If I was qualified to write about the most important issues of today – – white supremacy, the rise of white nationalism and fascism in the US, the impending collapse of our democracy, and the doomsday scenario that is climate chaos – – I would.
If I was so inclined I would also quote Woody Allen who captured our dilemma when he said “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
But I won’t quote Woody Allen (even though that quote pretty much sums it up), because quoting him offends my sensibilities and probably the sensibilities of a good number of women reading this post. I don’t want anyone to stop reading when I’m just getting started.
So instead I’ll quote my dad, another old white guy, now passed on, who frequently lectured his children about life’s great lesson — “A place for everything and everything in it’s place!” As a kid I found this terribly annoying, especially when I’d be quietly sitting in my room, on my bed and minding my own business, when the door would fly open and my dad would fling shoes into my room. He didn’t hurl them AT me exactly, that would have been quite violent, but he did create a ruckus. He clearly didn’t like my shoes lying in wait in the middle of the living room, out of their place, asking to be tripped over.
But as we are apt to do, we take on the qualities of our parents, and we realize that in some ways (certainly not all), they knew best all along.
So I may not be qualified to write about the rise of white nationalism, but I am qualified to write about organizing. I am skilled at finding a place for each and every thing.
And I’m also totally and completely smothered in patriarchy, which explains why I started a piece on the patriarchy by quoting two old white men, one dead, and the other kind of gross.
“Old white man” has become part of our vocabulary of late. I frequently hear things like “we don’t need another old white man in the White House”, which I happen to agree with, so BAD EXAMPLE. But when we say that, we’re not commenting on individuals (mostly), we’re really saying “Enough already with the patriarchy.” And like it or not, white men are, if nothing else, symbols of the patriarchy. If you are one, sorry. I’m married to one, my two brothers are ones, most of my male friends are them too.
A while back, on one of those frigid winter days when there was nothing to do but organize, and before Marie Kondo told us that we could only keep 34 books (I think she’s since back-pedaled on that ridiculous suggestion), I set out to clean up my book collection because shelves were overflowing, piles of books everywhere. Some books easily went into the give-away pile – – those I had already read, or knew I would never read, and at least a half dozen, or a dozen, maybe even a baker’s dozen, of self-help books that either I didn’t read, or they didn’t help, or maybe they did help but I wouldn’t know because others who know me will have to judge their efficacy.
I had to decide what to do with the books I wasn’t ready to part with, working under the constraints of my limited bookshelf space and also the constraints of time – how many books can I actually read? I’ll just say it – – how many can I actually read in my lifetime? I’m getting old.
Here is what I decided to do.
I found a cardboard box and into it I put every book written by a straight white man.* I filled that box, and had to get another. I filled the second one. I closed them up. With a big fat marker I wrote on each box – “BOOKS TO BE BROUGHT BACK OUT AFTER THE PATRIARCHY HAS BEEN SMASHED.” Off they went into the basement.
I really did that. Smashing the patriarchy was part of my home organizing strategy.
But the patriarchy is so alive and well in my psyche that when I wrote the above paragraph about the boxes I thought to myself “Gee, it’s one thing to organize your books however you choose, but do you really need to tell everyone? You might make some of those straight white men uncomfortable.”
Yes, I actually thought that.
But here we are so I obviously moved past the doubts. Maybe those self-help books did help after all.
And granted, putting books in the basement is a small thing in the big scheme of a system that has resulted in white men being in charge of everything.
I’m in my late 50s and for a good part of my life I didn’t have real choices about who to read, which movies to watch, or which artists to pay attention to. If you’re 20, I’m ancient. But I’m not that old. And if my choices have been limited, how about my mother, my grandmothers, or my great grandmothers who couldn’t even vote.
History, literature, art, culture, government, are by, for, and about white men. Start seeing this, it’s everywhere. I’m obviously not the first one to say this.
When we think “people”, we think men. White men are at the center of the universe, and the rest of us revolve around them.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) recently tweeted:
If you want to know what subconscious bias looks like, it’s a headline saying “AOC is underwater with every group EXCEPT women, nonwhites, and 18-34 year olds.”
So older, conservative white men are considered “everyone” and everyone else is discounted as an exception. Cool.
The “great American writers” I learned about were Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner (no first names needed). If you’re an English Major you may have learned about about Flannery O’Connor or Edith Wharton, the “women authors” (first names provided, so you know they’re women).
And art. We learn about “the great artists” (no need to label them “male”, or provide first names) Michelangelo, DaVinci, Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh. Possibly you learned about those with the “woman” label like Mary Cassatt or Camille Claudel (who is really most famous for being Rodin’s love interest). Maybe we didn’t learn about any other women artists because they didn’t exist. There were just those two, am I right? Of course I’m not right. For one, there was Hilma af Klint, the mostly unknown Swedish painter, and genius, who is partially responsible for propelling me on this journey. And there are more like her. We just have to find them. But first we have to look for them, and then make room for them.
There are some very fine books in those boxes in the basement. Books I want to read someday. But with an abundance of books, I have to make some room, not just on my shelves, but in my head and with my time. Who am I making room for? Whose experiences are unknown to me? Whose perspectives need to be heard because they’ve been absent or silenced? I want to fill my head with Chimananda Ngozi Adiche, Audre Lorde, Barack and Michelle Obama, Debbie Blue, the Rebeccas (Solnit and Traister), Kiese Laymon, Carmen Boullosa, and Octavia Butler,** and the many others I have not yet found.
The sun is not white men, and the rest of us are not just the revolving planets. The After-Thoughts. The Revolvers. And I understand, no one goes to a bookstore and says “lead me to the white men section.” It’s just that the whole bookstore IS the white men’s section. And the whole museum IS the white men’s museum. And all the movies ARE the white men’s stories.
But….you may say “You are wrong! It’s all changing! You’re exaggerating! This is a ridiculous overreach!”
And yes, that’s partly true.
My response? “Blah, blah blah. Come back to me on November 4, 2020 when we’ve elected our first female president.”
Or come back to me once I’ve read all the books currently sitting on my shelves.
Or come back to me when we can say that the patriarchy has been smashed and the time has come to bring those books out of the basement. I’ll wait.
And if you’re a straight white guy, and now you’re uncomfortable, sorry (but not sorry). You’ve had the last forever thousand years to yourselves, you maybe just didn’t realize you were at the center of the universe. But you were. You are. And maybe your discomfort could move you – you could help smash the patriarchy too.
As for me, I’m starting with the books. And my bookshelves are full to overflowing.
*I did make a few exceptions: The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Wellstone; Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy (because its sub-title is “The Last Self-Help Book”, not because I’ll ever read it); 5 Plays by August Strindberg; and a very few others. I’m nothing if not reasonable, and I’m definitely not a monster.
**Chimananda Ngozi Adiche/Americanah; Audre Lorde/The Collected Poems; Barack and Michelle Obama/Be Vigilant But Not Afraid; Debbie Blue/Consider the Women; the Rebeccas (Solnit/Men Explain Things to Me and Traister/All the Single Ladies); Kiese Laymon/Heavy; Carmen Boullosa/Before; and Octavia Butler/Parable of the Sower. To name just a few.
©Rebecca Larson 2019