Don't Lose Sight of the Middle
I've been thinking about starting a blog again for a while now.
I haven't blogged in five years—I thought the fall would be a good time to wait to start this, mostly because I don't know where to begin (which many writers might say is the perfect place to begin). Beginnings are hard. That's one problem I have.
The other problem is that I live with my friend Nina, who in my eyes has all but mastered the art of blog writing. This is a misfortune for me, in that I'll never feel I can match how eloquently she blogs about complicated life experiences, many of which I'll never comprehend as well as she does. But it's also a blessing, because each piece Nina writes feels like an unexpected present from a friend showing up on your doorstep (or more accurately, Timeline). If you don't know Nina or haven't read one of her blogs, I highly recommend you check out a couple of them. I guarantee you'll find something you like. But I should get along to my point. I'll come back to Nina later on.
By now most people have watched or heard about actor and activist Jesse Williams' acceptance speech for the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award, which set social media on fire. Most people have also probably heard and read about singer/actor Justin Timberlake's clumsy tweeting that night right after Williams' speech, which opened up a propane tank in the middle of that same fire. While I don't believe the power of Williams' brilliant speech has been diminished, it has been overshadowed somewhat by attention to JT's tweet and subsequent call outs for what many people see as a music career that has benefited from plenty of cultural appropriation.
(Full disclaimer: I love Justin Timberlake and his music—I often joke that if I had to be a white man, I would choose to be him. Another disclaimer: I am a diehard devil's advocate on most topics. Sometimes the only thing I know I believe is to not believe in anything someone says to me too confidently. This will be relevant shortly.)
The next morning a really good friend of mine, and fellow Timberlake enthusiast, texted me to get my opinion on cultural appropriation. She'd seen the blowback and quick takes on his tweet, and had questions. Sincere questions. She asked me, in the most deferential way, why appropriation is so harmful to the affected cultural group. She really wanted to understand this. It would be fair (and accurate) to guess that this question came from a white friend of mine, but it would unfair and inaccurate to associate her with those in our society who don't see cultural piracy as a problem. A cornerstone of our friendship is sharing and discussing all sorts of art, cinema, and music with each other (except for jazz fusion. We don't talk about jazz fusion. It's just not her thing. I tried, and I failed.)
All this to say: my friend wasn't coming from a position of disparagement, but from genuine curiosity. Ingrained in the wording of her question, "...can you help me understand why...," was a sense that there was an obvious right answer, and that her questioning meant she must be coming from the wrong place. "I want to understand. I hope this wasn't offensive. I just genuinely feel lost at sea."
Because I am incapable of writing brief emails, I sent a very long email back to my friend with answers to her questions. She's a saint for reading through the monstrosity of a message I sent her. I know this because she emailed back this morning, with thanks and more questions and points to make. Our conversation is on going, and to me this is a success in itself—a space to talk, debate, disagree, and ultimately to learn.
I'm not here to definitively claim that there is a middle ground when it comes to cultural appropriation. It's a difficult space in which to even begin to find a middle ground. I know the experience of being a black man and seeing black culture cherry-picked and misconstrued all around me, and the pain of dealing with this. I also know the sincere and timid confusion my white friends have about these things sometimes, the paralysis of not wanting to offend anyone while being unsure of what/how things could be offensive. How do you find middle ground there?
I can imagine the things the internet would have churned out in response to my friend's question. There are implications to asking such questions to certain audiences (as Williams put it in his speech, "The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job.") All I know is that whenever someone has approached me the way my friend approached me, I've answered in the way I would want someone to answer me if I approached them similarly. Usually. When I said I wasn't here to make claims on middle ground regarding cultural appropriation, that's very much a post-hoc statement. I tried, and I failed...
At the same time my friend texted me I was with my girlfriend, Anna, and we had already spent some time extolling Williams' speech and remarking on the JT controversy. On the bus heading to Constellation to do some writing, we started debating cultural appropriation. At issue was how much the notion of harm/malice played a role in determining when and if a kind of appropriation had been committed. When I say "at issue," I really mean that was the definition I chose to adopt. Anna, (also a white woman), disagreed—intent of harm/malice or not, appropriation was taking from a group and removing some artifact from its cultural context. I countered, continuing to read my own definition of harm into our debate. She rebutted. We went back and forth all the way into the coffee shop—power/race dynamics, colonial histories, artistic intent and responsibility, group isolation, globalization, etc. We brought up everything until our arguments boiled down to moral perspectives. I kept referencing a book on moral psychology that I'm obsessed with (I talk about it so much that Anna refers to it as my "bible".) I had a copy on the table with me at the shop. As the argument grew more and more heated, I would nod and point toward the book each time I disagreed with her on some moral interpretation, as if to say "Yeah, but you're wrong because..." She grew frustrated. The last time I gestured toward the book, she sighed heavily, rolled her eyes, and dove into her email. Conversation over.
"Wisdom ceases to be wisdom when it becomes too proud to weep, too grave to laugh, and too selfish to seek other than itself." - Khalil Gibran
I had been a complete ass to her. I dove into my email too and wrote back to my friend, virtually transcribing the conversation Anna and I had. When you're a devil's advocate, you'll argue against even things you believe in too. Middle ground isn't just for people on complete opposite sides of an issue. It's also for people 99% on the same side of an issue, but who like to dabble in that 1% of disagreement. It's for all the Camerons of the world who need to spend less time exercising their righteousness to listen to the Annas of the world whose opinions deserve space too. I'd given her no middle ground not just ideologically, but in terms of her voice too. After an hour of writing in silence I took her hand and apologized. I'm a big believer in apologizing. It is the middlest of spaces.
Whether or not Justin Timberlake appropriated his way into a career, or what the exact parameters of cultural appropriation are, is not something for me to settle in one blog post. I'm more concerned with middleness. I'm concerned about how my friend's text reminded me how precious little middle ground there can be sometimes. I'm concerned with how my conversation with Anna reminded me that even I can strip away that middle ground from others. I'm concerned with what this means for all of us in this contemporary moment. Middle ground is hard. That's another problem I have.
Today it seems more perilous than ever to not take a side, or to be of a specific side. Choices are thrust upon you everywhere: male or female? Gay or straight? White or black? Conservative or liberal? Rich or poor? Pro-choice or pro-life? Gun control or 2nd Amendment? You all know the litany of dichotomies and binaries. You all also know there are in-betweens for most of these things. And whatever position you may have about any given topic, you also know the frustration of your voice being misunderstood, not valued, not heard.
I've used the analogy lately that (with respect to political parties) it's like each party speaks a different language, and we think each other's languages are stupid. Each wants to make the other speak their own language. But in trying to do this, we mock the other's language, belittle it, and yell our own a lot louder in the other's face. We're confused when this doesn't work, when we're left only louder and angrier, and not understanding any better than before. Perhaps there's room for an interpreter. Or better still, perhaps there's room to learn another language—at the very least so that a conversation can be had.
“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.” - Sent-ts’an
The middle is where we meet. But the problem is the middle is disappearing rapidly. Ideological groups at each end of the spectrum can erode middle spaces. They can also police and weed out their own groups too. Being "right" can begin to feel like a chore. The irony is that as we establish ourselves further and further apart from our ideological opponents, we don't leave much room for people in the middle. Or, perhaps the image of moving apart is no longer sufficient—rather, we're pushing against each other harder than before, and those toward the middle feel crushed. We're all being crushed, actually. But those in the middle might have the least air.
It's important not to lose sight of the middle. But I also believe that having something solid to believe in is important. Values matter. Opinions matter. Maybe what I mean to say is that we shouldn't stare lovingly at our own values and opinions for too long; and maybe we shouldn't sneer at others' with no better intentions than to topple them.
Which brings me back to Nina. To know Nina is to know someone who has lived her whole life "in the middle." I think she would agree that this resonates for her in a lot of ways. Consequently, she is a master of all things that are "between." Her blog is testament to that. I brought up Nina originally to give credit to her blog for inspiring me to want to try my own again. I bring her up again to give credit to her for always being willing to listen to me when I don't get something that's outside of my own life experience, to hear me out and agree, and to hear me out and set me straight. Nina teaches me how to be a better middle-person, how to survive in that space. I appreciate that.
Maybe something I've said is of some use to you, reader. That's my hope. I'll tell you something that mattered to me: at the end of my friend's email this morning, after reasserting some points I pressed her on, she signed off by saying "Shoot me down, please." That spirit of good humor has kept me smiling all day.
Anyway, I needed to write these thoughts down somewhere. I just spent three years writing predominantly poetry, so writing longer stuff feels like being let off a leash. If you made it this far, thank you. Blogging is kind of terrifying, and endings are hard. That's another problem I have. Ending this blog feels like it was all over the place. I'm at the end of an MFA program, and the beginning of the next thing. But I'm in the middle of my life, in the middle of 2016, in the middle of an important election cycle, in the middle of major cultural struggles in our society. There's a small sliver of space here where I'm trying to make sense of things. It's not so terrible here. If you need me, you know where to find me.