Category Archives: privilege

Ozark’s “Careless People”: Allegory of Race and Class

***Spoiler Alert***

This post is intended for people who have viewed the full series, including the final episode, of Ozark.


Many people have acknowledged that Ozark is a well-acted derivative of Breaking Bad. But an analogy just as important, if not more so, is that Ozark is a 2010s-2020s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1910s-1920s The Great Gatsby.

Marty and Wendy Byrde are essentially Tom and Daisy Buchanan, although Wendy is often more like Tom, and Marty, more like Daisy. None the less, Marty and Wendy fit well narrator Nick Carraway’s description of the Buchanans:

I couldn’t forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

The Great Gatsby

The Byrdes leave a staggering trail of carnage, larger but similar to the bodies in the wake of the Buchanans. Both couples survive mostly unscathed—at least still wealthy and alive.

If we include the Breaking Bad comparison, the two series’ creators made some important and different decisions about Marty and Walter White—the main white male center of the “vast carelessness”—and some profoundly important different decisions about the parallel characters of Jesse and Ruth—both sympathetic characters who suffer some of the greatest consequences of the carelessness.

Ozark and Breaking Bad ultimately offer some excellent aspects of contemporary series, and nearly equal elements that are problematic. Notably, the shows center whiteness against Mexicans as murders and drug lords—with the whiteness often seeking viewer empathy.

The back story of Walter White—and the annoying messaging that being reduced to a high school teacher is proof Walter has been cheated by the universe—folds into his cancer diagnosis; this feels much reduced in the scene where Marty is on his knees about to be murdered, only to start the momentum toward nothing ever really touching Marty Byrde, unlike Walter’s fate.

Bryan Cranston and Jason Bateman go a long way to help the writers skirt past the ugliest of truths beneath these men scorching the earth for the good of their family. They are, in fact, the worst sort of “careless people,” selfish and calculating.

Breaking Bad, like Better Call Saul, are far better written and filmed than Ozark, even as these series are carried by incredible acting, possibly even better in Ozark than its obvious inspiration.

On balance, Break Bad is the better series, but in its last episode, Ozark makes a case for itself because of the decisions around Ruth, in contrast to her parallel, Jesse, from Break Bad.

Like the Buchanans, the Byrdes are outsiders, and although Jesse is a local like Ruth, Ruth’s parallels in Gatsby are the Wilsons, low- to working-class characters. And like Myrtle and George Wilson, Ruth as redneck young woman, is sacrificed beside her not-yet-finished empty pool with a corpse buried beneath. The imagery of her death is intensified as we hear her telling Wyatt he doesn’t know how to be rich—paralleled by Myrtle’s pathetic efforts to play rich in Gatsby.

Ozark seems to argue that the class barrier trumps race and gender. It certainly dramatizes that class trumps character and intelligence and work ethic.

Hard working and smart—Ruth and Wyatt cannot survive the carelessness of the Byrde’s. (BY TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX)

Ruth splayed on her dirt yard—reminiscent of Myrtle mutilated in the road by Daisy driving Gatsby’s gold Rolls Royce—comes after mid-final-episode the Byrde’s suffering a dramatic car accident, one shown in an earlier episode, one no one could simply walk away from.

For me, the car wreck had no emotional weight, even as Marty and his children crawl free, miraculously unharmed, even as Wendy appears unconscious (dead?) until Marty rouses her. The family soon after arrives at their house in a taxi, Wendy noting they survived only somewhat battered and bruised.

But it is Wendy’s comment to Novarro’s priest that reveals the narrative purpose of the accident—not to tease the audience with one or more Byrde deaths but to show that the entire series is an extended allegory about the Teflon promises of whiteness and wealth.

As Wendy boasts to the priest as she takes him by the shoulders, they will survive, and they do.

The series ends black screen, a gun shot, the Byrde’s winning (a more honest and cynical ending than Breaking Bad), murderously (again) after Marty softly nods to his teen son, Jonah, who fires the shot.

Like Walter White, for Marty, and now Jonah, “what he had done was, to him, entirely justified.”

Many plot lines and characters force viewers to repeatedly interrogate that very concept; Walter and Marty live by the ends justifying the means.

Yet, none confront that central question more vividly than the tensions between Wendy and Ruth about the killing of Wendy’s brother, Ben.

The last episode highlights the emptiness pervading Ozark with Ruth caving to Wendy about culpability for Ben’s murder, prompted by Wendy committing herself in yet another grand manipulation (suggesting viewers should feel empathy for Wendy since, as the scene depicts, she shares with Ruth the consequences of an abusive father).

Ozark and Breaking Bad left me wondering how I am supposed to feel about the characters.

It is there I focus on Ruth and Jesse, the characters with the most lingering sympathetic qualities in spite of their very human flaws, and frailties. I think we can (and should) find more sincerity in the struggles of Jesse and Ruth against the backdrop of the posing and ruthlessness of Walter and Marty.

Like Gatsby, Ozark is a deeply cynical work about the American Dream. This American nightmare is more like what John Gardner lamented:

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

“Amber (Get) Waves (Your) of (Plastic) Grain (Uncle Same)” in On Writers and Writing, John Gardner (1994)

The Byrdes shit all over the Ozarks, and we are left with one final wry smile from Marty and, yes, the gun shot.

“[L]et other people clean up the mess they had made”…

Questions Skew Answers about White Privilege

At first, this seems like a really simple question: Do you believe in Santa Claus?

But scholars and researchers know that this question is actually a mine field of problems.

“Believe” is a problematic verb, and before anyone can answer or anyone can interpret the answers, we must all agree on what “Santa Claus” means.

Does “Santa Claus” mean a literal man who travels the world and crawls down chimneys to deliver toys? Or does it mean some historical “Santa Claus” who has become mythologized and represents a spirit of Christmas?

In other words, especially in polling designed to uncover better understanding of an issue or phenomenon, the questions asked and how the terms in those questions are defined (if at all) create the answers and thus shape the conclusions drawn from those answers.

Take for example Toplines and Crosstabs December 2021 National Poll: CRT & Race in America.

This poll gathers data on several aspects of the Critical Race Theory debates driven by Republicans and conservatives across the U.S. But the framing skews (and likely distorts) what people know, what people think, and what people believe about CRT and white privilege. Consider the following:

Two problems are created by the framing above. First, note how “white privilege” is defined for the respondents: “White people in the U.S. have certain advantages [emphasis added] because of the color of their skin.”

Notably during the Trump era, certain segments of white people who support Trump have been very vocal about rejecting the concept of “white privilege.” Typically, these white people point to white poverty and white failure to reject—with evidence, they think—the concept of “advantage.”

The question defining “white privilege” as an “advantage” very likely reduces the number of respondents expressing support for or nuanced understanding of the concept. And that framing is inaccurate.

“White privilege” is better defined as the lack of barriers that are race-based for white people.

When white people find themselves in poverty, it is rarely because they are white; when white people fail, it is rarely because they are white.

There is not pop culture rhetoric about “driving while white” or “jogging while white” because race is rarely the key factor in negative interactions for white people, notably interacting with police or other authority figures (or other white people).

Systemic racism manifests itself in pervasive ways for Black people in that being Black is often the key factor in life experiences for Black people. Black people do fail and suffer primarily because they are Black, and not because of their behavior or character.

White privilege is about an absence (lack of race-based barriers) and about being allowed to exist as if your race doesn’t define you. Black people do not have that opportunity; being Black is a state of perpetual awareness of being Black.

Unlike white people, then, Black people do experience existentially and systematically barriers that are race-based.

Describing “white privilege” as an advantage suggests guarantees of wealth or success that simply are not true—and thus easy to reject.

Framing “white privilege” as the absence of race-based barriers both better defines the concept and increases the likelihood that respondents can acknowledge that reality.

The second problem is the use of the word “beliefs” with CRT, which distorts and misrepresents CRT as a “theory.”

Similar to the jumbled discourse around evolution (people often claim “I don’t believe in evolution”), respondents are likely misled by the word “beliefs” since it implies the lack of empirical data and suggests CRT is simply someone’s beliefs—and not a carefully formulated theory based on rigorous scholarship.

CRT, as a scholarly theory, has a set of claims, or principles. The use of those words, “claims” or “principles,” provides, again, a fairer framing and should provide more valid data.

Together, these examples show how research erodes the validity (do the data and conclusions drawn reflect what they claim to reflect?) of a poll by the questions asked, the framing and defining of the key terms.

In the “CRT beliefs” data also note that the “white privilege” framing as an “advantage” is reinforced by the use of “enjoy”: “Whites Enjoy Certain Privileges.”

Creating a set of questions for polling requires statistical expertise, but also scholarly knowledge and experience. In this case, the poll itself seems poorly reviewed for framing in terms of fully understanding either “white privilege” or “CRT.”

Since the entire cultural debate around race, racism, white privilege, and CRT is being driven by dishonest actors and misinformed media, politicians, and members of the public, a valid poll of those topics requires accurate and nuanced clarity on the questions being asked and definitions of the terms being examined.

This poll is ambitious, but it is likely doing more harm than good for that debate.

Beware the Roadbuilders 2021

I entered the classroom as a high school English teacher in Upstate South Carolina in the fall of 1984, coinciding with the start of the high-stakes accountability movement in my home state as well as across the U.S.

Many people identify the Nation at Risk report under Ronald Reagan as ground zero for the accountability movement that entrenched patterns of school reform lasting until today—ever-changing standards, ever-changing high-stakes tests, and a never-ending refrain that schools are failing.

George W. Bush brought state-level education reform/accountability to the federal level with the bi-partisan No Child Left Behind, and then Barack Obama doubled down on the same basic concepts and approaches despite decades of accountability measures not working.

As a result, when I entered the world of blogging and public commentary during Obama’s administration, I found two enduring and powerful metaphors for the essential flaws of the accountability/education reform movement.

One is from Oscar Wilde: “But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

And the other is inspired by a scene from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, detailed in a letter from Nettie to Celie:

The first thing I should tell you about is the road. The road finally reached the cassava fields about nine months ago and the Olinka, who love nothing better than a celebration, outdid themselves preparing a feast for the roadbuilders who talked and laughed and cut their eyes at the Olinka women the whole day. In the evening many were invited into the village itself and there was merrymaking far into the night. I think Africans are very much like white people back home, in that they think they are the center of the universe and that everything that is done is done for them. The Olinka definitely hold this view. And so they naturally thought the road being built was for them [emphasis added]. And, in fact, the roadbuilders talked much of how quickly the Olinka will now be able to get to the coast. With a tarmac road it is only a three-day journey. By bicycle it will be even less. Of course no one in Olinka owns a bicycle, but one of the roadbuilders has one, and all the Olinka men covet it and talk of someday soon purchasing their own.

Well, the morning after the road was “finished” as far as the Olinka were concerned (after all, it had reached their village), what should we discover but that the roadbuilders were back at work. They have instructions to continue the road for another thirty miles! And to continue it on its present course right through the village of Olinka. By the time we were out of bed, the road was already being dug through Catherine’s newly planted yam field. Of course the Olinka were up in arms. But the roadbuilders were literally up in arms. They had guns, Celie, with orders to shoot!

It was pitiful, Celie. The people felt so betrayed! They stood by helplessly—they really don’t know how to fight, and rarely think of it since the old days of tribal wars—as their crops and then their very homes were destroyed. Yes. The roadbuilders didn’t deviate an inch from the plan the headman was following. Every hut that lay in the proposed roadpath was leveled. And, Celie, our church, our school, my hut, all went down in a matter of hours. Fortunately, we were able to save all of our things, but with a tarmac road running straight through the middle of it, the village itself seems gutted.

Immediately after understanding the roadbuilders’ intentions, the chief set off toward the coast, seeking explanations and reparations. Two weeks later he returned with even more disturbing news. The whole territory, including the Olinkas’ village, now belongs to a rubber manufacturer in England. As he neared the coast, he was stunned to see hundreds and hundreds of villagers much like the Olinka clearing the forests on each side of the road, and planting rubber trees. The ancient, giant mahogany trees, all the trees, the game, everything of the forest was being destroyed, and the land was forced to lie flat, he said, and bare as the palm of his hand.

The Color Purple

From this, I drew a conclusion that has served as a guiding metaphor for my criticism of the education reform movement and the title of one of my books, Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance (Garn Press): “Beware the roadbuilders. They are not here to serve you, they are on their way to bulldoze right over you.”

I have come back to this metaphor as both ongoing criticism and confirmation that accountability is a failed approach to education reform.

One element of the tension between the accountability/education reform movement and those of us committed to education and social reform grounded in equity (and not accountability) is the shared acknowledgement that universal public education has a long history of failing marginalized and oppressed populations of students, reflecting the larger failures of communities, states, and the broader U.S. to serve marginalized and oppressed people.

It is 2021, and in my home state of SC, the metaphor I have depended on is being vividly and callously brought to reality:

The dismantling of Black communities for state and federal highways is not just a thing of the past. It’s happening now a few miles north of Charleston with the proposed West I-526 Lowcountry Corridor, at a time when President Biden and his transportation secretary have vowed to stop it.

South Carolina is proposing to sweep aside dozens of homes, and potentially hundreds of people, to widen a freeway interchange choked with traffic in this booming coastal region. The $3 billion project is expected to begin about two years after the plan becomes final. …

Under the state’s preferred proposal for the interchange upgrade, 94 percent of people and structures that would be displaced live in environmental justice communities mostly composed of Black and Brown residents.

Black people are about to be swept aside for a South Carolina freeway — again

It is 2021, and I must reach the same conclusion I drew in 2014: Beware the roadbuilders. They are not here to serve you, they are on their way to bulldoze right over you.


Recommended

‘White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes’: Advancing Racial Equity Through Highway Reconstruction, Deborah N. Archer

Abstract

Racial and economic segregation in urban communities is often understood as a natural consequence of poor choices by individuals. In reality, racially and economically segregated cities are the result of many factors, including the nation’s interstate highway system. In states around the country, highway construction displaced Black households and cut the heart and soul out of thriving Black communities as homes, churches, schools, and businesses were destroyed. In other communities, the highway system was a tool of a segregationist agenda, erecting a wall that separated White and Black communities and protected White people from Black migration. In these ways, construction of the interstate highway system contributed to the residential concentration of race and poverty, and created physical, economic, and psychological barriers that persist.

Today, the interstate highway system is on the verge of transformational change as aging highways around the country are crumbling or insufficient to meet growing demand and must be rebuilt or replaced. The possibility of significant infrastructure development offers an opportunity to redress some of the harm caused by the interstate highway system, to strengthen impacted communities, and to advance racial equity. Still, there is a risk that federal, state, and local highway builders will repeat the sins of the past at the expense of communities of color whose homes, businesses, and community institutions again stand in the path of the bulldozers. Moreover, there is reason to believe that traditional civil rights laws, standing alone, are insufficient to redress the structural and institutional racism that shaped the interstate highway system and continues to threaten communities of color as the highways are rebuilt.

This Article is the first in the legal literature to explore in depth the racial equity concerns and opportunities raised by modern highway redevelopment. It also builds upon the work of legal scholars who advocate for addressing systemic racial inequality by requiring that policymakers conduct a thorough and comprehensive analysis of how a proposed action, policy, or practice will affect racial and ethnic groups. The Article concludes by proposing a way forward for highway redevelopment projects: requiring jurisdictions to complete comprehensive racial equity impact studies prior to any construction. Racial equity impact studies have been used or proposed in various contexts to reform racialized institutions and structures. This Article argues that highway redevelopment projects should join this growing list.

Archer, Deborah N., ‘White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes’: Advancing Racial Equity Through Highway Reconstruction (February 18, 2020). 73 Vanderbilt Law Review 1259 (2020), NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 20-49, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3539889

The Woody Allen Problem Is Our Problem

I should have never read E. E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever, but I did.

My doctoral dissertation was a biography of English educator Lou LaBrant so much of my scholarly work while in that program was focused on biography, specifically guided by feminism as a lens because I was a man writing a woman’s life.

During the mid-1990s, I read dozens of biographies, often on writers I loved. One notable reading was Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E.E. Cummings by Richard Kennedy (who had edited one of my favorite collections of poems by cummings).

My doctoral program was a relatively late-in-life awakening for me, intellectually and personally, so this biography was one of my first experiences with coming to grips with trying to separate the artist from their art.

The more I found out about cummings, the less I felt compelled to cling to his poetry; in many ways, the person he was contrasted too significantly from the ideologies his poetry seemed to represent.

Biographies of Kurt Vonnegut, however, while exposing the many warts and flaws in Vonnegut, have never presented such a vast contradiction that I still wrestle with about cummings.

It’s my fault, then, that I found myself in Chapter 12 of Cheever’s really well done biography, titled “‘I think I am falling in love with you.'”

The chapter is about Nancy Thayer, the daughter of cummings who was raised not knowing he was her father. In the summer of 1946, there is a reunion between cummings and Nancy. Followed by cummings painting a portrait of Nancy in 1948—where the story becomes disturbing:

Nancy was almost 30 years old, and with some distress she realized that she was obsessed with, falling in love with, the charming fifty-four-year-old man who was painting her portrait. (p. 157)

E. E. Cummings: A Life

I couldn’t help thinking about this awful real-life scene—when cummings had to tell Nancy he was her father once she confessed her falling in love—filled with negligent parenthood, dysfunctional family dynamics, and the specter of incest while watching the four-part series Allen v. Farrow (HBO).

This mini-series has rekindled a horrible and complex story of power, art/artist, and white male privilege, including giving much greater space to Mia Farrow and Dylan Farrow than had been allowed throughout the first two decades (before Dylan spoke again and openly about her charges starting about 2014).

While the series seeks to present new and more nuanced details and examinations of Allen’s abuse of Dylan and his controversial relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, there has also been the expected re-energizing of those supporting and defending Allen, including a number of high-profile women actresses in Hollywood.

To say that the documentary is damning for Allen is an understatement, but the series also proves that there is much to be concerned about in terms of the American public and the moral character of our country (if such a thing exists).

The Allen/Dylan abuse is related to but not entirely the same as the Allen/Soon-Yi relationship; both have elements of very disturbing behavior by Allen, but they simply are not the same thing, except for the common element of Allen.

That connection, however, is put into a really ugly relief in the series because viewers are allowed to see and hear Allen with the children (including Soon-Yi as a child) and Mia as well as in taped phone calls with Mia. The duplicity and intimidation are aspects of Allen mostly absent in the hero-worshipping portrayals he has managed in pop culture and fashioned through his on-screen personas.

Mia Farrow remains afraid of Allen, and she physically expresses an incredible weight of guilt for having brought Allen into her family. Dylan finds herself shaking uncontrollably even as she sits holding hands with her husband (who seems to be a wonderful and loving person in her life) while discussing the lingering impact of the abuse on her life.

I am not sure how anyone watches this and remains an apologist for Allen. Much of the documentary is difficult to watch without crying, without taking breaks.

We are left with uncertainty about this detail or that; we also likely recognize that very few adults in this mess are completely sinners or completely saints. Like the awkward and disturbing moment for cummings and Nancy, this is a story of dysfunction as it intersects celebrity and power.

The series briefly walks viewers through the recent list of men appropriately snared in the #MeToo movement—Weinstein, Cosby, etc. But the light now again shining brightly on Allen must make us pause at how many more men live with almost no consequences while abusing and assaulting women.

Allen’s “woman scorned” and “parental alienation” defense is directly identified in the series as a successful strategy now used in divorces by men who gain custody of their children and then often abuse again.

And here is the real issue for anyone still unsure about the specifics of the Allen v. Farrow controversy and its impact on Dylan: The undeniable fact of all this is that women and children remain ignored in the U.S.

False sexual harassment and sexual assault claims are incredibly rare; the problem is that most sexual assault is never reported (see here); note that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Allen was not charged. Dylan and Mia Farrow represent the silencing and ignoring of women’s and children’s voices especially against the power of men’s voices.

Lorraine Ali offers a chilling point at the end of her recent piece about the criticism she has received for reviewing the series positively: “Perhaps these Allen diehards are upset because ‘Allen v. Farrow’ finally exposes the other side of the story, and they’re used to a world where women were simply told to shut up.”

We remain too often offended that a woman or child has the audacity to confront the audacity of men.

Bully

TV shows and movies throughout the 1970s and 1980s, if my memory serves me well, tended to fall back on a predictable and likely lazy portrayal of bullies; beneath their abusive and violent exteriors hid a deeply insecure but ultimately redeemable human.

In the real world, however, the United States has elected a bully and conman president. The first presidential debate of 2020, in fact, put that harsh truth on display as well as offering ironic proof of the power of white male privilege.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden demonstrated the extremely low bar for white men with wealth and power. As I watched the circus between the conman clown and cartoonish career politician, I thought about “no excuses” charter schools where mostly Black and brown students are compelled to make eye contact, walk in straight lines, and conform to the most rigid rules of civility and behavior.

The expectations for the weakest among us in the U.S. are infinitely higher than for the most powerful—as demonstrated by Trump’s bullying and Biden’s doddering.

Let me be clear, my concern about the Trump/Biden debate is not a both-sides complaint. While Biden is a deeply flawed candidate and person, Trump is in a deplorable class all by himself.

The ultimately irony of Trump’s bullying and blatant racism on display at the debate is that it comes on the heels of the Trump administration claiming that anti-racism education is indoctrination and Nikki Haley’s celebrated claim at the RNC that the U.S. isn’t a racist country.

As the exposed tax returns have confirmed, Trump is mostly a conman not a gifted businessman. But more significantly his art of the con depends on his faith in bullying, a faith built on decades of evidence that those tactics do in fact work—because people who can benefit from tolerating the orbit of Trump are more than willing to suffer and fuel his bullying.

Conmen and bullies cannot survive, however, unless we allow them to exist. While those TV shows and movies of my youth seem naive and unrealistic, they did often expose the power of confronting bullies in order to disarm them.

One way Trump has survived and thrived is because pop culture and the media have been complicit in his bullying and lies.

After the debate, for example, The Washington Post offered a headline noting Trump had depended in “false facts” because the mainstream media refuse to use the word “lie” just like the media continue to suggest that using the word “racist” when warranted is somehow disrespectful.

Here is a missed lesson from the debate.

Debates are formal and structured arguments, events based on decorum and mostly academic expectations for discourse, argument, and facts.

Trump has spent his entire life existing in an ideology outside the parameters of rules, laws, and ethics/morality. As has now been reported, for example, Trump considers those who have died in the military to be “suckers” and “losers.”

To Trump, anyone who plays by any rules is a sucker and a loser.

Functioning outside the expectations of decency has allowed Trump to lie, project, gaslight, and bully his way to celebrity status and ultimately the White House.

It isn’t that Trump is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers (a characterization Trump would love to foster) but that Trump is stealing at poker while using a marked deck when almost everyone else refuses to admit that he is cheating.

For all his bumbling and loss of composure, Biden was correct to call Trump a clown, and despite the delicacies of proper behavior, to tell Trump to shut up. But most importantly, Biden hit the core of Trump by repeating that Trump cares only about Trump, and is willing to sacrifice anyone, including the U.S. public and even his own family.

Every Trump business scam is a monument to himself.

While it is true Trump is a racist, that likely sits inside a much larger fact that Trump considers everyone else to be suckers and losers, including his evangelical base (which he also mocks behind closed doors as he does the military).

There is no credible way to justify Trump as bully in chief, yet more than a third of the U.S. continues to support and even revel in his bullying.

Trump is a referendum on the American character, which is once again being exposed for its very worst qualities. The U.S. had to fight a war to end slavery, waited over 140 years to allow women to vote, and held out almost 190 years before acknowledging equality for Black Americans.

However, this is not an after-school special, and Trump is not redeemable.

The real question is whether or not the U.S. is redeemable, and I have my doubts.

To “Be” or Not To “Be”: Moving Beyond Correctness and Stigmatized Language

ESPN radio has recently shaken up their on-air personalities across the daily schedule, notably replacing the morning slot held for many years by Mike & Mike (and a recent fractured version after Mike Greenberg left) with a clear signal toward diversity— as reported by Andrew Marchand:

And now, look who is moving into the predominantly white sports-radio neighborhood beginning Monday. It’s Keyshawn, Jay Williams & Zubin Mehenti….

How will it be different?

“First of all, we are three minorities,” Keyshawn said. “That is No. 1. There haven’t been three minorities that I know of on a morning national sports show.”

One of the traditional areas where radio and television in the U.S. has had a strict lack of diversity is the use of language; talking heads—even late-night talk show hosts—practice something of a radio voice (lacking distinct regional pronunciations) and so-called “standard English.”

While listening to the new and more diverse morning radio show on ESPN, I heard Keyshawn Johnson say about a river they were discussing that people “be jet-skiing” in it. The trio’s reactions made it clear this waterway was not safe for recreation.

Since it is early in my first-year writing seminars, I am still helping students re-orient their attitudes and assumptions about reading, writing, and language. A foundational re-orientation for my courses is moving away from seeing language use as “correct” or “incorrect” (as well as rejecting terms such as “standard English” and “non-standard dialect”) and cautioning students not to stigmatize language use as some distinct flag for intelligence or moral/ethical character.

Johnson’s use of “be” to capture a continuous “presentism” of an action along with the omission of “to be” verbs (“Keyshawn home all day”) are often markers for what some call “Black English” (I was taught about Black English through the work of Dillard in the 1970s, but “Ebonics” and “AAVE” have also been used to designate this language usage pattern).

Few people are likely to recognize that ESPN’s new line up is more than racial or cultural diversity; Johnson embodies the importance of language use diversity as well—and he also embodies my cautions to students about “correctness” and stigmatizing language.

While there are people who may have flinched and drawn unfair and racist conclusions about Johnson’s verb usage, I suspect that there will be no professional consequences for Johnson’s language usage.

As I noted to my class, everyone listening knew the meaning of Johnson’s usage, and thus, the primary value of language—clear and precise communication—was completely achieved.

Writing from France in 1979, James Baldwin explained: “The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language.”

A few paragraphs later, Baldwin elaborated, focusing on French:

What joins all languages, and all men, is the necessity to confront life, in order, not inconceivably, to outwit death: The price for this is the acceptance, and achievement, of one’s temporal identity. So that, for example, thought it is not taught in the schools (and this has the potential of becoming a political issue) the south of France still clings to its ancient and musical Provençal, which resists being described as a “dialect.” And much of the tension in the Basque countries, and in Wales, is due to the Basque and Welsh determination not to allow their languages to be destroyed. This determination also feeds the flames in Ireland for many indignities the Irish have been forced to undergo at English hands is the English contempt for their language.

It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden.

In her work to move teachers of English away from “correctness” and the “error hunt,” Connie Weaver has highlighted Baldwin’s point about language usage being about power and that some forms of language usage have social, economic, and political consequences (often grounded in inequity such as racism, classism, etc.).

Often the use of “status marking” in language usage is accompanied by an uncritical acceptance of “standard English” and the inherent context that some language usage (“She is home”) is more complete and “better” than other language usage (“She home”) (see Pullum).

And language usage as status marking (some threat of observable consequences) is used to justify teaching students about code switching instead of stigmatizing any form of language usage.

The code switching argument has stood for many years as a progressive way to teach language that avoids “correctness” and appears to avoid stigma (which it doesn’t).

Again, Baldwin’s key point—”People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate”—is simply side-stepped when we teach disenfranchised and marginalized young people to code switch because that approach allows us to avoid discussing the larger issues of power and inequity that govern the status marking.

Johnson’s use of “be” comes in a time of high social unrest over race, but also intersects with another harsh reality about language and teaching language: Language use is always in a state of flux, and the loose conventions that structure different groups of language usage are tenuous at best.

“People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate,” Baldwin acknowledges. Language change, then, is also about power, not necessarily who has power but the dormant or repressed power of marginalized humans (children and teens manufacturing slang to build a linguistic wall between them and adults or racial minorities reshaping and reappropriating language as defiance and to claim power denied).

Although language can be racist, homophobic, misogynistic, etc., language also can shift toward equity. For example, many publications have now embraced “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Although some people are pulling out their hair in protest, that usage of “they” is centuries old in the English language because it fills a need left vacant in so-called “standard English.”

This door opened to “they” as singular and gender-neutral is in part about diversity, of course, and we can imagine that some racialized usages of language will walk through a similar door.

Language change is often very slow; it seems to happen organically, and then those with power eventually and some times reluctantly acknowledge a thing that has existed for decades or even centuries.

If this were a case for communication and standardization in the name of that communication, we may find the reluctance more compelling.

But Baldwin’s 1979 confrontation of Black English remains true in 2020 when the world and our language usages are all tinted by racism.

Because all teaching is political, and the very best teaching is activism, re-orienting students’ understanding of language does not have to be slow or organic, as demonstrated by The Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC):

We DEMAND that:

  1. teachers stop using academic language and standard English as the accepted communicative norm, which reflects White Mainstream English!
  2. teachers stop teaching Black students to code-switch! Instead, we must teach Black students about anti-Black linguistic racism and white linguistic supremacy!
  3. political discussions and praxis center Black Language as teacher-researcher activism for classrooms and communities!
  4. teachers develop and teach Black Linguistic Consciousness that works to decolonize the mind (and/or) language, unlearn white supremacy, and unravel anti-Black linguistic racism!
  5. Black dispositions are centered in the research and teaching of Black Language!

In K-16 formal education, language usage still falls on a continuum from correctness/standard English at one end and encouraging code switching at the other; the radical dismantling of language usage as status marking is rare, but some evidence exists that culturally we are ready for it.

This demand by CCCC is not simply about equity and authentic diversity, however, because the 5 demands are more linguistically sound than traditional approaches to framing language usage as “correct” or “wrong.”

Once again, Baldwin remains painfully true as he ends his essay:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.

Those of us who teach language usage have a moral obligation to refuse the norm of “correctness” and to dismantle the stigmatizing of language usage. Otherwise we are abdicating our own agency in the service of inequity and at the expense of our students.

Teaching in Hostile Times

There is a long-time joke at my university that has far more than a grain of truth in it—the campus and the university environment captured in a metaphor, the bubble. Referring to the bubble elicits smiles and even laughter, until the bubble bursts.

Over three M-W-F morning courses this fall, I teach 40 students—39 are first-year students, and 39 are white. Most, as is typical of my university are women, and most are significantly privileged in a number of ways.

During fall break this year, vandalism and theft invaded the bubble, including Swastikas and sexually hostile language written on young women’s dormitory doors and marker boards.

So far the university response has been a mostly silent investigation and one official email from the Chief Diversity Officer and University Chaplain. When I engaged one class in a conversation about the incident, I heard the following concerns from students, which I shared with the President, Provost, Academic Dean, and CDO:

  • Students are concerned with a lack of information, and that only one email from two FU admins has been sent [1]. Some mentioned that email was in their spam folder.
  • Students expressed concern that almost no professors have addressed these events in class.
  • Students openly wondered if this is being “swept under the rug,” and fear that if/when people responsible are discovered, what the consequences will be.
  • More broadly, students expressed some trepidation about the open-campus nature, and seemed unsure how to alert and who to alert with specific concerns.

The second point stands out to me because a couple students directly noted that in one class the discussion planned for a class session was about how things used to be bad at the university—highlighting offensive pictures in old year books and such—yet the professor left the discussion there, failing to use that moment to link to the current evidence that things are still bad at the university.

Of the 15 students in that class, only one had been in a class that addressed the hostile vandalism; that class is taught by Melinda Menzer, professor of English, who has been quoted by media extensively on the incident:

“We are in a time where, nationally and internationally, white supremacists and their rhetoric have become more visible and more violent,” Menzer said. “We’ve seen Nazis and neo-Nazis marching on our streets, and they feel empowered in a way they have not felt empowered in decades.”

Menzer is a member of Temple of Israel in Greenville. Her grandfather immigrated to the United States from Lithuania in 1925 — the rest of his family was murdered in the Holocaust.

“None of this is abstract to me or my family, and I also think it shouldn’t be seen in isolation,” Menzer said. “They (white supremacists) don’t just hate Jews — they hate Muslims, they hate African Americans, they have strong anti-immigrant rhetoric. Those things are tied together in their manifestos. It is a matter for all good people to speak up against this hatred, now.”

Menzer said for her and others on campus, the graffiti is not something that can be brushed off as a joke.

“It is easy to say, ‘They’re just trying to scare people,’ or, ‘This is a joke,'” Menzer said. “It’s not that they are trying to scare people — it’s that they are scaring people. They are creating a negative environment, and that is why we all must speak out.”

Menzer said she does not feel that Furman is unique or more dangerous than other campuses because of the incident, but that the graffiti is a reflection of the rise in white supremacy worldwide.

“It is more important than ever before for a group of people to speak up and to name hate when they see it and to denounce it,” Menzer said. “All of us who have a voice need to send a clear message — this is hate, and we denounce it,” Menzer said.

Her careful and direct analysis and call for action, however, as my students have witnessed, have fallen mostly on deaf ears among faculty.

Faculty chair, Christopher Hutton, offered his own call to action to faculty in the first faculty meeting after the vandalism, in part concluding:

In the meantime, it is easy to feel powerless. What can we do as faculty? Well? We can teach [emphasis in original]. The messages we convey to students can be powerful. We can use this incident as a reminder that we must condemn acts of hatred and intolerance. We can be present [emphasis in original], taking an active part in the multiple efforts that are already underway across campus such as FaithZone, SafeZone, the recently announced anti-racism workshop coming up in a few weeks, CLP events, and other opportunities for inclusive dialogue. We can keep an eye out for those who might be most affected by the incident and provide support. What we can not do is to let the abhorrent behavior of a few individuals overshadow the good work that all of you are doing with students every day. We can, indeed we must [emphasis in original] continue to strive towards an inclusive environment in which the academic mission of the university can thrive. I stand here today to say that I plan to take part in that process and that I trust that you will also.

These calls both focus on the role of professors to teach in times of hostility.

As I have allowed and encouraged conversations in my classes, I have discovered that my students were uninformed about important concepts—gaslighting, the male gaze, the sexist origins of “hysterical,” and the traditional resistance in academia toward professors being political, either being public intellectuals or bringing so-called politics into their teaching.

Despite these conversations being grounded in horrible events, and despite these conversations being off-topic in that they were not in my original lesson plans and were only tangentially related to the content of the courses, the lessons were powerful and deeply academic, firmly grounded in the very essence of liberal arts and formal education in the pursuit of an ethical democracy.

These were examinations of personal autonomy, breeches of consent, and the rise of emboldened hatred—even as we all anticipate the perpetrators claiming it was all a joke.

The absence of addressing these events in classrooms is not surprising to me since the traditional view of teaching—K-12 and college—includes somehow requiring that teachers and professors remain dispassionate and politically neutral. At my university, the norm is clearly that professors should just teach their classes, that professors can and must be politically neutral.

Professor of political science and author of Comrade, Jodi Dean has recently weighed in on that tension with an argument for The Comradely Professor:

Etymologically, comrade derives from camera [emphasis in original], the Latin word for room, chamber, and vault. The generic function of a vault is producing a space and holding it open. This lets us hone in on the meaning of comrade: Sharing a room, sharing a space generates a closeness, an intensity of feeling and expectation of solidarity that differentiates those on one side from those on the other. Politically, comradeship is a relation of supported cover, that is, the expectation of solidarity that those on the same side have of each other. Comrade, then, is a mode of address, figure of political belonging, and carrier of expectations for action. When we call ourselves comrades, we are saying that we are on the same side, united around a common political purpose.

And the problem with comradely professors?:

The comradely scholar is committed, fierce, and resolutely partisan. That means that she is more likely to be hated than loved in the academy. Her commitments are political, not disciplinary or professional commitments, which of course does not mean that she is undisciplined or unprofessional.

Like Dean, I argue and practice the ideology, critical pedagogy, that scholarship and teaching are inextricable from each other and both can only be political—even taking the neutral pose is political.

The professors at my university not discussing the hostile vandalism as part of class are making political choices and political stances, yet only those of us addressing these events directly in class will be framed as being the political ones. Comments online with the news article have born that out.

Most of my students are young women and some are Jewish; as Menzer noted, it doesn’t matter the claimed intent of the hostile vandalism because those acts have intimidated people, they have incited fear.

Teaching in hostile times requires a great deal of teachers, even more than in so-called normal times.

Our classrooms are not bubbles, our schools and colleges are not bubbles, and our ethical duties include a recognition that nothing is merely academic, that nothing is politically neutral.

Teaching in hostile times means teaching students’ lived lives, it means inviting their entire experiences into the classroom so that we as teachers and professors can listen, learn, and fully teach.

See Also

Diversity Has Become a Booming Business. So Where Are the Results?


[1] In my original email, I noted “one” admin inaccurately; the one email is signed by two admins as noted earlier in the post above.

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

Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

June Carryl, Crystal Lee Brown, and Siovhan Christensen in Mindhunter (2017)
June CarrylCrystal Lee Brown, and Siovhan Christensen in Mindhunter (2017)

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)
Ah-in YooSteven Yeun, and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Gronk, The Meathead: White Privilege NFL/ESPN-Style

Like another revered white sports legend associated with Boston, Larry Bird, Rob Gronkowski has announced an athletic career cut short by a body battered from the sport that brought him fame.

Bird acquired early in his career the monicker “the Hick from French Lick” and was noted for not only his all-around basketball skills and clutch shooting but also his trash talking on the court contrasted with his mostly laconic and distant demeanor off it.

The implication about Bird included that he was smart as an athlete, but less than intellectual while in college or in the life outside of sports left mostly un-detailed.

Gronkowski, often called “Gronk,” has never been as reserved as Bird, but instead has reveled in being called out as a meathead. In fact, his retirement announcement prompted an ESPN morning show to put together a montage that highlighted Gronk, the Meathead, bragging that he hasn’t read a book since ninth grade.

For the frat-boy culture and not-so-cloaked toxic masculinity pervading ESPN, the expected responses followed with everyone laughing about Gronk misidentifying that book’s title (garbling To Kill a Mockingbird as A Mockingbird to Remember).

Gronk’s now-former team, the New England Patriots, represents a pretty disturbing mixture of sport excellence against the rust beneath the shine of championships, including very disturbing controversies—worst of which involved Gronks’ fellow tight end, Aaron Hernandez, convicted of murder.

While the talking heads of 24-hour sports find Gronk, the Meathead, hilarious, we must recall about Gronkowski: “Oh, there’s also this video of Gronk basically offering $10,000 to any couple that will have sex in front of the large group of people.”

A story not included along with a talking head sharing that Gronk once pulled a bottle of vodka from his pants at a function when he invited the ESPN host to join him for a drink.

Just good ol’ All-American fun, right?

But I think an even larger and ignored responsibility is that we should be asking if black men who are professional athletes receive the sort of tremendous boundaries Gronk is afforded as The Meathead.

Black athletes are not—as racial minorities are not in the U.S.

A part of white privilege includes the almost limitless pass for any behavior. A part of being a minority, however, is that any perceived or identified mistake is entirely disqualifying.

As I have discussed before, Marshawn Lynch, for example, always received a much different media framing, often as a thug, from the chuckles accompanying stories of Gronk, the Meathead. See also Richard Sherman, Thug.

I am not particularly concerned about arguments around whether or not Gronkowski is the best tight end ever in the NFL. I am, however, interested in how the white male elites of ESPN and the NFL see a bit of themselves in Gronk.

The same way Joe Biden refuses to criticize Mike Pence or Donald Trump as people.

People who look like me, white men believe, are always essentially good guys. It is the people who don’t look like me who have the fatal flaws of character.

Despite the tremendous labor provided overwhelmingly by black men to the success of professional sports and ESPN in the U.S., both the NFL and ESPN flourish on the magic carpet ride of white male privilege—see the owners, most of the coaches, and much of the fanbase who sees themselves in the sea of white male faces and their dominant perspectives on ESPN.

For the NFL, Gronk, the Meathead, is the poster boy, but the Grand Wizard is his now-former team’s owner, Robert Kraft—billionaire who is using his obscene wealth to battle video evidence he frequented a business practicing human sex trafficking.

While the Dallas Cowboys and their owner, Jerry Jones, are quite a disturbing circus as well, the real “America’s Team” during the Trump era is the New England Patriots.

And now they have lost their Meathead.

And while the 24-hour sports frat parties are going to spend a few days laughing about good ol’ Gronk, the Meathead, there is an owners meeting of the NFL. And in all likelihood, Kraft will ride his magic carpet to the other side of his being sorry for hurting and disappointing others.

In the most tone deaf moment of the brief apology, Kraft offers what can only be seen as the inverse of his real beliefs: “I expect to be judged not by my words, but by my actions.”

That is not the world in which Kraft or Gronk, the Meathead, live.

That is a world for other people, other people who do not look like them.