December 1st, 2004

Short hair suspicion

Oo the wakeup bomb

I went to my writing group yesterday, partially against my better judgment, and I stirred shit up. The assignment for the day was to write about a Thanksgiving gone awry, and to have at least one moment that would make others cringe. I took it seriously. As some of you may know I admire Andy Kaufman and consider him to be, in many ways, a role model. One of Kaufman's main contentions was that art and entertainment could be hard, unpleasant, and blow apart expectations that others had. I decided to write a Kaufmanesque piece for the group, a loathsome and poorly made story about a Thanksgiving between thoroughly reprehensible people. The main figure was an Irish father and the main storyline was his brutally racist reaction to his daughter bringing home a Dominican for Thanksgiving. This was meant to be offensive in many ways, from the terribly racist language he bellowed at her, to the stereotype of the angry Irish racist, to the fact that the actual dynamic at play was a dysfunctional and somewhat sexualized father-daughter relationship. He took far too much interest in her sexual experiences and she in turn used them as a way to get attention and draw reaction from him. I was ham handed about this too, at one point after he's threatened her with violence she says "You don't want anyone to touch me but you" and the narrator even adds "It just hung there in the air." The narrator also expounds upon a story she tells of losing her virginity while her father was out mowing the lawn by pointing out that it was an oft-told tale. This was supposed to be a piece to make people cringe. It used the N-word quite a bit, along with other racial epithets ranging from wop and guinea to wetback and a comment about Jews. It wasn't particularly interesting, although just competent enough to have impact. It was meant to make people uncomfortable.

And it did, boy howdy did it ever. Jill, the only black person in the room and in the group, said she couldn't believe that I was that racist, and after we discussed it for about 10 minutes she left the room and possibly the group, in tears. The guys who were there were mostly unfazed (just because all the guys in the group are the types who love pushing limits and buttons, love being out there on the edge) but the other women were upset both by the piece and by Jill's reaction. We spent about an hour talking over all of it and then tried to go on.

I'm not 100% sure what to feel about what transpired last night. On the one hand I'm sorry I hurt Jill, and I'll apologize to her. I like her a lot as a person and I don't like being the cause of her pain. On the other hand I think her reaction was disproportionate and unsophisticated. She made the claim that a white man can't write a really racist angry character if he's not a racist himself. I disagree, and I think this is a pernicious liberal rumor stifling debate. Am I racist? Sure. Everyone is, and those who say they aren't are just living in denial. You can't live in this society and NOT be racist to some degree. I'm racist on an emotional level though, not an intellectual one. If I see a black man who dresses a certain way walking towards me in the park late at night I WILL have a visceral reaction. On the other hand I recognize that this is a socially inspired fear and not necessarily rational or reasonable. Interracial dating can sometimes give me a little icky feeling, but that's completely irrational people should be able to date and screw whoever they want. It's just "Fear of a Black Planet" to rip off Public Enemy (A really racist group in its own right.) Jill said that I ought to use racism against Jews in my work if I want to be provocative and I think that's an incredibly shortsighted point of view. A Jew writing kike is no big deal. A Jew writing nigger makes people uncomfortable. A Jew reading that word over and over while sitting next to a black woman in a room full of mostly white people, well there's your 'cringeworthy' statement. The thing is it's important for white people to be able to include the word nigger in their artistic works because art EXPOSED and processes prejudice. We bury that word and we'll just be hiding all the history and emotions it brings up underneath the surface of our society. Black people can't be the only group to address racism in controversial ways, that's just one side of the equation, the easier side because as a group they have less power and it's always easier to watch the underdog be ugly because you can hide from Chris Rock's 'cracker honkey cracker' rants in the warm bosom of a white society. The other way around makes things raw and uncomfortable, and as Andy Kaufman said and showed it's SO IMPORTANT to feel raw and uncomfortable at times. I think that if the Republicans were able to own their shame and discomfort and to DEAL with those emotions then they wouldn't be waging pointless wars and expressing their base instincts in action rather than word. Besides, it's racist to claim that because someone's white they can't say certain things or bring certain issues up, and racist to claim that white people have no business trying to understand or write about the black experience. It's racist to claim, as many do, that the white male experience is the only one that's universally compehensible.

Ultimately I think that I did something of value, I turned what could be an easy friendly liberal writing group into an emotional flash point and I made people feel and react and think. That's what art's supposed to do, even if it wounds. In retrospect I could have made people uncomfortable by focusing inward and revealing my own humiliations and pain in grueling detail, and it would have been harder and more effective. On the other hand it wouldn't have made ME as uncomfortable and it could have been smoothed over. I wanted to be Kaufmanesque, I wanted to push the envelope BEYOND the safe space and leave everyone feeling dirty and grimy and sad. I forgot the biggest risk of the Kaufman model though. The fact that it can really hurt people and wound them in a way beyond what's intended. I hate doing that and I'm sorry I did.

I don't think I'll post the piece I wrote up here unless people really want to see it because it was offensive and it did make someone feel really really uncomfortable. I don't want to hurt anyone else.
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Over the last couple minutes I've been thinking about last night and what it meant. While I do feel bad about hurting someone I considered a friend, I also feel proud of what I did. I went in there and I was raw and real and I pressed issues and I fucking exposed myself to criticism and anger and pain and let stuff fly. Someone later commented that the writer's group had become like a reality show, and while that's a silly little pop-culture reference it's one I've heard a lot in reference to stuff I've been involved with, even before reality shows got big. The thing is, I don't need contrived situations and video cameras to 'get real' and try to reach the core of relationships and anger and emotion. I hate politeness and pleasant veneers. Every situation I go into I ask the question "What could be gained by blowing this thing up and setting fire to the rubble?" I think that politeness and pleasantness are a poison because they make people pretend things are okay when they aren't, and then the things that aren't okay get channeled into places much more destructive than yelling and shouting and hurt feelings. War is driven partially by inadequacy. So is murder. I'd rather tell a black person to his face "I'm not comfortable with you fucking a white woman, even though intellectually I know it's absolutely fine and acceptable" than deny him a job to hide my shame at my socially derived tendencies.

I want to press the issue and force confrontation because it's only through confrontation that we really deal with and process the subconscious things that control our lives. You can't defeat what you don't acknowledge. It's like a deeper version of Fight Club. What can you really know about yourself if you haven't been in a fight? What can you really know about yourself if you haven't been wounded hurt affected made to cry, all that stuff. I think social interactions should be MORE like boxing matches, people wounding and bruising one another and then lying around panting and talking about it afterwards. That would eliminate so much of the sublimated aggression that turns itself into the truly bad things in our society. Remember that comfortable suburban life was built on racism and ostracism of outsiders and others. Sameness and shared values are seductive but they mask the deep pain and trauma that comes with merely being a human being in an unfair world.

I don't like hurting people though. It's my main stumbling block. I know that you have to bruise and bloody to make a difference but in trying to do that you are going to hit people who are just going to get hurt and not understand what you're saying and not get the benefits. You're going to wound without healing afterwards, and that sucks. I need to make the decision either that I'm going to go all out and do what I have to do, feeling bad for those I hurt but moving on, or shut up and either become a lawyer or write nice little stories about puppies finding their mothers on god's beautiful and just earth.

Either way will have its own pains and personal growth.

Last night after it all went down the group leader was getting herself a drink and she said, with some anger, "I'm on your side" (I didn't really want people to 'take my side' because I don't need the support) "But what you did, saying that word while sitting next to a lone black woman in a room like this, that was ballsy. That took serious fucking balls." I think she meant it in a bad way, sort of 'I know what you were going for, but HOW DARE YOU?' I see it as a good thing. I like being ballsy and brave and bucking convention. We learned a lot from the experience. We learned about discomfort, we learned about one another in the group, and we learned about the racism that WAS there. The woman who ran out was racist because she believed a white person couldn't write nasty racist rhetoric if he didn't agree with it at some level, and whatever racism I have I certainly don't agree with what the character said. Those of us in the room were racist both before (because everyone is) and after, because we assumed her reaction was in part because she was a black woman and not because of the SPECIFIC person she was. That's very important, a lot of other black women would have dealt with it differently.

It may be because I'm seriously obese, but I feel like our time on this planet is SO limited and I'm DESPERATE, craving and NEEDING to learn and experience everything I can while I'm here. I want to understand and to gain insight and to think and to speak and interact and know and have encounters. Maybe it's in part because of my depression where I didn't want those things. I have YEARNINGS! Deep needs, and I know that there are choices all around us and nobody can experience and feel everything. For example I've never experienced sex, but I'm experiencing what it's like to be a virgin in your mid-twenties watching everyone else around you get laid. That's something in and of itself, something you CAN'T experience if you've had sex earlier in life. On the other hand, I'll never know what it's like to be 17 and flush with hormones and fucking a girl I think I love. You can't backtrack like that.

My main goal is to have as few predictable days and evenings as possible. I don't want to get drunk and go hit on chicks I want to create and explore and internally grow. It's more about an attitude than what you actually do. Deprivation is its own experience, as I've said. I'm desperate both to do this and to express it. It's why I can have the balls to do what I did and why I don't think I'll end up writing puppy stories. Who really thought I would?
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