Thursday, March 24, 2016

Brittany Packnett: Privilege is money you found and started spending

My COO Melea Nalli, Brittany Packnett, and me in Boston in January 2016
Brittany Packnett, activist and leader of Teach For America in St. Louis (and one of my heroes), wrote this on-point parable of privilege on Twitter and Facebook. I haven't seen it reprinted much, so I'd like to spread it around--especially given how uncannily it describes the abundant life I was born into.

A parable on wanting to keep what you didn't earn:

You go to the bank.

There's an extra $1 million deposited into your account.

You didn't earn it.

But you start to spend it.

As the days and weeks go by, and you keep spending on the things that you care about-you can send your daughter to the best college. Get your son that new car so he can go to practice. You can get that board seat, and help get your partner that job. You can take your family on a vacation or two, learn a new language or buy a better house in a better neighborhood with better schools. You join that exclusive club--the one with people who also got extra money-and build connections that benefit you for a lifetime.

But soon, people start to tell you that the money came to you by some ill-gotten means.

Other people suffered and were stolen from to get you that cash-that you didn't earn. In fact, the further back the story goes, the more you come to learn about the death, destruction, and carnage that went to earn you that money. And the people who were stolen from? They still suffer-generations later-from what was done to them.

There is no rhyme or reason to why these were the people chosen to lose for you to get a payday-but all you know is that they're different from you. They don't look like you, talk like you, or come from where you come from.

But by now, no matter how you got that money you didn't earn, you've gotten comfortable with it. It feels so natural to you that you don't remember what it was like not to have it.

And after all, you work hard. You're nice to people. You have merited this. What's so wrong with some extra money being put in your pocket, for your family and their families, given all that you do? It makes sense: you deserve a leg up, don't you? Maybe you *did* earn it-just by being you and not those *other* people, right?

And those people who lost out-maybe they did something to deserve it. They must not work as hard, or care as much about their families. You don't know many folks like them, so it's easy to justify their subjugation. And you don't ever have to spend time around one of them if you don't want to.

And maybe, one day, in the far future, you'll decide to start paying it back. Dollar by dollar, when it's comfortable, and you can afford it, in the ways that are convenient for you-even if you're not spending it on what *those* people really need.

THAT MILLION DOLLARS WORKS JUST LIKE PRIVILEGE: White privilege, male privilege, economic privilege, cis privilege, straight privilege, religious privilege...

You didn't earn it, and it shouldn't have been yours to begin with...but you're used to it, and may have even convinced yourself that you deserve it.

When it comes to privilege, don't expect people to make excuses for you holding onto it.

And don't expect people to applaud for you when you finally start to pay it back in the amounts, time and ways that makes you comfortable.

It ain't about you, because it shouldn't have been yours in the first place.

Just like that million bucks

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The problems with holiday myth-making

Raising kids as a white, Judeo-Christian American, I have definitely gotten caught up in all the myth-making of the holidays. Santa is the top deity, of course, with the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy right alongside. These three are so prominent that DreamWorks tried to launch a movie franchise treating them like a Justice League/Avengers superhero team. (The result was, I thought, bizarre, though lots of people bought the DVD.)

But I can see why they thought it would work. The way this secular pantheon grows in breadth and detail reminds me of the world-building of Marvel and Lucasfilm. We riff on these legends—or at least media and consumer products companies riff on these legends—because parents will apparently spend money to enhance their plausibility for a few more years.

Now, it's one thing to buy an Iron Man lunchbox or a Millennium Falcon bed. But Santa and friends are something closer to demigods. We aren't telling our kids that Han Solo is watching us and sneaking into our houses to reward our good behavior with expensive toys. (At least, I'm not.) 

But conventional Western grown-ups cultivate this quasi-religious faith in holiday myths with the full intention of spoiling it before the age of ten.

This is puzzling. Evidently a lot of people think that the pain of disillusioning our kids when they outgrow Santa and friends is worth the supposed "magic" and "joy" they experience before the revelation.

But as my kids enter the disillusionment transition, I'm making uncomfortable connections to illusions I still hold dear. Not just the religious ones, which for me fell away fairly gently in my 20s. It's hard to break an illusion that others want you to keep, and that your own brain loves so much. It’s hard to break an illusion that if you are a good boy, you get presents...or, more accurately, that if you have presents, you must be a good boy. 

I was raised in the 70s, which was the era of Free to Be You and Me and Sesame Street and “The Great American Melting Pot” and unisex Legos. Even superheroes were for no-nukes and women's lib.

I got an upbeat picture of America as a tolerant place, where the idea of diversity was something to be excited about because we were on the right track. We used to call that “centrist,” if I remember correctly.

I was also taught in school that this country had made some mistakes, that there were bad people over the years who were defeated by good people and we are now much better. Much more true to who we are.

My kids are being taught that too. The Cliffs Notes of American history go like this: first Thanksgiving bla bla bla Declaration of Independence bla bla bla Civil War bla bla bla Martin Luther King bla bla bla Obama!

Underneath this narrative was an implication it’s taken me decades to become aware of: that as a white boy growing up in America, this country was for me.

And I grew up infatuated by stories in movies and books and TV shows about quests. These are obsessively centered on white American heroes. Hollywood makes dozens of expensive movies about good white men and the diverse male sidekicks who love them and sacrifice their lives for them and the one or two threatening hot women who ultimately concede that we are the best.

As a member of the majority along with the content creators, I wasn't prompted to think about racism much. If the realization emerges into consciousness (as it should, if you seek an education), then the signals all around immediately tell us white males to turn around, deny, make yourself feel better. It’s better than it used to be! You’re not a racist! YOU’RE A GOOD PERSON!

Well, as a marketing professional and a parent, I get it now. It is really convenient to keep certain truths hidden from donors and young people. Parents are supposed to protect kids’ “innocence,” which can either mean don’t talk about corruption and evil or just don’t say the words “penis” and “vagina.” It’s how every parent feels, wanting to create comfort and safety and magic but knowing it’s not all real.

The urge to flatter yourself: it’s deep in the heart of the human psyche, visible in our so-called monomyth and the very backbone of the stories told all over the world for thousands of years. It may have been an evolutionary advantage to create a culture based on a myth of your superiority to others, motivating generations to live up to a glorious legacy, and conquer inferior foreigners and exploit their labor.

The curious thing that’s happened in the modern world is that tribes now strive to unite vast numbers of people. The idea that humanity is equal is just a few hundred years old in the west, and has yet to be fully put into practice. And so our myth in the liberal west is in an awkward position. We simultaneously say we accept everyone, and that we are superior to everyone else. 

But it’s that very narrative that is the last battle we have to fight. We must release the need to be a good person, to be affiliated with the forces of good, to justify our actions and our history. 

Our illusions, including the holiday ones, prop up so much that we value in our lives—our wealth, our leisure. But they also enable so much that destroys things just out of our view, from the stability of our neighbors’ families to the livability of our planet. When we stay silent, the consequences are more than hypocrisy. Industrialized inequality isn’t a faraway problem; it pollutes our very air and water.

We will have to stop lying about the one important thing that everybody lies about: that we are independent of each other.

Friday, November 27, 2015

White Lies We Tell Our Children [VIDEO]

The holiday season is full of magic! But magic, of course, means deception. Are we deceiving ourselves?

My latest train of thought on the TEDx stage led me to some tough questions about my responsibilities as a father--specifically, as a father of white children in a racist society.

Let me know what you think.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

How Are Fathers Being Portrayed In Movies? [VIDEO]

A couple things I didn't know until recently:
  • Pope Francis gives a speech every Wednesday morning. He devoted a few recent talks to the topic of fatherhood. 
  • There's an Internet news show for Catholics called EWTN News Nightly. EWTN stands for Eternal World Television Network.
  • The producers of this show will email a Jewish-raised, atheist non-expert to be interviewed on the show, if said non-expert has been filmed giving a speech with the word "TED" on a sign behind him in which he mentioned being a dad.
Hence, I have now offered my views on recent portrayals of fathers in movies to folks who want their news to connect back to their church affiliation.

Of course the first thing I did was tell them to read what the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has published.

Then I tried to bring it back to what I think is the big issue in storytelling: patriarchal values. Figuring that that wouldn't be a great phrase to drop at the beginning of a Catholic news show, I spelled it out a little differently.

If, as I've argued in my talks (and many others have argued more vividly), the standard story of a Hollywood film is of a guy who fights other guys, then it's not surprising that fatherhood is rarely central. Fatherhood, after all, requires connection and intimacy with other people (quite frequently women, and always children).

As long as the Hollywood Hero Journey template is focused on individual conquest and achievement, parenthood and family and community will all be pushed to the side.

When protagonists are dads, writers use that status to motivate the competitive heroism that the Hero's Journey requires. Sometimes it seems nice, like the way Ben Stiller needs to earn the title of dad by winning some kind of adventure/job in Night at the Museum. 

Sometimes it's a justification for extravagant violence, like the dad of vengeance that is Liam Neeson.

More frequently, fathers are parts of the plot architecture, much as love interests or sidekicks are. Dads are goofballs who offer simple wisdom, or symbols of unconditional love who die, or antagonists--men whose love is the prize that the hero needs to win, or whose disapproval is an obstacle that needs to be overcome.

Goofballs with simple wisdom
Symbols of unconditional love lost
Disapproval as obstacle
This last trope had a big influence on me, actually. Seeing how many times writers created vivid, grief-stricken portraits of the damage done by failed fathers made me want to avoid being that guy to my children.

This year's Oscar front-runners both show fatherhood as central to their stories. Birdman uses the "fathers must earn their child's respect through professional achievement" trope. Emma Stone gets to articulate the "dad, you ruined my life" point of view, but it is her adoring gaze after his artistic triumph that redeems the hero at the end.

A better observed movie would show the truth: a child does not love her dad more for achieving success. That's the patriarchy talking. She loves her dad more when he loves her more.

Boyhood, meanwhile, has one of my favorite portrayals of fatherhood in years. (Since, maybe, The Fantastic Mr. Fox?) I loved seeing Ethan Hawke draw more and more fulfillment and joy from spending time with his children.

He goes from thinking he owe his children "success" to understanding he owes them himself--his interest, his support, his advice (with a grain of salt), his respect. And thus fatherhood becomes for him not a competition but an investment that pays back, a source of renewable energy. His character's arc climaxes when he thanks his ex-wife for her selfless parenting.

In some circles, the Pope talking about fatherhood is big. It happened to coincide with something big in my circles: the stories told by advertisers in their most visible forum. If the trends that emerged from the Super Bowl commercials are suggestive, then the idea that fatherhood is a central part of masculinity may be moving into the mainstream.

Dadvertising on Madison Avenue may point the way for Hollywood to recalibrate the Hero's Journey. Include some more arcs beyond competition, and some more characters beyond dudes frowning and making fists.

Linked in this piece:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Climbing the Walls of Evidence

Sometimes you build a wall of evidence. Then you climb on top of that wall and start screaming.

Dr. Stacy L. Smith and her colleagues at USC have released yet another report, supported by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. As they have every few months in recent years, they go to the trouble of watching hundreds of movies and take notes, and then tell us what we've been seeing.

Today I read Soraya Chemaly's fierce piece in the Huffington Post, "20 Facts Everyone Should Know About Gender Bias in Movies." She reports, and tries to process, Smith's latest findings, which sample the most popular films from all over the world. The infographics scroll on and on, slicing the stories we take in (and take our children to) from dozens of angles, then holding those slices up to the light.

We see, quantitatively, our bias.

We see our presumption that female voices are about half as relevant as male ones. Men take up about 70% of the dialogue we hear in popular movies worldwide.

We see our presumption that the men who are speaking are professionals. They wear clothes. The women who get a word in don't work for a living--though they do show off their skinny bodies, prompting appreciation from those male voices.

Chemaly's list piles up. Every now and then she looks up in shock:
Just three female characters were represented as political leaders with power. One didn't speak. One was an elephant. The last was Margaret Thatcher.
I first read about Dr. Smith's analyses a few years ago, and they inspired me to give a talk about how I wanted to block these biases from my children, if I could. Some things have changed: we've gone to see movies with female heroes in the center, and we've gone again and again. Feminism is back, and the familiar backlash with it. That's how you know you're winning, maybe.

But still, the numbers tell us that movies are still, collectively, lying to us. Not just being annoyingly stereotypical. Skewed gender representation isn't bad because it's a bummer for little girls who don't like pink. It's bad because, as Chemaly knows, it's teaching another generation how to oppress each other and themselves.
Media is how we train girls and women to have low expectations and train boys to have high ones...These biased portrayals contribute to inhumane, unrealistic stereotypes about masculinity based on control, violence, dominance and the active erasure of empathy as an acceptable emotion. A narrow, frequently violent, power-over-others male heroism comes at a very high price for everyone.
As filmmaker Abigail Disney...asked, "Where are the men who solve problems by thinking?"
Yes, thanks to Dr. Smith's team and Geena Davis' team, the wall of evidence has gotten really high. And every day someone like Chemaly, or Emma Watson at the United Nations, or Margot Magowan on her Reel Girl blog, lays the bricks on one another once more, and then stands on top of them and cries out for action.
There is no excuse for not having this information and using it.
Men with influence and the ability to raise these questions and do something about them probably strive, as individuals, to be good parents to their kids and make sure their daughters are healthy, happy, educated and ambitious.
Not doing anything about this problem, from an institutional perspective, undoes all of that effort. The argument that there is some kind of benign "neutral" position is misguided.
Same goes for parents.

Read Soraya Chemaly's "20 Facts Everyone Should Know About Gender Bias in Movies" at the Huffington Post.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why the female quest is so radical

Novelist Vanessa Veselka wrote an essay for American Reader called Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why it Matters that blew my mind. (HT to Shaula Evans at The Black Board once again.) Drawing on her own experience hitch-hiking and her research into murdered women at truck stops--as well as piercing readings of classic novels of men on the road--she compares the way our culture experiences men and women journeying by themselves:
Often, I was asked why was I travelling. But over time, I came to understand that the question was not “why,” but “how.” As in, how could I have left? How bad was it? How could this have come to pass?
These are very different questions from “why.” “How” is about events, as in “how did it happen?” Whereas “why” points to individuality and agency. Why did you go that way? Why do you like Gouda and hate Swiss? Why do you think that this is a good idea? The difference between “how” and “why” marks a fundamental divide between the male and female road experience.
...A man with a quest, internal or external, makes the choice at every stage about whether to endure the consequences or turn back, and that choice is imbued with heroism.
Women, however, are restricted to a single tragic or fatal choice. We trace all of their failures, as well as the dangers that befall them, back to this foundational moment of sin or tragedy, instead of linking these encounters and moments in a narrative of exploration that allows for an outcome which can unite these individual choices in any heroic way.
 ...A man on the road is solitary. A woman on the road is alone. This is not cute wordplay, but a radically different social experience.
These projections are true at truck stops on Earth, and they're true in our books and at the movies and in galaxies far, far away.
True quest is about agency, and the capacity to be driven past one’s limits in pursuit of something greater. It’s about desire that extends beyond what we may know about who we are. It’s a test of mettle, a destiny.
...Power and patriarchy can’t afford women the possibility of quest, because within these structures women are valued as agents of social preservation and not agents of social change. You can go on a quest to save your father, dress like a man and get discovered upon injury, get martyred and raped, but God forbid you go out the door just to see what’s out there. And these are the tales of rape and death that get handed down to us.
Thus, every story we create that gives women (and others who are marginalized) a "why" and not a "how"--either by writing it, sharing it, or living it--is an act of narrative revolution.
...There is no way to snap one’s fingers and make mythology. There is no way to pry open a national narrative and insert an entire population. But we do get glimpses. One day, in a book or a film, a new woman appears, and she feels real. Not contrived or reactionary, she transcends the page or the screen.
Read the whole essay, and ponder.