How many of you are old enough to remember "We Didn't Start The Fire," that shit-awful Billy Joel song in which he unconvincingly insists over and over that he didn't cause the apocalypse?
Well, what I am finding as time goes on is that we are all secretly Billy Joel. Write an article on the Internet about racism or sexism, and there's always this annoyed backlash. "I did not cause slavery! I'm a white guy who works for minimum wage at Comcast, running the Random Call Disconnection machine! Would you please just move on so we can finally talk about something else?"
Then, every reply to that guy seems to come down to, "No, you really don't get it! Slavery and Jim Crow weren't just bad, they were really, really bad!" And then he rolls his eyes because, well, who doesn't know that? "But I still didn't start that fire. Don't make me flip this table!"
Personally, I think everyone's understanding of these problems is completely backward. And I think that's why people feel like they're never getting satisfying answers to questions like ...
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I'm going to tell you the weirdest and, yet, most obviously true thing you've ever heard:
You're not a person.
This is going to sound like some real Rust Cohle shit, but bear with me because deep down you already know all of this.
For instance, you already know that you are, to a certain degree, a product of your genes -- they go a long way toward determining if you would be physically imposing or weak, smart or stupid, calm or anxious, energetic or lazy, and fat or thin. What your genes left undecided, your upbringing mostly took care of -- how you were raised determined your values, your attitudes, and your religious beliefs. And what your genes and upbringing left undecided, your environment rounded into shape -- what culture you were raised in, where you went to school, and who you were friends with growing up. If you had been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, you would be a different person today. If the Nazis had won World War II, you would be a different person, still.
So, even when personal choices finally come into play, you're still choosing within that framework -- you can choose between becoming a poet or a software engineer, but only because you were raised in a world in which other people had already invented both poetry and computers. That means every single little part of your life -- every action, every choice, every thought, every emotion, every plan for the future, everything that you are and do and can potentially be -- is the result of things other people did in the past.
These mostly dead people shaped every little molecule of you and the world you inhabit. You are the product of what they did, just as they were the product of those who came before them. You are, therefore, not a person any more than a leaf is a tree. It makes far more sense to think of yourself as one part of a whole (the "whole" being every human who has ever lived) than as an individual -- you benefit from the whole's successes, and you pay for its mistakes as if they were your own -- whether you want to or not.
This is not abstract philosophy, this is not something you can choose to believe or not believe -- this is a statement of physical fact. Refusing to acknowledge it will only leave you endlessly confused and frustrated. For instance, when you show up at a job interview, or a trial, or the set of a porno, that whole context will walk in the door with you. Everyone in that room will be making certain assumptions about you and will hold certain expectations, based on the greater whole of which you are a part.
That means you can't think of your life as a story. You have to think of it as one sentence in a much longer story ... a sentence that doesn't make any sense out of context. But, understand the context, and you will understand your life.
Very few people are really able to do this -- I sure as hell can't -- which is why we get frustrated and say things like ...
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Let's talk about that "story" for a moment, the one we're all a part of. Here's the first thing you need to know about it:
That shit has gotten weird.
If you don't believe me, let me show it to you on a simple line graph:
McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books
That's a world population graph dating back over the last 2,000 years. Just look at it! Around 200 years ago, a freaking switch got flipped, and shit exploded. There is no comparing humanity over the last couple of centuries with anything that came before. It's like if you were driving home one day and saw that while you were gone, your goldfish had grown large enough to flatten the entire neighborhood.
But make no mistake: What you're seeing on the graph is humanity winning. Winning so hard that we're not even sure how to handle it. That up there is what every single species only wishes it could do. That kind of success requires utter mastery of the environment, food, health, and predators -- humanity just absolutely dunking over all we survey.
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You and I were born right in the middle of this unprecedented and unfathomable winning streak, during a series of changes that are whipping by at light speed, rendering what we think of as a "normal human life" utterly unrecognizable to someone living just 200 years ago. And change is terrifying. Lots of the old rules have gone out the window -- they were written for a different time, with different problems in mind. Lots of the timeless advice you hear was spoken by people who never anticipated the world you're living in. If you find all of the shit grown-ups say to you to be contradictory and confusing, that would be why.
For instance, this is why you will endlessly hear people confusingly talk about how great things used to be, about how men used to be "real" men, how food used to be "real" food, and how people used to make honest paychecks doing "real" work. This is, of course, objectively wrong -- they're referring to a time when humans didn't live as long, didn't have as much, and lived lives with fewer options.
All that happened is these people were raised under one set of rules, only to find the next generation "breaking" them. So, you get a grizzled old guy who remembers when a hard day's work meant sweat, sore muscles, and danger. He remembers how that day ended with a meal cooked by a subservient stay-at-home wife. When civilization advanced to put that dangerous job in the hands of a machine that can do it 10 times faster and to give the stay-at-home wife the chance to pursue a career, the guy sees that old life as the "real" one and this new world full of cubicles and political correctness as the world having gone "soft."
But, listen closely -- when he boasts that kids these days "have it easy," he's accidentally complimenting the world on its success. Making things easier is, after all, the goal. Which brings us to complaints such as ...
One of the big reasons for that upward spike in humanity on the line graph is we started to figure out how to get the most out of humans. For instance, 1,000 years ago, if you were a genius born on a farm, it didn't matter -- it just meant you were going to be a genius who shoveled shit. Two hundred years ago, if you were a genius who was born as an African-American, it didn't matter -- you were going to live your life as a genius slave. A hundred years ago, if you were a genius who was born a female, it didn't matter -- you were going to be a genius who stayed home and changed diapers.
The upward surge in humanity has coincided with us taking down more and more of those arbitrary barriers because humanity realized it badly needs all those geniuses out in the field doing genius things. I don't even mean "Einstein" type geniuses -- humanity needs people who are geniuses at teaching, plumbing, repairing air conditioners, rapping, etc. And for millennia, we were arbitrarily telling 80 or 90 percent of our talented people that they had to sweep floors or dig ditches, purely because they weren't also born white male heterosexual Christians. Progress came when we started pushing for things such as universal education and literacy, along with rights for minorities and women to pursue careers and advanced degrees.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
Sure, we framed this as "equal rights" and a heroic triumph of empathy over bigotry, but the system always secretly had this other, selfish motive. It's no coincidence that desegregation started happening after World War II, when lots of white soldiers came home from having served alongside blacks and realized these guys were capable of greatness when given a chance. It's no coincidence women were only allowed to join the economy after that same war forced industries to turn to them in an absence of males -- and found they could do all sorts of shit that had nothing to do with raising babies or ironing shirts.
All they needed was a chance. The advancement of society has, in fact, largely been measured in how good it is at giving people chances to be all they can be. And you can see where we are in that process by looking at what kind of chances people still don't have. (Hint: If you get shot by the cops at age 16 while committing a misdemeanor, you never had your "chance" -- giving people room to make youthful mistakes without dying is part of it.)
That brings us to the problem, which is that even though these changes unquestionably made the world better, the world still had to be dragged along kicking and screaming. The big flaw in humanity is that we always cling to short-term comfort over long-term prosperity (because we see ourselves as individuals, instead of part of a whole), and certain classes of people were benefiting from doing things the old way, even if humanity as a whole was not.
This is why there are still barriers up all over the place -- only 14 percent of top business executives are women, only 20 percent of Congress. A white person is almost twice as likely to have a college degree than a black one of the same age. You weren't born in the aftermath of the battle, you were born somewhere in the middle of it.
lofilolo/iStock/Getty Images, Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images
And that is the confusing part for most people reading this. All of those numbers in the above paragraph are, after all, way better than they were a century ago. We've clearly improved. So, when some white kid on Facebook starts asking why there isn't a White History Month, it's because, in his lifetime, he's seen that minorities and other marginalized groups have made greater gains relative to his own, without realizing they're still not on his level. He's only seen the part of the game in which these groups have scored the last five touchdowns, but is missing the fact that the score was 64-0 when that streak started.
And once again, it's for the same reason: That guy (and all of us, really) instinctively thinks history began with his own birth. That's why if you start talking about the history of Jim Crow and gas-lighting and anti-sodomy laws they'll say ...
Here's another really simple thing that every one of us completely whiffs on every time it comes up.
There is a difference between being "to blame" for something and being "responsible" for it. It's easy to see the difference in some situations (i.e., you're not to blame for the snow, but you are responsible for shoveling your driveway), but not in others. For instance, if you tell one of my fellow white people that we're responsible for helping fix social justice issues, they'll say, "But I've never discriminated against anyone!" And they'll mean it.
This is confusing because, as kids, we were taught that you clean up your own messes, and it's easy to accidentally expand that to: "You only clean up your own messes." It then becomes natural to say things such as "Why are you talking to me about racism when I've never owned slaves?" or "Why are you yammering endlessly about sexism when every day at school I get laughed at, while cheerleaders are worshiped as idols?"
Now, we circle back to the idea I introduced at the start -- you, hypothetical white male reader, didn't own slaves or systematically shut black people out of the economy for 150 years after. But, you are part of a greater whole, and, thus, you reaped some of the benefits. In theory, we should all have learned this in history class -- not just that slavery happened, but that we were all born at a certain level because we were boosted there by a complicated set of systems developed to reserve the best jobs, schools, neighborhoods, and social systems for people who look like us.
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If they try to teach this in the classroom, critics will scream that they're making white kids "feel guilty for being white." But, there's that confusion again -- telling those kids they're guilty (that is, "to blame") for being white would be wrong. Telling those kids that, as white people, they are responsible for fixing inequality is just a statement of fact. The entire concept of civilization is that things are supposed to always be getting better -- each link in the chain is hopefully a little smarter, richer, and healthier than the one before. That's why the average American today dies at about 79, but the average ancient Roman died in their late 40s (even excluding those who died in childhood). But, improving means fixing things that are broken. That is, things that other people broke.
A helpful way to look at it is to view all of human history as a Dude, Where's My Car? situation. You wake up one day and find that you did all sorts of shit -- good and bad -- that you have no memory of. And it doesn't matter because it was still you. And I'm saying, it was literally you -- if put in the same situation, you would have done the same thing your forefathers did. The only reason you've escaped guilt, and the only reason you're able to watch old Bugs Bunny cartoons and cringe at how racist they were, is because you were born in an era after other people had already done a lot of the hard work rooting out that shit. You know what your great-grandparents didn't.
It doesn't take a lot of slavery humor to gauge just how much can change in 60 years.
You have to keep doing that work because there are still all sorts of imbalances that need correcting. Right now, there's some toddler with a brain capable of curing cancer, and we're never going to know because he was born in inner-city Detroit, and he's going to go to a bullshit school and grow up with no positive role models. And the moment he commits a misdemeanor as a teenager, society is going to declare him a lost cause and flush him away. The process intended to discover his talent, cultivate it, and get him into a lab curing your cancer is still in shambles. Please note that it's just as tragic if, instead of curing cancer, his best-case scenario is to grow up to be a good friend and father while doing oil changes at Jiffy Lube.
Helping to rectify that situation is one of the many, many things you're tasked with due to having been born in a fairly high place in the world. It's not "fair," but that's a meaningless word when referencing things you have no control over. You didn't ask to be born half-way up a mountain, but you were, and I need you to look down and realize that mountain is really a pile of bones.
Above: Unrelated video of a tiny pig learning to climb stairs.
Now, the easy response to this is usually ...
"After all," you say, "I might be a white dude, but the one-room apartment I live in bears a lot closer resemblance to the ghetto than the mansion Flavor Flav lives in. If you don't want me judging people based on the color of their skin, why are you judging me on mine? To say I have 'white privilege' is a cruel joke, considering that for lunch I ate a 'hamburger' that was a wad of ramen noodles between two slices of bread."
Stacey Newman/iStock/Getty Images
All of that is technically correct. And I completely get why a low-income, lonely white dude is sick to death of hearing about how his movies, video games, and jokes are racist or sexist or homophobic. The logic is almost impossible to argue with: "If their problems as women are on the level of getting Hollywood to cast a plus-size Wonder Woman, and my problems involve not being able to afford heat in the winter, then it's downright evil to belittle my real problems while demanding I worry about that trivial SJW Tumblr bullshit."
Brand X Pictures/Stockbyte/Getty Images
In other words, why can't we start treating each other like individuals based on our position in life, and just drop all of this race/gender stuff that just clouds the issue? Wouldn't that be the fastest way to make things better for everyone?
Sure, and we could totally do that, if we were merely people. The problem is that we can't just collectively agree to make the context of history go away, any more than a bunch of leaves can get together and decide that there is no tree; the roots of history are still feeding us. Blacks are still stuck in neighborhoods with terrible schools and no job opportunities where they're being groomed for a lifetime in the corrections system. Women who want to get jobs as software engineers will find themselves in offices that are 84 percent male.
So, while race is a social construct as are lots of gender roles*, that doesn't mean they're not real -- the systems we're living under today were all built with them in mind.
And if you are a white male in America, you're among the winningest of the winning tribes -- again, even if your own life is a disaster. This is why people say you have "privilege." It doesn't really refer to anything you have, but what you don't have. You may still get shot by a cop some day, but you won't get shot because you're white. As a male, your boss might be less likely to flirt with you, but will be more likely to take your input seriously. And so on.
Changing that doesn't mean they're winning, and you're losing. This isn't about you. There is no "you" at all, outside of this larger context. It's about continuing this winning streak humanity has been on, and trying to build a world in which everybody -- from the poor white dude in the trailer park to the black trans woman in Russia -- has the best possible chance to make something with their lives. We can disagree about how exactly to do that, but as for those people talking about the "good old days" and getting back to "traditional" values? The best thing I can say about them is that they can't possibly know what they're asking for.
David Wong is a NYT bestselling author, and his long-awaited new novel is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic shit like that. Pre-order it at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound, iTunes, or Powells. You can read the first five chapters for free by clicking below:
be sure to check out more from David in 6 Secret Beliefs That Are Making Us All Unhappy and 5 Ways You're Sabotaging Your Own Life (Without Knowing It).
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