Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I have lucky teeth.

I mean, they're straight, they're not completely full of holes, there's plenty of them and the ones that are missing are missing from the back, in invisible and non-embarrassing places. I have teeth that tell the world that someone with money looked after me when I was a kid.

I have lucky skin.

It's white. Mostly, this helps me out in situations where having dark skin might cause me problems. Not that I really know for sure what situations those might be, as I can only go by what I read or hear from people who aren't me, but I know that having white skin at the very least allows me to not really concern myself with what having dark skin might mean in the first place.

So I'm lucky. Privileged, so to speak. Teeth and skin can be class markers. And despite my downwardly-mobile bank balance, I still have it a lot better than many who are darker-skinned and/or more dentally-challenged than I am. At least I'm not fighting the outside world's perception of me as somehow "less than" - in fact I'm often fighting the outside world's perception of me as somehow "more than"; more educated than I really am, more financially stable than I really am, more healthy than I really am. (I guess that's one of those "good problems".)

This privilege, I guess, somehow allows me the luxury of valuing "niceness" in addition to honesty, intelligence, insight and creativity in my blogosphere-related interactions. Call it White Woman Syndrome if you must - although such phrasing makes me want to demand a telethon or federally-funded research or at the very least a non-profit organization...which is funny because nothing speaks to the fact that I am simply choking to death on my white-lady privilege better than demanding something.

So, I have this...this syndrome. (We can pile it up with all my other syndromes.) I get easily offended. I sing out when people are mean. I care about hurting my own tender little fee-fees and the tender little fee-fees of others. I'd rather make my point without personally attacking people who disagree with me, and I am strongly in favor of others doing the same. I don't like to see viciousness even in service to a position I agree with. And I rapidly lose respect for individuals who are, for lack of a better word, mean. I stop listening, even to people who are right. It's not that I don't want to learn. But the "I'm-just-being-brutally-honest-and-if-you-can't-take-it-that's-certainly-not-my-fault" rhetorical style teaches me all about the speaker and nothing about the subject. Is that because I'm white and privileged and have lucky skin and lucky teeth?

Here's the crazy thing. The woman who taught me everything I could possibly contain in my feeble and inadequate brain about "nice" was not even close to white by any definition. Mrs. Hillman, our downstairs neigbor, mom of my best friend Regina, stay-home neighborhood goddess and hands-down authority on Politeness, Civility, Ladyhood, Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice, was african-american.

A diversion:

Regina and I, when we were five or six years old, were fascinated by the differences in the skin on our hands. Fascinated. We'd turn over our hands, backside to palm, backside to palm, comparing and evaluating and wondering for hours. We knew (because we were five or six and therefore knew everything worth knowing) we were actually sisters, real sisters, real twin sisters from outer space who were magic, waiting for our real parents to come back for us, and it was just a matter of time before we looked as alike on the outside as we felt on the inside.

Of course, this was 1972 or 1973, in a more-or-less-industrial New England town. And Regina and I comprised the center of the universe, or at least the universe that mattered.

But I digress.

Back to the concept of civility and this terrible syndrome that has me in its deathlike grip.

Mrs. Hillman had the authority to administer justice as she saw fit, when I was playing with Regina at her place. One day one of us committed some crime of profanity against the English language - the "N" word? the "F" word? one of the "S" words? I'm unsure at this late stage who used what word. But I do recall that justice was swift and severe and doled out in equal measure to the both of us. Because Mrs. Hillman thought it was important for little girls to learn to be nice.

In 1972 or 1973, her actions were not considered particularly "mean" either in actuality or in spirit. Children were spanked by authority figures, and it was not necessarily considered cruel by adults or by the children themselves. It was sort of routine, the cost of doing business. After our spanking she made us kool-aid and said she loved us both, but that young ladies should not use that kind of language. It wasn't nice, and people would get the wrong idea.

As I grew up, my mom and my stepmother (caucasian both, practically translucent) taught me all I ever needed to know about "mean". They were, so to speak, brutally honest both of them, each in their own special way.

And here's the thing - when I attempted to be brutally honest back, following their precedents, justice was swift and severe. Because it was important for me to learn...something. I don't know. It was important to be pushed back in my place? It was important to respect blustering authority and not examine closely what the blustering authority was really saying? It was important to learn that this particular rhetorical style was off-limits for me, for reasons I have never understood? Whatever it was my stepmother and mom were on about, I didn't listen. I might have if they had kept a civil tongue in their mouths. But apparently I was too weak or too lazy (or too white?) to persevere. Whatever the lesson was, it was lost on me.

So over time, I guess to cope with all these crazy mixed messages about appropriate manners of communication, I developed this terrible syndrome that forces me to be nice and care about people's (eeugh) feelings. It's too bad, really. I'd be a lot healthier if I wasn’t compelled by some melanin-related pathology to give a shit.

So where's my telethon?

There's a delicate balance between considering others' feelings and neglecting your own. Go too far in one direction and you're an asshole, go too far in the other and you're a doormat.

I have yet to fully master the distinction.

And I'm still working on getting over feelings of guilt about being "privileged." It doesn't do me or anyone any damn bit of good.
I can't figure it out either.

I only know when I screw up.
In a way, ime, imho, etc., I think in a way you (general "you") actually -do- know very well where the line is, assuming you are a decent, sensitive, caring person in the first place (which you, personal "you," are, antip); it's just, one tends to end up second-guessing oneself a lot precisely because of the doubt instilled by fuckloads of unconscious/nasty people.

Lately I have been humming a Bessie Smith song; the lyrics feel apt:

"I don't worry, I'm doing very fine
You keep yours and I'll hold onto mine

Take it right back to the place where you got it,
oh you cain't leave a bit of it in here..."
and, too, you know, wrt "white woman's syndrome:" i see where that comes from, but i also think it's an oversimplification. as you note, that can come from other sources as well.

and then, too, my own raising, whether it's cultural or just due to my mum's own personal quirks or both, well let's just say I am not a "nice girl." Mom is capable of being funny-mean (and just mean) as hell, swears a blue streak (not as much as i do these days, but), is ambitious and aggressive and not particularly invested in peoples' feelings, or well at least when she thinks they're hurting her. Dad is by far the much "nicer" one in this equation.

I did play a "nice girl" on TV more or less through most of my youth, or tried to. Conform, conform: I was surrounded by Nice Girls, and i hadn't quite articulated what the difference was, at least not THAT one, and, well, you know, thing is, i wanted to fit in, but i wasn't really very good at it, and i resented the hell out of it to be honest. I should really talk about that more at some point.

but at any rate, you know, after having met best friend, who's from Ireland--he tells me fairly regularly, and i have seen plenty of evidence of this now for myself, that this particular "nice girl" thing is something he only encountered after coming to America; that in Ireland things go very differently.

and that i would've made a great Irish girl.

and really ought to meet and hook up with one.

all of which i am inclined to go, "okay! i'm game" about, these days.

mmm, Irish girls...
also, might be a cultural thing, but for me i am starting to think the whole "guilt" business, while Lord knows it's there, works slightly differently than i think it would for someone raised in a Catholic-ish atmosphere and yet again from a Protestant-ish atmosphere. hard to pin that down, but: yeah, there's an inherited transaction of some sort i think. more on that at a more sunlit hour, i are confuzzled.

hey banky. any chance of seeing you this weekend? drop me an email, either way.
and yep, antip, i hear what i think is the most important part: you got the message that this what not to be -your- role; that retribution would be swift and furious if you even tried.

which, you know, brings out the overprotective Jewish mother and homicidal lesbian terrorist in me, but you know that. fuckers.

yeah for me it was a bit different; mom is, well, mom is let's say complex, but i suppose it's a sign of something or other that while yeah bad shit happened when i yelled right back, and is among the shit i work out in therapy among other places, i guess i still felt safe enough to keep doing it.

at any rate for whatever reason it seemed a better option than being like dad, who kind of curls up like a hedgehog and vanishes during any such display. (due no doubt to his own raisin', as all we are products thereof). it's really rather annoying, to be honest.
i got to your post through the most unlikely words... bessie smith's song "take it right back". i am a brazilian blues singer and i tried to find the lyrics but they're unavailable on the web. i can't understand what she says either so, i'm here to ask you if by any chance you could transcribe the lyrics of the song. i even have the file on mp3. i'd really appreciate your help, if you could bother to help me. thanks a lot! my e-mail is bezerradelima@gmail.com

hugs from Fortaleza!
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