A Dinner Party for Modern Times
Shanna B. Tiayon || April/May 2021
This story was co-funded by Pipe Wrench subscribers and fellow contributor Ed Sinclair.
In the spirit of Pipe Wrench, I thought I might dissect the meal that Breai served us in Seeing in the Dark into its respective courses, perhaps aiding the digestive process. And in true dinner party fashion, offer dinner table conversation starters for each course; conversation befitting of our fine dining experience.
The Appetizer: Oppressions Rockefeller
At the height of the pandemic, a White woman I used to be friends with on Facebook posted a picture of herself with her husband in a Target, no masks, smiling in brazen defiance. She captioned the image, “fighting our oppression.”
What oppression? The oppressive “Covid-19 response industrial complex” that asked her to wear a mask in public so as not to infect others. The “biased public health policy” that also asked others to do the same to protect her.
I unfriended her that day.
When you’ve never really had your life restricted or endangered because of a characteristic that’s no fault of your own, being asked to make public health choices like wearing a mask, keeping social distance, or refraining from travel to save the lives of others — and your own — feels like oppression. When you’ve mostly enjoyed the full breadth of the liberties guaranteed to you, any renegotiation of your life practices can feel like persecution. When you’re asked to stay home in the initial stages until the virus can be contained, it can feel like a “lockdown,” never mind the more than two million men and women in the U.S. prison system, a true industrial complex, who are the real confined ones.
Whatever discomfort this woman felt because she had to wear a mask was a temporary one. What of us who are navigating a society built on our oppression for a lifetime?
The fact that she was able to have this thought at the height of police violence towards Black people and knowledge of migrant children being separated from their parents at the border is the perfect transition into our main course.
“Breai, is that White Supremacy Surprise I see over there on the platter?”
The Main Course: White Supremacy Surprise!
2020 made visible that which many people chose not to see. We can consider 2020 the year of accountability; ignorance is now a choice. We’ve seen the racial and ethnic disparities in health with Covid-19 disproportionately impacting Black and Brown people, who also have disparate experiences in the health care system during non-Covid times. There have been countless, gut wrenching examples of Black men and women being killed at the hands of the police or their vigilantes. And more recently, we’ve seen horrific hate crimes targeting Asians.
I saw a social media post recently that suggested that all of the social justice hashtags — #blacklivesmatter, #stopasianhate, etc.– could be subsumed under one hashtag: #stopwhitesupremacy.
Pull up a chair.
Join us at the Pipe Wrench table — we saved you a seat.
To be clear, while the term white supremacy implies race, it is constructed on so much more than that. It’s the belief that those who are White, able-bodied, heterosexual, Christian, and male are at the top of the social hierarchy. But when most White people hear “white supremacy,” they think of neo-Nazis, the Aryan Brotherhood, the KKK — and they are certainly not like that. A system in which those who benefit are unwilling to examine how they contribute to its perpetuation is a problem with no solution.
White supremacy is not only lived out in the extremes; the more subtle forms of white supremacy also squeeze and bind. The forms of white supremacy subtle enough to use plausible deniability as a scapegoat.
The first time I applied for entry into a sociology doctoral program, I didn’t get in. A confidant on the admissions committee told me that the reason for rejecting my candidacy (brought up by a White, female, tenured full professor) was that my undergraduate degree in engineering may have limited my capacity to grasp sociological theory (read: Shanna wasn’t smart enough). I’d made it clear in my application that I was a Black woman and my undergraduate degree is from a historically Black university, so there was no ambiguity about my race. Anyone who understands engineering knows that the higher-level math courses required are more abstract than computational, closely mirroring complex theory, or perhaps my undergraduate summa cum laude status could have shattered the myth of my incapacity. But on that day, a speculative falsehood was enough to justify my exclusion, to thwart my entry into the institution of higher education and reshape my future. The gatekeepers, a mostly white admissions committee, could move on to the more qualified (read: mostly white) candidates.
“Can someone pass the salt? I hear it makes the main course easier to digest.”
The Dessert: You Are What I Say You Are Brûlée
Breai’s nested dolls were stored in a cabinet that was rarely visited except on special occasions: appropriate. The nested dolls represent a multiplicity of selves. But who is afforded the right to be more than just one thing on the social hierarchy? Certainly not those of us on the lowest rungs of the ladder.
We rarely get to be fully complex humans with ups and downs, heartaches and successes, joys and pains. We only get to be that which allows the social hierarchy to stay firmly in place: our stereotypes. Anything else has to be worked for, and then we become exceptions.
The consequences of denying minorities a multiplicity of selves plays out in very real and deadly ways. Who is afforded the benefit of the doubt that their worst moment was related to mental illness and not an inherently violent nature? Not Michelle Cusseaux, an African American woman with mental illness fatally shot by the police in 2014. Nor Patrick Warren, a Black man with mental illness, who was shot and killed by police earlier this year. In both cases, the police were called to conduct a well-being check. In both cases, a Black person is dead.
The cabinet the dolls were kept in is our safe place. The place where those of us denied the benefit of being more than just one thing can be our authentic selves. The place we keep for us and by us to soothe the fatigue of carrying the outer shell.
“Indeed, this dessert does burn.”
I would end this with something clever like “Bon Appétit,” but this is a meal that many of us eat, day, after day, after day. There is nothing good about this meal for people who look like me.
Shanna B. Tiayon is a writer, speaker, trainer, and owner of Wellbeing Works, LLC. Her work centers on topics of wellbeing and increasing awareness about the ways we may infringe upon the wellbeing of others. She’s a former Peace Corps volunteer and a sociologist, with a specialization in social psychology. Shanna is a TEDx speaker and her writing has appeared in Greater Good magazine, Yes magazine, The Guardian, Narratively, Food and Wine, Longreads and Sojourners. When she’s not working in the area of wellbeing she’s tending to her own wellbeing in her gardens with her family.