Back Row America
May 13, 2019 4:01 AM   Subscribe

Takeesha was standing alone by a trickling fire hydrant, washing her face. She was working, wearing thigh-high faux-leather red boots and leopard-print tights, waving at every car or truck that passed by. She yelled to me, “Hey, take my picture!” [...] I ended by asking her the question I asked everyone I photographed: How do you want to be described? She replied without a pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.

Front Row American (and atheist) Chris Arnade (previously, previously) talks about Back Row America (and faith).

Here's Takeesha, upon her first meeting with Chris.

Nod to Johnny Wallflower for nudging me to post the article.
posted by ragtag (18 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's a useful comparison (front row/back row) and shorthand that I suspect most people in the westernized world would understand. But make no mistake: underlying this shorthand is a discussion of privilege, supremacy, the isms, bias, bigotry, economics, and all the other axes that carry our prejudice, day to day.
posted by kalessin at 5:51 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]


Those are zebra print leggings.
posted by Billiken at 6:57 AM on May 13 [15 favorites]


I'm glad I don't have to stand in those boots.
posted by pracowity at 8:15 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I think the point of talking about "back row" vs. "front row" is specifically because it's a compact way to refer to the net effect of a wide range of social issues.

Anytime someone starts doing the "lets unpack the knapsack of -isms!" thing, my experience is that basically everyone who isn't already an ideological fellow traveler has tuned out and moved on to something else. So you end up preaching to the choir. (Or worse, you end up starting a knock-down-drag-out fight with someone who could potentially be an ally, but is going to go to the mat for economics vs. racism, or patriarchy vs. white supremacy, or whatever, as soon as you start making fine distinctions.)

Better sometimes to keep it general, and thus keep the focus on the people, rather than an abstract ideological argument about White Privilege or whatever.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:33 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


I'm torn. There's art that helps other people see the disadvantaged as fully human, and then there's art that exploits the disadvantaged. The boundaries between the two things are porous/nebulous/fluid; lots of art is both. I'm unsure where Arnade's work falls.

But the snarky part of me wants to say that I like white saviors better when they actually save.
posted by what does it eat, light? at 8:58 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


He's not acting as a savior. He's a documentarian, presenting his subjects as they wish to be seen—with dignity. He makes the case for empathizing with belief systems which have value for those who hold them even if you don't.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:12 AM on May 13 [22 favorites]


Better sometimes to keep it general, and thus keep the focus on the people, rather than an abstract ideological argument about White Privilege or whatever.

There's a particular rhetorical gambit that folks in the front rows often do that abstracts real suffering and real disadvantage to something they can speak of in abstract and never do anything about. It can lead to lauding artsy documentarians without doing anything about the artsy suffering and disadvantage that these documentarians show the disadvantaged enduring.

That's why I teased out underlying issues - because I think we at MetaFilter can do better in our discussions and in our lives by thinking in particular about root causes and then, potentially, doing something about them.

Dignity doesn't buy groceries or pay rent. These folks are still living, even though we can see them better, reading the documentary and seeing the pictures, in abandoned houses and doing work we ourselves won't do (if they can even get a job).

MetaFilter is a collaborative web blog, for sure, but we still have the power to do things more substantive than read and argue about the price of art, especially when we are making art of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the suffering.
posted by kalessin at 10:25 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


I mean. Did you read the article? It’s about that, too. It’s also about faith, and offers the subjects — the people this guy met and talked to — dignity. It meets them on their terms, as they are, without trying to tease out the root causes of their suffering. It treats them as human beings with their own stories, not as a data points or arguments or examples. As Takeesha herself said, she wouldn’t go back to one of those studies ever again.

Being seen on your own terms, having your humanity recognized, rather than treated as an object to be examined, from which we may learn how to do better, is a fundamental human need. Maybe it’s synonymous with dignity.

Anyway, I’d rather talk about the people themselves than whether or not people on a weblog are doing social justice right by granting them the dignity they deserve.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:39 AM on May 13 [10 favorites]


" That cold, secular world of the well-intentioned is a distant and judgmental thing."

He kind of breaks the first rule, that of distance, keeping distance. I feel he wants to find his truth, and path through what is, and then wake up in the middle of it, maybe taking some of us along with him.

The web has in some ways become an infection of words, by and of words, part of the illness is the idea that words somehow are doing something. This is in fact a plague, because allegedly never have we been better informed, yet things are the same.

I don't feel upset with this man, even over his new lack of faithlessness.
posted by Oyéah at 11:15 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


But the snarky part of me wants to say that I like white saviors better when they actually save.

To a certain extent I think he is trying to save himself. It might be a little hyperbolic to put it that way or even this way: that he is having a slow crisis of faith, however for me it is enough to cut right through the distraction of his Bourgie Brooklyn Bond Trader Backstory.
posted by Pembquist at 3:33 PM on May 13


"Front row" and "back row" isn't just about privilege (though they coincide). They're about an attitude to life:

In many cases, these neighborhoods have literally been left behind by people like me. I spent most of my life focused on getting ahead by education. I left my rural hometown and got into elite schools, which got me into elite jobs, which got me into an elite neighborhood. I was not unusual. My office, my neighborhood, and most of my adult friends were like me. Almost all of us had used education to get out of a hometown that we saw as oppressive, intolerant, and judgmental.

We were the kids who sat in the front row, eager to learn and make sure the teacher knew we were learning. We were mobile, having moved many times to advance in our careers, and we would move again. Staying put was a form of failure. Our community was global, allowing us to proclaim it to be diverse, despite every resident’s having followed a similar path after high school.


"Front row" attitude is what is awarded and promulgated by upper/middle class America. It's how Arnade rose up the class ladder, compared to people in his rural hometown (with similar backgrounds, I read, but I could be wrong) but a different attitude to life. (setting aside the part about South Bronx here, since that brings race into the analysis and that's a whole other ball game).

He continues:

We had compassion for those who got left behind, but thought that our job was to provide them an opportunity (no matter how small) to get where we were. It didn’t occur to us that what we valued wasn’t what everyone else wanted.

Basically, you can't help people by trying to turn them into you. People shouldn't have to suffer just because they have different values.

I agree with this argument broadly, but I feel this edges on the "coastal elites vs heartland values" take, see "Our isolation from the bulk of the country left us with a narrow view of the world". I think people, even those in the "elite bubble", are much more complex than that, especially post-2008. Arnade touches on the effect of the recession, but I think for younger people, who joined the workforce after 2008, cynicism about "front row" attitude isn't a midlife revelation, it's a fact of life.

Ultimately, though, I do see a lot of objectification of poor people from well-meaning lefty types, like right here on this site.

posted by airmail at 3:43 PM on May 13 [5 favorites]


OK, I see I misread the section about his friend Stephon: that was in his hometown, not the South Bronx. As the only white kid, that meant the "front row" was more open to him than it would've otherwise been. But the argument he's making is more like "even if the front row were open to everyone, is that where everyone would want to be?" (I do think it should be open to everyone, but I think that's a different point than what he was making.)
posted by airmail at 4:06 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


But the argument he's making is more like "even if the front row were open to everyone, is that where everyone would want to be?"

This argument is only going to increase in urgency as the nature of work continues to change in the next ten weeks to ten years.

I have lost track of the number of tech briefings I've been in where a product or service is introduced that will refine/streamline/speed a process or an occupation. Last year, I was in a meeting where a vendor was talking about global shipping and shaking his head over how it currently takes some products more than 20 stops through several ports of call and custom offices before they land on your local Wal-Mart shelves.

"With blockchain, we'll be able to streamline the export process and provide real-time tracking and security in the chain of custody! Those stops won't be necessary!" he enthused.

"So ... would those jobs be eliminated?" I asked.

"Yes. But the workers would be freed up to do more creative work."

And this is where I always just let the statement hang in the air. Because I think it reveals a lot about how the people developing products think about work and jobs. There's an unspoken premise that if everyone was given the opportunity to do creatively challenging "knowledge work," they would. But is that really the case? Really?

The biggest failure of imagination I see on behalf of my fellow front row grinds is an inability to understand that the desirability of the front row is not an immutable absolute. The greatest use of imagination I could conceive of would be for us front-row types to say, "How do we create a world where it's okay to not want to be in the front row?"
posted by sobell at 5:26 PM on May 13 [9 favorites]


When I first went to the Bronx, I expected that the people there, those most affected by the coldness and ruthlessness of the world, would share my atheism. Instead, I found a strong belief in the supernatural, and a faith that manifested in many ways, mostly as a belief in the Bible.
I am surprised that he is surprised by this. For a person raised within a religion (as most people still are) and who's living a difficult life there's obviously going to be a lot of potential comfort from messages like "Everything happens for a reason" or "God doesn't give you more than you can handle.", or that poem about footprints in the sand. The promise of acceptance and love (if you follow certain rules), regardless of what you've done before, is pretty heady stuff. It's not something I can personally access*, but I can understand the utility of it.

* I don't know how to flip the switch to turn on religious belief in a mind that's never had it. Not that I particularly want to.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 5:28 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]


I agree with this argument broadly, but I feel this edges on the "coastal elites vs heartland values" take, see "Our isolation from the bulk of the country left us with a narrow view of the world". I think people, even those in the "elite bubble", are much more complex than that, especially post-2008

I think that's true for both the "front row" and "back row" people. I also think some of Arnade's deal is good, as a response to the bullshit promulgated in the name of meritocracy, but sometimes even he seems to get a bit too "they're a simple people but a proud people." I'm a guy from an intellectual-class background, who got to know some marginal, even fairly down-and-out types when I was getting myself into some trouble, and - I definitely saw people who were striving and trying to advance themselves in some way through guile. They were just doing it in a very different framework.
posted by atoxyl at 9:12 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Also it seems to me that his relationship to the concept of faith, as a person who relatively recently "found" it, is pretty different than that of many people for whom the presence of religion in their lives in some form was just a given. I'm neither, so it's hard for me to explain what I mean - partly just that he is intense about it but also self-conscious about it and about what it's "for?"
posted by atoxyl at 9:16 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


It didn’t occur to us that what we valued wasn’t what everyone else wanted.

This reads like a parody of an ivory tower liberal. Revelations like "Other people want different things than me" is something you expect from a high school student, not a forty-something stockbroker. His entire point seems to be "Can you believe some stupid poor people believe in god? Maybe we should humor them." It is not just embarrassing but downright depressing.
posted by iamnotangry at 9:36 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]


Also it seems to me that his relationship to the concept of faith, as a person who relatively recently "found" it, is pretty different than that of many people for whom the presence of religion in their lives in some form was just a given.

Furthermore, Arnade doesn't mention any religions other than Christianity. Even the English word faith is heavily Christianity-inflected. There are many religions where belief isn't the primary concern.

Arnade writes:
It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that we don’t and never will have this under control. It is far easier to see religion not just as useful, but as true.

And what I thought was, when faced with the fundamental instability and unknowability of the world, some people find religion, while some people find... postmodernism.

I don't mean to say the two are incompatible. Embrace the contradiction. And from a Christian perspective, if you can deconstruct everything and still believe in Jesus - now that's faith.

Sidenote: To chime in on the eternal debate, I think the most valuable part of liberal arts classes for STEM and business majors is not exposing students to ethics, but rather - no joke - to postmodernism. It strikes at the heart of the belief that society is ever progressing and that Science and Data can fix everything, i.e. modernism. Which is what I think Arnade is getting at with "front-row" values. And no more Plato and Aristotle, that's how you get all these "elites" who fancy themselves philosopher kings.

posted by airmail at 10:20 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


« Older Echoes of Bombingham   |   The African attendant's diary Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.