Anyone who knows me knows that Roxane Gay is my favorite writer. She sits atop the list of people I would invite to a fantasy dinner party, followed by Serena Williams and Jaden Smith. I sometimes wonder about the nature of her oft-subtweeted nemesis. And I’ve now heard her live more than any of my favorite musical acts — which is to say, twice.
I heard her read from her memoir Hunger at Towson University in the fall of 2017. I was definitely already a fan, but hearing her answering questions from audience members about her writing process is part of what cemented my dedication to nonfiction as a career. And I got the chance to hear her again last Tuesday, Jan. 22 when she visited Loyola University Maryland for its Martin Luther King, Jr., Convocation.
Just a few days before, a video went viral showing a group of teenage boys in “make America great again” (MAGA) hats mocking Nathan Phillips, an indigenous elder, shouting “build that wall!” Gay shared her frustration after the incident, condemning (rightly) the media for being too quick to empathize with the boys. It was their privilege as rich white kids, she argued, that let them engender sympathy.
Privilege is an important topic which Gay often considers, and her reflections on privilege let me see more clearly the way my own privileges shape my perspective. She spoke on the subject at length.
Gay said that President Donald Trump, who she called “a president elected for fear of a woman president in response to a black president,” emboldens racism and white supremacist behavior. It didn’t stop there. She absolutely ripped into Trump, condemning his moral character and rejecting his rhetoric as racist, hateful and unfit for his office.
In many ways, it was cathartic for me to listen to Gay so perfectly destroy everything Trump stands for in just a few words. She didn’t write much about the 2016 elections, something she said she regrets. Since then, she has written critically of Trump, but hearing her make her abhorrence so plain felt empowering, given that she had a room full of people listening eagerly.
Still, she called on us to move past “tidy words” that oversimplify the real world. She went on to reflect on freedom of speech, which she said is a right but also a responsibility.
“I admire the Constitution, but I believe many of its clauses are grossly misunderstood,” she said.
Free speech, she said, may be protected in the Constittion, but the things we say have consequences. Given her impressive command of language in both writing and speech, it was startling to hear Gay call language “a basket for whatever bullshit people want to fill it with.” Still, she reflected that even language is affected by privilege.
“The world is their safe space,” she said of white men like the MAGA-hatted teenagers in the viral video. “Those who mock the idea of a safe space take it for granted, which makes the conversation that of privilege.”
Early on, she derided the idea of racial or political unity in America, saying it came from those privileged enough to regard conversations about race from a distance. Many people, Gay said, avoid facing racial bigotry and injustice because it is an uncomfortable topic. She further called on us to do away with the idea of allyship, arguing that we each need to take up others’ issues as our own. That, she said, is unity, and anything more passive suggests some inner discomfort. But at the same time, white people have long dominated conversations about race, and it’s important now to step back.
For me, that raises a central tension that I feel approaching Gay’s work — how should I engage with her stories and experiences? I don’t need to list all the ways we’re similar, but our most obvious differences along race and gender would seem to throw us at odds or at least offer a stark contrast between our perspectives.
For me, balance is critical. It’s important to know when it’s best to listen, when to amplify others’ voices and when it’s appropriate to do the work myself. Balance is also critical for Gay, who included “Libra” as part of her identity alongside “woman,” “black” and “bisexual,” adding that she’s always searching for balance.
Maybe it’s just our Scorpio/Libra energies coming together, but I find that Roxane Gay brings balance to my perspective as a white man, as a member of the LGBTQ community, as a radical progressive and as a human being.