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?