The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Excuses, excuses...

I was speaking with a lady last week, and the subject of race came up. She felt America was post-racial, that color didn’t matter any more. I replied that the world must look very interesting from behind her eyes, and we got into a conversation. The question of whether black slavery could be equated with the Holocaust came up, and my comment was that I would find it odious to even try to “rank” one over the other. No matter what you said, your opinion would be based upon partial information or evaluation of data, and weighting one level or variety of pain, humiliation, death, or deprivation above another—something that cannot be done in any absolute sense at all. For instance, I’m willing to admit that one of the “benefits” of slavery is that their descendants participate in the American Dream. On the other hand, the Holocaust led pretty directly to the establishment of Israel. How in the world can this stuff be quantified?

But we try. One of the things that has annoyed me this election cycle is the number of women (and men) I’ve seen posting the opinion that “It’s time for a woman in the White House”, “It’s time for a woman to run things” etc. I’m quite certain that there are plenty of black people who feel the same way about blacks, but so far, I can’t remember coming across a post that says it quite so blatantly. I think Obama would be perfectly happy to not be seen as black, but Hillary can trumpet her gender broadly, trying to use it as a tactical advantage. Obama can’t do that…it’s a losing position. Not unfair of Hillary. Just annoys me that she can get away with it, that’s all.

What annoys me worse is people speculating that he might not be tough enough to withstand pressure. I have NEVER heard a black person speculate about this, because (in my mind) they understand that rule that both blacks and women hold dear: “you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” In truth, I think there’s a bit of unconscious racism about the attitude. It seems to go like this:
1) He wouldn’t have gotten as far as he has if he weren’t black. This presupposes (possibly correctly) that people are having a hard time attacking him without giving in to the appearance of being racist. Yep, there’s some of that. Trouble is, that there seems to me to be a lack of understanding about that attitude. It dovetails with the “affirmative action” attitude that says that blacks somehow have it easier than whites because there are a few entitlement benefits scattered around.

Well…I can’t know the “Truth” about any of this, but I’ll make an analogy that sums up my attitude about people who think that a black man or woman has it “easy” because people cut them slack.

Imagine a roller-skating race, working against a headwind. 90 of the skaters are white, ten are black. The black ones have a refrigerator strapped to their backs. Here comes a hill. Skating up the hill with that refrigerator strapped to your back is absolute murder. Torture. Most don’t make it, and are crushed, exhausted or at best slowed down by the weight on their backs. But the ONE who makes it, and heads down the other side finds that the refrigerator actually helps fight the wind resistance! And the white skaters to either side mutter: “damn! That black skater has an unfair advantage! He has a refrigerator on his back..!”

I admit that I feel there is some unconscious racism behind the attitude that “the playing field is level.” After all, if the playing field is level, then what could be responsible for the differential accomplishment levels of black and white? Hmmm. I wonder.

So I consider that dishonest and self-serving when I hear white folks say it. Frankly, I hear a lot more of that from Conservatives than Liberals, and since the “uneven” model matches my own observations, that partially explains my feeling that there is more racism on the Right (things like the rampant homophobia exhibited during the last campaign cycle certainly help, though.)

What WOULD I consider to be a realistic and honest attitude for a Conservative? How about “it’s not equal, but it’s about as much social equality as it is reasonable for human beings to ever accomplish.” You know something? I could buy that. It is humane, it acknowledges the limits of human aspirations, it acknowledges the pains of the past and future. There ARE limits to social engineering, and there are innate problems with racism, sexism, etc. that make certain things damned difficult to remedy. When I hear something like that I feel like I’m dealing with someone whose eyes are open, who sees the inequality but doesn’t want some Top-Down solution that gives government a power grab. Or doesn’t want to take money from the pockets of one guiltless person to salve the wounds of another. I get that, and consider it honorable and reasonable.

But such people would never say “he’s only considered remarkable because he’s black” or “he’s had it easier because he’s black.”

They see the refrigerator he’s carrying. And while they need feel no guilt because they’re NOT carrying one, they also don’t insult all those who couldn’t make it up the hill. And they understand that the one who carries the refrigerator AND is beating them must be one hell of an extraordinary person.
The Hero’s Journey suggests that the process of growth from one level to another is ALWAYS accompanied by failure and despair, a sense of Hitting the Wall. All of our demons and voices will conspire to keep us small. Now…that means that any reasonable explanation for “why it’s impossible” will be seized upon by our egos and thrown in our face. We can’t have our goal because:
We’re too old. Too young. Too black. Too white (yeah, I’ve literally heard that. Wow.) Too tall. Too short. Too undereducated. Too overeducated. Too poor. Too rich (!). Blind. Handicapped. Too ugly. Too beautiful. Too weak. Too strong. Etc. etc.

We all use excuses, and if we continue toward our goals, will often find that they were just illusions we use to stop ourselves from changing, and shedding our ego-shells. In other words, to keep from dying. So the question of the day is: what excuses have you used to hold yourself back (especially in one of the three core areas: Body, Career, Relationship) and how did you learn it was just an excuse?


Nancy Lebovitz said...

For what it's worth, I believe there's a crossover point where middle class and better blacks have it easier (not easy!) than poor whites, though I'm not sure where the crossover point is. If a poor white resents well off blacks getting help that he or she isn't getting, that isn't necessarily racism. The vast majority of white people aren't in that situation.

A really paranoid reading of the situation is that well-off liberal whites use anti-racism as a stick to beat poor whites (their nearer competitors) with. I don't think that's the whole situation-- I think there's also a desire for justice involved-- but it's consistent with noticing how long it took prejudice against Southerners to get noticed.

The excuses thing: Thanks for toning it down from "lies".

I have been chewing on it. One thing is that I've been getting quite good therapy. I realize that you've been focusing on reasonably cheap DIY methods, and for good reason. If I hadn't been getting help with the money, this wouldn't have been feasible. Still, if therapy is a possibility, I recommend it.

What's changed in particular is that I've stopped feeling bad when I do things work out well, or at least that reaction hasn't happened for a while. I think I've still got reflexes from when there actually was internal punishment for improving my life.

This is hard enough to write that the problem isn't completely solved.

Not a direct answer to your question, but I think it's more likely that my usual methods for changing my behavior don't work, not that I can't do it at all.

In particular, I found it interesting over at Scott Sonnon's magazine that he's toned down his initial dietary recommendations to what people are willing/able to do, and he's simplified it to eating whole foods and high quality water. I'm not careful about the water, but I do eat mostly whole foods, and low glycemic at that. Doing even that much is apparently quite difficult for most people.

Robin James Burchett said...

The wife and kids are always convenient for a ready-made excuse. And there’s just enough truth to it to be damned hard to escape from. There are plenty of times that the demands of family life do interfere with my personal goals of the day – and I’d be a jerk if I didn’t, say, set aside writing or working out to tend a sick child, or give my attention to a loved one who needs me, or just notice that it’s a beautiful day and take them out for a bike ride.

On the other hand, I’ve often been a jerk anyway, by acting like their demands are responsible for my long-term failure to reach certain goals.

I sat chanting this morning with a four-year-old on my lap, marveling at how often I’ve skipped meditating with the excuse that you can’t do that with kids around. Ha! That’s when I need it most!

Another great excuse is demanding that something must feel a certain way. Specifically, writing used to be easy and fun -- back when I was young and single, unemployed and desperately lonely. Lots of time to write, though, and I could drop into flow easily. Now when I set time aside for it, the first thing I’m faced with is grief that it’s not like it used to be, and the long slog through writing crap until something interesting comes out. (And unless the above words were a painful waste of your time, you get what BS that judgment is – just an excuse not to do the work.)

At 40, I’m finally getting it that the value comes as much from the struggle as from the times when it’s easy and fun.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if at least to some extent you don't have things backwards. If you are not reaching your goals is not equally valid to ask yourself the questions
1) Are these really my goals or are they what society says should be my goals.

2) If they are my goals are they realistic, given my capabilities and nature.

I think reconciling yourself with who you are is at least as valid as striving to change yourself.
Many people may think that the above is one of my excuses and maybe it is, but at least 40+ years ago when I was taking a psychology course, psychologists believed who you are at 4 years of age is pretty much who you are going to be.

Marty S

Steven Barnes said...

What is "DIY"?

Robin: Just right. And calming yourself WHILE playing with your kids may be one of the world's great spiritual disciplines!

Marty S.-

No, I don't have it backwards, I'm just talking about the part of the equation that the conscious mind grasps more easily. The rest is best approached through the experience of meditation, journaling, etc.: digging down to the "real you" and separating yourself from what you've been told to be or want.

Anonymous said...


do it yourself, Steve

Anonymous said...

Steve' I wasn't trying to say you had it completely backwards, I was just trying to say there are two sides to the coin and one should look at both sides. At one point in my life I had two jobs offers, one offered two and half times the salary plus bonuses(Goldman-Sachs) the other less pressure and less demands on my time. I made the choice to go with the lower paying less demanding position. The main reason I gave myself was I had two sons five and seven years old and I wanted to be part of their lives as they grew up. I could sit around and second guess myself asking was it really the positive motive I gave above or was that just an excuse and was it really fear of failing in the higher pressure job. I might eventually decide it was little of both, but why should I care as long as I am happy with the decision I made.

Marty S

Mike R said...

>It dovetails with the “affirmative action” attitude that says that blacks somehow have it easier than whites because there are a few entitlement benefits scattered around.<

Not necessarily. It's perfectly possible to believe that most members of group X suffer collectively for being members of group X, but that individual Y advanced further than normal because Y is an X. That's not contradictory at all because individuals are not groups and some of individuals can prosper from being part of a disadvantaged group even if the group as a whole is disadvantaged.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

DIY is Do It Yourself. As far as I know, it's part of the punk ethos.

I've gotten so used to some acronyms that I don't track whether they're in common use.

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