Nathan Zimmerman decided to confront sexism head-on…and got thrown out of a bar for his trouble.
It can seem, especially at first, as though our ancestors were fools for not having stood up to the great and obvious evils of the past: “Why didn’t the Germans just stop the Holocaust?” “If I lived back then, I would have resisted slavery.” And yet our ancestors, who were every bit as clever as us and were in possession of imaginations which were surely as rich, mostly failed to do what seems so obvious to us now. In attempting to resolve the question of what drives the good man and in what ways he is to act, it is worth considering the fact that we too live in a world where immorality is the rule rather than the exception and that part of our charge is to leave the world in a better state than the one we found it in. In short, there are things, none too obvious now, which we have a duty to do in order to ensure that the future has a difficult time imagining them any other way.
The last time I was in my west-Kansas hometown, while having a drink out with some friends and talking about heading over to the bar across the street, a relative stranger warned my friend and I that we shouldn’t go to that bar. “It’s no good,” he said, “a little dark in there, if you catch my drift…” Obviously this man assumed that my friend and I shared his bigotry or perhaps some degree of racial insecurity. My friend and I quickly exited the conversation and gave each other a horrified look – a sign to one another that we knew what had just been said and were not okay with it. Months have passed since that day, but I failed that night and it sticks with me.
My thinking goes like this: it isn’t as though people in Germany didn’t oppose the Holocaust or people in antebellum America weren’t opposed to slavery, rather, saying something in such situations invites just a little too much discomfort for us to stand up. We calculate what we can hope to get out of a situation minus the expected retribution of those who disagree and decide that the cause – whatever it may be – is not worth its cost in pleasure. The cause, after all, will still be there tomorrow. There’s also the fact that you can laugh about the ignorance of another among your enlightened friends, assured in doing so that you’re on the side of the Right and True.
This failure and the cowardice I exhibited – a cowardice which I said would never be mine for as long as I had been able to see the problem – emboldened me to speak up recently at a trendy and, I would have once assumed, progressive Brooklyn bar. I’m not suggesting that my trials compare to those faced by those that opposed slavery or genocide. That’s not the point at all. The point is that from where you stand – here, now – it can be very difficult to remember that you also have a historical being and a corresponding duty. I ’d like to share my most recent failure with you.
A few days ago, a good friend of my girlfriend and I had invited us out to celebrate his birthday at a trendy “Civic Club” in Brooklyn. Ironically (though I suppose that’s somehow the point), this place is neither civic nor a club: picture a bar with a tiny checkered dance floor and a fog machine that seems to be designed for a much larger venue. My party was having a good time, chatting around our table, having a few drinks, and venturing out onto the dance floor every once in a while. After maybe the third drink, I approached the bar to get a beer for my girlfriend and myself. Waiting for service at the bar, I noticed that one of the bartenders was wearing a shirt that said “White Pussy Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” and had a picture of a girl from below the eyes to just above her breasts (unclothed, of course) with her mouth open and something on her tongue (a pill? a candy? It remains unclear). I was taken aback at such a representation and the fact that it could be worn so openly. Of course, it was being worn quite openly, so I considered whether or not I was just seeing controversy where none existed – thus, I asked the African-American woman next to me if she found the message on the shirt offensive. To which she replied, “Yeah, but that type of thing is so common, what are you going to do about it?”
What I did was bring it to the attention of that bartender. As soon as he came to serve me, I told him that I thought his shirt was highly offensive and that he shouldn’t wear something like that, to which he replied, “Do you have a white pussy?” Still maintaining my cool, I responded, “No, I just think that white women deserve as much respect as you or I.” As soon as I said this, he laughed in my face and walked away from the discussion. The man scoffed at my claiming that white women deserve as much respect as he, an African-American man, or me, a white man.
I walked back to my table, in a state of disbelief, to relate what had just occurred. None of my friends could believe the response I had gotten and I was encouraged to speak to a manager by my girlfriend – she also offered to speak to him for me, which, in retrospect, is an offer I should have taken her up on. So, because she had spent some time during graduate school working in the service industry, she advised me about how to approach the situation: I was to approach a bartender and ask for a manager and, when asked why I needed to speak to a manager, merely point out that the other bartender had refused to serve me. Keeping things vague, she claimed, was my best hope of getting the chance to speak to an actual manager. Following her instructions, I was able to get the manager and owner of the establishment to speak to me.
He asked me what the trouble was and I told him that his employee was wearing a shirt with a disgusting message. In response, the manager told me that he thought it was ‘funny.’ There wasn’t any attempt to understand what my complaint as a customer was or to consider the propriety of such an obvious racialized, sexualized objectification. I pressed the matter: “This is bullshit, how is referring to white women as ‘pussies’ remotely acceptable?” He reasoned with me, arguing that perhaps the problem is that I’m just ‘being a white pussy’. He then made it quite clear that if I didn’t like it, I could just get out. I made it very clear that I did not like it and, true to his word, he told me, “you’re out.”
Realizing I would soon be escorted out, I scrambled to grab my coat and tell my party what had just occurred (a couple of them had already been preparing to leave as they had watched the exchange from its sour beginnings to its sour conclusion). Preparing to leave, the bartender with the offensive shirt walked past me and I called him an asshole (a sentiment which I continue to comfortably hold). While gathering my party to leave the bar, a bouncer put his hands on me and began to escort me out. To this bouncer’s credit, I must say that he took his hands off me when I made it clear that it wasn’t okay. On the way out, I let some expletives fly in the manager’s direction which expressed my dissatisfaction – and he mockingly responded that I should write a review on Yelp. You might think the story ends here, but he then followed me outside for – I can only assume – the opportunity to taunt me from behind his bouncers.
Having just been mocked, dismissed, and ignored, I continued the exchange with the manager, explaining that by allowing his employees to wear shirts like that, he was complicit in racism and sexism – a sentiment echoed by my girlfriend who, it again bears mentioning, I should have, at this point, let do the talking. In another affront to any sense of fairness or duty, the manager responded that “this isn’t a sociology class.” Another of my friends, pointed out that he was right: we are in the real world.
His response was interesting. It meant a few things. Most notably, it meant that he understood the nature of my critique and it meant that he didn’t think such a critique mattered. I maintained and do maintain that it does matter. Thus, I responded with analogy that I thought clearly demonstrated that this shit matters –
even especially in the real world: “If an employee came to work with a shirt that referred to black people as ‘niggers’, you would demand they take it off.” Yes, I used the word ‘nigger’ rather than ‘n-word’ because I think the latter is a cowardly and misguided attempt to avoid responsibility for the content of your thoughts.
Whether or not you agree with me (or the link I’ve provided) on this point, it is clear that what I said was not condoning racism but pointing to a clear case in which action would be taken because it is just plainly wrong to dehumanize an entire group of people. The analogy is really simple: you say this isn’t a sociology class with the intent of making my criticism seem purely academic, but you, yourself, recognize that there are cases in which we have a duty to act based on what we learn from, for instance, sociology classes. Thus, the claim that ‘this isn’t a sociology class is revealed as the complete nonsense that it most assuredly is.
As you might well guess from my laboring this point, the manager saw the opportunity to poison the well (as he was surely uncomfortable for being branded as complicit with racism and sexism) by claiming that I had, in using the full word ‘nigger’ rather than ‘n-word’ revealed some deep and abiding prejudice. I will not sugarcoat what happened next. Having been mocked, teased, called names, ignored, and branded a racist for actions which I stand firmly by, I used terms which come all too naturally to one in my emotional state. I thought the manager was being a coward and, instead of saying that he was a coward, I fell back to easy vulgarity. This was a huge failing on my part. I also asked him to step up to me if he was confident in what he had said – my particular brand of Left Wing politics sees nothing wrong with violence in general and this, too, is something I’m perfectly happy to stand by. At this point, my friends, having cooler heads than I and taking seriously the manager’s claim that the police would listen to him over me, convinced me that it was over.
I am ashamed for how things ended, because it now seems in retrospect as though my anger at this man’s callous indifference clouded my vision of the cause. To be clear, I don’t think there’s good reason to think the manager is a racist or a sexist. I think he’s a person who just doesn’t care. He was perfectly happy to wear the hat of an offended person when it suited him and to brush it off as something fit for ‘sociology class’ when it did not. And, of course, owing to social bonds or the bonds that capitalism fosters, many opponents of equality will be indifferent to the cause rather than opposed to it.
It is clear to me now, in retrospect, that I failed that night. But I am reminded of a Samuel Beckett quote that I came across in college: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Maybe the courage that is so difficult to muster (and even more difficult to remember to muster) to do good will not stop the machine but there is hope that resistance allows us to be that element of friction by which the machine eventually and inevitably breaks.
Allow me to try my hand at a slightly better failure: if this message speaks to you–if it infuriates you–I would ask only that the next time someone makes a stupid joke, you say something about it. And if you know of any business that is indifferent to human suffering and inequality as outlined above, I encourage you not to patronize it. And if you fail to be who you are, don’t lose sight of those failures or you will lose sight of your self.