The dog is a metaphor
December 29, 2019 6:58 PM   Subscribe

White Women LOL: A short story by Curtis Sittenfeld
posted by Conspire (30 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I feel just as confused as Jill
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 8:23 PM on December 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thank you for posting this -- as a white woman this gives me a lot to chew on. rather be jorting's description is spot-on. "Well-meaning" is a telling descriptor. "Meaning well" to Jill means to fit in socially with her (mostly white, higher-socio-economic-status) peers and to have conflict-free interactions with the "right" people. Will be re-reading this story now as I rushed through it the first time in my desire to find out the ending.
posted by rogerroger at 9:03 PM on December 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

I grew up in the same racist culture as every other person with white privilege in America. My brain is poisoned by it, and it makes me judge people and jump to conclusions based solely on their perceived race. I know this. So I try to stay vigilant and aware, and I try to do everything I can to ensure that these unbidden thoughts don't influence the way I behave and treat people.

Insofar as that goes, I can sympathize with Jill--the scene at the river was especially cringeworthy. But what I simply cannot comprehend is the compulsion to question or police other people's presence or activities in places where the questioner has no authority. To actually walk up to them, engage them, and explicitly or implicitly accuse them of trespassing. Sure, if somebody is physically in my front yard, I'd like to know what they're doing there. If somebody walks into my workplace, I want to make sure they have an appointment. But in a restaurant? Or a public park? Or someone else's party? Seriously, all issues of racism aside, what the hell kind of overinflated sense of importance leads anyone to do that? How did these people get that way? And how can we make them stop?
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:39 AM on December 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Read this when it was linked in the "Karen" thread, glad it got a FPP. If it's hard for you to follow what's going on in the story maybe sit back and listen or check out the conversation in that thread instead of centering your confusion.
posted by PMdixon at 4:40 AM on December 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

What interested me about the story was the complicity of the rest of the white characters. How quickly they divided themselves up into virtuous disgust at Jill's behavior, or agreement with the behavior. Why was no one willing to help Jill work through this, to give her the necessary space for her embarrassment that it would take to get past the humiliation and learn something from this? Her best friend comes off particularly badly here.

Jill herself is doing about what you'd expect from an isolated white person paralyzed by embarrassment, and it's a lot to ask of someone in that situation to come to the right conclusions and right behavior when her entire social network has suddenly dissolved...except, of course, for the people who saw nothing wrong with what she did, who saw her as the victim.

In the face of that mechanism--isolation and judgment from some, acceptance of racism from others--people embrace the views of whoever will accept them. Not that we'd expect Jill to join some white supremacist group after this, but it's the same mechanism that pushes people to do so, the pressure of disgust versus acceptance, with no one offering positive pressure, positive modeling, a sounding board. The entire story is about her trying to get something from her social network to make sense of what happened, and its utter failure to help her do so.
posted by mittens at 6:34 AM on December 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

Stoneweaver, it's a great question, and I was trying to think about it in terms of 23skidoo's comment. Like, this entire town seemed mobilized to find the lost dog. They were organized, they were laying in supplies, they had a google doc at the ready. They're really good at finding solutions...except for racism, when all that organization just sort of disappears and Jill is left on her own to figure things out herself.

I think Amy should have essentially barged in to Jill's life to help. She should have gotten over her offense (which seemed mostly related to her party being mentioned in the FB threads) and let Jill talk. She should have made emotional room for Jill's humiliation. Jill has a choice, she can either see herself as a victim, or see herself as an actor with a responsibility to make things right. But to get past seeing herself as a victim, she has to accept just how bad it feels to be responsible...and that's not something it's easy to do alone. The conversation could help peel away the excuses and the focus on her intentions or her status as a good person, and get the focus where it belongs, on understanding why what she did was wrong. Helping her work through the question of how bad is this going to get for me--will the video show up on TV, will she be doxxed, whatever--gets her ready for the next step, which is, what should she say, what should she do? Amy might then point out that clearly the self-isolation has to stop, she's holed herself up, she's not visiting with friends, she's closed herself off. When the inevitable question of what to say to Vanessa crops up, Amy could help model conversations, or could give advice from her place as a close friend to both women. Maybe the advice is don't say anything about it to her. Maybe the advice is let Vanessa take the lead, and don't make your emotions the center of your conversation. Maybe it's stop using Vanessa as the symbolic injured party here, just because you're intimidated by her; she's not the one you bothered at the restaurant.

I mean, it's kinda hard to imagine, because that labor just...hardly ever happens? Everyone is so quick to try to get back to normal, to tamp down the bad emotions, that no lessons get learned. But if ever there were a teachable moment, this would be one!
posted by mittens at 7:36 AM on December 30, 2019 [15 favorites]

mittens, that seems reasonable, but there's a problem of beginnings: someone has to be willing to put up with the discomfort more or less on their own before there's anyone able to be the version of Amy you're describing. I don't think we're at a point where there are sufficient white people willing to behave that way, especially in the milieu that the story's set in. I think it can be just as discouraging to suggest people can rely on resources that aren't there as to tell them to go it alone -- cf the common advice towards people in a mental health crisis to "reach out" without saying to whom, because for most people there's no one there.

Returning to the topic at hand, we live in a world in which the overwhelming majority of white people live in a world in which everyone they consider a peer will endorse moving to the suburbs "for the schools." I think we have to be some combination of encouraging and demanding that people step up to the discomfort, because otherwise we're letting too many people off the hook. I'm definitely still figuring out how to effectively do this. One thing I have sorta kinda sometimes found useful is casually asking how people know things/what the meaning of the various euphemisms is -- if I can pull off the right affect, then I'm a nonthreatening cis white man asking why foundational elements of white supremacy are there. I'm not saying it's a lot, I'm not saying it's enough, I'm definitely not saying it's always easy or even possible to do so without letting anger leak out, but it's the flavor of breadcrumb I have to dispense that I've seen people be the most willing to eat.
posted by PMdixon at 9:38 AM on December 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

In a story full of awkward moments, I think the most awkward one for me is when Jill has a nice moment with Vanessa but then sticks her foot in her mouth again and ruins it.

You were so close, Vodka Vicky.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 9:52 AM on December 30, 2019 [19 favorites]

YES, and it's such a great parallel to the start of the story, where she actively prevents herself from doing this with Amy. She manages the right social dance with a white woman , but just blows it all up when she has a similarly fragile opportunity to go in the right direction with a black woman.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 9:57 AM on December 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

The dog being Vanessa's is a nice touch - it lets these well-meaning white folks rally around doing something good! to help a black woman! that doesn't have any inconvenient racial dynamics, we're just looking for a dog! even as they are unconcerned with the larger mass of non-rich non-famous black families at the school who live outside their posh enclave.
posted by Flannery Culp at 10:41 AM on December 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

Something that I'm realizing in this conversation: white folks really don't know how to deal with humiliation, huh?

I fucking loved this story! So many brilliant little touches that capture privileged white lady mentality perfectly, like the line Jill isn’t even sure that the recommendation to shake a treats container at Kiwi stands, but she dreamed last night that she caught Kiwi, and what if the dream was a premonition? LOLOL
posted by joedan at 10:50 AM on December 30, 2019 [7 favorites]

Yeah in many ways whiteness contains a promise that your self image will be protected by your social circle.
posted by PMdixon at 11:15 AM on December 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I found this great but was puzzled that the story didn’t really engage with this aspect: But what I simply cannot comprehend is the compulsion to question or police other people's presence or activities in places where the questioner has no authority. To actually walk up to them, engage them, and explicitly or implicitly accuse them of trespassing.

Jill’s husband seems to get that somewhat. But it’s something Jill doesn’t reflect on at all: even if Jill is racist, she can still mind her own damn business. To me, I guess because I have accepted that we live in a racist culture and are going to reflect that in our minds (not to say we can’t fight that bias!), the thing that always strikes me about these “Vodka Vicky” interactions is why the perpetrator is so drawn to play racist hall monitor. They are getting some power from this interaction. I would have liked to see Jill reflect on why the idea of a little more power drew her in: aging, being a woman, having a husband who seems like a bit of an ass to her, or just because she could??
posted by sallybrown at 12:29 PM on December 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

They are getting some power from this interaction.

I recognize a lot of how the white middle class enforces its white middle class social norms in these stories. I don't have the right words for it. Jill thought something was out of place and felt compelled to put it right - and by out of place, I mean not following the rules and conventions of the white middle class.

Like, I think Jill is the type who would write a letter to her HOA to complain about a neighbor's lawn decorations not fitting her "nice" neighborhood. She can't just mind her own business, even over petty shit. I don't think it's because she feels powerless.

where are the white people playing hall monitor to each other?

I got the sense from the story that most people at the party were surprised by the video and didn't really see it happening at the time. But I also bett that there were several "Jills" at that party who would have made the same judgment (these people don't belong) but made a different choice about confronting them.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:50 PM on December 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I mean, but where are the white people playing hall monitor to each other?

I think this is what the character of Amy was intended to be, but I think she is a flaw in the story because she’s portrayed as somewhat glib and shallow in her understanding of racism. She seemed to be positioned as a mean girl using “woke” language to chide Jill (as opposed to Jill’s husband and Vanessa, who both seem to play the “common sense” role of calling Jill out in a no-BS way). The way the piece treats/mocks social media sort of portrays the same thing—a bunch of other white people making hay out of Jill’s misstep.

In some ways I think this piece positions Jill as “even if she’s racist, at least she’s sincere” in opposition to “these other white people are decrying racism but they’re phony.” This aspect of the story not only didn’t ring true to me, but was dismissive about the actually invidious effects of Vodka Vickys.
posted by sallybrown at 2:04 PM on December 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

In some ways I think this piece positions Jill as “even if she’s racist, at least she’s sincere” in opposition to “these other white people are decrying racism but they’re phony.”

Ah see I took that as Jill's inner monologue self soothing. For her to be sincere they have to be phony.
posted by PMdixon at 2:15 PM on December 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I mean, I think part of the short story's point is that Jill's problem isn't about that one encounter? Even if it had been her birthday party, the way she approached a group of black people enjoying their drinks was the same way she approached the woman she berated at the car rental place, with a reflexive entitlement and contempt. You can mind your own business and still be racist.

You can see the flip side of that attitude when she idealizes Vanessa as so pretty and so perfect and soooo intimidating because she doesn't see Vanessa as fully human either, just a symbol of how she, Jill, can't be racist because look! She likes Vanessa!
posted by storytam at 2:28 PM on December 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I think this is what the character of Amy was intended to be, but I think she is a flaw in the story because she’s portrayed as somewhat glib and shallow in her understanding of racism.

I see this less as a flaw and more as a realistic depiction of white folks hall monitoring other white folks. It's better than nothing but there's a degree to which it's going to be the blind leading the blind.
posted by joedan at 2:38 PM on December 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

There are mere minutes between Jill’s admiring “I need my Beyoncé” conversation and her snappish frustration directed toward the Black woman at the car rental exit... it nicely ties in with her need for Vanessa’s approval. There’s a lot to unpack here. Thanks for posting.
posted by Knowyournuts at 7:29 PM on December 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Good story but honestly Jill I don’t have the bandwidth right now.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:09 PM on December 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

It’s kind of wild to think about how good the internet —and especially social media— is at amplifying the self. With a few notable exceptions, nobody in that story cares about the people who were hurt by Jill’s actions, they only care about how her behavior affects their ability to look good, to appear righteous. Again, there are a few exceptions, like the overt white supremacists at Jill’s work or the fact that Vanessa is entirely focused on getting her dog back for her kids, but pretty much everyone else is fixated on maintaining their standing within the community.

[this next part is a bit rambling so I’m going to put most of it in small text so as not to dominate the thread with another white person’s self-reflecting on what are probably very obvious concepts to everyone else here]

Way back in the mists of time, when I was in 11th or 12th grade*, I was in a sort of dramatic role for a school fundraising dinner. It was a “renaissance fair” kind of deal, I was the host/Lord of the feast or whatever, and my job consisted of a lot of improv and a few rehearsed interludes between courses.

I had never done anything like it before, and I had to be up there entertaining all the dinner guests for over an hour, so I was mining all the jokes I could remember from watching Black Adder reruns on PBS. Unfortunately, one of the “jokes” I regurgitated was VERY tone deaf and was leveled at one of my classmates who was also in-character with me in front of the guests. I won’t repeat the joke, needless to say it was in very poor taste and was totally demeaning to my classmate.

I was oblivious to what I had done. Luckily for me, this all happened before Facebook even existed, so it never went viral...but the next day the teacher who had organized and presided over the dinner called me into her office and proceeded to explain, with righteous fury, exactly what I had done.

I was humiliated, and for a while my brain wouldn’t let me be wrong about it; I did so many mental backflips trying to justify my actions, but in the end I couldn’t deny what I had said, and somehow I knew that trying to explain it away or excuse it as merely a bad joke would not fix the the problem I had created. Because the problem was not my own embarrassment, it was the injury that I had caused. I don’t know how I knew that or why, and I certainly couldn’t explain it, but somehow I knew that the only way to move forward was to make a public apology and accept full responsibility for what I had done.

So I wrote my apology on a piece of paper and the next day, when I was in the class with all of the students who had been at the dinner, I asked for permission to address everyone in the room. I was so nervous, and I was glad I had written down my thoughts, because I never would have gotten through it on my own. I don’t remember all that I said, and the paper is buried in box somewhere, but I do remember that it was very simple, something like: “what I did was wrong, and I wish I could take it back, and I am so sorry that I hurt you...” and then I broke down and cried hot, shame-filled tears in front of the entire class. It was one of the most humiliating things I’ve ever experienced.

But then something unexpected happened. I rubbed my eyes and I looked up at my classmates and saw that they weren’t angry with me. Some of them were crying with me, and others were smiling at me in that encouraging way that you smile when you can see someone is really struggling with something. And most importantly, the student that I had hurt, the one to whom I was apologizing, walked over and gave me the biggest hug and said “It’s ok, I forgive you”.

I learned a really important lesson that day, one that has stuck with me and helped guide me through other stupid things I have done in my life. I learned that the best—no, the ONLY way to “fix” a bad situation that I created, is to stop making excuses for myself and to unequivocally apologize. And to NOT seek protection in this moment. Instead of trying to hide behind some “misunderstanding” or seek consolation from a friend, I have found that the surest way to a better relationship with the people I have wronged is to open myself to them, to say I’m sorry WITHOUT trying explain myself, just “I’m sorry, I was the asshole here, I promise to do better, and while I hope you can forgive me I understand it’s not that simple”. And then I move forward and try to do better, just like I said I would.

It doesn’t magically fix everything, but it does allow everyone to move forward, and it makes room for a conversation about what “doing better” really looks like. And while my situation wasn’t the same fictional Jill’s, reading this story made me think about that incident in a new light, because so much of what Jill and her friends did in that story was allow themselves to be pulled into that kind of toxic undertow of moral play-acting that happens so often on Facebook and Twitter and all of that. Because what this really is about is Jill’s inability to see beyond herself.

*US High School, I would have been 17 or 18 years old

[ok, ramble over]

It seems to me that this is one of the more insidious aspects of racism in the 21st century. Even when white people appear to be “doing good” by calling out racist behavior all they are doing is hardening the borders of acceptable conversations about racism. They are forcing the conversation to be boiled down into a super simplistic version of events that are easy to condemn while not providing any meaningful call to action.

This is especially awful to think about when considering that the call to action really could be as simple as a sincere apology and a commitment to do better.

Thank you for posting this. It was funny and has given me a lot of think about.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:48 PM on December 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

I am not sure any of the white people in the story hadn't had similar moments to Jill. The story makes a point of it. I mean, Amy called the black kids in their kids' school "deseg" kids. The difference is those moments hadn't been captured on camera. The best case scenario here is there's a recognition of when it's pointed out. The worst case is that they don't understand what's wrong but are jumping on the bandwagon. Neither involves introspection.

Even when white people appear to be “doing good” by calling out racist behavior all they are doing is hardening the borders of acceptable conversations about racism. They are forcing the conversation to be boiled down into a super simplistic version of events that are easy to condemn while not providing any meaningful call to action.

White people should be focused more on calling in versus calling out. The former is harder and much more work, but is more likely to generate positive results. Not just because it requires more patience and effort, but because it inherently demands one consider one's own prejudices over the course of the conversation. It is a lot easier and feels more righteous to insult and draw those bright lines between one's self and the offender.
posted by schroedinger at 4:22 AM on December 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

here's the mentioned Karen thread, which i missed the first time around but was a really good conversation. i liked both fpps and ive been thinking about this one since i read it yesterday
But there's an underlying longer-term problem implied by each short-term problem: "If we get the dog back, what can be done to prevent the dog from getting out in the future?" and "If this viral video blows over, what can be done so that Jill doesn't get recorded being racist in the future?"
oh my god the housecleaner repeatedly letting the dog out until it becomes A Crisis is also part of the metaphor

and i'm reading it over again and want to point to so much. not a wasted detail here. and the more i'm in disbelief at jill and amy the more i think well i better take a good fucking look at my life since they never did
posted by gaybobbie at 8:51 AM on December 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

Amy's immediate abandonment of Jill to side with Vanessa in the wake of the video, her pr concerns over who knows about her party, her name being mentioned - she doesn't give a damn either.

I like the husband's refusal to enter or understand any of the social and emotional relationships and yet explain them to his wife, perfect. And the total lack of preparation for their children and explanation.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:02 PM on December 31, 2019

I thought the behavior around the dog was a metaphor of the correct way to act in the face of a problem. Didn't the directions on what to do come from Vanessa?

I don't think we can assume that the Jills of the world (or white people, period) will just work out their racism on their own. Humans like to be the heroes of their own stories and actively resist narratives that challenge that notion. The more challenging the topic, the higher the resistance. I don't think anybody can say they figured out their prejudices in a vacuum. It's a lot like therapy: maybe ideally we'd work out all our shit on our own (or not have baggage in the first place), but it's a lot easier when there's someone there to guide you--and it's extremely possible that without that guidance you'll never figure your shit out at all.

Yeah, this is me saying that providing free bigotry therapy is basically the way to change minds. I don't think it is fair, but I also don't know what other methods work. It is a lot of work and free emotional labor. Which is why I think for any given axis of privilege the non-marginalized people who HAVE been trying to pay attention to the voices of the marginalized should be engaging the privileged person in discussion and pointing them to what's already been written on the topic and all that.
posted by schroedinger at 3:40 PM on December 31, 2019

Amy's immediate abandonment of Jill to side with Vanessa in the wake of the video, her pr concerns over who knows about her party, her name being mentioned - she doesn't give a damn either.

Vanessa didn't have a side in the video. The sum total of Vanessa's thoughts on the video, as relayed to us by Jill, is that it was "not a good look" and "weird."

If this were the way my perception had framed it, I would pause and self-reflect.
posted by joedan at 8:17 PM on December 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I am a white woman. I've also been involved in animal rescue and recovery, and setting live traps and checking them are extremely reasonable and generally successful methods of catching an animal. I also don't know why it would be reasonable to call the owners when they're in Florida. I trust the author to not choose good methods of capturing an animal to illustrate incompetence--which is why I assumed the recommendation of those methods was meant to represent how white people should be taking their direction from black people (with the added implication that maybe Jill wouldn't be so open to taking direction if she didn't consider Vanessa to be "a good one").
posted by schroedinger at 10:36 PM on December 31, 2019

Curtis Sittenfield is a woman.
posted by Etrigan at 5:31 AM on January 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

If the author meant us to think that using live traps is an ineffective method of catching a lost pet, then she has inadvertently made herself look pretty ignorant. Which is why I go with the other interpretation. But each to their own!
posted by schroedinger at 11:00 AM on January 1, 2020

joedan, thanks for your comment. I thought a little more about what I meant when I wrote "sides" and it was that Amy's view - and Jill's - is that this was almost 99% a social structure to fix, a breakdown of their particular upper-class community network, with the deeper and wider reality of race at the very periphery because to Jill and Amy, that mattered far less than their relative social status within that community.

Vanessa is very carefully not given much voice beyond what's projected onto her by other people and an upbeat, polite and neutral tone that suggests practice at a public face for this neighbourhood that reveals nothing about what she really feels. You're right, she has no side at all.

I just really liked the way the story was written so that Jill tells herself she's wrestling with racism throughout and yet she's avoiding thinking about it, almost all of them are, and the one thing she's obsessed about and thinking over desperately is the impact the accusation of racism will have on her social status. It's delightfully sharp. And the comments about the uselessness of the dog catching methods and her rolling around at the end, whimpering as public confession/indulgence, made me re-read it and enjoy it again.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:51 AM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

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