On Privilege, Gratitude, and Being Useful

And what my grandfather taught me.

My dad always said, “The worst thing you can do is surround yourself with yes-men.” And I am fortunate to not live in that bubble.

I’m an author and a comedian who sometimes makes intentionally provocative statements in the service of making a bigger point. And when that pisses off the right people, it’s great. But when it hurts others who’ve suffered, it’s the opposite of great. Sometimes you can think you’re punching up and realize too late that you just punched down. Hard.

It is best, at these times, to apologize. And to not expect forgiveness. But in my case, in this moment, I don’t feel content to just say I’m sorry about something. So I’m looking at some things tonight, and I’d like to share them with you in case it helps, somehow. Maybe you can relate to me. Or maybe to the folks I hurt.

I participate in and benefit from a system of intersecting privileges, most notably Whiteness (TM). And when somebody calls me out — not threatening me, not calling me names, but calling me out in a straightforward, forthright manner— I see it as them opening a door.

Now I don’t expect those folks to want to talk to me or be my friend. That’s not what it’s about. But I always remember that person as somebody who honored me with grace. Not a favor. I’m talking about grace. (I’m going to borrow a Christian definition here when I say grace can be “the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” I’m not sure I believe in God, and I’m not a Christian, but that’s a decent approximation of what I’m talking about.) I feel, in some way, that I received a blessing I didn’t deserve but I got it anyway. Education can feel like a blessing. Even if it stings to realize you messed up. Even if that screwup was unintentional.

By way of context, yesterday I tweeted something about how the candidate I enthusiastically support for president, Hillary Clinton, is not some evil cartoon (I dropped some F words in there). I added that she was flawed. We are human. I concluded with a colorful recommendation that folks get their lives together.

My intended target? The (mainly) white (mainly) men on the (usually) far right and (sometimes) the far left blowing up my mentions about Hillary’s nefarious plots to take away their things: their marijuana or their guns, their labor rights, their heterosexuality, their guns, their money, their Confederate flags, their stock options, their guns, their collective organic farms in the mountains, their right to say #AllLivesMatter, their right to say #BlackLivesMatter, their right to polyamory, their right to drop the N word whenever they want to, their right to build a wall to keep out the brown people they hate. Plus their guns.

And of course, if we’re talking Trumpers (As a young Sinead O’Connor once said, “FIGHT THE REAL ENEMY!”), their right to deny me as a queer person the ability to marry a woman if I want to do that. Or obtain birth control if I have a gentleman caller (I’m fairly certain they’re only familiar with bisexuality from the secret videos they watch when their stressed-out wives are asleep.)

So I decided to fight back, on Twitter. A dubious proposition at best. I was retweeted by the journalist Glenn Greenwald, with whom I sometimes agree and sometimes do not agree, but whose work I respect. And whose intellect astounds me. And when somebody with that many followers — deeply engaged followers — retweets you, you get reactions.

And what I said didn’t land well. In fact, some people took my tweets to mean that I was dismissive of the violence and horror that continues to result from many decades of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Or that, God forbid, I had actually been personally in favor of the War in Iraq.

Many were Arab folks here in the United States and abroad. Many were people who’ve suffered from all manner of indignities and tragedies. People who’ve lost family members. And I felt genuine and well-deserved shame. It was not the shame of admitting malice, for I had none. It was instead the shame of realizing I hadn’t exercised sufficient forethought about how my words might affect people. I had been quick on the draw, which sometimes translates to “lazy.” It can result in pain for others.

When I apologized online, some white Trump dude messaged me to yell at me about “white guilt.” And lest anyone sense that here, I must say that my skin has a color and so does my privilege, but my guilt does not. My shame is colorless and odorless and it feels like shit. Yesterday, I felt the shame of realizing I had hurt people.

I also felt the shame of thinking about my own family and who I come from. And where they came from.

I didn’t really get into this on Twitter because a.) it’s a long story; b.)it’s no excuse and in fact makes my ignorance even more terrible. I also didn’t want to be mistaken as one of those obnoxious white folks who says, “BUT I HAVE BLACK FRIENDS!” when called out on racism or idiocy. My ancestors do not excuse my ignorance. My guess is, given what they went through, they’d kick my ass for it.

Now here is a very American tale of privilege.

While I was raised culturally Sicilian Jersey Catholic (that’s mom’s side — dad’s side is Irish and a bit English but the Sicilian is strong with this one), some of my own people on my mother’s side have roots in the Middle East. Yet they came here generations before me, and if they ever spoke a word about the poverty and trauma they endured, I was never privy to it. All I heard was that my dirt-poor ancestress cleaned the homes of “royalty” in Jerusalem with her own mother and later emigrated to Sicily and then the United States. Other folks said, “No, we’re ITALIAN. Silly. That never happened” (the Jerusalem part, not the other stuff.)

The story of any family is a complex thing. And some secrets stay hidden with the dead. DNA testing surprised the hell out of a lot of us. My great-grandmother was, at least in terms of heritage, Arab. To be specific, these not-so-long-ago relatives were Arab from the region we call Palestine. Or Palestine/Israel. Pick one; use it; that’s where they were from. And some of them were from an ethnic minority. (Imagine elderly Sicilian-Americans Googling “Druze” and being like, “what the hell is ‘an Arabic-speaking esoteric ethnoreligious group’” and scratching their heads until they see “Amal Clooney” and are like, “Oh cool.”)

My great-grandparents’ suffering and trauma is largely unknown to me. I know that they got here. I know that they didn’t want to talk about it. And I know a lot of very fortunate white folks who will talk about how their ancestors struggled and use that as some kind of bizarre excuse for racism today. These folks are the Rudy Giuliani types. Like, calm down, there haven’t been “NO ITALIANS NEED APPLY” signs on the Lower East for a long time, bro. Same with Irish, Polish, etc. Poverty remains a scourge that cuts across lines but nobody at a Fortune 500 corporation is going, “Shit, the name on his resume is O’Malley? NOT IN MY CORNER OFFICE. Banish him!”


Back to my particular American family history.

After growing up in a single parent household that sometimes relied on food stamps, my mother was the first one in her family to go to college. She didn’t have much encouragement, but she did it. I’m proud of her.

My own childhood was so very different from hers.

Growing up, I had a lot of mental health struggles but I didn’t struggle to survive the day. I always had food and a roof over my head, never wondering about my own safety. When I had excruciating panic attacks, agoraphobia, and suicidal depression, I had simple access to high-quality healthcare.

Now let’s talk about the tweet I mentioned earlier.

Too often, liberal folks with my aforementioned set of privileges ask women of color to hold our hands and do the emotional labor of explaining why we ought to consider another point of view. That’s bullshit. It’s stupid. It’s selfish. It’s basically one person asking another to do the work of research; of empathy; of compassion; of being a human who cares. I see how these requests and expectations exhaust my friends and strangers. I do my best not to ask that of anybody. So I feel enormously grateful when someone takes time out of her busy day to speak to me woman to woman, human to human, and effectively, “You messed up. Let me tell you why, and let me educate you on this.”

Tonight, for me, that was a young woman on Twitter. I have asked her permission to share her name here and if she grants it, I’ll happily do that. [Update: It’s Farrah Skeiky and she’s great. You can find her here on Twitter. What a talented photographer. And she takes photos for Girls Rock DC, an amazing organization. They had their concert this year at the 9:30 club which, trust me, is a BIG deal.] Our conversation is public and you can find it if you like. She’s an artist and businesswoman here in the United States. She’s also somebody who survived the 33-Day War as a teenager. She took time to talk it out when she could’ve just told me to shut up or fuck off (plenty of others did). And she made me understand how what I had said was hurtful and disrespectful to a lot of folks.

Of course I said thank you.

When I say something that lands wrong — not a bad joke, but a sentiment that truly hurts somebody? Then it’s time to apologize. And to thank them for checking me.

This is not always a popular move.

Tonight, a stranger said to me regarding my apology on Twitter, “Don’t back down! Don’t let them win! People are dunking on you and you’re wussing out! Why are you folding like a pussy?!”

Now let’s set aside the face that calling someone a “pussy” really should be a compliment. I don’t regard admitting I was wrong as “folding.” A conversation isn’t a competition, unless we’re in Speech and Debate class in high school. There’s nothing to win or lose here, except perhaps someone else’s respect (more important than any cash prize, I’d warrant).

But if you want to talk about winners and losers, I’m the loser if I move forward clinging to a sentiment or statement that continues to genuinely hurt folks — not just inflame them, anger them, provoke them, but hurt.

A lot of what I’m saying here comes from what I saw growing up.

I sat at a dinner table with a paternal grandfather who always voted Democrat and a father who often (but not always) voted Republican (I’m 35, so let’s put this in the context of the 1980s and 1990s — and the dude voted for Obama twice, praise the Heavens and the swing voters who dwell there). They used to have it out over meat and potatoes, but they could concede when one was wrong and the other was right (they didn’t always like doing this, but I saw them do it.) I think that’s where I learned that it was okay to admit that you were incorrect, or ill-informed, or even misinformed.

On the one side, there was my dad. He was always proud to be a registered Independent. Still is. I have some vague recollection of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro’s loss breaking his 28-year-old heart, but I may be hallucinating, as I was 4. For years he was a social moderate and fiscal conservative. (Sometimes I enjoy giving him those political tests and he’s always moderate to liberal and I say the LIBERAL part loud and he cringes. And yet he thought Bernie Sanders had some great ideas about certain things. Dad zigs and zags! He’s wild! Also digs Tim Kaine. What a world.)

On the other side of that dinner table, you had my grandfather, a WWII veteran. This guy was liberal. He was sleep-over-in-church-with-the-homeless liberal. He was almost unilaterally anti-war and decidedly pro-veteran and anti-military industrial complex. (These are two very different things). He grew up in an old-fashioned Irish Catholic Democrat mold. The closest comparison I can give politically is Joe Biden, though my grandfather was no show pony or politician. My grandfather was a quiet man who spoke in careful, measured tones and didn’t display that trademark Biden passion. (However he greatly enjoyed ice cream and in fact was a soda jerk who used to pack extra ice cream into my teenager grandmother’s order.)

I wrote about him once:

He hated war and what he called “the military mindset,” but he was proud to be a veteran of WWII. He served with the 15th Air Force, 461st Bomb Group, 766 Bomb Squadron. He completed 50 missions as an engineer/waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber. During the latter part of his service, his squadron was escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen, a privilege he valued for a few reasons, not the least was the fact that they could save his ass from being shot down by the enemy. He won a bunch of medals including a Presidential Citation for a raid on the most heavily guarded fortress, the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania…He despised segregation. During the Vietnam War, he wore a peace button around the high school where he worked.

The Ploiesti event was called Operation Tidal Wave. I just realized it occurred 73 years ago today. August 1, 1943.

I don’t know if my grandfather would’ve developed his views on hierarchy; racism; military immorality; and the damage that war does if he hadn’t gone to war. The Army Air Corps denied him twice because his vision was bad but he just kept going and soon enough he was on a plane over occupied Europe. (I compare that to a young Donald Trump, who got a bunch of deferments from the War in Vietnam for, as Ana Navarro put it, “a foot spur.”)

To be honest, if I’d been a man back in the ’40s who was told, “Your eyes aren’t good enough” I would’ve thought, “Oh, that’s a relief” and gone home. Planted a Victory Garden; written letters of support; done the softer work of support from afar. But my grandfather didn’t shirk what he saw as his duty. He was made of finer stuff than I.

My grandfather told me once that he had seen a Nazi soldier — I assume a member of the Luftwaffe — shot down. The man fell out of the air, on fire. My grandfather said, “That’s not something you ever forget.” I don’t know if he’d ever spoken of it before, but this was near the end of his life. People tend to open up about things then.

He spoke to me about how the military impressed on him in a real way the abhorrent stupidity of segregation and top-down hierarchical thinking. He was a Catholic who advocated for marriage for priests and nuns if they wanted that, and for the ordination of out LGBTQ folks. He wanted women to be priests if they wanted that job. I asked him if gay folks should be allowed to get married. He reacted like I’d asked him if the sky was blue.

“Of course,” he said. He was 91.

The meanest thing I ever heard my granddad say was when I asked him, “Pop-Pop, did you hate the Nazis?” I expected him to say, “Oh yes,” but what he said was actually more damning.

He said, “We had no use for them.”

This very gentle-sounding expression was like a swear word wrapped inside a verbal dagger aimed at the heart. What he meant was that they were of no use to good people who wanted a good and safe civilization. They did not serve a good purpose. In a sense, these people who trucked in hate and murder were beneath contempt. They did not deserve his hate.

I thought about that conversation tonight.

I do not think my grandfather would’ve spoken in such blunt terms without thinking about how his words might affect others. I should be more like him in that regard. I think I’ll try.

The best thing a person can be is useful. I would like to be useful.

This has been a long ramble, and I wasn’t sure how to finish. And then I got an email newsletter from a church. It’s just a different quote, every single day. And here is the one I received today, by William Stafford (1914–1993):

Many things in the world have
already happened. You can
go back and tell about them.
They are part of what we
own as we speed along
through the white sky.
But many things in the world
haven’t yet happened. You help
them by thinking and writing and acting.
Where they begin, you greet them
or stop them. You come along
and sustain the new things.

And the newsletter closes, as it always does, with this:

“This is the day we are given; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I shall endeavor to do that, imperfect and flawed human that I am. And I thank you for reading. May we all be of good use.