White kid, black avatar

Stardew

“These villagers are giving Kevin a hard time. I bet it is because he is black.”

A, my 6-year old, toggled the control to the Playstation 4 as he bounced up on to his feet, unable to hold still. He had his newly created character, Kevin, walk through the sparsely populated Pelican Town, chatting with strangers. I had explained to him that talking to everyone was important because relationships in the game were built slowly over time, by speaking with people and occasionally giving them presents. He could even learn what kinds of presents each person liked, like jewels, fresh fruit, or fish, and then give those specific gifts to strengthen the friendship bonds. A was getting the hang of it. But the villagers didn’t know Kevin at first and were saying coy and dismissive things to him.

A was playing Stardew Valley, a kid-friendly game that involved farming, building wealth, planting seeds, purchasing animals, building friendships, foraging, and even mining. He had been watching his older brother, J, play it for a few months and had wanted to try out his own character.

A had been thinking about his character Kevin for a few days before he brought it up. He waited for a quiet evening then asked if we could design a new game for him, and the boyfriend and I enthusiastically agreed. We opened up the design screen, typed in the name Kevin at his request, then moved to select the character specifications.

“I want him to have brown hair, a blue shirt, brown pants, and black shoes. And I think he should have brown skin.”

I had turned to him, surprised and pleased, and asked him why.

“Well, the town has a bunch of white people in it. I’ve watched J play and there are only a few brown or black people. They need more.”

I nodded, pulling in A for a squeeze as I changed Kevin’s skin color. And then A had gone about learning how to play the game. Kevin settled into a small house on a wide piece of land. He learned how to chop down trees, hoe the ground, purchase seeds and plant them, and water.

“Man, Kevin worked really hard on his first day!” A had said before sending an exhausted Kevin to bed for the night. And when the sun rose the next morning, A focused on taking Kevin around Pelican Town to meet new friends.

When A made the comment about Kevin’s race being the reason that the villagers weren’t being friendly, I turned to him surprised.

“You think it is because he’s black? Why do you say that?”

A didn’t look over as he took Kevin down to the beach to forage for shells and clams. “Well, you and Mom taught me about slavery. White people used to own black people and were super mean to them. And now white people are mean to black people sometimes. So maybe that’s why they aren’t being nice to Kevin.”

I hesitated. “A, it’s just a game.”

He looked at me with an expression that said ‘duh.’ “I know. But it’s like real life. And black people have to work harder sometimes. That’s why we need to be nice to everyone.”

My thoughts were spinning. I had made a strong effort, in the lives of both of my children, to teach them about the components of social justice. We had gentle, kid-friendly discussions about feminism, homophobia, racism, and disabilities, always with the very strong message that we are never to be bullies and that we embrace and stand up for everyone around us. While I had mentioned racism to A before, we hadn’t had any lengthy discussions about it, and I wondered if it had been something on his mind.

A turned to me. “Did you know that there were slaves a long-long time ago, too? The Egyptians had slaves before Moses freed them.”

My eyes opened wide, and I looked at him confused. “Where did you learn about that?”

Another ‘duh’ look. “Daddy, I go to school. Me and my brother both.”

I remembered that J, his older brother, age 9, had been learning about Hebrew stories in his class lately, and they had probably been talking about it at home. The boys went to a charter school with an alternative education curriculum, with sections on mythology and historical stories. I nodded, accepting the answer.

“Slavery is horrible. It’s one of the worst things in human history,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. I’m glad people are free now.” A said with startling insight.

Later that night, after the kids were asleep, I thought about the implications of this discussion, cleaning up the kids’ toys. I thought of my older sister, who was raising three adopted kids, two of them the same age, one who is white and one who is black, and the differences in how the world will treat them growing up. I thought about two friends of mine, a gay couple, who are raising a black son and daughter, and I thought of a dear friend of mine, a black woman who had been raised by white parents. I wondered how all of these people in my life would feel about my white son choosing a black avatar, a 6-year old boy wondering if there was racism built into his video game. I didn’t come to any conclusions. I just felt the feelings, a mix of pride, fear, anxiety, and discomfort all at once. A had approached the topic from a 6-year old understanding, a place of empathy, not impatience or superiority, and that felt okay for now. He’d seen the need for more diversity in his video game and had made that happen, and that part thrilled me.

My sons, with their gay dad and straight mom, with their black cousin and lesbian aunt, with their Mormon grandparents and ex-Mormon parents, were being raised to see the world from a wider view than the one I’d be raised with.

As I laid down that night, I found sleep evasive. Strangely, I was just a bit worried about Kevin.

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the other side of the political fence

fence

Every time I have a strong feeling of aversion and repulsion toward some of Donald Trump’s words, I have to take time to remember that there are those out there who, like me, are rational thinkers with clearly formed opinions, and they have similarly charged feelings against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In preparation for tonight’s debate, I wanted to take time to explore the rational side of Trump supporters. Now, I do believe there are many of them who are in that “deplorable” category, the holders-on to old standards of white, straight, male America where everyone knew their place, wanting to maintain their privilege and power until their last breaths. But for those who are rational thinkers and recognize progress and social change, they have some clearly formed opinions as to why they only trust Donald Trump.

These supporters seem to see Trump as a brilliant businessman with an innovative brilliant brain, a man who employs thousands and gives everyone equal shots to advance within the company, a man who has no trouble holding those who err accountable. They see Trump as a man who is willing to call it like it is, regarding issues related to abortion, immigration, anti-terrorism, and many other hot-button issues. These supporters see “political correctness” as a plague to the country, as something that gets in the way of clear policy making. They see Trump as a fresh face who is willing to dig the country out of what they consider to be the worst state it has ever been in.

Now these individuals are clearly able to see the questionable aspects of Trump’s character, including his harsh statements against women, immigrants, and veterans, but they are, in large part, willing to overlook them because they consider his strengths as more important than his weaknesses.

This willingness to overlook questionable character aspects is not unique to the Republicans, it belongs to all party systems and are a focused aspect of American politics. One key case in point, for Democrats, particularly salient to this election, was the presidential election of Bill Clinton. Prior to Clinton’s first election as president, there was a large sex scandal, when Clinton was accused of not only infidelity, but assault toward women over a period of decades. There were tabloid headlines and news reports, the only thing missing was social media with constant Facebook and Twitter updates.

When Bill and Hillary Clinton were questioned directly about his infidelities, they were evasive in their answers, they wouldn’t confirm or deny the allegations, instead they would urge Americans to focus on the bigger issues that mattered to the people. And after the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the White House, both Bill and Hillary willingly and out-rightly lied to the media and the American people in statements that said the affairs never happened. (Look up Gennifer Flowers and Juanita Broaddrick as examples).

Now don’t get me wrong, Hillary Clinton absolutely has my vote. But to empathize with the other side, I have to recognize that they see Hillary as an option as undesirable as I do Donald Trump. They stack up the popular issues, like the Clinton Foundation spending, the Benghazi attacks, Whitewater, and the missing Emails scandal, and they absolutely don’t trust her.

In tonight’s debate, I’m expecting there will be a lot of rhetoric. There will be a strong push on both sides to vilify the past of the opponent. Donald Trump is going to call Hillary: crooked, a liar, an enabler to her husband’s atrocities, a bully to her husband’s victims, and he will continue to bring up the idea that she has been an ineffective and failed leader. Hillary will focus in on the issues of this past week’s headlines, related to Trump’s treatment of women, his taxes, his dealings with Russia, and his long list of embarrassing statements.

Hillary still has my vote, no question. I think she is a powerful and dynamic leader with a tremendous amount of experience; not only do we need more women in power, but she has the endorsements of the Obamas, two of my personal heroes, who describe her as the most experienced presidential candidate in American history. I want to see the incredible work Barack Obama has put in the past 8 years pushed forward ever farther. And it is worth noting that the very origins of our country’s political systems are rooted in misogyny, racism, and patriarchy; there must be some changes to these ancient and terrible power dynamics of privilege and oppression.

As a personal example of this, I recall a time as a youth when my abusive stepfather hurt my mother. Gossip spread through our community and a woman stormed up to my mother in a grocery store and whispered, “I hear women like you like getting beat.” This woman, instead of holding my stepfather accountable for his words and fists, blamed my mother for staying. And that is the image I’ll enter tonight’s debate with, the willingness to blame a woman while the man stands with blood on his hands.

Two White Guys Talking About Privilege

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Hey, professor, you wanted to see me?

Yeah, Mark, close the door, let’s talk for a bit. Have a seat.

What’s up?

During class today, when we were talking about privilege, you got quiet.

That’s because I didn’t have anything to say.

I think that is unlikely. You are usually very talkative and insightful during class. And you were more than just quiet, you were uncomfortable and closed off.

Nah, I’m good.

Mark, look, you aren’t being graded on this. You showed up to class and got your work done. Grade already recorded. This is just a discussion and a check-in. What happened today?

Look, I–I just learned early on in this program that when it comes to topics like this, no one wants to know what I have to say.

And why do you feel that way?

I’m a white guy. I’m the minority here and no matter what I say is going to be wrong. And when I have tried to share things in this program, I’ve been attacked.

Okay, let’s look at the big picture here. You are working on getting a Masters degree in Social Work. You are in a cohort of primarily women, in fact about 80 per cent of the students are women, and it is safe to say that all of them are feminists.

That’s fine. I’m a feminist too.

So am I. Now why do you feel like you are attacked when you share your opinion on the topic of privilege?

I don’t feel attacked, I am attacked.

Why do you feel attacked?

Okay, okay. Look, a couple of weeks back, I tried sharing my opinion on gay marriage in a class where the topic came up. I don’t have a problem with gay people, I really don’t. I have gay friends, I believe in gay rights. I know you’re gay. And I’m not Mormon like most of the people here, but I am Christian, and it’s not so easy, you know? I see gay people at my internship and I was talking to my pastor about that once and he told me that any time I choose to provide service to gay people, then I am choosing them over God. And so I shared that in class, that I felt divided, and a bunch of the students interrupted me and got angry and told me that if I wanted to be a social worker, I would have to quit my church, and no one would listen. They attacked me for being a Christian white guy. So now I just don’t share my opinion any more.

Okay, to start, you have heard me talk about the ‘yes, and’ principle in class before. Two realities can co-exist at the same time. The sun can warm me, and it can burn me. Food can nourish me and make me gain weight. My mom can have two gay kids that she loves and supports and still not know where she stands on gay marriage. And you can be a Christian white social worker whose religious beliefs and professional beliefs don’t always line up. There is room for contradictions in all of us.

Yeah, I get that.

So I’m going to be tough on you before I am supportive. Is that okay?

Yes, I trust you and your intentions.

There is an absolute irony about you feeling attacked.

An irony? How so?

Be fair, be strengths-focused. Why do you think your comments upset the people around you?

Because they are women with strong opinions, and anything but the answer they want is the wrong answer.

I don’t think that is the case at all. Try again, why do you think they are upset.

I honestly don’t know. Help me out here.

You understand the concept of privilege, right?

Sure, those in the majority have inherent privileges in their day to day living that those in minorities don’t have to deal with.

Give me a few examples.

As a man, I can be hired and expect a fair wage, where women often get harassed and paid way less than men for doing the same job. As a white guy, I see my majority represented everywhere in American leadership, I have better access to scholarships, jobs, pay, legal representation, college opportunities, etc.

Excellent. We had a conversation about privilege on the first day of class. The more majority statuses you fall into, the greater your privilege opportunities. White, Christian, male, young, fit or thin, able-bodied, gender-defined, straight, healthy, middle class or above.

Yeah, I remember. We talk about it in all of our classes a little bit.

Since your legs work, you don’t have to worry about whether or not a wheelchair ramp is available to your second floor classes. Since you were born male, and you define as male, you get to use the men’s room without having to worry about what people think because you are transgender. Since you are young and not elderly, you can drive a car without everyone around you assuming you are slow or lacking purpose, everyone being impatient around you.

Right, I get all that.

You get it in the head, not sure you get it totally in the heart. They don’t always line up.

Okay, what does that have to do with all this.

You are in a graduate program in a field that advocates for social justice. This is one of the few programs that actually has a lot of material on privilege and its implications, one of the few programs that has a majority of women. This program actually gets you to think about and confront difficult ideas on these topics.

So what makes my experience here ironic?

Mark, when it comes to big conversations like this in the public, who do you think has the most to say? Who do you think gets the final say?

The majority. Men. White men.

Absolutely. And who feels silenced?

Women. Gay people. Everyone that falls into those non-majority categories.

Absolutely. But it is about more than feeling silenced. It’s different on almost every level. Let me give you an example. You are married, right?

Yeah.

Okay, when you go out in public, do you hold your wife’s hand?

Yeah, sure. All the time.

And do you feel watched, criticized, discriminated against?

No, why would I?

I’m a 36 year old man. I am dating a guy. A few Sundays ago, we are out walking, and we are holding hands, nothing else. Just walking, talking, and holding hands. And I hadn’t done that in a while. But everyone we walk by, I feel a nervousness creep up in my chest. I’m watching them to see if they notice us holding hands, every person we pass. And I’m expecting them to say things like ‘gross’ or ‘fags’ or ‘disgusting.’ I’m expecting someone to just look up and say ‘we don’t care what you do in your home, but do you have to do that out here?’ And I’m walking around and I’m nervous, even though I’m trying to relax.

Look, I–

Wait, I’m not done. So this guy and I, we see this couple sitting on the concrete stairs in front of us. An older white guy with a beard, and an older black woman, and both of them are in dirty clothes and look like they have probably been using drugs recently. As as we get closer, they both sit up and I’m waiting for one of them to say something rude to us. The lady, she says loudly, ‘Hey!’ and I take a step back, nervous, not sure if she is going to ask for money or say something rude to us. And I say ‘yeah?’ and she says ‘I just wanted to say, I think you two are cute.’ And I say ‘thank you’ and the guy I’m holding hands with and I both smile and laugh about this.

Okay, but–

Just a minute, I’m almost done. So I’m walking away, and I’m thinking about how terrible it is that in 2015, I have to be nervous about something as simple as holding hands with a guy that I like, and how straight people never have to think about it. And that’s privilege. And then I realize that because I’m in the middle class and I have an apartment and a bank account, I see this couple and I automatically assume they want to ask for money, and they probably think that every person who walks by them thinks they are going to ask for money. People avoid eye contact, treat them rudely, get scared when they say ‘hey’ because they assume these things about them. And they have to live with that. And this woman, she’s not only poor, she’s a woman, and she’s black, and she has all these other things in her mind. I’m worried about what people will say because I’m gay. She’s worried about sexual assault and judgments and where she is going to sleep tonight. And that is privilege. And it sucks that we live in a world based around it.

I… okay. Yeah. That sucks.

So here is the irony. You are feeling marginalized in one class by a few people who didn’t like what you had to say. You felt attacked by some students in your cohort in a program that is all about social justice.

What makes that ironic?

Well, simply put: that feeling you felt in class? Feeling silenced, disrespected, like no one around you wanted to hear what you had to say?

Yeah?

That’s how I felt all the time as a gay kid growing up. Every day. That is how many of the women in your class feel in this patriarchal world of men. That is how everyone who doesn’t fall in the majority feels all the time.

Whoa.

Yeah. And you felt it once. And so now you aren’t talking any more.

I–yeah–that–wow. Okay. So that’s what it feels like to not be privileged.

Exactly.

Okay.

Now let me give you credit. You have a good brain. An intuitive mind. You care about people. You advocate for others. You are a good student and a good social worker. And this is a ‘yes, and’ thing again. You are privileged. You are going to have to learn how to listen to others. How to feel marginalized and be okay with it. How to share your experiences and conflicts with others, and listen when they don’t agree with you, and ask questions, and learn how others feel, not just with your head but with your heart. You don’t get to shut down. You get to be uncomfortable and learn. Because…

Because that is how others feel all the time.

Exactly. So next time the conversation starts, I want you to join in, because we need your voice. It’s a good one.

Thank you, professor. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

Thank you for being willing to think about it. See you next week, Mark.

Yeah, see you next week.