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White-angle lens

I was ten when O.J. Simpson's former wife Nicole and her friend Ron were found stabbed to death outside her LA home. It was the talk of the playground, handled with all the sensitivity and nuance that ten year olds typically bring to matters of mortality and justice. He definitely did it; he definitely didn't do it; he's best mates with my brother and he'll do it to you too if you don't give me your Kit Kat; say his name five times in a mirror and he'll come after you in your dreams in the guise of a chubby-cheeked children's toy carrying a machete... [1]

I knew nothing about sport. As far as I was concerned, O.J. was just some guy on a baseball card. And I knew still less about race. Racism was black kids and white kids not wanting to play together, just like sexism was girls and boys refusing to sit next to each other. So the case made little coherent impact on me at the time. And even though I hope I've started to get the hang of a few things in recent years (well, I don't know that I'll ever be much of a sports fanatic), Ezra Edelman's Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America was anything but 'old news' when I was recently persuaded to cast off my habitual disinclination for 'serious' television long enough to watch it.

What the film taught me about O.J., about race, celebrity, the criminal justice system, America – is more than I dare try to sum up here. The 8-hour running time felt not a minute too many to communicate the complexity of the (micro- and macro-level) stories being told; if anything, I got the impression that the film-makers could have gone on considerably longer before they risked losing pace, relevance, or my interest. And I hardly think anyone needs my Opinions – other than that it should simply be watched!

What I am going to try to summarise, briefly and I hope not too self-indulgently, is what the film taught me about myself – namely, that I am way more blinkered by my white privilege than I like to think. The criminal trial famously exposed and entrenched some deep racial divides in public opinion – divides which are starkly evident in the original media coverage as well as the recent interview footage that the documentary makers collected from O.J.'s friends, family, team-mates and business associates, the bereaved, the police, legal representatives and jury members, civil rights activists, media professionals, and others with vested interests (such as memorabilia dealers). And what struck me – extremely uncomfortably – was the extent to which every detail and angle that seemed obvious to me turned out to precisely align with what seemed obvious to the white interviewees, while most of the perspectives and insights prevalent among people of colour were indiscernible to me until they'd been spelled out. "Whoa, how did I not think of that before?," I asked myself repeatedly, ashamed of the too-obvious answer. I don't want to be complicit in the privileged short-sightedness that contributes to structural injustice and burdens those people most harmed by it to be always 'educating' ... but the reality is that, as yet, I am.

I had another opportunity to reflect on my conspicuous whiteness when I went to see Daniel Kitson's latest stand-up show Something Other Than Everything. Now, I'm a huge fan of Kitson, and he was on top form with an assortment of seemingly unrelated, interleaved stories that gradually converged to an expertly crafted 'point' about the immobilising guilt of privilege and one's social responsibility to overcome it enough to do something rather than nothing. We'd skipped church to get to it, in the middle of a series on "justice" (with reference to the minor prophets), but it didn't take much personal theological dot-joining to send me from the Roundhouse as stirred as ever I am by a good sermon.

However, on the drive home, and in the days after, I found myself pondering Problems. His comic justification for use of the c-word may have produced one of the most memorable lines in the show, but if anything it reinforced the derogation of female sexual organs; some awkward turns of logic in a segment about the LGBT+ community seemed to inadvertently imply that they were somehow ostracising cis-het people (?!); his witty soul-searching generally had a whiff of my favourite (by which I mean, most painfully applicable to myself) Oscar Wilde quote about it: "There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us".

And then I stumbled on an article calling him out for his flippant use of a racial slur, which I confess hadn't so much as made me blink during the set. "Daniel Kitson can’t reclaim a racist word he’s never been the target of", writes Nosheen Iqbal for The Guardian. "Oh, but he didn't use it racistly" I immediately want to protest on his behalf. On my behalf, indeed, for I would definitely have noticed a racist joke and I would never have condoned one, let alone laughed at it, because (it's essential you recognise this) I am not racist ... "you don't have to worry about me" (as per Kitson). But actually, aside from being blinkered and self-serving, my protest is beside her point. Iqbal writes about her own too-close-for-comfort experience with that word and the hate and violence associated with it, and the way it made her feel to hear it bandied about in a comedy show. It "does not make him a racist," in her view, but "I still resent that he expects a tiny minority of his audience – because let’s face it, a Daniel Kitson audience by and large looks like Daniel Kitson, it doesn’t look like me – to compartmentalise the intellectual construct from the emotional response. The joke is not funny enough or smart enough for a start."

Ahh, that old familiar "obvious once it's been pointed out to me" feeling. Of course I enjoy Daniel Kitson. He's all of the things that I am – white, middle-class, educated, lefty, well-meaning, self-deprecatory whilst at the same time pleased with himself – plus some stuff that I greedily aspire to – funny, successful, and truly brilliant with words. But he also shares, perhaps, similar blinkers to me, as do many, perhaps, of his inevitably homogeneous fan-base. The Roundhouse that afternoon was, very nearly literally as well as figuratively, the ultimate giant bubble. Stick a bunch of typical Kitson fans together in a big dome with the man himself in the middle, and we'll mostly emerge feeling vaguely self-congratulatory about how well-meaning and aware of our privilege we are. It's no coincidence: I/we bought tickets to see him precisely because I/we relate to him and he makes me/us feel validated. But the test of whether or not any of our collective well-meaningness means anything is the extent to which we're willing to have that giant bubble burst; the extent to which we're ready to hear that we're getting it wrong even when our intentions are at their earnest best. Any form of correction brings shame and discomfort. My first (and most foolish) instinct is always to leap to my own self-defence – find some mitigating spin on my latest well-meant mistake. And I don't seem to be alone in this; in fact, it was among the themes of Kitson's set, explored in relation to the recent 'safety pin' initiative that swept among well-meaning white people to the dubiety of those people of colour it was supposedly designed to reassure. Thing is, the structurally advantaged don't get to decide what is or isn't helpful when it comes to challenging or dismantling hierarchies of oppression. If allyship doesn't begin and continue with listening, it's almost certainly not allyship.

So I hope Kitson is tuned in to the various feedback. He has (at least, it seems to me) a lot of worthwhile stuff to say, and he says it with enviable wit and craft. But in places it all, perhaps, still gets a bit ironically self-illustrative of the problems he's trying to expose – the difficulties of navigating privilege, of 'doing good', of accepting criticism. I rather doubt that's the effect he's going for. And I hope that I can take on board the things I need to hear without being overwhelmed by my own culpability – not because my culpability isn't overwhelming, but because being overwhelmed makes it hard to do anything other than nothing and, like Kitson, I reckon there's ways to engage with the world which, on balance, however imperfect, are better than nothing.

He didn't specify a text for his 'sermon' but the obvious one, in keeping with my church's minor prophets theme, would have to be that much-loved bit in Micah:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, NIV)
Justice. Mercy (alternatively rendered 'kindness'). Basic aspirations for humanity ... or they should be. But Kitson's on to something of the same idea as Micah in recognising that you really can't 'do' either without humility. It's a message I need: I don't know best, I massively get it wrong, I more often require grace than I show it. I'm nobody's saviour. Still, justice. Kindness. My life's call as much as anyone's. And it's a message the church needs; I wonder what it'd take to have Kitson come and give it on a Sunday morning? Hehe, I'm only really saying that because I want to see the congregation's faces when he does the bit about the c-word. We've not exactly got a deficit of white men up the front; the time to hear some other people for a change is definitely overdue...

[1] If you find my peers' familiarity with early 90's horror movies horrifying, I did more so. Sleepover invitations were a terror to me!

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