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ADAM SAVAGE’S WHITE GUILT @ THE MOTH
Discusses Adam Savage's performance at "The Moth"
The Moth, a storytelling event that was part of the San Francisco Bay Area Science Festival, had UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall packed full of people for an evening of funny, sad, beautiful and touching stories. The last performer of the evening was Adam Savage of San Francisco. Savage told about the struggles of his contemporary parenthood: the beauty and difficulty of being a father to twin sons, whose ‘mental codes’ he tries to control, and the struggle to provide them with a moral education as they come of age in a world much different from the one he knew as a child. Savage is a guy in his early forties maybe, white-American, bearded, wears casual Jeans, and seems quirky and artistic. He spoke of the code running through his sons’ young brains, making me think of what his day job may be, in computer programming, in Silicon Valley, or a Start up, something of the sort.
Savage tells us about an early childhood memory, in which as a 5-year old he is wrestled down by a black kid on the playground, and goes home to tell his mother about it, upset and confused. She responded, “well, black people have a lot to be angry about” and went on to provide him with the ‘context’ for his playground fight, as he reports, of the U.S.’ violent history of slavery, a snippet of American black-white relations, told at a different moment in history right after the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Savage tells us that he appreciates his mother’s efforts to give him context, to explain to him why he shouldn’t be angry with the black kid for wrestling him down on the playground. “I get it now” – he reports – but as a five year old, he says didn’t get it, all he could think was “but I’m one of the good guys!”
Here is a foundational moment in Adam Savage’s life. He may just have been seen as a perpetrator, experienced as a ‘bad person,’ taken as a representative of white America even, when really, he is just himself, a good boy, who would like to be acknowledged for being a good boy. He wants to be recognized as a good person. And then he says, to a room of many hundreds of people at UC Berkeley, “Every time I see a black person, still to this day, I think, but I’m one of the good ones. I’m one of the good ones!”
Some people clap, some laugh, many are silent. The sentence was spoken, and it stuck.
“Every time I see a black person” ... Savage, every time he sees a black person, HE SEES A BLACK PERSON. He does not see a person, he sees a black person. Blackness, the very first thing he sees. Everything builds on that, any interaction is framed through that, any communication depends on this initial gaze/ordering, and his immediate affective resorting to guilt. It was striking. Was Savage only speaking to the white (part of the) audience, trying to evoke their white solidarity with this sentiment? This audience was mixed, but Savage’s words seemed to re-arrange it, to order who is being addressed and who is not. What Savage’s words contain is that he is now as an adult reminded of this guilt he felt as a white boy every time he sees a black person. It seems like the classic move of blaming your mother. What is more: He must not like to see black people, I think, if the encounter every single time triggers guilt deep inside him, discomfort, his boyhood memories of being ‘mistaken’ for a bad person and not getting the deserved recognition that he is one of the good ones. Does anyone like being reminded of being guilty? Wouldn’t anyone rather go about their day without the reminder of the cruelties of history, violences of the past? Does it sometimes trigger anger for Savage, I wonder, for not – finally! – being recognized as the good person he is?
I was surprised this statement made it into the realm of what is considered ‘appropriate’ or ‘pc’ with American audiences (or maybe it wasn’t and that’s why it is so cool and taboo-breaking?). Anthropologist John Jackson speaks about this phenomenon in his book Racial Paranoia: The communication shifts as black and white mix publicly in this country: people stop saying what they really mean, and overthink their communication in terms of how the projected racial other might react. Because this situation causes mental stress, Jackson argues, many people try to avoid any communication across perceived racial lines. Back to Savage’s story: his sons are growing up ‘racism-free’ (he tells us) in the diverse city of San Francisco. They are lucky, he tells the audience – their minds, their inner software, as he keeps saying, are free of the guilt he had to bear as a child.
Savage’s obnoxious story gives texture to what is meant by ‘white – liberal, I assume, him being such a good guy – guilt. I had never before heard anyone in such detail trace this white American guilt so clearly to such a defining single moment of childhood. It was the most self-involved thing I had heard in a while. “Me, me, me!,” Savage seems to scream, “I’m good!” Yes, everything boils down to Adam Savage’s desire to be recognized as a good boy. Or a good man, a good father!, as he goes on to tell the audience. As a father he tries to protect his twin sons from the evils of the internet. The final part of Savage’s quintessentially white-American storytelling is taken up by accounts of his ex-wife’s and his attempts to come to terms with their sons’ first online porn-searches and inevitable online socialization. He describes his sons’ behaviors toward him – the rare attention and respect for him between long stretches of stoic ignorance of his existence as a father, a man of moral goodness, or an authority figure. Savage resorts to telling his sons “the internet hates women.” This is Savage’s punch line – and gets him some affirmation from the audience. With this point, he completes his analogy: the racism of his childhood corresponds to the sexism of contemporary San Francisco.
But how could a technology-gone-infrastructure hate women? Sexist agency must surely – at least partially – come from people who run internet porn sites. By telling his sons that the internet hates women, he accuses an infrastructure of being intrinsically tied to hateful ideology and displaces the real accountability of situated people in structural and individual contexts onto the technological. On no level does his analogy work: Sexism and racism both operate now in American society, structurally and inter-personally – as he just demonstrated. It is neither reasonable to blame the internet for sexism, nor to describe San Francisco as racism-free (has he been around this fair city?). Much as there was racism and sexism in his own youth, both exist now, despite the many transformations this country has undergone since the 1970s. So with a guilt-ridden white father like Savage, do his sons really grow up in a racism-free world? And how will they process their father’s deep-seated guilt about being white in a society built on slavery – a guilt feeling Savage reportedly experiences every time he sees a black person? As they become adults, how will their father’s guilt continue to shape them?