I am home, finally, after spending a little more than two weeks at a different kind of home in Seattle, where I was born and raised. My new home is a former mining village in northeast England near where my girlfriend goes to university. The name of her postgraduate program: Culture and Difference.
When I was home in Seattle, I saw a lot of old friends, including one who writes poetry. We both do. This is somewhat coincidental, since we became friends around the time we learned to read. Even now, when I see him, we almost never talk about poetry.
What we talk about, what my girlfriend and I also talk about, is race, identity, culture, and difference. My friend is half African American and half Jewish. I am half Italian American and half Jewish. My girlfriend is half Korean American and half Polish American. All three of us were raised in predominantly white, middle class, almost fervently PC communities in Seattle, where people are just people, man, and racism is bad.
Sometimes, for people in those communities, I think this is literally as complicated as some of these questions get. Treat people how you want to be treated. Everyone is the same underneath. People are just people, people!
Talk to people of color, though, and you tend to hear a different story. During the summers, for example, when I was home from college, I used to work in a city program for at-risk teens, the majority of whom were black and brown. Given the opportunity, they would not shut up about race. They reveled in talking about race. Obviously, it was a major part of their experience.
My girlfriend tells me, in her reading, that she learned about a creative writing exercise often used in high school classrooms. In the prompt, students are asked to write from the imaginative perspective of someone of the opposite sex. The girls, it turns out, tend to write pages upon pages, while the boys, as they would say in this country, this culture, can hardly be bothered.
Culture and difference. Imagination and empathy. When I was at home in Seattle, my friend and I went to a small press fair in the city. A natural thing for poets, or wannabe-poets, to do. Soon, I will publish my first book of poems. In a few months, my friend will graduate from a low-residency M.F.A. program in Creative Writing. He picked the program, in part, because it featured a high ratio of brown faculty members to white.
If some part of you blanches at this, let me recommend an exercise. Pull up a few M.F.A. sites at random; click on their faculty pages; note their cheerful, smiling, majority white faces.
Now invert the ratio. Pretend that all the white faces are brown, all the brown faces are white.
Now imagine the brown faces wearing hoodies. Would you still apply? Could you do it without trepidation?
So we went to this fair. It was held at a prominent literary establishment in the city. Respected presses from all over the region were supposed to be there. A high-profile literary magazine had made the drive up from Portland. Etcetera.
Inside, I recognized a few names, even one or two faces. I felt more or less at home. Then again, I had come wearing a disguise. I had ditched the hooded sweatshirt, the jeans, the basketball shoes that until not so long ago comprised my life’s uniform. Now I wear gray corduroys and an elegant winter jacket. I only have the one jacket. It doesn’t matter. Strangers, white, ask me where I bought it. Baristas smile at me winningly. I used to get eyeballed with suspicion when I walked into cafes in places like Seattle and Portland, where I also used to live. Now I get treated like a customer. At literary fairs, people look at me like I might be a poet.
My friend, though, hasn’t gotten with the program. He still wears the hoodies, the big jeans, the crisp Nikes we grew up with. He still dresses like he’s from the city. Like he went to public schools. Like he’s never heard of an M.F.A.
It took a little while for this to dawn on me. Then I realized. We were making people nervous. Some people were looking away when we walked by their booths. Others made awkward, mouth-breathing small talk. One man who was literally offering whiskey shots to the other browsers said nothing to us. Finally, a white guy (what am I saying? they were all, there were only, white guys) clad in tawdry jeans, a torn tee-shirt, and an ironic suit jacket announced that a reading would be taking place in the other room.
Three readers were scheduled. My friend and I only made it through one. The first author, like the announcer, was clad in flamboyant “hipster” attire. I won’t go into the details of his story, but suffice it to say that the tale’s salient image was that of the protagonist imagining his own mother being gangbanged by three men: one Native American, one Latino, and one black.
It was supposed to be outrageous. Funny. Around us, people tittered, laughed. In the back of the room, my friend and I waited, tense, until we were able to go.
My girlfriend tells me that Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th century French philosopher, has this theory about faces. Only after we come face-to-face with the other, Levinas says, can we truly begin to know ourselves. The face of the other, of any other, for Levinas, is incomprehensible. It is beyond knowing. It compels us inward, toward the recesses of our own soul.
For while that first movement must be inward, toward self-knowing, the action inevitably produces the opposite effect, pinging the self back out into the world, toward the other, in an attempt to understand.
Such an attempt requires a strenuous effort of the imagination. For empathy is an imaginative, and ultimately an intelligent, act.
The author we saw read in Seattle evidently had imaginative resources at his disposal. He was smart, articulate. Funny. I am not sure, though, when it came to race, that he had done sufficient imaginative work. I don’t know that he had imagined what it might be like to hear a story like that, in an environment like that, in a city like that, in a region like that, in a nation like that, if he was not white.
The irony, I found out later, was that he himself was part Mexican American. Oh, there are layers and layers.
Having a face-to-face with any other is rare these days, given the prevalence of technology in our lives. It is especially rare, though, in my experience, to have a face-to-face—a real face-to-face—with someone of another race. I find this to be particularly true in the communities I have observed in Seattle and Portland, where people are just people, man, and everybody’s the same on the inside.
People are just people, of course. But such thinking (such non-thinking? such absence of thinking?) ignores that race is integral, not incidental, to personal identity. Our experience in the world, the way people perceive us, matters, even when the cultural circumstances are more or less the same (and especially when they are not). You know—that old double consciousness W.E.B. Du Bois was talking about.
On my recent layover in London, bleary with sleeplessness, I decided to write the author of the obscene story. I had wanted to talk to him after the reading–to have a face-to-face. But my friend needed to go. He told me he didn’t trust himself not to hit the guy in the mouth—more of a fist-to-face, as it were.
So I wrote the guy at the airport. I found his Facebook profile online.
Imagine, I wrote, walking into a room full of your colleagues. Imagine they have a hard time meeting your eyes. Imagine you are a poet, or want to be, but all the poets you meet dress different, speak different, look different than you.
Then imagine hearing a story like that.
He wrote back the next day. We went back and forth a few times about race, the small press scene, comedy, literature. He was gracious, more or less, throughout, even if there remained, I thought, some defensiveness in his tone, a certain blindness to his vision. It wasn’t quite the face-to-face I had been looking for, but we succeeded, I think, in hearing each other’s voice.
Later, I showed the correspondence to my girlfriend. Good, she said, interesting. But maybe, she said, maybe, I was guilty of doing precisely what I resented when it was directed towards me: making assumptions based on how the author looked and dressed. Maybe the author’s hipster clothing had precipitated my anger, made me more reactive than I otherwise might have been.
Maybe, she was saying, I had a hipster problem.
Which may be true. In addition to Seattle I have spent time in Brooklyn, where I went to college for a couple years, and Portland, where I lived for two more. So I have seen the “hipster” thing up close. Aspects of it, admittedly, appeal to me. I like the emphasis on art, the enthusiasm for food and coffee, the general attitude of irreverence. I like the hegemony of beards.
The overwhelming, one might say overweening whiteness of the culture, though, and of pretty much every youthful, trendy art gathering I have observed in places like Portland, Brooklyn, and Seattle, eventually turned me off. Especially because when I used to walk into cafes pre-jacket, I found myself feeling like a threat.
The point, though, is that I never really had a face-to-face with someone from that culture. I never performed that imaginative work. I don’t know what it’s like to walk into a room filled with white people in skinny jeans and instantly feel at home. I don’t know what it’s like to be from a small town or smallish city, like a few of the people I met, and to move to a city like Portland so you can practice your art, live cheap, and be surrounded by like-minded people. I haven’t had that experience.
The point, though, is that I can do better.
We all can. My girlfriend tells me that people usually identify with the component of their identity they feel to be most under threat. The part that makes them feel vulnerable. The part that makes them feel alone.
Which makes sense to me. An individual identity is always a mosaic of competing, constituent parts. The parts that make us feel different, though, to a large extent guide how we interact with, and ultimately view, our society. So if we fall outside the dominant racial group, we find ourselves more sensitive to racial discrimination and discomfort. If we are physically handicapped, we become more aware of able-bodied privilege. Holding hands with a same-sex partner, we can see suddenly how much heterosexual norms guide society’s values, language, and legalities. Being from the city…As a woman…
We are not wrong to view the world through such lenses. These are our lives, after all. Our experiences as outsiders influence our views on our society, our understanding of ourselves. It is good, necessary, even, to be aware of them.
But it is bigger, more expansive, to imagine alternate types of difference, ones that fall outside our personal experience. As outsiders, we can exploit our experience to empathize with marginalized viewpoints in other situations—especially those in which we might find ourselves to be an insider.
It takes a certain mental toughness to do this, I think, a certain largeness of spirit. It feels good, after all, to point with rage from outside the circle at the bullying thoughtlessness within. Such attitudes, though, Levinas would say, I think—I gather from my girlfriend—ultimately alienate us, limit us, make us smaller than our selves. The self according to Levinas is responsibility to others, to all others, not just those with whom we feel instinctual solidarity.
It would take serious imagination to reach such heights of empathy, I realize, and much selfless attention. It would take honesty, candor, and a willingness toward introspection. But we can do it, I think. All of us can.