First-person essays have been around as long as the craft of writing itself, and they’ve enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. It’s easy to see why: from an editorial standpoint, first-person narratives offer a potentially unique take on a particular topic, and the outlet that runs them is able to offer a perspective that none of their competitors have. From a more cynical business-side view, since these essays are typically the work of freelancers or unpaid contributors, the outlet risks very little in terms of money or exposure while potentially reaping the benefits if the piece goes viral.
That said, virality is not necessarily an indicator of worthiness (as roughly half of Buzzfeed’s output can attest). And, yes, first-person essays can offer perspectives that humanize a particular issue or spark a renewed discussion about that issue. For example, I recently posted a piece about my experience as a biracial man who identifies as black but presents as white; we are a largely-undiscussed group of people, which is why I felt my experience was worth sharing. But for every first-person piece that serves as a meaningful (or at least unique) contribution to the overall discourse, they are far outnumbered by those that are little more than an exercise in meaningless self-indulgence.
Take, for example, a piece that was recently published on Huffington Post by Gayle Kirshenbaum, titled “It’s Time For White Parents Of White Kids To Bring The Resistance Home.” The thesis (inasmuch as one exists) is that white parents should take more of a proactive approach to educating their children about racial inequality in America. On its face, that seems like a perfectly reasonable – if not necessarily groundbreaking – topic of discussion. Kirshenbaum, who is white, begins by discussing her recent experience at a community meeting; almost immediately, however, the author veers into how guilty she feels about being white: “I feel myself to be living a split-level life: upstairs, in the public realm, I continue to call my representatives and go with my family to protests; downstairs, on the subterranean level, I’m wading through the muck of my own whiteness. This is not a place I want to be.”
Annnnd we’re off.
Kirshenbaum continues in this vein for a while, subtly playing up her “Good White Lady” bona fides amidst much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments about how it’s just so unfair that I’m white, I hate it so much, curse the gods who have consigned me to eternally bear the burden of whiteness. Take, for example, her experience at a workshop she attended called Undoing Racism: “I was expecting, at this training, to wholeheartedly acknowledge my white privilege. I’ve been very good at this for years.” First, congratulations for honing your ability to acknowledge your white privilege (and my apologies to everyone who has to hear you announce, unprompted, “I feel terribly about being white”). Second, “I attended a workshop called Undoing Racism” is possibly the whitest thing I’ve ever read.
A little later, she discusses her (white) friend’s (black) son being ignored by a group of kids on the playground; Kirshenbaum recalls her friend telling her that her son “already doesn’t like his skin color. He’s five.” Of course, immediately after sharing this genuinely heartbreaking anecdote, Kirshenbaum is quick to remind the reader that this essay is about her: “I wanted to imagine that I would have been the ‘good’ white parent, the one who would have recognized what was going on and stepped up in some way. But I very much doubt it. I would likely have told myself I wasn’t seeing what I was seeing, so that I wouldn’t have to figure out what to do about it.”
After awkwardly shoehorning in a reference to the recent murder of Jordan Edwards at the hands of police, Kirshenbaum then goes on to relay her (white) friend’s advice: “‘White parents of white kids need to start talking to each other. And it’ll all be imperfect, really hard and messy.'” Yet again, we see the performative hand-wringing over just how tough this whole racism thing can be. Won’t somebody think of the white parents, having less-than-Sorkinesque dialogues about race while safely surrounded entirely by other unfortunate white souls? We should hold a benefit concert for them. (And to play devil’s advocate for a moment, the kids on the playground could have been mean to her friend’s son because they’re kids, and kids can be – often for no real reason – pretty shitty to one another.)
A paragraph or so later, Kirshenbaum brings up “another friend, a parent and teacher who is African American, [who] wondered if my anecdote about this five-year-old boy’s experience on the playground would be truly understood by white readers of this essay. Would they feel its full impact?” While I’m glad Kirshenbaum was able to work in a reference to her black friends, I find it more than a little self-aggrandizing that she poses this question in such a way that seemingly positions her as distinct from the racist, mouth-breathing hordes in the flyover states.
Later in the piece, Kirshenbaum recalls hiring a nanny, “a woman who was born in Jamaica […] I had no idea how to hire someone to care for my child. And I was deeply uncomfortable with how it all ‘looked,’ but I squirmed silently.” Faced with the unimaginable hardship of feeling weird that her child’s nanny was Jamaican (pro tip: it’s only weird because you’re making it weird), Kirshenbaum decided to take her (white) friend’s advice and attack this crisis. And because she’s nothing if not helpful, she tells you, the reader, how you can address it too (emphasis mine): “We have to clean our bathrooms, set out some food, and invite over our white friends to keep writing letters to Congress and also to talk – with as little judgment and as much honesty as possible – about our relationship to race as we grew up; about how our families talked about race; about how we are or aren’t talking about race and our racism…” So to recap, her suggestion is to tackle this racism problem head-on…with a snack-laden letter-writing campaign, conducted in the comfort of one’s own home, surrounded by other white people. I can’t put my finger on it, but it seems like something is missing.
I could go on, but if you’ve ever read any first-person essays on race written by well-meaning white people before, you already know how it goes. And that, ultimately, is my problem with this piece: it is exactly like every other piece of its ilk. Kirshenbaum serves up a healthy dose of performative self-flagellation while simultaneously nudging the reader in the ribs and winking, “See, I’m one of the good ones – that’s why I feel so bad.” The value of the first-person perspective, at least in theory, is in its ability to convey a new message and put a human face on that message. But Kirshenbaum’s message is not new, nor does it offer a unique take on race relations; it is a press release for her personal brand as the author uses herself as her own character witness. There is no more well-worn and less-useful contribution to the racial discourse in America than clumsy thinkpieces offered by “woke” white people.
Despite my objections to this piece and to whatever lies Kirshenbaum told herself in order to believe that this was a good and necessary thing to write, I think her intentions were good. She lists a few ways for readers to get involved, though her recommendations (join a group of all white people; attend a webinar; go to a workshop) leave something to be desired. That said, well-intentioned though it may be, this piece and others like it only serve to reinforce the notion that racism will go away if everybody just decides to feel really badly about it. The ideas in this piece are reductive and, frankly, idiotic – racism cannot be cured by workshops, or playground interventions, or webinars, or lots of very public contemplation about The Burden Of Being White. It is a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution; I don’t presume to know exactly what that solution entails, but I’m fairly confident de facto segregation in the form of whites-only pity parties is a step in the wrong direction. Kirshenbaum’s suggestions for ending racism help the people least affected by it feel better about themselves; outside of that, they’re worthless by any metric. And decrying the existence of racism while ignoring the realities of what is required to fix it is cynical at best and downright harmful at worst.