Who Am I?
(Original Platinum & Palladium print by Roger Mullins, copyright 2009).

I continue to work through a number of issues since we started to read Ratcliffe’s work. While I agree with her efforts to create a framework for recognizing how whiteness and gender inform the power differentials in America, I take exception to certain premises that serve as the bases of her argument. First, I do not cleave to her claim that reading texts is “listening.” Though Ratcliffe is quick to dismiss the graduate student who “prefac[ed] her remarks with, ‘Of course, what you’re really talking about is a kind of reading’” (23), I embrace that student’s remark. Considering Ratcliffe’s entire work consumes 171 pages, I’ve been on the defensive about her argument from the beginning. I’m reading a text—symbols physically printed on sheets of paper collated in a particular fashion based on the (more than a) thousand year old convention of the codex that I hold in my hands. I acknowledge that the codex is a removal from the scroll, and that the digital book is a removal from (but an homage to) the codex.

That said, I am not hearing the words, and am not therefore listening to them. I read and analyze and evaluate the symbols on the page based on my (limited) understanding of the conventions of standard American usage and grammatical conventions. In other words, I embrace standard English with the understanding that I’m theoretically supporting a codified patriarchal white male language system. As a brief aside, I agree with Stephen that many non-standard English constructions do communicate clearly. A few years ago I read a number of critics who described conventions in Black English– such as the double-negative construction– as being as deeply inscribed and codified as standard English conventions. However, I subscribe to the idea that all cultures embrace a standard language to facilitate communication across the variations that occur within the boundaries of a country/culture.

I’m unconvinced today that reading and listening are covalent (yes, I know the term specifically applies to chemistry, and describes shared electrons at the atomic level—but the idea of fundamental shared bonds is relevant to this discussion), and because of that I’m skeptical about much of the argument that follows. For example, I have further issues with her (re)definition of eavesdropping. First, I admire any writer who tries to rescue a cliché or examine accepted meanings. See Gary Larson, a white male cartoonist, as an example.

Rescuing a cliché.

However, I don’t believe that Ratcliffe’s definition of eavesdropping is accurate. More precisely, I don’t believe she has successfully appropriated the word, stripped it of its negative connotations, and recast it as a positive verb. None of the definitions from the OED (I have the 12 volume set plus 3 supplements for sale at $850, and I extend an additional 20% discount to my classmates) are neutral; each of the definitions state or imply that the eavesdropper is listening in on private, secret conversations. While Ratcliffe wishes to justify her redefinition by wrapping it up with the pretty ribbon of ethical eavesdropping (or listening), her example of the “cocktail guy”(101-104) undermines her authority.

First, she takes one sentence out of the greater context in which it was offered and takes issue with it. We do not know if the speaker and his comment was ironic, arrogant, ignorant, or facile. What I see Ratcliffe do is to use the non-standard term “guy” repeatedly thereafter when she refers to that speaker and that comment. Furthermore, in the three pages following that overheard comment, she uses the non-standard or diminutive term “coctail-guy” or “boys” or “white guy” five times—and another three times at the end of the chapter. As we’ve noted in class, Ratcliffe uses terms purposefully and carefully. So what is her purpose in repeating the slang/non-standard/or diminutive term for man—especially this man—so frequently? Yes, I am a man of a certain age, and have no personal issue with the term guy—I self-identify as a guy, and sometimes a boy, especially to my parents and sister (I am not now, nor have I ever been a dude). I find Ratcliffe’s use of the term suspect as she seems to be mocking both the speaker and his use of the noun as an identifier. He is reduced to “cocktail-guy” instead of man or male. His use of the term is used against him, IMHO.
The thing is, I find Ratcliffe to be articulate, intelligent, and sincere. Her efforts to reveal and discuss whiteness and gender are important as part of the continuum of previous and future discussions. I just don’t think she’s saying anything that I haven’t heard in the past forty years (this raises the question of whether or not I’ve listened to what I’ve heard).
I’m offering one more video here because I’m interested in the arts. This does go beyond Ratcliffe’s discussion in many ways, but I ask you to view it and think about this: Don’t these artists embody—even typify white privilege? I have some thoughts about that question, and I’m curious to know if I’m overthinking this. I tried to embed the following link. You may have to cut and paste, but it’s worth the effort.

<iframe src=”http://player.vimeo.com/video/18672227?byline=0&portrait=0&color=4abcc2&#8243; width=”640″ height=”360″ frameborder=”0″ webkitAllowFullScreen allowFullScreen></iframe><p>Video from <a href=”http://www.karmatube.org”>KarmaTube</a></p&gt;

As a parting note: I do find Ratcliffe compelling; I’m always interested to further understand how I can be a better person, and part of that comes from reading and listening to other voices and attempting to understand experiences other than my own. She offers ways that I can be further open to discussions of pigmentation and culture (or race and ethnicity, if you prefer) in my classes and between my colleagues and peers, so I want to be clear that I’m not hostile to her or her efforts; I just don’t fully embrace her methodology or definitions.