“Things Will Never Improve Unless We Improve Them”

Toward a Personal Politics of Equity and Historicity

This website, as I currently use it, has a long and peculiar history. When I was 18 or so, I started a website called The Pamphleteer, which mostly sat unused for a couple of years. I had a Livejournal account (technically still active!) that I did actually use. Then I had the food-and-culture blog Eat Together with my now-wife, the URL for which has since been taken over by foreign pornographers and is effectively dead. Then I had this website, or at least its URL, on Tumblr for several years, occasionally using it to blog thoughtfully, mostly using it to interact with the small but active Tumblr-based community of New Orleans Saints fans. In the years since moving to California, I’ve wanted to re-launch a new food-and-culture blog, once going so far as to settle on a name and begin mocking up logos*.

I also went so far as to begin drafting up a mission statement for that website, a statement that articulated the values that I wished to communicate through the site’s exploration of the food and culture of Northern California in particular, the United States more generally, and the broad spectrum of other cultures most broadly. I wanted the site to reflect and subtly communicate my personal values and so, by necessity, that mission statement also expressed a number of values that (I hope) guide my personal, social, and political activities.

These values had a common theme, a theme that I hoped would be evident on my food-and-culture blog and that I am confident is apparent on this one. That theme is equity. In the food world specifically, a concern for equity must (I believe, though others may thoughtfully disagree) begin with a recognition of the power differentials that define our restaurants and foodways. I’ve discussed the presence of sexism in the food world before — sexism that is, by definition, rooted in the power differential between men and women. Other power differentials to consider in the food world (ones that were to be explicitly stated in my blog’s mission statement) include the differentials between patron and server, between the front of house and the kitchen, and between white Anglo-Americans and racial/cultural/linguistic minorities. Others exist, too, including the often-obscure relationship between farmers and the general public, or between farmers and distributors, or between farmers and pretty much anybody who isn’t a farmer.

In the end**, I didn’t have time or money to  commit to the website about which I was fantasizing — at least not to get it to the polished level I wanted — so I’ve funneled my creative energies into this site, taking it off of Tumblr and devoting real work to it. This is my outlet for communicating my values, inasmuch as I want those values to pervade my discussions of the world around me. Sometimes, though, those values need to be communicated less subtly, more directly.

A discussion of my beliefs cannot begin without acknowledging my place within our society. Mine is the face of power and privilege. I’m a white man from a middle class family from the cultural heart of the country. I am tall and fit and generic-looking enough to be considered attractive. My teeth are fine and my voice is deep and clear and my interests are mainstream. I am vanilla. When someone talks about a person without mentioning race or class or gender or sexual orientation, I am the person they picture.

Though I grumble constantly about the privilege of rich people, it’s not like I really have any barriers to access. I mean, I’d have trouble joining the Illuminati, but with a name like Alexander J Hancock I could probably convince them to let me in.

I am the hegemon. I am soft power. I am The Man.

Given my background, there are really just two directions my personal socio-political thinking could go. Either I could fail to recognize the way my life is easier than many of those around me and instead believe that all of my successes were the result of my own intrinsic value and talent and work ethic. Or I could realize the privilege and resources I’ve been given, realizing it in a positive way that doesn’t negate my worth but does recognize that other people’s is negated every single day.

(Or, I guess, there’s a third direction: I could recognize the ways I’ve benefited from the world’s inequities but not see how it’s problematic. This option rests on the idea that, well, that’s the way things are. That’s the laziest argument around, but one that all too many people rely upon.)

The point is, it’s impossible to deny that ours is a grossly unequal society. It’s also an inequitable one. (There’s a very distinct difference between inequality and inequity. Many people much smarter than I have had that discussion. Let me Google that for you.) Some might argue that this fact is not bad, or that it is natural, but that is something I cannot allow myself to believe.

This is an important part of my argument here: Acknowledging inequality does not negate anybody’s value. It does not say that you, as a member of a group of people generally not discriminated against, as an individual, are less valuable. You are, empirically and verifiably, a person with inherent value. That’s one of the main mistakes white folks make when they get angry about discussions of inequality. They interpret the empirical observation of inequality in society as, somehow, an attack on them (us) personally***.

We all have value. But in observing the inequality of our society, it’s important to note how inequities serve to negate the value of your peers. They disrupt entire groups’ abilities to fully exercise their autonomous humanity. (The effect of inequality on racial, cultural, or linguistic minorities is well-documented.) As a member of the human community, that should not be okay.

I do in fact believe that equity is something we should work towards, and that it is prevented by a combination of hard policy and softer hegemony. That is a foundational principle of my personal politics.

A second, and related, principle is historicity. Why is our society inequitable? Today’s injustices do not exist in a vacuum. It’s not like everyone woke up this morning and said, “You know what, we should probably pay our female employees less than our male ones, regardless of experience, education level, or talent.” Just before adding: “Oh, and it’s okay if the guys make lewd comments at the women or if the male bosses make sex a requirement for promotions for the women. I mean, boys will be boys!” Instead, difficulties women face with unequal pay and sexism in the workplace belong to a long tradition of sexism. Once upon a time, women were property. Then they were just wives and baby-mills. Eventually they were allowed to own property and work, and they even got themselves the right to vote. But employers were never required to pay them equally, and few actual, enforceable steps were taken to force an end to sexism in the workplace or out.

Life, in other words, is not static. It grows and evolves, one moment leading to the next. This moment now is the logical and rational result of the moments preceding it. We live in a world that we inherited from our parents and their parents and beyond, and it continues to evolve as we make our own changes to it. Our children will benefit and suffer from what we give them.

Abandoning philosophy for practicality, this means that I believe things will never improve unless we improve them. Sure, a sweeping federal action ended slavery, but people of color continued to have no rights. Civil rights legislation granted rights but never righted any wrongs. We kicked a community that was already down, over and over and over again, and then stopped kicking them (as often or as hard) and then immediately started wondering why they were laying on the ground in pain, and why they disliked us so much.

Now we have this bizarre situation in which a white girl from Texas can hilariously argue that she was the victim of racial prejudice. People of the dominant group can use legislation designed to protect minority groups to allege discrimination. We have an economy where entire industries can simply not hire people of color — the industry in which I work, for example, is 84.5 percent white — but to undertake programs to open up those industries somehow constitutes its own form of racism (against the white community).

To point out the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, or ongoing sexism, or ongoing discrimination against the LGBTQ community, is not its own form of discrimination. To try to correct those wrongs is not its own form of discrimination. We no longer have a world where, de jure, the full spectrum of opportunity is only open to people who look just like me. But too many doors continue to stay closed, and I am committed to opening them. What that looks like practically is not the business of this essay. But that is something to which I am committing my life.

*It was to be called Monarch y Mariano, a reference to the bear on California’s flag, and to Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a key figure in California’s journey from Spanish colony to Mexican province to US state. Continue reading where you left off.

**Alas, this isn’t the end. Instead i’m 400 words into a post and just getting to my thesis, which means this is going to be an incredibly long post. Continue where you left off.

***That statement is not true of active racists and white supremacists, who are just hateful cretins. It is, however, true of the average white person who just doesn’t want to hear about racism anymore, because, you know, “we fixed that” when we passed the Civil Rights Act or something. Similarly, this statement is not true for Men’s Rights Activists, who are pieces of shit who don’t believe women are equal to men. It is, however, true of men who are just tired of hearing about feminism. Continue reading where you left off.

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