Masculine Submission

No greater love has a man than to live his life for the one he loves

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How shall I describe your skin color?

Some time ago, I began to follow Debbie Reese’s blog because the way she raises awareness of how indigenous people are treated in literature – well, woke me up to how poorly indigenous people are treated in literature. This has made me consider how inclusive my own writing is (or isn’t) and the extent to which characters are reliant on outdated stereotypes. As is typical when one is confronted with the social privilege that is woven into the background of our reality, I’ve been uncomfortable with some of the things I’ve read…but I’ve not yet found reason to disagree.

This post is particularly hard for me to handle. First of all, it’s a question I’ve considered myself. I am planning out a story where the main character is a Black man. I want to write about him in a way that is authentic to the experience of being a Black man in our society – and that means describing both himself and other characters as they would be seen by a Black man in our society.

This is how insidious our conceptualization of race is. From a scientific viewpoint, it’s practically useless. From a social viewpoint, it’s sometimes hard to overstate – mostly because we keep insisting that it’s so damned important. From a literary viewpoint, I think it is important because we often use it as a lazy way to denote someone’s otherness. Outdated stereotypes persist, not because they are in any way accurate, but because they convey the sense of otherness that is sought after (in probably the laziest way possible).

There is nothing wrong with wanting to portray people as they see themselves. The problem is that most of us don’t see race in ourselves. I don’t generally see my skin color. I notice it in relation to how it appears normally – so when I get a sunburn, I see it is a bit extra red; when I am sick, I see it is paler than normal; etc. I suspect this is also true for people whose skin color differs from mine.

I also suspect that the reason the question, well-intentioned as it is, feels “icky” to Debbie Reese is that is a question no one would think to ask a white person (I could be wrong, of course). So here’s an exercise for those of us who have skin tones that fall under the heading of “white”: How would you want someone to describe your skin color? After all, “white” is no more accurate than is “Black” or “Brown” or “Red” or “Yellow” or whatever other big headings you want to throw up to gather people under. (Just to be clear, if I am right at all about the source of the icky-ness; then this won’t less it at all.

For me, I would say this:
“At its palest, it is a pale khaki with the light orange of an oak leaf in late September, when it has lost its red and first begins to fade towards yellow. It fades towards translucence at the sheltered joints of the elbow and knee and inner thigh, where faint blue lines of blood vessels fade into view. When it is first exposed to the sun, such as after a long winter, then it quickly turns the bright red of a cloudless sunrise before quickly darkening towards the warmth of freshly turned clay. Where it stay exposed to the sun throughout the summer, it darkens through golden hues to a medium polished bronze with undertones of sun-baked cotton fields before the plants push through the soil.”

It really feels weird to talk about my skin that way, and I’m not sure I’m totally accurate or giving a good indication of what it actually looks like. I think most people would see it as say, “He’s a white guy.” I think that’s the point I want to make – that seeing our own skin through someone else’s eyes is not a natural thing.

The Best We Can

I don’t remember when the first time I heard about a school shooting was, but I remember the one that hurt. The Newtown shooting hit me like no other for several reasons. First, it is a place I know – not well, but I pass it on the highway often. Second, the children who were killed were the same age as the offspring I had just dropped off at school that morning. Even as I write this, my eyes burn with tears as I have to brush close to the awful reality that too many parents were forced to embrace that day. I don’t let myself think about it much, because it is a yawning chasm of pain that is just too real for me to consider. 

Two weeks ago, another event hit me in a similar way. I was watching my kids at swimming lessons when their mother turned to me and held up her smart-phone. “Robin Williams is dead,” she whispered. “Suicide.” At the time, I shrugged and shook my head, and I turned away from the chasm that yawned at my feet, submerging myself in the glee of seven-year-old boys splashing in the water. In the days since then, I’ve heard and read a lot about Robin Williams. While I never met him and have little connection to him other than loving everything I’ve seen him in, his suicide hurts in a way no other death hurts. 

Several times, to several people, I’ve said this: I’ve never considered suicide. For me, it simply isn’t an option, and it never will be. But I live with the horrifying understanding of why suicide is not only an option for some people, but why it comes to be the only course of action that makes sense at all. That still holds true. I can’t – and won’t – speak for Robin Williams. But I know what depression is. It isn’t just a companion I’ve walked with my entire life; it’s a part of what makes me recognizable to my self. I just wouldn’t be me without this dark shadow on my soul.

Perhaps a bit oddly, this post isn’t about depression, or death. It’s about my friend’s post on the subject of empathy, and insight. Too often, we believe that the two things must go hand-in-hand. Certainly, it is easier to understand someone when you have walked a mile in their shoes, so to speak. But it isn’t necessary to do so.

Many years ago, I worked in the mental health field as an addictions counselor. In that field, it is far too common to see people return to the same destructive products that sent them to jail and/or counseling in the first place. It is also far too common to hear someone say, “I guess he/she just hasn’t lost enough yet.” The idea is that a person will only “get real” about recovery when they’ve hit “rock bottom.” By definition, anyone who hasn’t been successful hasn’t really been to the bottom yet. At first, I accepted this explanation. But after I read the obituary of one of my former clients who had doused himself with vodka (probably accidentally) and burned to death trying to light a cigarette, I came up with a different explanation.

People are doing the very best they can. If Jack can’t stop drinking; then it isn’t because Jack doesn’t want to or because Jack hasn’t lost enough to make it worthwhile – it’s because Jack is doing the best he can and something is stopping him from being successful. To bring it back around to the preceding matter, Robin Williams killed himself because that was the very best he could do – and that is why he didn’t seek help or check himself into treatment or any of dozens of other less lethal options. From his perspective, the very best course of action was to end his life.

For someone without the insight that I have, that last statement must seem both horrifying and obviously false. I know that Mistress Delila has been struggling with Robin Williams’ suicide, and my statements of understanding have shocked Her and rocked Her. Her love for me gives Her a path to empathy for me, however, so the harshest thing She has ever said is that I’m not allowed to consider suicide (and I won’t). My love for Her also led me to compassion for Her, and I have tried to explain what depression is like from the inside. I don’t know if I’ve been successful…and part of me actually hopes that I haven’t been (I love Her too much for Her to understand depression too well).

Even without that personal connection, a lot of good could be done if people on all sides of this issue could stop and consider the path towards empathy without insight – through the idea that everyone is simply doing the best they can. Not only was Robin Williams doing the best he could, but everyone who has reacted with pain and anger and accusation has been doing their best as well. Some people are teachable, and can move beyond their current best to do even better; and some are not. It doesn’t matter. They are human beings who are struggling with what life has thrown in their path. We all share insight into that particular problem, and we can all offer empathy to every other human being through it.

I’m not Pollyanna. This isn’t a panacea to cure the world. It’s simply a tool I’ve found that helps ease the hurt when people do things to destroy their lives. I don’t have to fix them. I don’t have to save them. I can simply say, “I know you’re doing the best you can. It fucking sucks. I’m sorry. If you need someone; then I’m here for you.”

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