Today is gonna be one of Those Blogs where I ask a lot of heavy questions. This is how I think. I generally don’t have set opinions on things for very long, because I’ll learn something new and my perspective will change. If I say something that you think is ridiculous or ill-informed, please feel free to start a dialog. In most cases I’m not saying “this is the way things are,” but rather “this seems weird to me and I wonder about that?” If you wonder too, or think you have some insight or experience that I lack, I’d love to talk about it with you. There’s always the comment section, or the contact page if a less public venue makes you more comfortable.
I have started reading Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable. I’ve only gotten through the prologue and can already tell it’s going to be an interesting book for me. Not only because the material is interesting, but because my subconscious reactions to it are as well.
I know almost nothing about Malcolm X. The same school system that taught me the Civil War was almost entirely about States Rights (…to WHAT, history teachers of mine? The Rights TO WHAT?) also framed Malcom X in very strange terms. Essentially, I was taught that during the Civil Rights Movement, there were two major leaders. The Good One (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and The Bad One (Malcolm X).
That was it. That was the extent of my education on Malcolm X. Sarcastic slow clap for my American History Education.
As I start to read this book, I feel that…what do we call it? Brainwashing? Training? It feels like a knee-jerk reaction response. I feel like, on some level, I am not supposed to…what? Read this book? Learn? Discover there is a human being under this flat label my childhood was provided? I don’t know anything about his policies, opinions, or actions, yet I’m picking up on an under-current in my mind that says that no matter what I read, positive or negative, it has to be bad. Because this is the Bad One.
Where does that come from??? And Why? Because it is disturbing to see an undercurrent as ugly as that show up in one’s reactions.
Who benefits from casting this individual in this light? Not necessarily in a conscious, bwa-ha-ha steepled fingers malicious villain way, but in an unconscious way? What cultural ideas can continue to hold sway and dominance as long as the entirety of one historical figure can be written off as Bad?
I find these very interesting questions.
I’m not stating support for or against whatever Malcolm X’s policies were. As I said: I don’t know them. I can’t form an opinion on them yet because I have no information with which to do so.
What I am stating support for is the act of learning about someone beyond the flat label, historical or otherwise. And maintaining a level of awareness regarding any unconscious responses that such learning may prompt.
In general, I don’t think many people consciously hold beliefs counter to the principles they adhere to…but unconsciously, we’ve all got a lot of garbage in our brains and I think it’s important we bring it to the surface as much as possible and question it in the light of those professed principles.
I think sometimes we’re afraid to look at that garbage? As if the very act of having it turns us into terrible people automatically. Do we fear the label itself? Are we stuck in the same false binary of Good and Bad? “Am I ___? No, I can’t be, because I am a Good Person. Only Bad people think/do/are complicit in ______.” Yet just like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were complex human beings that go far beyond “The Good One” and “The Bad One,” we have a lot more going on than just being Good or Bad.
I find the alternative of refusing to examine it more disturbing. Because if I can’t see it, those unconscious thoughts may influence what I do, say, and think…but I won’t even know it.
I used to be a very sexist person. I didn’t think I was. Growing up I was told that we lived in a world where girls could do anything, sexism was dead, and equality reined. I believed that. I also believed that I “wasn’t like other girls,” because I was smart, willful, and interested in things beyond material goods, all things girls couldn’t be. For years I wished I had been born a boy, because to be born a girl meant that I would have to spend my whole life overcoming my own weakness. I thought that bad things happened to women only because women put themselves in stupid situations.
At the time, I did not see anything contradictory between what I thought was true about women, and what I was told about sexism being a thing of the past.
I was in denial about it for a long, long time. I experienced a lot of blatant sexism at college, learning to be an engineer with my fellow 80% male peers. I experienced even more of it once I got a job as an engineer. I discovered that every female colleague I had (all 3% of the office) had A Story, often more than one, of things that made my experiences seem tame in comparison. Yet the entire time I rigorously insisted that there was nothing sexist about any of it. Sexism was dead. Right? So everything I was seeing…well, it must have been that the women were at fault. Or purely isolated incidences that didn’t reflect the environment as a whole. If you can’t hold the group responsible, surely it is the individual who is the problem.
Then the assault happened. I was faced with either accepting I was at fault for what happened…or I was, in fact, just like “other girls.” Both were horrible, impossible concepts. The only way I could find any sense of peace was to question what it meant to be one of the “other girls.” I realized that it was not that I’d been different from other women, but that what I had believed about women had been false all along. That was a hard breaking point for me. I think I had already been on my way to picking apart the contradictions. I had started reading articles and books that were making me think. The trauma just accelerated that process in an exceptionally painful way.
So, was that it, then? Was I “Bad” before, and now have emerged a “Good” and enlightened person on sexism?
Well…I know more than I did, but I just don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t think it’s a matter of saying, “This person is Good and that person is Bad, because this person is enlightened and this person is sexist.” I am less sexist…but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still more garbage floating in that unconscious brain to be fished out and questioned.
I am more aware of issues that are in our world and no longer in denial about them. Yet I have been raised in a world of disparities, glossed over by justifications and rationalizations. I live in a sexist world, a racist world, a homophobic world, a world that stigmatizes “otherness” — but otherness FROM WHAT? Just the idea that any of the things I’ve named can be identified as “other” indicates an unconscious image of “normal.” It has been shaped by a myriad of sources too great to name. From media, to education, to upbringing, to language. There is that “normal” that says “thou art other, for thou art woman, thou art pan, thou art depressed, look at thine weight scale and see that thou taketh too much space, too much attention, too much existence, thou must disappear in service to the Normal.”
And this is coming from a white, cis-ish person in a straight-passing relationship.
If we truly were beyond sexism, racism, and so on…what would the concept of “Normal” even look like?
I am not Bad. I am not Good. I am In Progress. And I will always be, as long as their are contradictions to question.
In the meantime, I am interested to see how many of those contradictions I can unearth with this book.
I’d ask a prompting question, maybe about false binaries, or what Normal is, or historical figures, or Malcom X, or sexism, but frankly this blog has gone all over the place and I’d be interested in your thoughts about any of it, if you feel like sharing.