Four things that disappointed me and one that didn’t

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  • I clearly hit “send” on my piece about white mediocrity too soon. I clearly underestimated the tour de force of “meh” that was Marvel’s Netflix series Iron Fist, or as the folks on FANBros podcast called him Copper Palms. The pacing, the casting, the story, the direction, the visuals… top to bottom this was a huge disappointment for those of us who have been supporting Marvel’s shows. Especially on the heels of Luke Cage, and you know how I felt about Luke Cage. That a white man with no martial arts experience and only a bit part in Game of Thrones was cast as Marvel’s greatest martial artist is, quite frankly, ridiculous, especially when the show had amazing people of color on the show who could have filled the role. Iron Fist is not a big enough character for a race (or gender) swap to have been that much of a controversy. Sad.
  • Speaking of sad, I was also pretty disappointed by Dave Chappelle’s recent comedy collection. I love Dave’s comedy, his show was a classic and his stand up is among the best out there. His recent outing on Saturday Night Live made me incredibly hopeful. I wanted to love these shows. I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I laughed. Mediocre Chappelle is still better than most comedians. I was just disappointed. In the first of the two shows, he went to the well on rape jokes a few times too many. Rape is one of those things that’s really hard to laugh about. Sometimes good comedians can find a way to make you laugh then cringe at the fact that you laughed. There was an element of that here, but there was also some laziness. Repeatedly going back there trivializes the trauma. The second special, the better of the two, Chappelle again got lazy with his over use of the word “tranny”. It came across as transphobic in a way that is unhelpful in our current political climate. At his best, Dave has been able to push us forward on conversations about race and society. There was no pushing forward in the new special, just reinforcement of mainstream discomforts. I guess I am specially offended having worked in Dave’s hometown of Yellow Springs for a couple of years. I know the ethos of the town, a progressive oasis in the middle of rural Ohio. I also know that Dave shares many of the village’s progressive values, even in the places where he may not fully understand them. Being in Yellow Springs pushed me forward in so many ways on social issues and I guess I want to see some of that in Dave’s comedy. He still has one more Netflix special coming. Here’s hoping…
  • Ya know what else I didn’t like? Logan. That’s right. I’m alone on this one. Everyone else seems to have loved it. Fine. I probably can’t say why I didn’t like it without spoilers, so this is your official warning: spoiler alert. There are two scenes that are intended to be emotionally heavy in the film that just absolutely fell flat for me. To see the iconic Charles Xavier killed in a bed by a clone of Wolverine was an absolute let down as was Logan’s being impaled by a tree. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the hugeness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but these are gigantic characters killed in ways that struck me as not nearly epic enough. I guess I just didn’t like the world of Logan. In it, mutants have just sort of stopped being born except in labs. The X-Men, at least some percentage, were killed by Xavier. All of this explained in dialogue. Meh. I think some people were just happy to have an R rated Wolverine who slashed people up, cut off limbs, and said “fuck” all the time. I wanted more banter between Xavier and Logan. These two characters have a history and their character dynamic at this point makes no sense. Logan is going out of his way to protect Xavier and yet Xavier keeps talking down to Logan as if the latter is some huge disappointment to him. Whaaaa? I don’t know. Maybe I missed something. People have said it’s the greatest comic film since The Dark Knight. I couldn’t disagree more.
  • I’m disappointed in the NFL. This time because Colin Kaepernick is unemployed this late into free agency. I can think of a dozen teams that would benefit from having him on their roster, on several of those he would be the starter. Kaepernick decided to protest police brutality and that has gotten him blacklisted. The hypocrisy is overwhelming. No one wants to deal with this “distraction” but they will tolerate alleged rapists, domestic abusers, and other known criminals if the player can produce on the field. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the NFL defends the systems that defend the status quo. The teams’ ownership and much of its fan base represents that status quo. Still, I remain disappointed that no courageous team has stood up to take a chance on a player who only a few years ago was playing in the Super Bowl and looked like the future of the league. Personally, I think he would look great in black and yellow, Mr. Rooney!
  • Something that didn’t disappoint me? Get Out. I finally made it to the theater to check it out and I can’t recommend it more highly. It is well made, funny and spooky in turns, finely acted, and socially  relevant on so many levels. Without giving too much away, Get Out is a horror movie about being black in white spaces. It is about the self denial that we have to do to operate in those spaces. It is about the lack of safety that those spaces afford black bodies. And, most interestingly, it is about the ways that well meaning, progressive, white people advance their own agendas at the expense of black people. It’s a tight, well crafted film. I was surprised when it was over. A good film will leaving you wanting more (like Moonlight… so beautiful!). This is what entertainment can do. It can use story to examine our prejudices, biases, and blind spots in a way where the challenge is welcomed and we can choose what to do about it next. All of our choices for entertainment need not be divorced from our sense of values, but they also don’t have to beat us over the head with them. When things are done well, we embrace the challenge to question and to be better. And when things aren’t done so well… it’s disappointing.

The Celebration of White Mediocrity

This blog topic was suggested by one of my patrons. You can support my writing at http://www.patreon.com/derricklweston. Thanks! 

When I was nine, my family moved to an all white suburb. I’ve written and spoken about it often. It has affected the ways I think about race on a global scale as well as how I wrestle with my own racial identity. Whether it was their intent or not, I realize that my parents gave me one message that I unconsciously internalized and that I am now beginning to reckon with: I have to be excellent to be good enough. My mother was a stickler for grammar. To this day she will take to correcting my punctuation and word usage on Facebook statuses. It was clear to her that any slip up on my part would reinforce what people already believe to be true about us: that we’re uneducated, that we don’t belong here, that we don’t deserve access to the level of education that we’re receiving. It wasn’t okay for me to be average. I needed to be a little better just to be okay.

I think this is a common experience of minorities living in primarily white spaces. We feel that we have to excel or else not only are we letting ourselves down, we are letting down our families and, to some extent, our race. It’s a burden that first generation and immigrant children carry with them. It is the not-so-subtle message that if we are going to exist in white society, we’d better prove that we have worth.

White people, it is growing more and more apparent to me, don’t seem to have that burden. Of course, there is the good old fashioned protestant work ethic, and the drive to achieve in a capitalist society, but achievement for white people doesn’t always seems to be merit-based. Studies have shown that most of white achievement is linked to inherited wealth. Most white people take for granted things like having savings, investments, and inherited property waiting for them when and if things go bad. White people get into schools based off of family names and alumni connections. They get internships and jobs based off of their last names. Most of the white people that I know, and I know A LOT, have a familial safety net that even if it doesn’t allow them to live in the lap of luxury, will stop them slipping into utter chaos.

Most minorities in this country don’t live with those securities and so when we enter white spaces, we do so knowing that we’d better perform and produce, or we’re screwed. Most minorities in this country are only a few generations removed from enslavement or some other form of colonial rule. We don’t have generational wealth. Not only that, but we have decades of policies that have been put in place to keep us from having access to wealth and influence. The playing field has never been even. So when people of color do achieve, it is against the odds.

I can look at Ben Carson, a man whose politics I pretty much despise, and say that he is exceptional. Exceptional at politics? Maybe not so much. But the man separated conjoined twins. Joined at the head! And he had to overcome all that African Americans of his age had to overcome to get to the place where he could be a pre-eminent neurosurgeon. To get to the place where he could be a mediocre political candidate, he had to be an exceptional physician.

White people need not be exceptional to achieve. At times it seems they don’t even need to be competent. They need to be visible. They need to be loud. They need to be connected. And being wealthy doesn’t hurt. The bar is lower as are the stakes. Failure for white people means a return to a world that is generally set up for them to succeed. White people, when they are not excellent, seem to be that way because they simply don’t have to be.

Nothing illustrates this point more clearly than our current presidential situation. Could Barack Obama have been more excellent? Could he have achieved more? He was a well spoken, good looking (but not too good looking), family man who overcame a broken home, first black president of the Harvard Law review, constitutional lawyer, civil rights attorney, state senator, U.S. senator, and first black president. Was he perfect? No! Was he excellent? In almost every measurable way! He’s bright, articulate, funny, has a gorgeous family, and he’s incredibly inspirational and aspirational. Excellence!

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Enter the mediocre white man. So much of Trump’s campaign seemed to be fueled by this notion: how dare a black man achieve more than even a mediocre white man! Trump’s accomplishments? Taking his dad’s money and using it to put his name on everything like a four year old with an orange crayon, swindling workers out of money, numerous bankruptcies, manipulating the image of himself as a world class business man to create a reality TV show, and stirring up the worst in the American psyche to ride a wave of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny to the White House. Oh, and having five kids by three wives. Mediocrity.

The church isn’t immune from this phenomenon. Middle-aged, white, “progressive” pastors (usually men) are considered groundbreaking and courageous for saying the things that theologians of color (and women) have been saying for decades and sometimes centuries. We celebrate people who have audiences and then have a “conversion” instead of celebrating the originators of thoughts. We celebrate the strategies and ideas that church leaders of color have had by invention or necessity for decades as “emerging” and “postmodern”. Mediocrity.

I write this from a place of frustration. The celebration of white mediocrity privileges the voices of uneducated, unexperienced, uncreative whiteness over the voices of more skilled and competent people of color. I know, I know… #notallwhitepeople… I’ve painted with some pretty broad strokes here, but I don’t think I’m off base. And please know that there are mediocre people of color and there is most certainly white excellence. The difference is that mediocrity is often a death sentence for people of color and white excellence has no problem finding space to be celebrated. Our public space should be reserved for the best our thinking, the best of our creativity, the best of our culture no matter what the origin. We can’t continually give voice to those who appeal to the lowest common denominator of our society or we will devolve. I worry about us becoming a nation lead by overconfident, white ignoramuses and the people of color who are willing to play ball with them. Oh wait… maybe we’re already here…

Stop celebrating white mediocrity!

 

Gaze into the abyss

Today’s blogpost was inspired by one of my supporters. You can support my writing at http://www.patreon.com/derricklweston

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you” – Friedrich Nietzsche

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It’s incredibly frustrating to watch the news these days. I think our country is being run by an idiot. I think our congress is filled with soulless, puppy-kicking, ghouls whose soul desire is to buy the old ladies’ home and kick the old ladies out. The politicians who are supposed to be fighting for the things that I believe are important seem to be in some sort of passive stupor, perhaps thinking that if you let the monsters eat enough babies, maybe they’ll get full and stop their baby-eating campaign. Newsflash, ladies and gentlemen, the monsters have bottomless stomachs and an unquenchable desire for infant meat. Grow a spine!

In the last couple of months, I really have seen the best in a lot of people. The citizenry is awake and getting active in their democracy. That’s good and I hope and pray that the momentum can keep up. But I’ve also seen the worst in people come out, and to put a finer point on it, I have seen some of the worst in me. I’m not feeling particularly charitable to those with whom I disagree. I find myself wading in pools of schadenfreude when I hear about those who have “buyer’s remorse” about the new administration. I find myself tickled by anecdotes of people who are just now discovering that the affordable care act and Obamacare are one in the same, even if I distrust the validity of said anecdotes (are people really that stupid? Don’t answer that). I feel at times like my most gracious self is slipping away. I feel betrayed by a fair amount of my fellow citizens. I actively root for the failure and embarrassment of the current administration. I am angered by the systems of oppression that allow this travesty to continue.

While I can only speak for my own outrage, I know that others are similarly affected. The spirit of rebellion and revolution is percolating. People want to fight back and that desire to fight brings with it a clear sense of having enemies and sides to choose. It makes us hypersensitive to finding targets at which we can launch attacks. For many of us, words are our weapons and we look for opportunities to lampoon, lambast, and lecture those who are clearly against us. And why not? We get called “libtards”, “snowflakes”, and “social justice warriors” (by the way, that last thing? not an insult!) Why can’t we shoot back with our own hurtful rhetoric? Why can’t we “tell it like it is” and “speak our minds”? Why can’t we fight fire with fire?

Well, simply put, we can. And for some of us, we are. We’ve gotten mean and vile.  We’ve matched rudeness with rudeness. We think that righteous ends justify disrespectful means even if our righteousness is simply self righteousness. We allow our anger to go off unfettered and force our opponents into defensive positions, creating cycles of vitriol that lower us all to the lowest common denominator of human discourse. And there’s part of me that has absolutely no problem with any of this!

And then there is the part of me that remembers that that’s not who I am. Or at least, it’s not who I desire to be. Now before I go on, I should say that I’m not of those “both sides of the argument are valid” types. On the contrary, if an opinion dehumanizes another it is not worthy of a “fair hearing” because it is inherently unjust. That said, the ways we push back against our opponents can’t be in contrast to the values that we hold. The ends don’t justify the means if the means also perpetuate cycles of dehumanization.

Jesus’ call for love of enemies is radical in that it asks us to stop and recognize the common humanity that we share with those that we oppose. This is one of the absolute hardest things to do. To look at someone with whom you absolutely can’t see eye to eye and still manage to see the face of the Divine feels impossible at times. Buddhists bring it down to the belief that every soul, no matter how miserable they seem, desires to be happy. I may not like the way that he goes about it, but at the end of the day, Donald Trump wants to be happy. And my guess is that he is a deeply unhappy man, who has used every measure of worldly success to fill a void inside of himself. When I look at him that way I can, albeit temporarily, look upon him with the eyes of Christ and feel a teensy-weensy, itty-bitty, microbe of compassion. Sometimes…

Our hatred of injustice can easily turn into a hatred of people that we deem to be unjust. From there we can justify all manner of slander, ridicule, and debasement that slowly turns us into the very thing we hate. We stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back at us. Somewhere in the midst of the cosmic staring contest, our souls get lost and we lose sight of our ideals.

I am not saying that we need to lose our edge. I’m not saying that we need to hold hands with abusers, sing “kum ba ya” and exchange friendship bracelets. I am saying that we need to, as the rap group Blue Scholars says, struggle with love. To me, that means remembering that our adversaries too carry the Divine spark and are worthy of dignity. It means reminding ourselves that our struggle is against injustice, not the unjust. It means not resorting to “well he started it” as a rhetorical device. It means being our best selves even in our worst moments. No one said this would be easy. At times I wonder if it’s even possible. But I have to believe that it’s better to let the monster defeat me than to become the monster myself.