Anne Hathaway & The Problem with Lecturing White People

By , in Non-Local on .

On July 22, 37 miles north of my Milpitas home, at Oakland’s MacArthur BART Station, a young black woman named Nia Wilson was brutally murdered by a white assailant. I know the MacArthur stop; it’s where I usually get off in Oakland. Ms. Wilson had just stepped off a train when the violence occurred. Two of her sisters were with her, and her older sister Lahtifa Wilson (26) got stabbed, as well, and admitted to the ICU at a nearby hospital.

Readers interested in donating to her other older sister Malika’s crowdfunding campaign for justice can do so here.

The murder shook the San Francisco Bay Area and stunned the City of Oakland. On its face, the crime seemed to clearly be motivated by racial hatred. Right-wing publications scrambled to quote Oakland law enforcement’s initial characterization of the murder as “random”, but I actually don’t know what that means. Random compared to everything else going on at the BART Station? Random compared to what the killer had in mind five minutes earlier?

Women of color are uniquely vulnerable in American society. Oftentimes, they go unseen. When they are seen, it is often in the course of being judged, objectified, or otherwise undervalued. Any chatter of categorization that attempts to frame the murder of a black woman by a white man as not racially motivated fails to approach understanding words like “racial” or “motivation”, both of which are as much phenomena of the conscious individual psyche as they are of larger, unconscious cultural forces. In other words, a given white man’s choice to murder a black woman does not even have to be consciously hateful to qualify as racist, in light of the fact that he, as a male of whiteness, exists with a vast degree of physical and societal leverage over she, a female of color.

Accordingly, the word “random”, wielded here by law enforcement, tends to not only lose its intended meaning, but to rob the harrowing incident of its context.

Actress Anne Hathaway wrote words on Instagram to this effect. I felt a resonance with almost all of them, as did the 375,000 people who’ve liked them so far. I quote them here in full:

 

The murder of Nia Wilson- may she rest in the power and peace she was denied here- is unspeakable AND MUST NOT be met with silence.  She is not a hash tag; she was a black woman and she was murdered in cold blood by a white man. … White people- including me, including you- must take into the marrow of our privileged bones the truth that ALL black people fear for their lives DAILY in America and have done so for GENERATIONS.  White people DO NOT have equivalence for this fear of violence. Given those givens, we must ask our (white)selves- how “decent” are we really? Not in our intent, but in our actions? In our lack of action? Peace and prayers and JUSTICE for Nia and the Wilson family xx

 

I honor these particular words (though I’m not sure Hathaway should be speaking for all black people): “ALL black people fear for their lives DAILY in America and have done so for GENERATIONS. White people DO NOT have equivalence for this fear of violence.”

It’s hard for me to get inside the mind of anybody who can’t nod at or at least find a way to sympathize with the quote just above. Any person who’s serious about studying and/or participating in politics (and I daresay said study and participation should go hand in hand) should have an interest in totalitarianism, or governance that demands subservience. American totalitarianism, in the form of slavery, ended in 1865, only about six generations ago. It took 99 years after that for President Lyndon B. Johnson to end Jim Crow laws by signing 1964’s Civil Rights Act. A year later, in ‘65, the Voting Rights Act at last gave black Americans the right to vote.

Only two generations ago.

The remnants of slavery live on with force. The following quote from President Johnson has been repeated a great deal lately, but it still bears repeating again: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

Today, the hobbling is not achieved with chains. But the state still achieves it through mass incarceration. And biology still achieves it through lingering trauma.

And though nobody who’s alive right now was alive when slavery occurred, it’s my belief that nobody other than the descendants of those who lived through slavery should get to say when its reverberations are finally over. That’s a lesson that they stand to teach others, not one that others can teach them.

So what exactly is my problem with Anne Hathaway?

For the most part, nothing. She’s a wonderful actress. I’ve always found her fascinating, in fact. Her acting, for me, transcends mere craft. She’s a mystifying spirit, alive and pulsating with behavioral poetry. Plus, I’ve never taken her to be some anti-intellectual, one-sided culture warrior. Here’s her in The Guardian, in 2016, making a point that I commend with all my might:

“Male energy is beautiful. Male energy is welcome. Male energy is necessary. Male energy is half the reason why we’re here. That said, there has been a perversion of the beauty of male energy into this macho ideal that I don’t think services anybody.”

Plus, as it turns out, she’s also a mooner, and I’m not about to betray any fellow members of that rare club.

But she didn’t have me, I regret to say, when she wrote this:

“Given those givens, we must ask our (white)selves- how ‘decent’ are we really? Not in our intent, but in our actions? In our lack of action?”

I must be clear: I believe I have white privilege. I am prone to daily questioning and wrestling with my own sense of what is decent. And I audit and evaluate my intentions and actions, squaring the former against the latter and wincing at their frequent failure to align.

More: I don’t think the notion that we’re privileged should upset white people. Quite the contrary, it should come as no surprise. Conservatives who push back against the very notion of white privilege by citing the fact that Asian-Americans have comfortably higher average incomes than white Americans seem to be willfully ignoring or minimizing the intuitive cultural standardization of white people, and the resulting ease that characterizes our search for homes and neighborhoods to live in, our interactions with law enforcement and the judiciary, and our very ability to walk comfortably down the street, among so many other things. They’re also ignoring the fact that 76% of U.S. millionaires are white people, and that 89 of the world’s richest 100 billionaires are white men.

But here’s the thing:

White privilege is a teachable concept. Meaning it can be imparted with complete success from one person to another. It’s not a concept on the level of, say, existentialism, which one can spend a lifetime wrapping one’s mind around. It’s teachable, and it thus can be learned.

Which is why we on the left must resist the urgent impulse to teach it over and over again. We must allow it to be learned (or not learned), once taught. We must resist, in other words, the urge to lecture white people about their privilege.

It’s hard right now. We’re angry and sore. Donald Trump’s victory hit the left in its collective solar plexus. Not judging the 62 million Americans who voted for him — liar, racist, narcissist, misogynist, sociopath, sex offender, idiot, spoiled brat, offense to the color orange — takes intensive conscious effort, akin to refashioning our psyches to resemble those of Mahatma Gandhi or Jesus Christ.

But we’re the left. That’s what we’re supposed to do. Or try to.

I hated those 62 million people. I was utterly convinced of their stupidity and backwardness. But my hatred was driving me into the ground. So I sought instead to understand. To puncture the liberal bubble around me. To consume their media, read up on their thoughts. To even, when possible, engage with them face-to-face (an opportunity I felt lucky to have, as I counted several of them among my ghostwriting clients).

I learned a great deal, but two key lessons stand out:

 

  1. Evangelicals, who voted for Trump in large numbers, tend to see humanity as inherently sinful. The left, in contrast, tends to see humanity as inherently virtuous. This is a key distinction, and one not worth forgetting or overlooking. Whereas the left was blown over by Trump’s overt racism, sexism, and xenophobia, the right wasn’t impacted as much, not necessarily because they’re hateful and stupid, but because they take sinfulness as a given.
  2. Polling reveals that 68% of Americans view political correctness as a big problem. Trump tapped deep into this concern. It’s at times maddening how one person’s racism can be another person’s lack of political correctness, but anybody on the left who’s horrified to see Trump getting away with saying one horrible thing after another can sanely attribute his skill in this regard to his alignment with those who just can’t stand political correctness.

 

Through these lenses, the right, to me, began to seem more human.

A commendable spirit of self-criticism exists in Anne Hathaway’s open references to her own whiteness. Yet as a readily verifiable matter of fact, the fact of Hathaway’s whiteness does not qualify her to speak for, or toward, all white people. If it did, the pair of revelations listed above would not have been eye-opening for me. In other words, our country’s divisions — existing across and within so many racial boundaries — are not only clear, but cannot be overridden by the simple proclamations of self-appointed spokespeople and “insiders”.

Long before Trump’s victory, many on the right were already tired of feeling thought-policed by those on the left — tired of being told what to think, what to feel, what to say, what to care about, what to prioritize, what sociocultural narratives to abide by, and so on. It felt condescending. It felt controlling. It seemed clear that lecturing, rather than imparting its message, was merely shedding light on the self-righteous arrogance of the lecturer.

And yet now we have Anne Hathaway telling white people — some 200,000,000 Americans — to audit our own decency, actions, and intentions, in the aftermath of a black woman’s murder.

The murder was a disgusting act. Hathaway’s post registers my own disgust. But by lacing her compassion with an admonishment to white people — absent any quantifiable course of action that white people can now take (another sticking point for the right, when lectured) — she acts out the very syndrome that’s at least partially responsible for the presence of the autocrat in The White House.

Used to be, FOX News had to bend itself into knots to land clear ideological blows on the left. Nowadays, the left writes FOX News’ script for them. Whereas members of the left trade in the idea that there can be no reverse racism in America, since racism is best defined as systematic oppression, and white people clearly are not systematically oppressed, members of the right don’t go near those concepts.

They read what Anne Hathaway wrote and just think: Racist.

Is it?

The left shouts, “No!”, for in the left’s narrative, it’s well past time to tear down white supremacy, and part of that tearing down calls for shedding light on its insidious nature, which is all bundled up in white privilege. In light of our trauma over Trump’s election — over seeing a white man being non-elected to a job he has no evident skill to carry out — we’re in emergency mode. We want white supremacy torn down now. We absolutely will not tolerate this any longer.

But we may have to, if we keep on lecturing and condescending white people. For to date, there’s zero evidence that Hathaway’s brand of wokeness does anything whatsoever to win national elections. (Note: If this changes, I promise to update this article with an italicized admission that I was wrong. I’m serious.)

For people of color, seeing the sensitivity of whites to being called out and shaken “awake” can seem beyond unfair. After all, people of color, in general, have it way worse in America than white people. Thus got coined the term “white fragility”, in reference to white people’s seeming mental inability to handle having their own privilege pointed out to them.

There’s another way to frame this, though:

Whereas the left is in emergency mode, and now perceiving the experience of finally standing up to white people, white people are meanwhile experiencing various marked forms of decline. We’re a generation (27 years) away from minority status in this country. In 2016, 70% of all suicides were carried out by white males. Statistics from the same year show that white people were about 50% and 167% more likely to die via drug overdoses than black and Hispanic people, respectively.

Could it be that rather than finally standing up to white people, the left is kicking them on their way down?

We have to take that question seriously, for the current culturally acceptable attitudes toward white people might not simply evaporate once whites finally reach minority status. Think about how we’re now allowed to speak publicly about white people. Think about the fact that Anne Hathaway’s words cannot be universally couched as racist due to disagreements between the left and the right on what actually stands to constitute legitimate racism.

Then think about Hathaway’s apparent disinterest — reflective of the disinterest of the left in general — in seeking any consensus surrounding what might constitute racism. Which is to say: She turned off the Instagram post’s comments feature. She sought not dialogue, but monologue. We can’t blame her, of course, given how heartlessly people can communicate on social media, especially on matters related to politics, especially in the aftermath of a gruesome crime. But we can take note of the fact that on this matter, at this time, Anne Hathaway’s thoughts seem to be resolved. She dropped the mic. She doesn’t wish to hear what you have to say; she wishes to tell you how to think and feel.

Never underestimate the far left’s propensity for a totalitarianism all its own. It pays to study up on Maoism, and the origins of political correctness. Under Mao in China, those who didn’t tow the Communist Party line were subject to shaming, expulsion, and other forms of punishment. Unity of thought and perspective was of paramount importance. Those who ventured stray forms of thinking were perceived to be sympathizing with the oppressors. If Mao could have turned off the comments section, he probably would have, too. (Actually, maybe not; word is he liked to encourage dissent…so he had a better sense of who exactly to single out for punishment.)

Have I made clear the parallel? Or is this white fragility talking?

Now, Anne Hathaway’s hardly a bad human being. In strict truth, there are no bad human beings (however cruel and dangerous our species may often be). Humans rise and fall in accordance with circumstance, as products of our environment.

In the current American cultural environment, those on the left can be rewarded and upheld by their ideological sisters and brothers for advancing the narrative that the veil of white privilege must be shredded so as to shatter the widespread grip of white supremacy.

I, too, would love to see it shatter. But for worse or for better, we cannot accomplish this peacefully without the willing participation of white people. Not only are there way too many of them, but they’re way smarter than we’ve been giving them credit for. We will not lure them in with lectures. We will not lower their defenses with barbs of judgment.

Ironically, one of Hathaway’s greatest performances is in a film called RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (2008), which revolves around a gentle and sunny cultural force which, immune to convention, driven by love, is quietly and steadily driving white supremacy into the ground:

I speak of course of the multiracial family.

The movie was lauded for its depiction thereof. Some critics (the usual crop of white guys — ha!) even said that movie made interracial marriage look utopian, and far easier than it is in real life.

But I’ve married interracially myself, and I call bullshit.

Two races can coexist, and thrive, in a marriage. Two races, and more, can do so within a single person. It happens all the time, across the world entire. Judging from the looks of our Twitter feeds, a lot of us seem to have left this simple fact on the back burner.

Bring it forward now. Crank the knob to High.

And if you’ve been talking at people, start talking to them. And be ready, in the midst of your mystifying life experience, for the humanity that they might wish to issue, in reply.

 

Eric Shapiro
Eric Shapiro is a writer and filmmaker. He is the author of six critically acclaimed fiction books, among them the novella "It's Only Temporary" (2005), which appeared on Nightmare Magazine's list of the Top 100 Horror Books, and numerous short stories published in anthologies alongside work by H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, and many others. His nonfiction articles have been published on The Daily Dot, Ravishly, and The Good Men Project. His first feature film, "Rule of 3" (2010), won awards at the Fantasia International Film Festival and Shriekfest, and had its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest. His second feature film, "Living Things" (2014), was endorsed by PETA (People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals) and distributed by Cinema Libre Studio. In 2015, he won the 19th Annual Fade In Award for Thriller Screenplays. He was a founding partner of Ghostwriters Central, a writing and editing firm which received positive notices from The Wall Street Journal, Consumers Digest, and the TV program "Intelligence For Your Life." Eric has edited works published on The Huffington Post and Forbes, as well as two Bram Stoker Award-nominated novels.
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