Unsettling Librarian

Nothing More*, or the Longest of Cons

*”The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white –: and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for this journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and who require of my captivity a song. They require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.”

~ James Baldwin, from the introduction to The Price of the Ticket

In my twenties, I understood myself to have something of a zero tolerance policy for oppression-defending or -extending bullshittery. On more than one occasion, I walked away from relationships, romantic and otherwise, when someone showed me how little work they were willing to do to challenge systems of oppression.

Sometimes that was none. No work on themselves. No work on our collective culture as represented in work and family and leisure spaces. No work at all. Sometimes there was some. A bit of acknowledgment on the part of a man that sexism was a bad thing that other men did. A moment of clarity on the part of a middle class person about the realities of poverty in America. A temporary recognition of the consequences of heterosexism and homophobia on the part of a straight-identified person. Et cetera. As a rule, when it wasn’t enough, I walked.

In retrospect, though, I permitted enormously generous interpretations of “enough” for myself and the folks I felt closest with, trusted too completely. In my thirties, I began to recognize the liberality of my interpretations, began to consider walking there, too. Instead, I decided to attempt to engage more deeply. I was learning so much, and in my usual enthusiasm, expected others would be just as eager to acquire knowledge new and challenging to them.

Among the things I was integrating into my understanding were the importance of ‘each one, teach one’ and the inescapable reality of my own responsibilities for continuing my own learning while staying present, engaging differences of perspective in persistent and ongoing ways. Except that I suck at that – well, the parts after “learning” anyway.

In my forties, I’m learning that why I suck at that is because I’m on the autism spectrum, and I lean hard on the all-or-nothing approach to life. I may’ve thought W. was a remorseless prick when he said, “If you’re not with us, then you’re against us,” but that’s essentially how I feel about social justice issues and people – in my life and in general – who cannot be bothered to educate themselves and others, grapple with themselves and others around these literally life or death issues.

I keep trying to be otherwise; I keep trying not to feel as if I’ve been stabbed in the chest each time someone I’ve loved for decades stands idly by while someone they’ve loved for decades “stands up” for racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, et fucking al. That’s especially hard when I’m the one they’re “standing up” against. I keep trying because inflexibility is a bad thing, I’ve been told, and hell, I even believe it in a variety of contexts like trying new food or traveling to new places or respectfully educating oneself about cultures other than one’s own.

In some contexts, though, I’m thinking maybe not.

I’m thinking of that Indigo Girls song my daughter’s been singing since at least kindergarten, if not preschool: “The center holds, or so they say. Never held to well for me. [. . .] The center held the bonded slave for the sake of industry. The center held the bloody hand of the execution man.” (h/t to other folks not finding ‘neutrality’ acceptable)

I’m thinking of a familiar passage penned by Frederick Douglass the better part of two centuries ago:  “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

I’m thinking about those quotes because I’m realizing that these people in my life whom I’ve loved for decades are, like millions of their fellow Whiteness-ensnared Americans, completely unwilling to return their ticket. They are, though, completely willing to do everything in their power to avoid seeing what the real costs of that choice are for those of us who never got a ticket, or who’ve returned ours at the window and reaped the rewards of a partial refund more precious than feathers or gold. (h/t Alice Walker and Rob Verchick)

Just as American imperialist capitalism externalizes the costs of our oligarchs’ high living and the cheaper seats purchased for our bourgeoisie and even those train-jumping poor folks back in the empty boxcars, so, too, does Whiteness externalize the costs of the grotesqueries of White Privilege. I’m not okay with that.

I mean, I’m happy to be part of cost redistribution when it comes to the complex resource-sharing dance that folks on the shit-side of capitalism have been doing for longer than there’s been capitalism, but that’s because it’s collaborative.

Whiteness expecting non-Whiteness to eat all the shite that must be externalized in order for Whiteness to pretend to its tenuous existence, and smile while we’re at it? Not so much.

Here’s the thing, though. The way Whiteness is constructed, I can’t refuse to pay that ticket without paying another. I can walk, yes, but I’ll be walking away from something I’ve invested myself in to an extent that can be nothing other than alarming in this light. I suppose that’s how this looks from their perspectives, too, right? Except the alarming over-investment is in Whiteness.

Scary shit to point out that Whiteness is empty of positive meaning when one has permitted oneself and one’s children to be defined as “nothing more than that, or [. . .] nothing less.” Scary shit to say, “No, if you support that racist shite, then don’t come in my house,” or “That’s not acceptable to me because it dehumanizes people I love, or hell, any people at all, and I’m going to tell you about it every gotdamn time I have even a modicum of energy for so doing because see above re: the humanity of people I love.” Scary shit, indeed.

Kinda like contemplating giving up your oldest friend and only living (play)sister and her kids (and grandkids) because they repeatedly prioritize their comfort over solidarity. Kinda like contemplating giving up the surviving children (and grandchildren) of your only other (play)sister because they do the same. Kinda like realizing that all the talk about family of affinity is flat bullshit when they’ll overtly excuse their own comparative indifference to anti-black racism by pointing out that your intensity around those issues is rooted in you having black family members – which implies that they don’t despite letting your kid call them Auntie for over a decade.** Kinda like realizing still and again that all the talk about family of affinity is flat bullshit when they’ll coddle their racist and racist-defending/dismissing blood, directly or indirectly, at the expense of your kids, your grandkid, your beloved, yourself. Kinda like. Scary shit.

But then, another human being – black, American, unarmed, and generally young – is murdered by another police officer either too cowardly or too petty-power-drunk to even consider doing otherwise, and I look at my beloved, my children, my grandchild, and I think, how can I do otherwise? How can I continue to play at compromising on the inherent value of their existences?

Especially when I should know better than to expect better from those who feel entitled to require those compromises be made to protect them from their own culpability.

When my great grandmother’s parents were finding a way to get her and her brother safely away from the Cossacks, I don’t think they were expecting help from the woman they’d known their whole lives who cleaned Jewish blood from her husband’s boots with nary a cross word.

When my great Uncle Al’s family was being murdered in Auschwitz, I imagine he was long past expecting the neighbors who’d watched them hustled into cattle cars to be of any meaningful aid.

When my great grandmother was being “saved” from her parents’ Onondaga-ness via closed adoption into a White family, she was too small to even conceive of how her descendants were being robbed of heritage, culture, and connection, but the folks doing the robbing were crystal on the concept. It was, in fact, their naked and explicitly expressed intention. Where were her allies among those complicit in that crime against generations?

And so, too, for those ancestors who, by force of circumstance and choice, traded away Blackfoot and Welsh and Cherokee and Irish for (conditional) assimilation into Whiteness – where were their allies? Where were those willing to put aside their comfort and stand against genocide, erasure, exploitation, and grave injustice?

Wherever they were, there weren’t enough of them, and there still aren’t today. Perhaps this is me putting aside my comfort in these presences in my life, in these relationships that seem to gnaw at my guts most days more than to nourish me – much like Whiteness.

In truth, these relationships are least on the list of what racism has and could cost me. Perhaps, just maybe, my willingness to pay this contextually small price might help awaken others to the inescapable reality of those larger costs, both immediate and potential. Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, I’ll pay this ticket because that’s part of what it means to have returned the other one.

In no small part, I returned it because I was only issued a phantom ticket in the first damn place, and it was always in danger of being voided by the conductor any damn way.

In very large part, I returned it because I know who I am. My mischling, second degree ass would not accept someone’s assertion that I should understand why they tolerate their brother’s or sister’s defense of the flag of the Third Reich, nevermind their expectation that I should do the same. That same mixed blood ass of mine will no longer accept anyone’s assertion that I should understand why they tolerate their brother’s or sister’s defense of the flag many of today’s Neonazis use in place of the Reich’s, and fuck their expectation that I should do the same. And that’s just the tip of the no-more-coddling-collaborators iceberg.

If you’re not with me, then you’re against me? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m a gimpy, middle-aged, queer mixed blood with precious little energy to spare. I’m tired of burning up so much of it on the heartwounds made of the resounding silences of those I thought would speak for me and mine, made of the bitter chill that let’s me know those I thought had my back don’t.

Maybe this is self-indulgent, inflexible “oversensitivity”. Maybe it’s just me saying, “Enough.


**And which also operates on the baseless assumption that having a black family member magically transforms people into well informed, consistently engaged opponents of anti-black racism without any arduous, ongoing work on their part. {Corollary of the Black Friend Charm & IncantationTM, perhaps?} That baseless assumption also conveniently ignores the work around anti-racism that should, but too often doesn’t go into the raising of white-identified children by white-identified adults.

In my own experience, growing up with African Diasporic family members – a Jamaican American great uncle and his three children, a Puerto Rican American aunt and her three children, and briefly, an African American great uncle – didn’t render me immune to the anti-Black racism soaked into the fabric of U.S. culture and my family. Parenting African Diasporic children certainly didn’t magically free my great aunt or my uncle from their anti-Black enculturation as (wannabewhite) Americans nor turn either of them into actively anti-racist individuals. When I made a conscious decision to challenge the toxicity of that enculturation when I was in my early 20s, I began to recognize and resist anti-Blackness more consistently and effectively, but that work is an ongoing, lifelong undertaking.

Key words: conscious decision; work; ongoing, lifelong undertaking.


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2 thoughts on “Nothing More*, or the Longest of Cons

  1. Pingback: Nausea, or the Hard Shit Ain’t Never Easy | Unsettling Librarian

  2. Pingback: Fin? Fine? Forward. | Unsettling Librarian

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