Conflicts Of Interest: White fragility in the face of criticism

I was born on Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead. As a young man, I moved to New Mexico, where it was celebrated, and I was thrilled by the discovery of this momento mori on the day of my birth. It seemed to capture something important about the cosmos. And I especially loved the sense of gallows humor that came across in the artwork associated with the holiday, especially that of José Guadalupe Posada.

A few years ago, when I turned 40, my rock 'n' roll band, the Barnyard Sharks, played a gig that night where we wore Dia de los Muertos face paint, like the skull sugar cookies. At the time, one of our members objected that it might be a dangerous kind of cultural appropriation. "It's rock 'n' roll"—or something like that—was my response. We played the show wearing Day of the Dead makeup.


This year, we made a flier featuring the same theme and the excellent DaikonDaikon, one of the bands who was playing with us, said it couldn't play anymore because we were using the imagery of a Mexican holiday to promote our band.

They were right. As soon as I saw the message, I felt like an idiot. Of course! None of the reasons why I loved that imagery mattered. It really wasn't my imagery to be playing with and was not much different than frat guys partying on Cinco de Mayo.

For a different show, Wet Brain's Halloween bash, the band included this on the invite:

"Please be conscious of your costume and don't wear anything that is cultural appropriating or racist or offensive to anyone based on there [sic] race/gender/religion/orientation. Just don't be an ass hole. Thanks! See you there!"

I was an asshole. A total fucking asshole. Apologies to everyone right now.

I can love Posada, I can appreciate the intertwining of life in death in other ways that don't take people's cultures. I apologized to Eric from DaikonDaikon, who was kind enough to write, and we took the flier down and the band agreed to still play and the show was spectacular. Everyone ended up for the better.

Though I felt stupid for making a mistake, I did not feel attacked or shamed. And other white people should make note of this. I don't know about you, but I say about a thousand dumb things every day. Everybody goes home at night kicking themselves in the figurative butt because of some idiotic fuck-up which marred their days. It is the human condition. It happens to everyone, not just white people. But white people are the ones who get so bent out of shape when someone else points out our mistakes. We don't realize that as white people, our mistakes are backed by an army and a navy. They carry and are carried by the entire weight of the culture—and of white supremacy.

It's the same being a man. Yeah, you're inevitably going to say something offensive sometime. And sure, some woman sometime will probably say something that is offensive to you. The difference is that your offensive remark is only one of hundreds or thousands of such statements that support an unjust system where women's bodies, work, and decisions are presented as less valuable than those of men. Your remark comes in the context of the general threat that makes one half of our population fear to walk around at night; in the context of rape culture and sexual violence; in the context of cat-calling and sexual harassment. And, whether you want it to or not your stupid remark—which is to you just one of a thousand dumb things you say—brings all of that up.

That's the thing about men and white people and people with power and privilege: We're great at ignoring context. We want to be individuals outside of our culture, which is why we can pretend to be "self-made men" who "pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps," despite whatever help, support, inheritance, or general privilege we might have enjoyed. "It's just a flier having fun with cool imagery," we can say—because white supremacy allows us to remain blind to context. In fact, one of the purposes of white supremacy is to enforce this kind of blindness. It is the price for whiteness. It is the price for maleness. It is the price of power.

When I am appropriating Day of the Dead imagery, it is a part of a long chain of events, including the Mexican American War, in which the U.S. took New Mexico, the state where I learned of the tradition. And in a world where Donald Trump surges in popularity for calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, it is even worse than before.

All of this hit me like Trump's hair spray when I read the message from DaikonDaikon. It wasn't the job of Eric, the band's drummer, to teach me. But I'm glad he did. I don't mind learning and at this point in my life—I turned 43—I don't mind learning in public. I'm a dumb-ass and I hope to be smarter.

It creates unnatural expectations for everyone if we somehow pretend we are pure and never have a racist thought—because, you know, we don't "see color." It's not a Manichean world where you are either born pure and not racist or you are a Klan member. We won't get anywhere that way. Instead, we could treat our moral lives like we do the rest of our lives.

I'm not a sports fan at all, but I admire the way athletes are always trying to get better, going over tape of past performances, and looking for errors. And they don't get mad if they are about to miss a ball and someone calls out to them and says, "Hey! Heads up!"

Or who knows, maybe they do, I don't really know, but I imagine they shouldn't because that is the spirit with which to take criticism. Review the mental tape of your moral performance each day—your conscience, it may be called—and try to do better. And when someone calls you out, don't treat it as an act of aggression or as cause for defense. Treat it instead as an act of generosity, like when a teammate calls out to keep me from missing a ball you may not have seen coming.


And say you're sorry and then do better next time.