A virtual conversation between Tom Matlack, Steve Locke and Lisa Hickey that starts about race and jumps to the future of journalism and storytelling.
On August 8, Tom Matlack wrote a post, “White Boy in a Black Land” about how a trip to Africa forced him to confront his own views on Race and Racism. Tom asked his friend Steve Locke to write a post to go along with his, but Steve declined. Steve’s email explaining to Tom his reasons why was titled “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race.” It was so eloquent, honest and heartfelt that we asked if we could run his email. To that, Steve agreed.
For an article about not talking about something, it sure got talked about a lot. Steve’s post was viewed over 50,000 times, with 4,000 likes on Facebook and 100 comments. But more importantly, it sparked an in-depth conversation about race that was difficult, provocative and ongoing. Our series On Race grew from the four original posts to fifteen. Some brought out the best in people, others the worst. It become clear through many of the comments that racism is still firmly entrenched in our culture – and, once prompted, people aren’t afraid to admit it. If racism doesn’t get “seen” by everyone, it’s often because it’s not talked about. Part of why we’re here is to do the talking.
The following exchange between Good Men Project founder Tom Matlack, publisher Lisa Hickey and Contributor and Friend Steve Locke took place deep into this conversation, after a response post called “When Do I Get to Stop Apologizing for Being White?”
Here is the email exchange:
So hard to read Marrie’s post and the comments. It’s indicative of the reasoning I wrote my letter. Jeez if people could look outside of their own lives for 5 minutes they’d see that the world does not begin and end with their experiences.
The “Jeff” guy is going to hurt someone, if he hasn’t already.
I ran it because of exactly that — I don’t think people know how to step outside their own life and their own experiences. I don’t think people know how to have the conversation about these tough topics *except* from their own worldview. And most people I know are afraid to have conversations like this — for exactly that reason. They are afraid they will tell the truth based on how they see things because they will get lambasted for telling that truth.
Because the alternative is to not talk about these things. Or to have only the people who know exactly how to have the conversations being the ones having them. The problem is — then I think most people just sit in silence with their own views — at best, they don’t promote positive change, at worst they have a seething resentment that boils up at inappropriate times.
Quite frankly — just my belief — if you are going to get widespread change in people’s thinking that doesn’t take decades — you need the people on the outer edges who might actually *change their minds* about it. Get *those* people to have the *switch* and then explain it to others. Because then they will be your biggest proponents. It’s almost the same way addiction therapy, AA works.
YOUR piece, Steve — has been #1 on our most popular list for weeks and weeks now. 10s of thousands of views every week. So we need a balance — people coming into the conversation from multiple paths. People who have a really great, articulated, intelligent POV to begin with — and people who may not, but are willing to be open to other views.
It’s not any easier to talk about rape, or pornography, or gender roles, quite frankly — we say the wrong things all the time. But I just think not talking about it is not the answer.
I would love other opinions about this if you disagree.
Lisa, I am GLAD you ran that piece. WIth all the discomfort and anger it causes in me it affirms the work that needs to be done. I agree that more speech equals more freedom. Letting these thoughts out is what allows the air of reason to destroy them.
My private lament to you and to Tom is that in our current culture, personal experience trumps investigation. I see this with my students where they think that their opinions and experience are equal to the artists, thinkers, and philosophers of the past. Opinions about things are not the same thing as analysis. The only reason I can give for this intellectual laziness is that this generation is being brought up to believe that everything they do and say is wonderful and exceptional. This leads to a tendency to think that everything that happens is some extension of the self. So anything to which the self is not directly connected is not real. It also creates a defensiveness in people that borders on the pathological when you intimate to them that their understanding about how people actually live is at best naive and at worst oppressive and dangerous.
There is a suspicion of intellectualism in America (that’s not new) and a disregard of factual information. Or worse yet, treating information as if it is fungible and fluid, for example; M. Bachmann’s statements about the relationship the framers’ of Constitution to slavery. Or Marrie’s conflation of racial prejudice with racism and her inability to understand the evidence that whiteness is something people DO, not something people ARE.
Anyway, more speech, more freedom.
The idea of intellectual laziness. It’s a problem I’ve only just recently begin to recognize in myself. But, like with so many things, if you don’t know it’s a problem you can’t *see* it.
Which is part of the reason we need to talk more about the “whiteness is what people do, not what they are.” I know that was a huge part of your original email, but for people who have always been surrounded by people who have always “acted white”, I don’t think it’s the easiest concept for people to grasp. So I want multiple ways into that conversation. And it’s interesting to think of the synergies with the “gender as performance” conversation.
Part of what we struggle with here (at least I certainly do) — is that so many of our pieces are — by design — about men’s personal points of view. First person narratives — insights that they’ve gotten by dealing with difficult situations. But it doesn’t mean that what the author learns is necessarily applicable to every guy in every situation. However — there is something great that happens when a guy tells his story — and gets to a moment of insight that the reader gets to at the same time. I actually find great value in that, regardless if that particular author has a narrow POV.
And, as someone trying to run this as a business, I’m struggling with the fact that investigative journalism is something — for the most part — that needs to be paid for. So either we go to a place where it’s *all* opinion — and clearly marked as such — or include pieces that and are more thoroughly researched and objective, and have more journalistic integrity. One of our editors once said that that it is the journalistic pieces that can tie the disparate voices together. It seems worth figuring out how to get both to work.
Personal narratives in and of themselves, aren’t bad, certainly. But I can see it’s precisely when we start to talk about the more difficult subjects that it gets complicated. So if a writer talks about his/her personal experience, and the insights gained as an individual, that’s fine. But it’s when writers try to extrapolate that one experience into generalizations about classes of people as a whole that I think we get in trouble. But no matter what we do from here on in, the answer cannot be to back away from the difficult subjects.
“Defensiveness in people that borders on the pathological” — yeah, certainly have seen that in the comments. And in myself, unfortunately. Good to know where that comes from.
I am intellectually lazy–really lazy. That has what has always gotten me into so much trouble. I grew up in a bookish house so I can fake it pretty good. Faked my way through high school, college, and even a business degree all at very nice schools and all. But I was then and continue to be selfish. I see the world as it relates to me. Most of the time when the conversation isn’t directly about me, I get annoyed.
There is really one exception. It involves my heart not my head. My brain really isn’t much help when it comes to getting off my ass to learn something new. It wants me to stay on the couch.
There are people on this planet I love—my kids, my wife, my brother and sister, and my parents—so I really do try to listen to their experience and understand particularly their pain. I learn a lot from see the world through their eyes.
Then there are the stories of mostly men who I have absolutely nothing in common with. But when I hear them they ring so true that I just cannot deny their authenticity. Sometimes it is someone who is saying something that is so similar to my own experience that I can’t help but nod my head in agreement. But more often it is someone who is taking me into a completely new world–a prison, a war zone, a foreign country–that I completely lose my bearings. It’s almost like I have to shed my skin of my built-in judgment. If I normally just don’t listen, it these rare instances I hear every word. It’s that experience, like a little kid, of sitting on the edge of your seat wanting to take in every word, every sensation, like you might forget it if you don’t.
That’s the only time when I really learn anything new. Not in grand analysis of economics or policy or in reading about politics. I learn something true by listening to one man bare his soul in my presence. And in that moment I know I am not alone and the world is not what I assumed it to be. My laziness is overcome by love.
So my point of view is we just gotta keep telling the truth, keeping having the tough conversations, and let the chips fall where they may. If people respond negatively, and we feel its important to write more on that topic, than so be it. But not because we are defensive but because there is the chance to tell another related story just as important as the first.
The stuff that I am most proud of on GMP all have in common that they were written by men and women who I love and admire. And who taught me something profound. Even if I never met them in the flesh (like Kamber and Todd M, both of whom I would consider among my most cherished friends at this point and only know them by their writings).
“It’s the only time I really learn something” – agree that hearing a first person narrative makes things concrete and specific in a way that learning concepts never is.
If Tom is intellectually lazy then I fear for the rest of us.
I don’t think it is lazy to be motivated by your passions, or your heart, as Tom puts it. I can’t say the things that interest me are a result of a solely intellectual pursuit. They are deeply connected to my passions and my obsessions and my fears. In fact, everything I know comes out of a great desire or a great fear that I have to address. I don’t believe in knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
Lord knows, I like to argue, to debate, and to engage. I learn so much from principled disagreements that send me running back to my library or to a film or something so I can broaden what I think and what I know. I love having these difficult discussions, precisely because they challenge who I am. To be in that sort of passionate discussion is feeling your brain at work, feeling synapses open. It’s exhilarating.
I do believe in stories, in the first person narrative, in disclosure, and naked honesty. I just don’t know when that became the only measure of how we can be truthful. I don’t privilege these over research, biography, and analysis. Somehow the first-wave feminist notion of the “personal being political” has been swallowed up by a culture that values emotional exhibitionism as a mark of truth. There are more “memoirs” by people in their twenties and thirties than ever. Everyone has a story and they are all equally important. The individual occurs in a context, however, and to ignore that is to ignore the engine of the story. To me, a good story makes me hungry to know how it happened.
I appreciate allowing all sides of an issue to be represented and voiced. The hard part of this is, though the first person narrative may be true, it can also be morally, historically, and psychologically wrong. So what do we do then? This happens with my students (undergraduate and graduate) all the time. When they have to read an essay, they say things like, “I see his point, but I don’t agree.” When I ask them why, they go to their own experience as a justification. I point out to them that the person we are reading had lots of evidence outside of themselves to back up the thesis of the writing, but no matter. They don’t agree, so it doesn’t apply to them. Because the world began with them and will end with them. One of my great joys as a teacher is to see someone break free of the need to have their own experiences affirmed in everything they see and do.
A quick story. Many members of my family are deeply anti-Semitic, against Jews and Arabs (I grew up in Detroit which has a large Middle Eastern population). I repeated a slur once within earshot of my maternal grandfather, a World War 2 veteran. He washed my mouth out with soap. I’d never seen him so angry with me. He made it clear to me that what I said and what I thought was wrong and that I better get right. He put the onus on me, a 12 year old at the time, to learn what he meant. I never forgot that lesson. I am estranged from a lot of my family because of it, but I learned.
Part of my “refusal” was a call for people to investigate the topic outside of their own experiences, without asking black people to do it for them. I think a lot of people get that. I am not super hopeful about the others but perhaps someone else’s story can reach them.
I do love these conversations.
Steve, I think you missed a critical point in what I was saying. I didn’t say that telling my own story is what changes me. It’s hearing a story from or about someone else who breaks down my pre-conceive notions of the world in some fundamental way. Going inside Sing Sing and listening to life time inmates changed me because I thought I knew what they would like and what they would say. I was scared to death. But I didn’t know shit. They cried and I cried with them or for them. Not because of anything I said but because of what I heard. How stupid I had been in judging before investigation. For thinking I knew they truth when all I knew was my fantasy.
My first person story telling is often just so much mental masturbation. As is our tendency as a society to overshare about the most ridiculous stuff. I see as the equivalent of Britney Spears getting a life time music award last night on the MTV awards like she was George Burns or something when in reality the most important thing she probably did was shave her head and spend the majority of her adult life in treatment before finally get some semblance of a grip. Her life is perhaps a parable for the rest of us. She doesn’t deserve a life time achievement award nor do I really need to read her memoir thanks very much.
I am very selective in the stories that truly move and change me. It has something to do with the depth to which I perceive the speaker or the writer has explored themselves in a broader context. In other words shown courage in facing their own truth without giving in to the shallow and convenient out. And I am generally drawn to people who are fundamentally different from me because I know probably unconsciously that I will have to face something fundamental about myself that is uncomfortable but for the effort I will be rewarded with something precious and valuable. Like when I asked you to write about race. I never dreamed that you would write what you did, nor that it would have the impact that it has, but I had some sense that I would learn something worth asking even if the asking wasn’t all that easy.
This view may come from, like you, growing up in a particular environment. I grew up surrounded by people so idealistic that it seemed to me that their humanity began to disappear. They threw newspapers at the television whenever a politician appeared who did not abide by their fairly radical left wing views (the fact that they favorite target was Richard Nixon is besides the point). While they were ranting, I always thought to myself how hypocritical it was to deem other human beings evil. I would think, “they have a wife and kids, you know.”
So I became highly sensitive to living in an idealistic bubble. To me truth is local. It’s something that you hear from another person, not so much as on Sunday chat shows. Or at least the kind of truth that I value the most.
That is why I have sought out men in my writings that inspired and changed me, independent of field or background.
But all that being said, I of course talk out of both sides of my mouth. Perhaps as I have grown older and watched the world become such a damn mess I have been dragged out of my one man, one story philosophy and back into the realm of right and wrong on a broader spectrum. There’s something about seeing grave injustice, people dying or locked up, children starving, that has forced me to think about what it means not only to be a good husband and father, a good man interpersonally, but a man willing to stand up for the broader truths that matter in the world. Here, like you, I am not overly optimistic that my views will matter much in the grand scheme. But I don’t think its responsible to be silent.
As a personal matter I am most moved by personal narrative, not just any old teenagers spouting off but the kind that is hard earned. But I also see it as my responsibility to call the big picture as I see it, and particularly as it relates to manhood.
Tom I totally understood what you were saying. The only thing I disagree with is your assessment that you are intellectually lazy. I think that’s unfair to you.
I love your writing. I find it lacks the preachy quality of a lot of what is in the blogosphere. So my criticism of the first person narrative was not directed at you. Your admission of your weaknesses and preconceptions are real honesty and not exhibitionism.
I find that you write for the same reasons I paint. Basically I’m trying to tell myself something about something. It is that openness to discovery that I respond to in your work. I feel like I am finding something WITH you.
line of sight, 2009
oil on canvas and panel
10 panels, 59 x 38 inches overall