“sheetcaking” has been a recent addition (I think–it was hard to sort through all the google search results of editorials vilifying and heroizing Tina Fey’s recent appearance on a special SNL Weekend Update.) to American vocabulary. It basically means “eating your feelings.” If anyone does know the origins of the term, I’d be happy to learn it.
Of course, just last week the term went viral. I saw friends on both sides of the political spectrum share the video. Some accepted its sly lampooning of white privilege with good humor, some took it seriously as a riotous emblem of the current esprit de corps and accompanied the post with hashtags like #fuckyeah. Others took it seriously as a direct criticism of either themselves or their political perspectives and dismissed it as tone-deaf at best, a flagrant indulgence of white privilege at worst.
Throughout the week as I watched the drama, horror, conflict, pathos, and ugly demonization meted out on those who stated almost any opinion at all develop out of the horrendous events at Charlottesville, I struggled with what to feel, how to feel, and if there was anything to share in it. Sometimes, as I commented on Katrina’s recent post, I’d just rather listen. But then, as she discussed, staying silent, too, became a problem. Here is the list of items about me that contributed to my sense:
1-My family on both sides emigrated within this century. I’ve got no familial connection to either honoring or denigrating early America and the choices thereof. Of course, I now bear all the privileges of an American, so there’s not point in saying I’m not involved at all, but there’s a sense of removal, certainly. The furthest east my relatives have ever lived is Michigan, which would have been both Union country and wild frontier during the times before and after slavery. The Netherlands–from which most of my family emigrated–certainly contributed to the slave trade during its heyday, but any real connections to the industry are lost to time.
2-I’m white. I’m white-white. Not only am I white, I’ve grown up in one of the whitest areas of the country. I could count on one hand the black kids at my high school. Hispanic students were more common, but still a vast minority. I can think of one South Asian student, and he was adopted. I now live in Seattle, one of the least diverse–not for lack of trying–cities in the nation. This predominantly white experience wasn’t through any lack of trying to experience culture, or any desire to be removed from other cultures, just because there was very little available.
When I moved to San Francisco after college to teach school, white students were in the minority; my classes were filled with Hispanic Americans, Indian Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans. Middle school students notice cultural differences, but I did not see a lot of racist actions. The most racist thing I ever heard was a complaint about attributing a fart to someone on the field trip bus; “It smells like curry!” I loved how my students brought culture to conversations, and how being different seemed to be simply and easily accepted. All the same, I couldn’t fail to notice that the teaching staff was predominantly white (also female–another conversation for another day). I did during the last year of my time there actually see firsthand a gang-related conflict go down at a large church youth event. I saw kids punching each other; girls screaming with their hands buried in each others hair, I pulled fighting students apart and held a girl’s hands behind her back to keep her from scratching her opponent’s eyes out. It still feels like a strange, underwater nightmare. I remember shooting incredulous looks at my fellow youth staffers as we separated instigators and spoke to the police.
3-I’ve been in the South only a handful of times. I know racism and militant neonazism exist; I’ve watched the editorials and movies. I’ve read about these groups occasionally, heard firsthand accounts of how violent racism is still alive and well in the South. I’ve rarely if ever experienced it or seen it firsthand; I feel distinctly unqualified to make judgements. I can unequivocally condemn Nazism as a damaging ideology. But it makes no difference to the people involved in it. It doesn’t change hearts or minds. It doesn’t seem to help anyone for me to rant and rave.
Watching Tina Fey dig into an American flag sheetcake felt at once enlightening and…therapeutic. I watched it again, and I thought, as many people did, of Marie Antoinette’s famous words prior to the French Revolution; “let them eat cake.” Words used to define wealth, privilege, and ignorance. A phrase that has gone down in history as a damning foreshadow of the thoughtless pride that lead to the downfall of the ruling aristocratic class in France.
As the news covers more and more examples of the widening chasm between rich and poor Americans, the loss of the middle class, the evermore pride-filled flagrant indulgences of the wealthy, from Kardashians to Trumps to NFL players’ ridiculous salaries (yes, I said it, Hawks fans), parallels to pre-revolutionary France are often made. Fey’s play on that richly-weighted metaphor was both deeply resonant and challenging. It was one of the things that let me know both that a) it’s ok to feel at a loss, unable to do anything really valuable, and b) that inability to understand firsthand what all of this means doesn’t preclude me from saying something about it.
In case anyone misunderstands, Nazism is evil. Neonazism is evil. Those who embrace these ideologies are at best misguided, at worst sold out to an evil ideology. Anti-fascists who respond to violence with violence are wrong. Slavery is wrong, and white supremacy is wrong. As a Christian, actually, pursuit of the supremacy of any one person or race over another is wrong. White privilege may not be directly my fault but it is in my power and in my responsibility to be a part of changing it. While I’m still learning what that looks like, maybe this is a start.
My friend Corrie recently wrote the following challenging words to her audience, regarding still more recent conflicts about memorials to the US Civil War:
“Compassion must be lived out loud. You *cannot* say “All lives matter” and yet insist on keeping monuments and flags representing only one kind of life at the brutal cost of others….You *cannot* say a piece of concrete is worth more than the pain of your neighbor. Pain must not be mocked. And when you do, perhaps with catty memes or retweets, you are actively participating in deepening an already painful divide. If one part of the body hurts, it all hurts. When was the last time you listened to anyone who mocked your pain or said it didn’t matter?
It matters to me. There, I said it. Now let’s eat some cake.