Privilege at the Classics Cafe

Imagine that you are a chef. You and a group of chef friends are going to dinner at a place called the Classics Cafe. This cafe is famous for its rotating schedule of internationally-renowned chefs who take turns each night preparing a menu for the diners.

Tonight, Chef Lovecraft is on the menu. You all order, receive your dishes, and begin to eat. You’re enjoying yourselves very much until your friend Bill, who happens to be a black man, exclaims, “Hey, there’s crap in my food!” He passes around his plate, and sure enough, you all see a small amount of feces buried underneath the smoked fish. Everyone checks their own plates, and it’s the strangest thing: only the people of color have been served crap along with their fish. So you call the waiter over, and he explains that Chef Lovecraft’s philosophy is to serve a little crap to his diners of color, and nothing can be done about it.

But you’re all hungry, and Lovecraft after all is a very famous chef, so you all discuss what to do. “The taste isn’t that bad,” says Bill, gamely putting on a smile as he takes another bite. “I think I can eat around it and enjoy the taste anyway.”

“I can’t,” says your friend Lisa, who is also black. “The taste and smell just overwhelm everything. It’s so distracting I can’t even concentrate on whatever it is people rave about when they eat Lovecraft. I’m going to have to pass.” She politely shoves the plate away and nibbles on bread the rest of the meal. The other people of color take various positions along this spectrum. Some decide to keep eating, and some decide to refrain.

Those of you whose dishes are perfectly edible then discuss how to proceed. Everyone can see the crap on your friends’ plates, but you can’t taste it the way they can. You care about these people, so you’re disgusted on their behalf, but you’re not really sure just exactly how bad it tastes for them, especially considering how wildly opinions vary within the group of people served the tainted plates.

Some of you decide to enjoy Lovecraft’s expertly prepared dish anyway after acknowledging the awfulness some of your friends experienced. You’re chefs, after all, and you’re trying to build your palates so you can be better chefs.

Others are a little more bothered, and keep pulling the conversation from the smoky flavor back to the crap, which irritates those who just want to talk about the fish. Your Uncle Stanley (who is boorish and inconsiderate, but hey, he’s family) is one of the latter. He exclaims, “That’s not crap–it’s chocolate! And if it weren’t for all the political correctness, we’d all be able to enjoy our meals, but some people just want to be victims and ruin it for the rest of us!”

A few are so upset by the crap in their own or friends’ food that they gather their things and leave, saying they’ll rejoin you for dinner next week. Your 17-year-old niece Julie takes the opportunity to leave with them, saying, “I don’t want to eat this boring old racist Lovecraft crap when I can just grab a cheeseburger at McKoontz’s across the street!”

Each week you return to the same restaurant with the same people to eat a meal prepared by a different famous chef. Sometimes everyone gets to enjoy the meal, but other times the featured chef singles out certain people at the table for a serving of crap. Sometimes it’s the people of color. Sometimes it’s your female friends, or those belonging to a certain religion or belief system. Some friends end up eating crap almost every time this happens, while others almost never get served crap.

The size of the portion, and how well-hidden it is, varies as well. On some weeks, even Uncle Stanley admits that the crap is there. Other times, you have only your friends’ word to go on that the food tastes like crap, because it’s been incorporated into a glaze and therefore isn’t visible to you.

One night, Chef Atwood is on the menu. She serves your table a delicious chocolate mousse that’s shaped like a large pile of crap, provoking a chorus of delighted laughter from everyone who’s been served crap up until then. Uncle Stanley, however, is outraged. “This is unacceptable! Back in my day, no self-respecting chef would serve the diners crap and call it food!”

—————————————————————————-

How do we, in good conscience, enjoy classic books and movies that contain oppressive and discriminatory elements in them? And how do we know where to draw the line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” when those elements are directed at other people, but not at ourselves personally?

I’ve long struggled for words to explain the difference between seeing oppression and experiencing it. For example, I’m white. When I read classics that contain racist elements (such as those by the famously racist H. P. Lovecraft), the racism is never directed at me personally. I might find the racism tasteless, but I don’t experience the hurtfulness of it personally because the crap was not served to me.

I’m really troubled by the way this distinction can make me minimize other peoples’ pain. Because I only see the crap but don’t personally taste it, I’m inclined to downplay just how bad it tastes to those who have to eat it. It’s easy to shrug, write off the racism as a product of its time, and move on.

That’s a form of privilege. Specifically, the privilege to walk away. You see, I almost never encounter the subject of racism in my day-to-day life. I only have to think about it when someone else brings it up, or when I encounter it in media. Therefore, it doesn’t carry the same sort of sting for me as it does for someone whose daily life constantly makes their race an issue.

I have no idea what that must feel like. I can see the crap, but I can’t taste it. I can walk away from it.

But it’s different when the crap is served to me. When I run across sexism in a book or movie, I have a deep, visceral reaction to it. It completely derails my enjoyment of what I’m reading, and sometimes I find it very difficult to get past the flavor of the sexism to enjoy what good might be there. Sometimes I’ll compare notes with my male friends, and it always surprises me that even when they notice the sexism, they just don’t seem to understand how hurtful it is. They note it, then move past it.

They can’t taste the crap because it was only served to me.

So what can we do to be responsible readers, writers, and friends, given this problem?

As writers, we can commit to ending oppression by ensuring that we don’t single out readers for a special serving of crap. Given that we’re all products of our upbringing and our surrounding culture, this is an ongoing process and part of growing as a human being.

As readers and friends, we need to listen to each other and acknowledge when a friend gets served crap. There is no need to make excuses for the chef–he or she is the one who served it, not us or our friends.

We need to give people permission to make their own decisions on how to proceed with the meal. If someone is served crap, the diner is not obligated to eat around it, although some may graciously choose to do so. Sometimes, we will decide to enjoy the meal after helping the friend pick out the tainted parts. Other times, when the crap is especially bad, we may decide the best thing to do is to leave together. And other times, it means letting some eat and others pass without judgment on either side.

How do you handle dining at the Classics Cafe? How do you approach literature with problematic elements, and the people those elements are directed at hurting?

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18 thoughts on “Privilege at the Classics Cafe

  1. I recently read an article very similar to this.

    Especially as someone trying to become a better writer, I think it’s sometimes a good thing to read books where we disagree with an element of what the author says. It causes us to think a little harder.

    1. I’d mostly agree that it’s good not to live in a bubble. But I would also say that when a specific work makes you participate in your own dehumanization, to the point where you’re just not able to taste the good flavors through the crap, then there’s no shame in sitting that particular book/story out. It’s probably a good idea to at least attempt it, though. 🙂

  2. This is definitely an interesting situation from the perspective of a teacher trying to provide a literary education. As adults, this conversation is still difficult, but at least adults are trusted more for having palates developed enough that they can push away their plates, and are more likely than children to be respected for the decision. With children, it’s hard to tell if they’re complaining about the crap, or if they’re using the crap (real or imagined) as an excuse to avoid their broccoli in lieu of cotton candy media.

    1. This is a real problem, and something I thought about when I wrote this. Sounds like your kids are something like the fictional niece Julie in the metaphor. She uses the real, legitimate problem of racism as a convenient excuse to opt out of reading something that has some real value.

      I’m not really sure what the solution for it is, other than to keep feeding ’em their broccoli while not ignoring real problems related to privilege that are there. I believe that the crap should be acknowledged up front one way or another. We can talk about it, and then set it aside and tackle the good that’s still there in many cases. But I agree that with adults, the whole process becomes much more straightforward.

  3. I try to judge books by reference frame. HPL was a product of the turn-of-20th century time-frame. I feel differently about his racism compared to someone that writes a book in the year 2000.

    1. It’s always a good idea to take historical context into account, but I suppose it doesn’t necessarily how a person of color will experience the sting of racism (or how me, as a woman, will experience vintage sexism). This is less about explaining away or rationalizing problems in literature as it is about being supportive of the reactions some of our friends may have to it.

      1. Justice is an issue, too. I think one could successfully argue that racism is unjust no matter the place or era, whether it’s frowned upon or widely accepted.

      2. I couldn’t agree more, Loren. Well put. Crap has always been crap, even when it was more socially acceptable to force people to eat it, or when they weren’t allowed to speak out about it. And it’s still the case in many parts of the world.

    2. An acknowledgement is not the same thing as a free pass. If Lovecraft is racist because his society was racist, that’s a reason to think about or discuss historical racism, not a reason to ignore the racism in Lovecraft’s work. Nor is it a reason to brush aside the concerns of people who feel uncomfortable about that historical racism.

  4. Old cartoons are a great example of this in my opinion. As a child Dumbo was fun to watch and I watched it often. However, now I can look back and see racist overtones in some of the characters. I don’t consider myself a bad person for liking the cartoon, but I do think that it is necessary to notice and react to the ‘crappy’ parts.

    It is my opinion that we cannot erase the parts of history that are dark or uncomfortable, rather we must understand, not accept, and overcome these obstacles. Great conversation you have spurred by the way.

    1. Wow – vintage cartoons are SUCH a great example! I’m reminded of how common racial stereotypes are in old Loony Tunes episodes as well. I’d forgotten about Dumbo.

      I agree 100% that we can both enjoy the good and note the bad. I think it would be equally problematic if we attempted to expunge offensive texts altogether. In a sense they act as a reminder to those of us not served tainted food that people once accepted their privilege so blindly that they didn’t even attempt to hide it. At one point in time, racism wasn’t universally considered an evil, which is a very dark thing to contemplate.

      1. So true! Its kind of sad though to think of how many of my childhood memories are tainted by small thinking.

        I’ve shared your story with some of my friends at work I hope this conversation spreads 🙂

  5. Rachael, I just spent a year reading the short fiction of Lovecraft, so your post resonates with me. He has lots of stuff I’d consider problematic, such as his thoroughgoing nihilism. But the racism truly bothered me. He wasn’t just prejudiced; he honestly believed in the biological superiority and inferiority of various races.

    For myself, I read Lovecraft for literacy’s sake. (I wasn’t very familiar with his work beforehand.) I doubt I’ll be returning to it often in the future.

    1. Whoa! It’s like we PLANNED our blog posts this week! What a great coincidence!

      I’m glad you stopped by, because I’ve been following your Lovecraft read-through with great enjoyment, and was wondering what you might think from having spent so much time with HPL last year. I’ve read some of Lovecraft’s most famous works, but not anywhere near approaching the ground you’ve covered.

      One of my friends called HPL the crazy racist uncle of literature, and that about sums it up for me. You love him and appreciate him as part of the family, but at the same time he should make you feel very, very uncomfortable for reasons unrelated to his cosmic horror.

      1. I saw your post and though, “Well, now, isn’t this interesting?”

        Thanks for taking the time to follow the series. I’m glad I did it, but I’m also ready to take a long break from Lovecraft.

  6. A nice, thought-provoking blog. I wish I had a set answer, or a line I could draw. I had a conversation a while back with someone (a guy) about The Taming of the Shrew. A classic work of literature that was ahead of its time in many ways, but it always gives me a squicky feeling anyway. A woman was basically being “trained” by her husband through negative punishment (the withholding of good things until she stopped expressing her opinions and asserting herself). The guy I talked to doesn’t see it like this at all. To him it’s a timelessly sweet love story about a guy who saw the potential in a disregarded woman and taught her to be a nicer person.

    I do wish people who were not singled out for the crap would give the people who say they can taste it in their serving the benefit of the doubt at least. It doesn’t help that some groups of people seem to be served crap a lot less than others. Some get so little crap overall that when they do they usually just shrug it off, because there’s plenty else for them to eat. The hurt can really come to a head when the privileged tell people who get a much higher percentage of crappy dishes that they know what it feels like because of that one time it happened to them, and everyone should just move past it now and not take it personally.

    1. Many thanks for reading! I’m with you–I wish it were easy to say how much crap is too much, so we could all agree on it. I’ve come to the conclusion that each person’s tolerance for this stuff is intensely personal. Even my limits vary from day to day, based on what else I’ve had to put up with and how supportive the people around me are. I might be more willing and able to eat around the crap if I’m with particularly wonderful friends who acknowledge the problem and don’t try to minimize it. Other days, I’ve had too much of a taste to endure anymore. The important thing is to respect people’s own judgment and allow people to opt out when they need to, no questions asked.

      And yeah, I had the same reaction to “Taming of the Shrew”! Too uncomfortably close to domestic violence for me to completely lose myself in the story, even if, being Shakespeare, parts of it are positively brilliant. I think it’s a good warning to anyone who writes, too: dehumanizing people will eventually make your works irrelevant, so even if you’re Shakespeare, the laughs you score at a woman’s expense will someday be accounted for when women have a seat at the table.

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