A person I follow on Twitter posted today that she was unfollowing Wil Wheaton everywhere because he had “used his position as a celebrity to bully an innocent young girl.” I don’t follow Wheaton myself, but from everything I’ve seen/heard from him, this didn’t sound like him. Of course, I have personal experience in the fact that even the most personable and…socially enlightened of celebrities can make serious blunders regarding things they’re just not educated about or haven’t experienced. Anyway, I was curious. Fortunately for me, the person I follow reblogged the original post, which you can see here.
This exchange triggers me on many levels. In fact, it has been enough to get me up off the couch, where I’ve been recovering–not very graciously or patiently–from reconstructive surgery on my sinuses and drive me to write down some of my process. I’m kind of sure my thoughts on the matter will open me to reaming from various quarters, but, well, there it is.
In case you have decided, for one reason or another, not to follow my handy link, here are the basics of the exchange: Someone, apparently a woman of color (I deduce this from comments late in the exchange) addressed Wil Wheaton’s use of the the term “Spirit Animal.” As I said, I don’t follow Wheaton so I have no clue when, where, or how he used the term. I get the impression (also from things mentioned later) that he uses it often and sometimes as kind of a toss-off, not talking about an actual Spirit Animal, but applying the concept to a person or persons he would like to emulate. The woman posing the question pointed out that he was practicing a kind of cultural appropriation by using a term from Native cultures in this way and suggested he use a different word. Wheaton replied, in effect, that he doesn’t think he’s taking anything from Native Peoples by using the term. Which, yeah, is problematic. But that’s not what triggered me.
What triggered me was someone else’s response to Wheaton’s response, and this is why: It was obvious to me that she had already decided what kind of response she expected to the original question. Several times she reiterated, “Wheaton should have said THIS.” And then she proceeded to tear apart his “apology” for not being what she thought it should be. In fact, it wasn’t an apology at all, and that’s one of the things with which she seems to take exception. Here’s another white guy practicing cultural imperialism through his thoughtless choice of words and not taking responsibility when someone is kind enough to point it out to him.
I kind of get it, as much as I can being a white woman. That is, being part of the dominant culture of the United States. I’m generally not subject to “Whitesplaining,” but I have been and am subject to “Mansplaining,” which in my experience is every bit as crazy-making. And I live most days with “Mental-Health-Splaining.” It sucks big time to have someone not of your culture/background/experience, from whose social progressiveness in other areas you might expect to have a clue, not fall in with your attempts at education. It’s HARD to address this shit, to put yourself out there instead of keeping your mouth shut. And it hurts when someone to whom you look up just doesn’t seem to get it, or even WANT to get it. Honestly, I have been there.
On the other hand, getting defensive and ripping someone a new one when s/he doesn’t give the response you want and/or think you deserve isn’t productive. That’s no longer about education. It’s about you venting your feelings of frustration. And it isn’t conducive to good communication. Okay, yeah, you’re angry at having to explain the same things OVER AND OVER AGAIN. I’m sorry to say this, but SUCK IT UP. Working for change takes saying the same things over and over again. It takes being civil when you want to break things. The message isn’t magic. You have to repeat it more than once. And the more condescending you get, the less people are apt to listen to you. Because when you say shit like “Why am I always the one who has to be civil? The Oppressors never have to worry about being civil to me!” you sound like a kid throwing a tantrum. IT’S NOT FAIR!!! Yeah, life ain’t fair, and the people dealing with oppression and abuse have more on them than the people dishing it out. That’s something I learned my first time in a mental hospital. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now, but it’s what is.
The respondent’s tone isn’t the only thing that triggers me about the whole exchange, though, and this is where I think I may be accused of being white. I think about this a lot, too, in case you assume that I don’t, but am just writing out of being triggered. I think about it because as a novelist I write about peoples and cultures I am not a part of. I have black characters and Native characters and Latino characters and gay characters–quite a few in my work in progress–and I worry that I can’t do anything to get it right. My male protagonist is a man of Scottish heritage who was the student of a Native American shaman and practices a particular form of shamanism. He has a Spirit Animal. Is it not okay for me to have made this decision because I’m not of Native descent? Or should I have made him Native because of his spiritual system, even though that’s not how I saw the character? I’m not a Native Scot, either. Maybe I should have just stuck with everyone being white American, because that way I wouldn’t run the risk of getting something wrong or being unintentionally offensive. Except then I’d be open to accusations of not being inclusive enough.
I don’t mean any of this as snarky. These are really questions I ask myself. I do my best to be respectful and honest. I do my research. But I sometimes feel that there is nothing I can do to “get it right.” And I get tired of having to keep my self-censor active all the time because I’m white. There. I said it. I’ll say it again.
I’m tired of having to censor myself so much because I’m white and I’m afraid of getting reamed by someone who thinks my skin color equals my thought process.
A while back I read a blog written by a Pagan man who had participated in a conference with people from varying spiritual and religious backgrounds, including Native American. He recounted how he led an opening ritual which included invoking the directions and casting a circle, as we Pagans do. Later, a Native man confronted him about the practice, accusing him of stealing a Native system for his worship. The blogger tried to engage the man in conversation and explain that many religions share similar methods of setting sacred space, and that doesn’t mean that anyone stole from anyone else. He wasn’t sure the Native man accepted his explanation.
It’s really easy to look at anyone who bears the outward appearance of the dominant cultural mode and think they’re the enemy. At the risk of sounding like I’m making excuses for us poor white folks, even those of us who are trying hard have a lot to keep track of and we can’t always get it right. Sometimes we have to choose our battles, and sometimes our choices are not going to satisfy every single person who can find fault. Rudeness doesn’t win any allies.
I see this tendency toward being reactive all over the place, not just in matters of race. Last spring I read where members of a sorority at a college back east posted sticky notes on the mirrors in the women’s bathrooms. The notes read, “You’re beautiful as you are!” and other variations on this theme. It was the sorority’s attempt to do something positive and affirm women’s rights to come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. The next day, the internet was full of op-eds descrying this gesture because “We don’t have to be beautiful. Beauty for women is a construction of the patriarchy. We need to affirm our right to be ugly if we want!” And you know, I don’t disagree with the sentiment. But whom does it serve to shame a group trying to do something body-positive because it doesn’t fit your idea of what they should have done?
I don’t think I have anything else to say about this right now. I don’t have any answers. I guess I would just ask all activists, please, the next time someone makes you angry, I don’t care what about or where they’re from, just stop. Take a breath. Show a little more compassion and be a little less ready to blame. Anger is a good place to start change, but a poor work horse.