Ellen Is Wrong: “Love takes off the masks”

Ellen DeGeneres sitting and yucking it up with George W. Bush in the owner’s suite of an NFL game—including the Dallas Cowboys, owned by Jerry Jones—may be the perfect metaphor for the U.S. in 2019.

While DeGeneres as a gay woman has become a key public figure in the broader fight for equity, she ultimately has attained something, like Oprah, that keeps her well above the consequences of inequity in the U.S.—enormous wealth and celebrity.

Laughing in the rarified air of the owner’s suite, DeGeneres and Bush are literally well above the actual game in which grown men bash each other senseless for the entertainment and enormous profit of others.

In this contemporary colosseum, we should be reminded that DeGeneres and Bush are merely two actors in an exclusive club of wealth and fame.

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Donald and Melania Trump on their wedding day in 2005 with Hillary and Bill Clinton.
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DeGeneres has doubled-down after some have criticized her being very publicly chummy with the former president, who is also good pals with Michelle Obama. Fans of DeGeneres have praised her for her message of love and her argument that we can and should love each other even if—and maybe especially if—we have different beliefs.

But here is the problem. If this were about beliefs—if DeGeneres were Muslim and Bush, Christian, and they were showing how people of different faiths can and should love each other—then DeGeneres would be entirely justified.

This, however, is not about beliefs.

W. Bush for decades was a key leader of the Republican Party, which enacted policy and laws as well as advocated for policy and laws that are anti-gay, anti-woman, pro-mass incarceration, pro-gun, etc.

And here is the crucial point: These laws are inherently inequitable; they deny life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Additionally, these laws and policies negatively impact marginalized and impoverished Americans disproportionately.

Yes, Ellen has faced inequity as a women and for being gay, but on balance, her wealth and celebrity have greatly mollified those consequences; she—and W. Bush—is but a far-removed observer of this world that is quite real for the rest of us.

For example, as Republicans move the U.S. toward greatly restricting and even banning abortion, we must recognize that wealthy women will never be denied excellent health care, excellent birth control, and access to safe abortions.

Never.

These restrictive and harmful laws will mostly negatively impact marginalized and impoverished American women.

DeGeneres and Bush see politics and belief, then, as just a game—not really all that different than the NFL contest where they sat as far as possible away from the violence.

Republican or Democrat? Cowboy or Packer? What’s the diff, eh?

Ultimately, DeGeneres has no obligations, however, to live her life any other way than the way she wants, including keeping and fostering her connectedness to the world of enormous wealth and celebrity. She has reminded us over and over that she is friends with Aaron Rogers (quarterback of the Packers, who were playing the Cowboys as she lounged with W.)—and of course, with Justin Bieber.

Using her enormous bully pulpit, DeGeneres goes beyond living her life, often, and advocates for the rest of us to live our lives a certain way; in this case, she is preaching a sort of universal and unconditional love.

How, then, can DeGeneres be wrong?

At one level, DeGeneres’s message approaches respectability politics, at least to the point that many people supporting her seem to think she is calling for civility among political rivals. Respectability politics is often used to deflect from the central issue, as was the case with Colin Kaepernick.

Calls for civility also work as a shield for those with power and privilege. Just as the rich and famous often live above the consequences of laws and social norms, people with power and wealth have expectations for others that they themselves never follow.

Respect authority. Watch your tone.

There is nothing civil about declaring homosexuality a sin; there is nothing civil about calling abortion murder.

On another level, DeGeneres simply misunderstands or at least oversimplifies love. Instead, I recommend James Baldwin’s admonitions about love:

In order to achieve freedom of this sort, Baldwin contended, we must love one another. His understanding of love was deep and complex, and the love he prescribed was difficult and often unsettling. To love someone, he explained, is to deny them “spiritual and social ease,” which “hard as if may sound,” is “the most important thing that one human being can do for another.” Love requires us to force each other to confront the delusions that we rely on to avoid taking responsibility for our lives. “Love takes off the masks,” Baldwin declared, “that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” (From The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola, p. 163, quoting from Baldwin’s “Down at the Cross,” pp. 335, 341)

I am not saying DeGeneres should be uncivil to W. Bush, but I am saying that what someone of her stature and influence could do is to love Bush in such a way that he feels spiritual and social discomfort, that is he is forced to take off the masks of his corrupt political ideologies.

That Bush accepts responsibility for the consequences of his actions.

As Baldwin implored throughout his career, it is a terrible delusion that the rich and famous believe they are above it all because there is simply nothing that doesn’t impact each and everyone one of us even as some seem to be having a great time while, you know, Rome is burning.

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Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

Becka said that spelling was not reading: reading, she said, was when you could hear the words as if they were a song. (p. 297)

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

“How did Gilead fall?” Margaret Atwood asks in the Acknowledgements, noting that The Testaments, set 15 years after the main action of The Handmaid’s Tale but drafted 30-plus years after that novel, “was written in response to this question” (p. 417).

Even a writer of Atwood’s talent and success probably could never have imagined that Handmaid has become the cultural and political touchstone that has occurred with the rise of Trump and the popular Hulu series.

Those who found Handmaid in the late 1980s to be powerful then and an extremely compelling work of fiction may be skeptical about Atwood’s very late return to this now modern classic. For both the newly converted and the long-time fans of Atwood, I want to assure you all that this much delayed sequel pays off quite wonderfully.

I came to Atwood as a teacher—specifically high school Advanced Placement Literature and Composition—and then as a scholar. I have also grounded a tremendous amount of my academic and public work in Atwood’s fiction and non-fiction.

With efforts here, then, to avoid as much as possible spoilers, I want to highlight a few of the ways in which Atwood maintains elements from Handmaid while also extending her writer’s urge to connect literacy with empowerment and attaining ones full humanity.

The Testaments offers the narratives of three women—notably including Aunt Lydia from Handmaid. In both novels, as is common with Atwood’s fiction, the narrations are both lending a voice to those often unheard or silenced and working as meta-narrations about the nature of truth when stories are told, retold, and examined (both novels end with Gilead being  the focus of academic scholarship).

Much of Atwood’s fiction is an exploration of what it means to tell and retell stories.

Names and renaming are also prominent in the sequel, dramatizing the power of names and (re)naming as those processes disproportionately impact women in the service of men and patriarchy.

Handmaid details the end of the U.S. and how Gilead comes into being, although much of that is limited to what Offred could have known as a handmaid. Then, many of the finer details are revealed in the Historical Notes, a scholarly examination of Gilead well after its fall.

Testaments broadens the perspectives by including one voice from an inner woman of power, a woman mostly trapped in the upper levels of the Gilead machine, and another view from outside (Canada) that is both somewhat naive and deeply cynical.

These testaments piece together a well established Gilead for the reader and also document the theocracy’s final days. Some of the most compelling elements here are the full development of Aunt Lydia and the careful examination of two characters being groomed to be Aunts (after narrowly avoiding being wed to Commanders).

Part XVII: Reading Room serves as an excellent example of where Atwood excels in combining many of the thematic and narratives elements of her dystopian speculative novel. Aunts are women designed within Gilead to control other women; Aunts are embodiments of a sort of paradoxical authority, including their legal access to reading and writing.

In their journey to becoming Aunts, Agnes and Becka—who have bonded over their fears of being married to a Commander—take on a mentee (Agnes)/mentor (Becka) relationship since Becka has learned to read and write well ahead of Agnes. The motif of reading and writing is emphasized near the end of the novel, and Gilead, I think, to highlight the power of language.

Agnes struggles:

My reading abilities progressed slowly and with many stumbles. Becka helped a lot. We used Bible verses to practise, from the approved selection that was available to Supplicants.. With my very own eyes I was able to read portions of Scripture that I had until then only heard. (p. 297)

These scenes reminded me of Atwood’s deft use in the original novel of Commanders reading scripture to the Wives and Handmaids, with the reader alerted to what Becka soon reveals to Agnes:

The day came when the locked wooden Bible box reserved for me would be brought out to the Reading Room and I would finally open this most forbidden of books. I was very excited about it, but that morning Becka said, “I need to warn you.”

“Warn me?” I said. “But it’s holy.”

“It doesn’t say what they say it says.” (p. 302)

This echoes in Handmaid when the Commander reads the Bible before the Ceremony with Offred:

The Commander pauses, looking down, scanning the page….We lean toward him a little, iron fillings to the magnet. He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it once….

For lunch it was the Beatitudes….They played it from a tape….The voice was a man’s….I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. (pp. 88-89)

In both novels, Atwood reveals that whoever controls the word maintains power. These novels should remind readers that throughout history, learning to read has been carefully controlled—who is allowed, who is not, and who remains so burdened with living that to read seems a luxury.

And so Agnes gains a sort of consciousness along with gaining literacy: “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others” (p. 299).

As Becka cautioned, Agnes confronts that “[t]he truth was not noble, it was horrible”:

This is what the Aunts meant, then, when they said women’s minds were too weak for reading. We would crumble, we would fall apart under the contradictions, we would not be able to hold firm.

Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightness and especially the truthfulness of Gilead’s theology. If I’d failed at perfection, I’d concluded that the fault was mine. But as I discovered what had been changed by Gilead, what had been added, and what had been omitted, I feared I might lose my faith. (p. 303)

This awakening in Agnes born of her learning to read and write leads to a larger theme for Atwood: “Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories” (p. 307).

And in Testaments, “Beneath its outer show of virtue and purity, Gilead was rotting” (p. 308).

As compelling as Atwood’s motifs are in their deconstructing of history and the present, The Testaments if no mere “protest novel,” which James Baldwin rejected, explaining:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality….

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in the insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended. (pp. 17-18)

Atwood doesn’t stoop to simple Continue reading Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

Unsweet Tea: On Tokenism, Whiteness, and the Promise of Culturally Relevant Teaching

I stood as I have many times in front of the two tea dispensers at a chain sub sandwich shop. But this time, I was suddenly struck with the choice I always make—the “unsweet tea.”

Medium Freshly-Brewed Iced Tea Unsweetened

I was born, raised, and have lived my entire life in the Deep South. My mother made tea that would rival pancake syrup and trained my sister and me in the meticulous ritual of steeping tea bags and then pouring the hot tea over a huge mound of processed sugar.

The tea pot was dedicated only to steeping tea, and the tea jar and the giant plastic sugar spoon were sacred as well.

Once I left home, my mother flirted with sun tea, but the syrup-sweet tea of my childhood later became my defining feature of what could rightfully call itself The South. When ordering tea, The South hands you sweetened ice tea; hot tea or tea without sugar are not even mentioned, or considered.

So with a great deal of shame, I must admit that only a week or so ago I was truck with the absurdity that is “unsweet tea,” which of course is just tea.

The “unsweet” is a necessity only because “sweet tea” in South Carolina is the norm, the default, what has been rendered invisible and simultaneously right.

All across the U.S., then, “unsweet tea” in The South is a less controversial entry point into how whiteness works as the norm, the invisible, and the right.

Whiteness as the normal and as the invisible drives the greatest bulk of privilege in the U.S., but once that whiteness and privilege are exposed, confronted, white fragility is the response, as Robin DiAngelo (2011) details:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

White fragility as a response to naming and confronting privilege as well as racism is extremely powerful because that response is clinging to an entrenched norm with incredibly long and anchored roots.

Despite claims that formal public education works to change students and thus reform society, schools most often reflect and perpetuate privilege and all sorts of inequities and norms. Thus, education—teachers/teaching, curriculum, testing, discipline, dress codes, etc.—tends to work in the service of whiteness.

Just as whiteness must be exposed and confronted in society, education that is liberatory and life- as well as society-changing must be willing to commit, as Gloria Ladson-Billings explains, to culturally relevant teaching:

A hallmark for me of a culturally relevant teacher is someone who understands that we’re operating in a fundamentally inequitable system [emphasis added] — they take that as a given. And that the teacher’s role is not merely to help kids fit into an unfair system, but rather to give them the skills, the knowledge and the dispositions to change the inequity. The idea is not to get more people at the top of an unfair pyramid; the idea is to say the pyramid is the wrong structure. How can we really create a circle, if you will, that includes everybody?

Instead, Ladson-Billings laments:

I find that teachers often shy away from critical consciousness because they’re afraid that it’s too political [emphasis added]. A perfect example for me is some years ago when Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, that district in Ferguson sent out a directive that teachers not talk about this. This is exactly what kids are talking about every single day, because at night when they go home and turn on the news, their streets are flooded with protesters, and they need an adult to help make sense of this. But the school has said, “No, you can’t talk about this.”

One result of teachers and schools self-regulating in the service of whiteness, privilege, and inequity is tokenism—viewing culturally relevant teaching through a deficit lens isolated on Black and Brown students or students living in poverty; and selecting curriculum, materials (texts, programs, etc.), and events that highlight diversity and multiculturalism,

but [as Ladson-Billings explains] what research has found is just changing the content is never going to be enough, if you are pedagogically doing the very same things: Read the chapter, answer the questions at the back of the book, come take the test. You really haven’t attended to the deep cultural concerns. What happens is school districts want you to do just that — teach exactly the way you’ve been teaching, just change the information [emphasis added]. That does little or nothing to increase engagement, and it certainly doesn’t help kids feel any more empowered about what they’re learning.

Whiteness, like sweet tea in The South, is ubiquitous in the U.S.—but whiteness desires to remain invisible as it drives privilege for some and further entrenches inequity for others. White fragility is the only consequence of rendering whiteness visible so that it can be eradicated.

This confrontation of whiteness is the duty of white people, and that must not be dulled by tokenism and self-regulation.

Recognizing that “unsweet tea” is just tea serves as a powerful example of the importance of naming as a first step to exposing in a journey to eradicating whiteness and privilege.

Genuine and robust culturally relevant teaching does offer a promise to move beyond whiteness and to quell white fragility, as Ladson-Billings argues:

When we do this work, there are certain baselines that people have to have. Number one, they have to believe that racism is real, and number two, they have to believe that they may be acting on it….

The most segregated group of kids in the country are white kids. We never refer to their schools as segregated. We refer to black and brown kids as going to segregated schools.

So, integration in which kids of different races and ethnicities have an opportunity to fully participate in the life of the school is what I would hope to see.

De-centering whiteness proves to be a bitter drink for white people who are too often compelled to respond with white fragility or tokenism.

Now, whiteness must seek ways to work against itself, making whiteness visible, centering it one last time in order to recenter our society and schools in ways that are equitable.


See Also

The female price of male pleasure