Via Negativa: Poetic Notes on White Boy PrivilegeS

In Polish, worshippers often use an honorific when referring to God. Pan Bóg. Mr. God.

As in, Mr. God, please give us health and happiness. Please grant us peace, Mr. God. Please let my basketball team win, just this once, so our parents will take us out to dinner to celebrate, Mr. God. I’m having the potato skins.

Though most faith traditions technically consider God as sexless and genderless, I have trouble thinking of God that way. We anthropomorphize everything. We think in terms of the human, and in terms of the body. And when we think that way, more often than not, we think of a man. A white man.

Our Father, we say. Lord God, heavenly king, we say.

I learned about God from my Polish grandmother, Baba Antoinette. Jezus z Maryja, she’d shout when the Minnesota Vikings threw an interception, when our dog Sam almost knocked her over running through the house. Horse-face, she’d call the dog.

I can’t picture God with a horse-face. If I actively try to imagine God as a horse, I can only picture Gandalf’s horse Shadowfax, lord of all horses in Lord of the Rings, white as the wizard’s beard, white as mayonnaise.

There was something godly about Sam the day he jumped off the roof of my uncle’s house, sent up a cloud of dirt around him like a halo, and bounced back up, shaking himself clean. Yes, I think, God is a mutt throwing himself down for the feeling in the gut.

Himself, I said. Itself, themself, I didn’t say.

St. Paul says that, in Christ, there is neither male nor female. He goes on to command wives to be obedient to their husbands.

I say I’m anti-racist, say hiphop, say feminist, say genderqueer. I go on to treat everything like it belongs to me. Spatial privilege on the bus, in the coffee shop, in the classroom. I think everybody should listen to me, I think my opinion matters always and everywhere. I think I’m the center of the goddamned universe.

If the universe is ever-expanding, and I try to track that expansion, the location from which I try to track that expansion causes that location to be the center of the universe. Technically.

One time, I got pulled over by a cop. I’d been speeding, my taillight was busted, and my driver’s license had been expired for a while. I got off with a warning.

One time, the owner of a comic book store caught me and my (white) friends stealing from him. He gave us that cold disapproving headshake and we felt it in our bones. We got off with a warning.

(White is always in parentheses.)

One time, in high school, I gave a speech in class criticizing teachers, those power-drunken bastards. Mrs. Johnson gave me a suspension slip for swearing, and then recommended I take Advanced Placement English next term. I think you’re just not being challenged enough, she said. Thank God for Mrs. Johnson, but what if I’d been a black boy?

At the same high school, my senior year, one of the administrators yelled at me to stop running in the cafeteria. I didn’t hear her. Another suspension.

Since the murder of Trayvon Martin, I’ve been reading articles about the “rules” black mothers often teach their black sons to survive in America. “Never run in public. Never run with anything in your hands” is a rule that splayed me open. I can’t even imagine. Trayvon was on the phone with a friend before he was murdered, and he told her, as George Zimmerman pursued him, that he was consciously not running away so that he didn’t look like a criminal.

Mr. God, please deliver us from this shit.

Baba Antoinette taught me about God by doing her best impression. She was a trafficker during Prohibition. She owned a bar in Northeast Minneapolis. She didn’t leave her husband despite his numerous offenses. She humbled herself, choosing the Czechoslovakia team on the Nintendo hockey game we played so I could be Poland.

In my imagination, God is a white, bearded man, and I can’t love him the way I love my Grandma. I wish I could make God walk using a walker with cut-open tennis balls on the feet. I wish I could make God teach me about loyalty and outrage, pierogies and Christmas cookies. I wish God was not an absentee father.

When I was born, my dad’s ex-wife convinced him that my mom was lying, that I was not his. My mother took me to my grandma’s house, sat in the alleyway for half an hour, trying to steel herself. She brought me inside, swaddled in a hand-me-down blanket, and Baba, having looked at me once, said, omnisciently, Yes, that’s obviously Jerry’s son.

Our Father, we say. I could be Poland, I said.

Before I was born, the doctors said I was a girl. My mom was going to name me Elizabeth. Elizabeth Grassman.

Because I am Michael and not Elizabeth, I am more or less safe wherever I go. Because I am a Mlekoday, I am in love with the smell of beer.

Growing up in the bars my parents worked at, I learned the scent of beer spilled on the bar-floor. Now I walk by a frat house the morning after a party and I’m a kid again, rocking out to my Mariah Carey cassette tape unaware while my mom curses everybody who doesn’t tip her.

Now I walk drunkenly home from the bars at 2 a.m. in Bloomington, Indiana, in St. Paul, Minnesota, in Manhattan, Kansas, in Brooklyn, New York, and I am Michael Mlekoday, and this is my street, always, and the shadows and the streetlights and the rundown buildings all recognize me. The bushes and the alleyways recognize me. The walnut trees bow when I pass. I don’t look over my shoulder. I wear my hood up and don’t worry I look suspicious, don’t worry it limits my vision. I have never once felt a stranger’s hands on me on this walk. I have never had a mantra to keep me safe after dark, never had rules to help me survive. Though I am aware of these facts right now, no doubt I will forget them by tonight. I don’t even have to be aware of whether or not I am aware of my surroundings.

That’s the only way I can recognize my privilege, usually: via negativa. A negative is an image we need to reverse before it becomes reality. The futurist Alvin Toffler says that the new literacy is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

I think God queers everything.

I don’t know if that’s true. Behold, I make all things new.

Before I was born, the doctors said I was a girl.

Most faith traditions technically consider God to be sexless and genderless,

but I have trouble. I say I’m anti-racist, say hiphop, say feminist, say genderqueer.

Now I walk drunkenly home from the bars at 2 a.m. Jezus z Maryja.

If the universe is ever-expanding. White as mayonnaise.

“Never run in public.” God as a horse.

Please deliver.

Michael Mlekoday is the author of The Dead Eat Everything (Kent State University Press, 2013), a collection of poems. Mlekoday serves as Poetry Editor of Indiana Review, is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and has work published or forthcoming in Ploughshares, Ninth Letter, Hayden's Ferry Review, Sycamore Review, and other journals.