is just so completely off the wall I do not know how to begin to rebut it. It has absolutely no connection to anything I wrote.

    I t is pretty clear to me that what’s going on here, and something which I have challeged you on in the past, is that you were looking for an excuse to bash individual Americans once again:

    That kind of thinking has become almost universal in the States now, so much so that it is extremely difficult for any man to publicly voice his opinion without automatically being voted down as ignorant and opportunistic.

    First off, this is ludicrously wrong, as a simple survey of blogs of American men will prove. The majority are far from radical feminist supporters. But secondly, you’re doing exactly the same thing you (wrongly) accuse me of doing: wildly misinterpreting a very limited statement about terminology as a general statement about men, and then stating baldly that this is uniform among Americans.

    You think having bought a copy of my book should shield you from me being angry at you when you so flagrantly misrepresent my post, casting me as just one more goddamn ignorant American to whose thinking you are so fucking superior? I will point out to you that a visit to Amazon will allow you to be refunded your money.

  11. Fine Chris. You’re right, I’m wrong. I concede to you. I’m going to be lazy and disrespectful here and bow out of this. Normally I would make an effort to reexamine carefully what I have written and what you have written and try to set things right, but things are a little more serious around here than would allow me to focus on my blog right now. I only replied to you because it was you writing. If you want to end the friendship then fine. I’m not going to argue with you.

    I’m sorry if I offended you. And that is an honest apology. Take it as you see it. I’m not going to fight for that either. It’s been a harrowing week, I’m exhausted, and just not up to trading blows. If this further offends you, again I’m sorry.

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