I was going to write about two things I am still learning but now it’s three, because in the spirit of learning I said “Of course!” to my WordPress prompt “Try the new editor,” a prompt which I’ve ignored for a few weeks but not today. Today is a day for learning.
While everyone gushes how great it is to be constantly learning, there is an uncomfortable underside to it of which children, adolescents, even people well into young adulthood are often more aware than (relative) oldsters like me: If you’re still learning, it means either you were previously ignorant of something, or misinformed, or simply all-out wrong. For example, I was ignorant of the new WordPress editor. No problem, right? Just learn it.
But of course, there might be a problem. I understand the old program. I’m not sure what will happen when I hit “Publish” in the new editor. So in learning, even something of which I was simply previously ignorant, I leave myself open to error. Possibly to humiliation, however mild.
Here’s another example. I’m doing some magazine writing lately, and for the first time I’ve come across some sources that don’t want to be identified. No problem, say my editors, but the article I write must still be fact-checked. Whoa! I say. My sources don’t want to be hassled!
A very kind editor tells me, simply, that “The story must be fact checked by someone other than you. That’s what makes the magazine accountable.”
But it’s what she doesn’t say that makes this particular experience of learning tolerable. What she doesn’t say is “Are you stupid, or just unethical?”
Mostly I was stupid, but another person might have called me on a lack of ethics. Humiliating, at best. Worse, a source of uncomfortable self-doubt: am I unethical?
And so far we’ve only been considering easy ways to learn, right? When we’re only guilty of a lack of information. How about the other ways we learn? When we have to recognize we’ve been misinformed, or even wrong? When we have to own up to something other than ignorance?
I’ve just finished reading Citizen: An American Lyric ( described on publisher Graywolf’s website as “Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recount[ing] mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media.”) It is, at once, an easy and a difficult read. Easy because Rankine is a poet, and the words are poetry. Easy because some of the photographs and artwork say things much more clearly than even poetry.
Difficult, because I found myself sometimes doubting the veracity of what Rankine writes. Difficult because I was reminded of a conversation, now several years ago, in which I was chastised to talk less and listen more, a conversation in which I was dismissed as a Caucasian feminist.
Difficult, because I am a proud person, an intense person, and certainly (?) not a racist.
Difficult because Rankine makes me uncomfortable.
Difficult because I have a lot to learn.
But I have learned, from Rankine and uncomfortable discussions. For example, Rankine writes about a situation in which she was standing in a line and a white person just walked right past her, went ahead of her in line as if she weren’t there. A micro-aggression, it might be described, and as I read it, I wondered, Who hasn’t been subject to NOT being seen on occasion?
And yet, in the past several days we’ve had this revelation about Oscar nominations, that for two years straight there have been zero people of color nominated for best actor, male or female. Maybe you think it would be unfair to call individuals on the the 92% white Oscar nominating committee racist. Unfair to assume that they didn’t nominate actors of color simply because they were actors of color.
But what if they didn’t choose them because they didn’t see them?
It’s this invisibility that is part (I think, if I am learning correctly) of institutional racism. When you hear the phrase institutional racism in the future, can you learn to think of a 92% white nominating committee NOT SEEING actors who aren’t white?
Can you learn that you need to learn?
Can you learn to make yourself uncomfortable?
You can start with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.