Dear Mr. Damon,
Hi there! You’re having a tough couple of weeks. First you got in trouble for explaining how diversity should work to a black filmmaker, and now you’re in a little bit of hot water for saying that gay actors are unfairly sidelined (Good job!), so maybe if it would be easier if they hid the fact that they’re gay (Way less good job!).
OK, what you said was that all actors should keep an air of mystery about their personal lives to be believable in anything. But, as The Mary Sue astutely points out, you didn’t exactly start hiding your wife when you yourself played a gay role. Or ever. So while you were indeed trying to speak with some empathy and probably didn’t realize that this is the meaning you were sending out, what you were actually saying is that it would be easier for gay actors if they stayed in the closet. And hey! Turns out that’s a problem.
It seems like you can’t say anything about diversity, or about how casting actors of color is all you need to make sure everything is cool on a film set, or about acting gay while acting while gay without people getting angry at you. Not fair!
On the other hand, you’re not spending your career getting sidelined from the movie industry for not being a straight white male, so, you know, maybe take a little moment of perspective on those tough couple of weeks.
If I may, Mr. Damon, I’d like to tell you a little story.
A friend of mine once sent me a birthday gift. It was a tampon case that said “TAMPON CASE” on it in giant, high-contrast letters.
When I went to my theater that night and told my fellow cast members about it, the women laughed their heads off and the men had no idea why we found it funny. Right now, in fact, Mr. Damon, I bet you’re wondering why that’s funny. Are tampons inherently funny? (Spoiler: No.)
As any uterus-having person person knows, it’s funny because if there’s one thing that is drilled into your head from the first hint of puberty on, it’s that you must do whatever you have to do, including murdering a loved one, to keep your menstruation a secret. And we get so good at it as a group, as a subculture, that the men in my cast didn’t have any idea that the secrecy itself was a thing.
And that’s one of the problems with being a person who’s in the majority culture on every count: You naturally assume that everything you can see and hear is everything there is, when in fact there are many frustrating aspects to being in a minority group that people hide from you to keep you from feeling bad or getting grossed out. Or sometimes we’re just tired of explaining it.
It happens to anyone who’s even partly in majority groups. I’m a white cis queer female. Back in Chicago, I had a friend named Eric, a six-foot-something black man. One time I asked him why he and his boyfriend always seemed to vacation in Canada. What Eric said was, “Because in Canada, when white women see me coming, they don’t grab their purses.”
I remember being knocked back for a moment. It was partly because I hated the idea of my friend being treated that way.
But it was also, let’s be honest, because of the blow to my self-image. I had to check in with myself. I didn’t carry a purse, but I did know that I did the usual on-the-alert things that women do when I was walking alone at night and saw a man coming toward me. (Psst. Mr. Damon: Women need to be more on the alert than you do when walking alone at night. You may not know this.) I had to think about it: Did I unconsciously go more or less on the alert based on the approaching man’s race?
Being forced to do a self-check like that feels awful, right? You spend a big chunk of your time trying to be a best version of yourself you can be, and best-version-of-yourself definitely, absolutely, inherently includes not a goddamned racist, but now that’s been thrown into question. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it means you have to do some internal homework. But not doing it, I promise you, is worse.
That self-doubt, that feeling that you may be failing somehow? Those feelings suck. But neither of them suck as much as regularly being treated like a criminal because of the color of your skin (or, for that matter, as much as spending part of your mental energy on a pleasant nighttime walk making sure you don’t get raped), so we must, if we are to keep moving forward on that being-a-good-person thing, face them head-on.
Recognizing subcultures can also be a problem because it forces you to put yourself in a lower position, that of someone who understands that it’s time to shut up and learn. It may force you to recognize the fact that you’ve screwed up in the past, or maybe that you’ve just been clueless.
Remember that part earlier where I typed “any uterus-having person”? I started to type “any woman,” because I screwed up. I corrected it because not every woman has a uterus, and not every person who has a uterus is a woman. I’ve known that for a long time, but it took gaining some trans friends and making a conscious effort to read and think about trans issues to get me to reform my writing.
I am, as we have just seen, far from perfect. I used to type just “woman” or “women” for things like that all the time, and I still get it wrong sometimes when I’m writing on the fly. I don’t like that about myself, and noticing that sucks. And the awkward construction can be frustrating. But both are way less sucky and way less frustrating than constantly being rendered invisible by pop culture, so we soldier on.
You’re at another disadvantage here, Mr. Damon. In addition to many subcultures and the daily bullshit they have to deal with often being invisible to you, you have been taught for your whole life that your opinion is always welcome and always carries weight.
I know that seems normal to you, like software that should come standard, but I promise you that it isn’t. Ask around among your female friends: Have any of them ever floated an idea in a meeting that was ignored or rejected and then immediately adopted after a man repeated it? Have any of them told a joke that fell flat and then magically seemed funny when a man told it later? Have any of them had their direct experience discounted in favor of a dude’s theories? (Hint: Such a thing may have happened on your show.)
It happens to women a lot, so often that it’s become a standard in-joke, or really more of a standard point of rage. I suspect that a similar thing may happen to people of color in meetings, but I can’t make that assumption because I have not lived in those shoes. Not knowing doesn’t inherently make me a bad person. The test here is in being able to admit that I have a blind spot, a point of ignorance, and realizing that this is a thing that I can (and should) find out by asking, and then by shutting up and listening.
Working under the standard assumption that your opinion can and should be the final word gets to be problematic when you’re dealing with a subculture that isn’t yours. I once had a straight dude in a writing group give me a stern lecture on what topics queer women do and don’t talk about when they are alone with each other. He did so without irony, and it was taken by most people in the group as a legitimate critique until a lesbian raised her hand and begged to differ.
Letting yourself be quiet and listen is uncomfortable. It’s a vulnerable place to be. People know all about your dominant culture because it’s everywhere, but now you’re the noob who doesn’t know about theirs. And sometimes even when you are learning and trying your best you still will say things, something about scissoring or Laverne Cox or the true nature of hip-hop, and people might even roll their eyes or laugh at you. That makes you feel uninformed, like someone who gets made fun of by a hip comedian and isn’t sure why. And that’s no fun. And maybe it feels exhausting, because so many of the things you learn about are upsetting, and so many of the injustices you hear about make you wonder if maybe you’ve had an indirect hand in them somehow. That’s difficult. No one wants to be that clueless guy, the one who didn’t know and was part of the problem.
It can make you feel anxious, all of that terrible information pouring in, all of that evidence that your past being-a-good-person efforts weren’t good enough. If can make you feel defensive, and your brain may try to find a cozier place to rest by whispering that maybe all those subculture people are just being too sensitive. Listening uncritically to the whisper is why we had people all over our media wondering why gay people are so selfish as to want the state to recognize their marriages, and why three thousand white people went on Fox News to chasten black people for getting so touchy about being murdered by police at routine traffic stops.
This letter may seem like another instance where you’re getting lambasted just for saying a well-intentioned thing and, yes, to an extent, it is.
But I want to reassure you, sir:
Not knowing doesn’t make you a bad person.
It’s how you react to not knowing that’s the key. You’ve been conditioned to win the debate, but the real winning move here is not to have one. When you’re called out for not understanding what someone in a minority subculture is going through, they are actually not necessarily hoping for an invigorating back-and-forth. All you have to do is listen and try to understand. You don’t have to win the moment. (Though a statement acknowledging cluelessness and a sincere intention to try harder will never go amiss.)
If that feels like you’re being told to shut up a lot as an individual, I’m sure we can all sympathize. But you can take some comfort by recalling that your majority culture is blaring in the ears and eyes of those other people all day long.
You can do this. If you take a sincere swing at it, if you really let yourself relax into the vulnerable space of not having all the answers, this is where you move from being a dude into being a man. Or a woman. Or a fully-realized genderfluid adult. However you define yourself.