Some reading takes a while to digest, it sticks in your craw for all the right reasons: bell hooks’s All About Love changed my life and has deepened my solidarity.
READING: Two Excerpts on Allyship
Talking to a university audience recently I expressed my faith in the power of white people to speak out against racism, challenging and changing prejudice – emphatically stating that I definitely believe we can all change our minds and our actions. I stressed that this faith was not rooted in a utopian longing but, rather, that I believed this because of our nation’s history of many individuals who have offered their lives in the service of justice and freedom. When challenged by folks who claimed these individuals were exceptions, I agreed. But I then talked about the necessity of changing our thinking so that we see ourselves as being like the one who does change rather than among the among who refuse to change. What made these individuals exceptional was not that they were any smarter or kinder than their neighbors but that they were willing to live the truth of their values.
Here is another example. If you go door to door in our nation and talk to citizens about domestic violence, almost everyone will insist that they do not support male violence against women, that they believe it to be morally and ethically wrong. However, if you then explain that we can only end male violence against women by challenging patriarchy, and that means no longer accepting the notion that men should have more rights and privileges than women because of biological difference or that men should have the power to rule over women, that is when the agreement stops. There is a gap between the values they claim to hold and their willingness to do the work of connecting thought and action, theory and practice to realize these values and thus create a more just society.
Sadly, many of our nation’s citizens are proud to live in one of the most democratic countries in the world even as they are afraid to stand up for individuals who live under repressive and fascist governments. They are afraid to act on what they believe because it would mean challenging the conservative status quo. Refusal to stand up for what you believe in weakens individual morality and ethics as well as those of the culture. No wonder then that we are a nation of people, the majority of whom, across race, class, and gender, claim to be religious, claim to believe in the divine power of love, yet collectively remain unable to embrace a love ethic that allows it to guide behavior, especially if doing so would mean supporting radical change.
Fear of radical change leads many citizens of our nation to betray their minds and hearts. Yet we are all subjected to radical changes every day. We face them by moving through fear. These changes are usually imposed by the status quo. For example, revolutionary new technologies have led us all to accept computers. Our willingness to embrace this “unknown” shows that we are all capable of confronting fears of radical change, that we can cope.
-bell hooks, All About Love (pgs. 89-90, bold emphasis mine)
Autobiographically, the AIDS experience may be where I came to understand that it is a fundamental of individual integrity to intervene to stop another person from being victimized, even if to do so is uncomfortable or frightening. That the fear and discomfort must be separated from the decision to act. Fear can be acknowledged, but fear cannot be the decisive factor. Fear must be separated from action in order for some reach towards justice to be maintained. I understand that the gentrified mind insists on the opposite, that things are the way they are because it is neutrally and naturally right, and that trying to disrupt that “natural” order is both futile and impolite. But i know from having been an AIDS activist that this cultural message is a lie. In a moral world, the message of AIDS activism would not be exceptional or stigmatized, it would be normal and expected.
Gentrification culture makes it very hard for people to intervene on behalf of others. The Nasdaq value system is and was a brutal one. Being consumed by it and being shut out of it are both deadening and result in distorted thinking about private sectors, economic and emotional. Gentrification culture is rooted in the ideology that people needing help is a ‘private’ matter, that it is nobody’s business. Taking their homes is called ‘cleaning up ‘ the neighborhood. ACT UP was the most recent American social movement to succeed, and it did so because AIDS activist culture of the 1980s was the opposite of gentrification culture: it held as its organizing principle that seronegative people had a responsibility to intervene, to join their energy with seropositive people’s own enormous expenditure of energy so that they could have power over their own fate. Under gentrification our lives became more privatized. That zeitgeist had broad implications, hard to challenge. we had to ‘act out’ in a characterological sense, to stand up to it. Gentrification culture was a twentieth-century, fin de siècle rendition of bourgeois values. It defined truth telling as antisocial instead of as a requirement for decency. The action of making people accountable was decontextualized as inappropriate. When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen.
-Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (pgs. 71-72)
Sticky Cinnamon Buns (Alison Roman’s Newsletter)
Honestly, Alison Roman has already overwritten this recipe enough for the both of us. Watch the video below if you want the deets.
I tried my hand (okay, the dough attachment for our new Ninja food processor) at these buns within twenty-four hours of making her caramelized shallot pasta for the first time, the editorial differences between the two recipes are hilariously stark. The pasta recipe has the clipped, sparse, “weeknight dinner” tone of most NYT recipes, while this breakfast recipe meanders round and round in circles like the – admittedly, fabulous – buns it produces. (“When cinnamon roll week intersects with getting your period, that’s amoré, the Latin word for ‘your body feels bad, have another cinnamon roll, it will not help.'”)
Ultimately, I felt like it was unnecessarily specific for a fairly simple pastry, but perhaps if she hadn’t been so exacting in her directions my attempt wouldn’t have gone so smoothly! (For example, the warning that mixers-by-hand should be prepared for a “messy uphill battle” brought a slideshow of nightmares to mind and so I chose to machine-mix.) I also disagree with the decision not to frost them with lil a cream cheese glaze, but – after witnessing the atrocities visited upon the cinna’buns at my local corner store (a thick, 1/4″ slime of frosting all over) I respect the decision.
I feel like the quotes at the top of the post say what they do much better than anything I might formulate, even after almost a year of chewing on this post. I read All About Love in February (2021) and – more than simply basking in the greatness of bell hooks – some thoughts need slow-cook.
You can’t flash-fry every hot take into a satisfying, sweet Tweet or bake it into a lovely lattice over the course of an afternoon. This isn’t even one of those on-the-heat/off-the-heat, leave it in the fridge overnight and the flavors “deepen” kind of thoughts. This is one of those back of the fridge for a year monster thoughts. And the more time it spends in there pickling, fermenting, the stronger the flavor gets. At this point, I’m beginning to wonder if this thought will always be too bitter, too sharp for other white people to digest what I’m trying to serve them.
I’m hung up on my frustration with white people’s (other’s and my own, admittedly) unwillingness to open their minds to the complex, simultaneous nature of complicity. In every conversation I have about race with my fellow white folks, I listen for the point in the conversation where their logic takes a leap. Everyone has a story they tell to exempt themselves from action or a larger sense of culpability in the racial hierarchy of American society today.
If you’re like me, “whiteness” has only been granted to your ethnic (Czech and Irish, in my case) background in the last century as a desperation tactic for American White Power to maintain itself. My grandfather was all too happy to trade the many Slavic languages he spoke and the stories told in them to receive the benefits of American whiteness and the Dream that goes along with it. Even if I couldn’t point to the family member responsible for our family’s unique white-ification, those privileges would still have been conferred by others’ projections. A middle aged white man hiring me for a temp gig looks at me and sees, “frumpy but trustworthy secretary material” because my swarthy slavic appearance translates into a dominable, workhorse flavor of white femininity they find comfortable and desexualized. It’s humiliating and degrading to know you’re seen as a stereotype, but this is how I scored temp jobs for upwards of $25 per hour. The stereotypes forced on people of color are far less lucrative.
The majority of white people balk at the prospect of accepting complicity in a system we didn’t build because it undermines our sense of self-actualization and agency. And, faced with a choice between humility (which modern capitalism conflates with “guilt” in fuzzy, sinister ways that allow white folks to self-victimize) and denial, most white people will knee-jerk (if not outright kick) towards the latter to preserve their sense of self.
It’s easy to spot this behavior in belligerent bigots, but the saccharine concepts of “colorblindness” and “meritocracy” are just another set of narratives designed to give liberal white folks an over-argued justification for their exemption or “exceptionalism”. I would even go as far as to say allyship built on the ways in which one has been personally marginalized, without a broader sense of scope and historical context undergirding a sense of empathy (White women and cis gay men are frequently guilty of centering themselves thus) is another impediment to true solidarity.
bell hooks addresses this in the quote from All About Love that I included at the top of this post. In addition to highlighting the disconnect between spoken values and those we act on, hooks later notes that distinguishing private and public life from one another culturally creates a binary in which even socially conscious white folks mire themselves. Some people are willing to hang up their integrity along with their coat when they enter the office in the name of fitting in and working without hassle. Vice versa, some people “virtue signal” their “wokeness” for the sake of professional esteem and cooperation (even brand engagement), yet these values are undermined by the insensitive jokes at the expense of marginalized people they tell in private. Or, more likely, by the disparities in promotions and payment structures they perpetuate from even middling positions of power because “the boss said so.” When capitalism is the oppressor, corporate hierarchy becomes the site of casual complicity and violence.
In one powerful, historical example, hooks notes:
“Much has been made of the fact that so many sixties radicals went on to become hardcore capitalists, profiting by the system they once critiqued and wanted to destroy. But no one assumes responsibility for the shift in values that made the peace and love culture turn toward the politics of profit and power…young progressives committed to social justice who had found it easy to maintain radical politics when they were living on the edge, on the outside, did not want to do the hard work of changing and reorganizing our existing system in ways that would affirm the values of peace and love, or democracy and justice. They fell into despair. And that despair made capitulation to the existing social order the only place of comfort.” (121)
This dovetails with the “automatism” of fascist thinking in The Power of the Powerless and the ways that adherence to the status quo becomes a kind of complicity, and I fear it in myself, deeply.
Even “liberal” solutions can be problematic: acknowledging that sometimes it is necessary to maintain one’s own mental health, I think the socially popularized practice of abjuring ignorant family and alienating oneself is ultimately another scenario which prioritizes personal white comfort and self-perception over actual advancement. If left to their own devices, our problematic white family and friends will still go out and enact some micro-or-macro aggressions on people of color without sustained discussion over time. And it takes time (and, integrally, patience) to parse the unique discomforts and uncertainties of interacting with other individuals in this fucked up, racist system we’ve inherited. Whether or not defensive friends and family accept the safe space you provide or deride the very concept is up to them, but I’ve been trying to fortify myself with the patience to weather whatever bluster blows back.
“Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience,” hooks says; “In our society we make much of love and say little about fear. Yet we are all terribly afraid most of the time. As a culture we are obsessed with the notion of safety. yet we do not question why we live in states of extreme anxiety and dread. Fear is the primary force upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire not to be known. When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then difference, of any kind, will appear as a threat. When we choose to love we choose to move against fear – against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect – to find ourselves in each other.” (pg. 93)
I would add to this: that the solidarity we develop as an outgrowth of our own experience should only be the empathetic trunk of a much larger sympathetic tree. To limit one’s love only to what one understands is a self-stunting ethos based in fear, and there can be no growth in love where the root is fear.
It is, ultimately, fear that I hear at the root of my fellow “woke” white folks insistence that their allyship has reached its feasible limits. We all want to believe we’re “doing enough,” that we’re not one of the “problematic” white people (either inherently or by association) to avoid being “called out.” And this limits the scope of one’s allyship to what is seen and perceived by others, focusing on how one’s allyship appears rather than the undergirding theory. Which is how you get praxis-less internet activism and the deeply problematic solution of “cancel culture.”
I’ve begun to hate the concept of “love languages,” with which has become so widely referenced the last five or so years. Again this is a way in which we limit ourselves in our expression and reception of love. The classification of them as “languages” also subtly imparts a truth about these manifestations of love that goes overlooked: they are learned. We are not born knowing the language of love anymore than we are born knowing the language we speak. American women are largely conditioned and expected to perform acts of service, give gifts, and administer physical touch, while reducing their need for quality time and words of affirmation. American men are largely conditioned to crave/receive physical touch, affirmation, and acts of service, and are willing to essentially exchange whatever they think their partner wants in order to secure their own needs by proxy. (Queer folks are probably less confined by this status quo, we already have to build their identity and affection from the ground up, though I know that my girlish upbringing still reflects itself in the ways I crave affection as a nonbinary adult.)
The thing I dislike about the love languages apparatus is that it encourages us to limit the scope of our love through qualification, and to quantify/commodify our love so that it can be exchanged with an implicit understanding of reciprocation. It’s the idea that if we just correctly identify certain variables in ourselves and others, love can be achieved as a kind of economics.
Love is not currency, there is no reason to limit one’s expression or reception of love according to preference (unless one is limited by one’s own perceptions and preferences). But if you must, in this evaluated conceptualization of love, position “reparations” and “black liberation” next to the fetterless giving of a life-debt. You are not owed gratitude, you are not owed personal fulfillment: you owe, period.
I’ve revisited this essay a dozen times. The recipes went out of season, came back into season, and now seem so irrelevant that I removed most of them. In re-reading it just now, I’ve made only a few changes to what was saved in my drafts: I’ve said the thing that has been weighing on my mind and pressing against the backs of my teeth for the last year.
Why didn’t I post it before?
Because I was afraid. Afraid that some of my white friends would read this and see themselves in it: that they’ll feel attacked, get defensive, and suddenly that friendship would end. I told myself if I had a spine I’d say it to their faces.
Then I realized that I already had.
I’ve tried, politely, to point out the limits of their praxis in conversations as I observed them, and it was met with the trademark cognitive dissonance by which we white folks exempt ourselves from criticism.
A white friend said to me: I am worried about you taking all of this culpability on yourself, that it’s too much of a burden for you alone. Yes, it is, which is why I need my white friends to dig deeper, lift stronger. The more white folks in this country willingly, humbly inculcate themselves with a sense of culpability in the perpetuation of the racist system, the less likely it is to continue. The more you’re questioning yourself, the better.
I am still (selfishly) afraid of losing friends. But the fear that my friends are more complicit in the oppression of others more than they ever realized, that the aversion to inter-personal responsibility socialized into us by technology and media subconsciously needles them to absolve themselves of systemic privilege, is greater.
So yes: this is aimed at you, white friend. Are you doing “enough?” The correct answer is: “of course not, nothing short of liberation will ever be enough.” And how do we define, qualify, and quantify liberation? We, white people, do not. Commit to listening, daily, plan to do so your whole life; or accept that your cog is destined to fall back into powering a machine that eats other human beings. If we can’t manage humility, perhaps we deserve shame.