ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
The Luxury of Obliviousness
Part 1 — The Sexiest Word in the English Language
In the early 1990s, the students, staff, and Trustees of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, agreed on a policy designed to prevent sexual assault. Its founding principle was simple: sex may not happen unless both people consent to it at every step of the way. Consent must be overt and unambiguous: silence is not consent, nor is a moan or other ambiguous gesture; having given it before is not consent, nor is being drunk or stoned or asleep. In short, not only do you have to ask each time and at every level, but the answer has to be unequivocally yes.
The policy made the national news and was roundly panned, tut-tutted, and ridiculed, from the op-ed pages of newspapers to “Saturday Night Live.” It was unworkable, they said, impossible to implement, and bizarre in its attempt to break a natural process down into its constituent parts.
I, however, thought what Antioch had done was wonderful. Its critics had completely missed its significance, which they were bound to do because whether its originators knew it or not, the policy struck at the heart of the basic principles that underlie the system of patriarchy and the male privilege that goes with it. The New York Times was not about to write about that and so “Saturday Night Live” did its job of making the policy seem merely ridiculous and therefore not something we should actually think about.
The principles that underlie patriarchy are these: that men should be dominant; that being in control is the mark of true manhood; that men are the standard for human beings (‘man’, ‘guys’, etc.) and therefore the male point of view is not only privileged, but the only point of view; and that men are always supposed to be at the center of attention. These apply everywhere and at all times, but especially in relation to women and especially when it comes to sex—everything is supposed to be all about men and what they think, feel, want, and define as real, and if it’s not, then something has gone seriously wrong.
Organizing social life in this way is a recipe for men to have no awareness of women as human beings with their own selves, feelings, wants, thoughts, and agendas. It is a recipe for men to unconsciously project their own reality onto women and expect them to conform to whatever that might be. In other words, it confers on men the right to claim the luxury of being oblivious to women’s lives in all ways except when it might result in men getting what they want.
The students of Antioch took all of that and turned it on its head by making men accountable in each moment to the reality of women as human beings with lives of their own. This was a truly radical act. Of course there were men who thought it was ridiculous and outrageous to be constrained in this way, to be at the ‘mercy’ of women’s power to say no and to decide, for themselves, what is what and what is not. How dare women assert such a right. It’s positively unnatural. Who do they think they are?
Some complained that the policy would take the passion and spontaneity out of sex, sounding as if it was written, as one commentator put it, “by lawyers in love.” In a way, of course, I think it’s true, that to disappear in the passion of sex—le petit mort, as the French describe that moment when the self dissolves—is no small part of what human sexuality is about.
But we aren’t talking about that, some pure expression of human sexuality. The Antioch policy casts a bright light on the patriarchal form of sexuality that is so fused and con-fused with masculine control and domination that it just might take something like this to help us see—to be less oblivious to—what it and we have become.
At the same time, there is also this, that for all the furor and debate, we overlook the revelation that at the heart of who we are as human beings is our capacity to not be oblivious, to be conscious of ourselves and one another, to see and to be seen, to hear and to be heard, and that, as one Antioch student pointed out, perhaps the most erotic, the sexiest word our language has to offer, is the simple affirmation, Yes.
Part 2 — “What about You?”
I am one of two workshop facilitators at a day-long training on issues of race held for campus police at a large urban university. We spend several hours laying the groundwork, mapping out ideas, the concept of privilege, ways of thinking, having them in small groups to identify how race operates in their work.
During a lull in the conversation, a white officer turns to a black colleague and asks him what is it like to be a campus cop as a black man. He is sincere, you can tell it from his voice and the way he leans toward the man, his elbows resting on this knees. He wants to know. It is a moment not only of curiosity, but empathy, a reaching across the divide of race that otherwise remains unspoken between them.
The group is quiet as the black officer considers the question. Then he sits back in his chair and says there are times when he is off-duty and out of uniform and crossing campus late at night on his way home, and he notices a police car drawing near and there is a moment, he says, when he’s aware that it’s dark and even though the men in the car are campus cops just like him, they won’t recognize who he is. To them he’ll be just a big black man hurrying across campus in the middle of the night, and he doesn’t know whom they might be looking for and for doing what, and he knows they have guns, and in that moment he feels a little bit afraid until the car goes by.
The group is quiet, other officers of color nodding to themselves, the white officers mostly looking at the floor. And then the black officer says to the white man who asked him the question, “So, how about you?”
The white man looks up, startled. “What about me?”
“What’s it like for you?”
“What do you mean?”
In the prolonged silence, the white man looks self-consciously about the room, makes a little smile, shrugs. “I don’t know. I never thought about it.”
The black man looks at him, arms folded across this chest. “I hardly ever don’t think about it.”
James Baldwin, the late novelist and essayist, once wrote that to be white means never having to think about it. The luxury of obliviousness is an integral part of privilege, the ability of whites to act as if they have no race at all but are simply human beings, while people of color must have what W.E.B. DuBois called a double consciousness. “It is a peculiar sensation,” he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “. . . this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
And for the white officer that day, it was a rare and peculiar feeling to suddenly become aware of his own obliviousness to the idea of whiteness that is the bedrock of white privilege, that whatever he might think about as he walks home at night, being mistaken for a criminal and shot by his colleagues is not one of them.
Several years later I was out west speaking on race and met a Native American man whose tribe was located in western Canada. I asked him, “Where would you rather be as a Native American, Canada or the U.S.?”
Part 3 — “Nice to Meet You”
I’ve been hired by a consulting firm to do diversity training in a large corporation. I’m new at this, and my partner and mentor is an African-American named Deat. First thing in the morning we arrive at the facility and check in to receive our security badges. The woman at the desk, also black, is welcoming and we have some pleasant back-and-forth before Deat and I go upstairs.
At the end of the day we drop off our badges and I say goodbye to the woman at the desk, saying something about our conversation that morning. Deat and I are walking out the door when he touches my arm and leans in.
“That wasn’t her,” he says.
I don’t understand.
“The woman at the desk isn’t the one who was there this morning.”
Sometimes the only way to learn is the hard way. I am embarrassed. I wonder if she noticed something strange in the white man acting as if he’d spoken with her before. I would go back and apologize except it would only make it worse because, of course, I know that she knows.
We go to a restaurant to get some dinner. It’s early and nearly empty, and yet the waiter takes us to a small table by the door to the kitchen. Without sitting down, Deat says to the man in a voice that is surprisingly calm that we’d like another table. The man holds out his hand toward the room and says we can take any one we like. We do.
We talk about what happened before. It’s the very thing we’ve come here for, to raise awareness of how something like white privilege actually works. Might as well begin with me. Can’t teach what you don’t know. Deat tells me that I have to get a thicker skin, that I can’t expect myself to know everything right away, that some things don’t come from books. He is not shocked that I didn’t remember the woman from the morning enough to notice the difference between the two women’s faces, their voices. He has, of course, seen it all his life as white people confuse him with some other black man.
To see another is to make them visible. It is the only way that we can feel seen. We all have that power. I have never been mistaken for another white man by a person of color. I have been noticed and seen, not because there is something special about me, but because that is what human beings are supposed to do.
Except in systems of privilege where something as simple as being seen and mirrored for who we are, what makes us feel that we exist, is allowed to some but denied to others. There is in this a powerful contradiction that people of color must live with every day: that race marks them in ways that can make them painfully visible whenever they are in the company of whites, while at the same time the luxury of obliviousness makes them invisible to whites as individual people with names and faces and lives.
That I do not have to live with this contradiction is a measure of the unearned advantage conferred on me simply because I’m identified as white. As is the luxury of obliviousness. Paying attention requires effort, which is why not paying attention can be a luxury. Going out to eat can feel like a luxury because someone else is paying attention to things so that we don’t have to. And as anyone who’s waited tables will tell you, it’s hard work.
It is also impossible to master any skill without paying close attention to how it’s done. For white people, that includes a close study of ourselves and how we’ve been conditioned to live in the world. The next morning, Deat and I go back for the second day. The woman at the front desk checks us in. I study her face, notice her smile, what she is wearing. I have a long way to go.
Part 4 — Boiled Alive
I don’t know just when it was that I became aware that the lobsters I’d been enjoying for so many years had been boiled alive so that I could eat them. I must have known, of course, since ‘Boiled Live Lobster’ is how it’s listed on the menu. It’s awareness that I was lacking.
By comparison, knowing something is easy. You can just file it away until you need it, which might be never. But to be conscious, not to mention staying that way, takes work. Some people spend their whole lives practicing the simple act of noticing what’s right in front of them, like their breath moving in and out. I’ve tried it and its amazing how quickly my brain moves on to something else that has nothing to do with what is happening right now—what I did yesterday, what I might do tomorrow. It’s where my brain would rather be, which is why to be unaware is a kind of luxury in its promotion of ease and comfort.
I haven’t eaten lobster since I became aware, because now I cannot separate in my mind the pleasure in the eating from the suffering in the cooking, something I had no trouble doing then. I remember seeing a lobster held above a pot of boiling water, showing all the signs of being alive, its tail and claws moving, but I don’t remember being concerned that a living creature was about to be boiled alive, not to mention what it might have been thinking or feeling or what it would be like if it were me.
I was oblivious in the service of my own ease and comfort, not to mention appetite. A luxury of obliviousness.
I was oblivious to the lobster’s suffering because I shared a cultural view of lobsters as creatures incapable of feeling pain. I am embarrassed now to admit that I once believed something as ridiculously self-serving as that, but even more because I must confess that I’ve always known on some level that it wasn’t true. I can see that same recognition in people’s faces as they watch a lobster being dropped into the pot, the way they pinch their faces as if not wanting to see but looking anyway, telling ourselves that, okay, it’s probably true that the lobster suffers, but it doesn’t last for very long and it doesn’t really matter.
We can only believe that it doesn’t matter or that being boiled alive is okay if it’s for ‘just a little while,’ by turning the lobster into something other than a living being just like ourselves. It starts with the idea that human beings and ‘animals’ are completely different, that people think and feel and animals do not. That then becomes the reality we experience and use as a basis for action, as if the ideas we have about ourselves and other species correspond to a concrete objective reality of the way things are.
So, lobsters feel no pain, black bears are dangerous, ‘animals’ don’t grieve over their dead relations, lack intelligence, morality, soul, a self; ‘animals’ are a ‘lower’ order of being, less important than humans, and do not suffer the way we do, making it acceptable to imprison them in zoos and torture them in order to test cosmetics or drugs for human use.
Now we know that when you drop a live lobster into boiling water it feels tremendous pain. We know that elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors, will play musical instruments if given the chance, and grieve for many years after the death of a relation, often returning to the bones left behind. We know that primates use language and teach and learn and make use of tools, including weapons for hunting. And we know that captivity produces all kinds of trauma and self-destructive behavior. Which is just the beginning of what we are discovering every day about other species, but, even more important, is just the tip of the iceberg of all we do not know.
In all its forms, to be oblivious is a strange kind of luxury. Just consider the synonyms—to be unaware, unconscious, heedless, unmindful, ignorant, blind, deaf, unsuspecting, unobservant. I try to think of when it would be good to be these things. Sleeping comes to mind, but that may be just another word for oblivious.
Of course we can’t pay attention to everything and so we are oblivious to most things most of the time. It is the way things are. But the choice of what we pay attention to speaks volumes about who and where we think we are.
To be oblivious to others is to put ourselves at risk of doing harm at every turn, harm to them, but also to ourselves. It is to be unaware of where we are—in relation to whom and what—and therefore who we are. It is a bubble of unreality, a trained incapacity, a conceit, like the driver texting merrily down the road until something changes, something they do not see until it is too late because their attention is somewhere else.
Change, of course, is happening all the time, whether we notice it or not, which makes oblivious a dangerous place to be, whether for whites or men or the ruling class, or for Americans or all humanity.
If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Idiots, Morons, Lunatics, and Fools: When Worldviews Collide.”