Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Scent of Entitlement

One of the Hub's favorite films is Scent of a Woman (1992), the Al Pacino film that finally earned him an Oscar and introduced us to the prodigious talents of a young Philip Seymour Hoffman (with respect to Chris O'Donnell). If he catches it at the beginning, he is likely to watch it all the way through, which is a full two hours plus, so I am generally relieved when he stumbles upon it midway or close to the end. 

After sitting through umpteen viewings, I have come to understand a lot of the film's appeal and hidden brilliance. I won't mine too much of that here, but it is one of those classic examinations of a working class kid thrust into the ruthless environment of an elite old money private school. It is precisely the kind of underdog story that speaks to someone like the Hub, who in spite of making it into an Ivy League college and into a good government job, he still harbors the bitterness of having once been a lot like Charlie, the protagonist. He hasn't told me any horrific stories, but I can see why he resents the fictional, yet very real world of rich assholes who never face consequences for screwing over people they never have to notice. Because their narrow world only has room for a handful of scholarship kids. 

Yeah, I read the letter. And I've got a lot to say in response to Mr. Andrew Gutmann and his tone deaf white privilege manifesto. I honestly think his wife Karen wrote this, but you know, chivalry and shit, so I will go on and allow Colonel Slade to express how the Hub would probably respond.

Now picking up that mic from where it was last dropped, allow me to disclose that unlike the Hub, I come to this with some insider knowledge as the alumna of an all-girls high school. Not nearly as elite as The Brearley School, yet I feel confident enough to address Mr. Gutmann as an alumna of two private women's institutions on the merits of these environments. And since he and I are roughly the same age, it is possible he's still pissed I got that seat at Tulane that he felt someone more deserving should have filled, so the chip he has on his shoulder is just as defiant and stubborn as the Hub's. There is a lot to unpack, so let's start with his utter lack of self awareness.

Mr. Guttman, you live in New York City, one of these most expensive places to live in this country. I am going to make several assumptions here, beginning with the apartment building with a doorman and never having had to take the subway anywhere at any point in your life. You probably know my very good friends, the Kittredges (yes, the Six Degrees of Separation Kittredges), which means you don't actually know any Black people other than the ones you resented in law/grad school. You are aware of Black celebrities with wealth, but you aren't impressed (really you aren't). And any other random Black person you encounter who might be working in your building or somewhere in your neighborhood is the good kind that would never get arrested for the various petty crimes that result in choke holds on the freshly swept sidewalk in front of your local Whole Foods.

Yes, you live in the most diverse city, yet you don't actually know any Black people well enough to declare that our struggles are imaginary. You don't see systematic racism because you falsely believe that good people like your Dad who voted for Ed Koch, got along well with the Blacks as long as they stayed in the outer boroughs or in Harlem. When you voted for Obama and later for Bill DeBlasio (and his Black wife), you convinced yourself that racism no longer exists because if they can ascend to the heights of political power, then there are no excuses for the rest of us. Any self-determined Black person can escape the imaginary confines of the ghettos that were built to contain us--just as long as not too  many of them try to infiltrate your daughter's school. 

Because you pay good money to send her to school with the children of Chelsea Clinton and Tina Fey, so you have every right to demand that the standards be kept such that only the most deserving Black girls get admitted, like Blue Ivy Carter or Olympia Ohanian. And why should there be Black faculty if the support staff is diverse enough?

So by all means, withdraw your daughter from Brearley and spend your hard earned money at some other exclusive private school upstate where there will be even less talk of diversity and inclusiveness, which relieves you from the agony of participating in International Day or Black History Month. You can rest assured that at her new school, she will get to read Gone With the Wind with no redactions or disclaimers. And you won't have to worry about mispronouncing anyone's name or saying something politically incorrect or accommodating anyone's unfamiliar religious observances. You can breathe easier knowing that your daughter and her new friends won't have to see color or talk about race anymore.

Because that is what Martin Luther King wanted. And you know this because you've heard that "I Have A Dream" portion of the March on Washington address enough times to recite it from memory. You know that when King said that people should not be judged by their skin color, he knew that the world would magically hear his words and begin to regard Black lives as equal to their own. Thus, by insisting on making bold declarations such as Black Lives Matter in response to injustice, we are dishonoring the wishes of a man who was killed while defending the labor demands of Black sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. Protestors who carried these signs, by the way:

But do go on about dreams and all of that colorblind reverse racism fluff that allows you to sleep at night.

You worked hard. Your father worked hard, as did his father and all of the men before that. The fact that there were laws and policies that enabled your forefathers to succeed while those same laws kept hardworking Black and Latinx folks in ghettos and in low-paying jobs without benefits or the means to build generational wealth is not systematic racism, but the luck of the draw, survival of the fittest. The real racism comes from succumbing to these inequities, because acknowledging how redlining, employment discrimination, educational inequality, voter dilution, criminal injustice, intentional environmental neglect, and all of these other systemic ills are just excuses. Tools of the incompetent. Monuments of nothingness. Used by those who seldom amount to anything. Isn't that right? So let's not dwell on the negative aspects of history and policies that are "prima facie evidence of...white supremacy and oppression", because to do so is "Marxist, anti-family," as well as "misguided, divisive, counterproductive[,] and cancerous."

Currently, alumnae from my now-defunct all-girls high school are planning a last gathering to honor the building that housed our old school, which is scheduled to get demolished this summer. Mind you, the school closed thirty years ago and the building had been in use as a public middle school for the bulk of that time. But now all of a sudden, there is this emotional outpouring of nostalgia for a useless, abandoned building. I would love to know how many of these alumnae have "pledged everlasting loyalty" to our successor institution in these last 30 years... And yes, I have a lot of mixed feelings about all of this rosy retrospection, as if everything was rainbows and unicorns. That may accurately describe the experience for a particular demographic of alumnae but definitely not for all of us. So perhaps I am triggered by Mr. Gutmann's whiny manifesto because similar concerns were expressed as our incoming classes increasingly reflected the diversity and inclusiveness of a community that was changing demographically. Lowered admissions standards. Too much change, not enough respect for tradition. Once that balance tipped in favor of the daughters of Black federal government workers instead of the daughters of ethnic white Catholic military veterans, the school closed...while others that hiked their tuition have thrived.

Yeah, Mr. Gutmann. Someone had to say it. Someone had to speak up against the tyranny of committing to being actively anti-racist as opposed to just pretending to being colorblind. Someone had to remind us that exclusive schools like Brearley weren't founded to promote racial equality or social justice. The actresses and socialites that number among its distinguished alumnae aren't charged with seeking to change the world inasmuch as they do make it look stylish.

If I have been restrained in blasting Mr. Gutmann's lack of self-awareness, that is an acknowledgement that I am tossing pebbles from inside my own messy glass house. My parents sent me to private school for the same reasons most parents choose to bypass perfectly good public school options. And I am willing to call them out for doing so because as a parent myself, I understand the pros and cons of making that choice. One of those cons is the illusion that private schools offer a more academically rigorous curriculum. In hindsight, it only looked like my high school education was superior because my parents were paying for it, but once I arrived at Spelman there were no distinguishable differences between the public and private school students. Of course, that is my own anecdotal experience, not definitive or universal truth.

Therefore, another con is the assumption that private school kids have earned access to some exclusive world of wonder that others do not deserve to enjoy. As if being able to afford certain amenities isn't just another purchase or an acquisition. Private school is akin to buying a first-class ticket as opposed to an economy class ticket. Mr. Gutmann's investment in his daughter's education isn't about how smart she is, rather it is a glorified insurance policy that she will have access to an exclusive sorority of privilege that becomes less so the more Brearley embraces diversity.

Thus when a kid like Charlie Simms, who depends on scholarships and work study to afford tuition at schools like Baird tries to fit in and not rock the boat, it doesn't matter because everybody knows his status and they make it a point to remind him that he is different. When kids like Jamal Wallace are admitted to prep schools like Mailor-Callow on athletic scholarships, they are expected to shut up and dribble, not befriend reclusive writers or charm the alumni President's daughter. When punks like Will Hunting are discovered to be undercover geniuses, we hope that they don't squander the opportunity to be something greater. When independent women like Katherine Watson challenge the conventional wisdom that educated women deserve the opportunity to pursue the same career choices as their male counterparts, we know that Ruth Bader Ginsberg would concur. When immigrants like Alexander Hamilton vow not to throw away his shot, somewhere Aaron Burr is keeping a list and polishing his revolver...

So spare us the bullshit about merit when you know this is all about money and the predictable backlash against challenges to a status quo that has been harmful to more students of color than you care to admit. 

This is where I can offer the perspective that Mr. Gutmann didn't reference in his letter. You see, I can speak to my own pain and confusion as a young girl in a high school where psychological damage was done by so-called colorblindness and race neutrality. It was traumatic for me as a freshman to have no recourse in situations where I was accused of cheating or academic dishonesty or told that I was not as smart as my peers because I was twelve and unfocused. The first person to notice my potential and challenge those assertions was my 11th grade science teacher, Ms. P, ironically an alumna herself and the only Black teacher at the school. She saw Spelman as a possibility for me and helped make it a reality when others were not all that convinced or concerned where I went to college.

I also took time to read the other open letter about academic indoctrination, and for now, I will pledge to revisit that topic in a subsequent piece when I can devote more time to addressing how ironic it is for some white people to believe that their internal feelings about race speak for everyone, including those who aren't in the room to contribute. It is a lot like watching those very special episodes of 80s era sitcoms. 

I need to wrap this up so that I can get my daughter, whom I'm pretty sure could earn a spot at Brearley if I could afford it, from Kindergarten. Because unless the entrance exam requires her to understand the quadratic formula at the age of six, I think she can hold her own with the daughters of actors and socialites. Of course I believe she is brilliant and bold and beautiful, and I want her to have as many advantages and opportunities that I did not have when I was her age. So like my own parents, I am willing to unapologetically pay for her to access those spaces because I understand how the world works. However, it is utterly amazing to me that as soon as some people get uncomfortable about having to consider a worldview that doesn't center on them, whew, the big words and hurt feelings and the tears come, followed by the threat of packing up their toys.

Just like Colonel Slade, I'm just getting warmed up. I've got a lot more to say in part two when we deconstruct Sharon Osborne and how cancel culture isn't really a thing...

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