By Jason Lim
Then we ran into a movie theater that was showing Captain Marvel. My 7-year-old boy got super excited and wanted to see the movie. Amazingly enough, he stayed still and paid attention throughout the two-hour long movie: this, from a kid who usually resembles a human pinball as he bounces from one toy to the next YouTube video to the screeching game on iPad.
Afterwards, he asked tons of questions about the intricacies of the Marvel Universe, and how he couldn't wait until Captain Marvel kicked Thanos' butt in the next Avenger's movie. Other questions included the differences between plasma vs. lasers, breathing in space, power stones, and all hosts of details that only make sense in the Marvel Universe.
But he didn't ask one thing. He never asked about Captain Marvel being a woman. My little boy didn't realize how unusual it was for a father to take his little boy to the theater to watch a superhero movie in which the main superhero was a woman. And his non-awareness was what was awesome about last Sunday.
I understand that some have characterized the movie as a "feminist" movie, whatever that means. The movie that my kid saw was about a person being lied to, taken advantage of, betrayed, but finding herself to win against the bad guys. In other words, Captain Marvel was a character that he could 100% identify with.
In a world filled with identity politics that color (pun intended) every FB post, twitter rant, and news story, simply having a little boy identify with a super hero was supremely refreshing. To him, Captain Marvel wasn't a woman, white, feminist, or oppressed. She was simply the latest and coolest of Marvel superheroes. More importantly, he himself wasn't Korean, Asian, yellow, POC, stereotyped, or persecuted. He was just there enjoying the movie with his parents and couldn't wait till he goes back to school on Monday to brag to his classmates, who are Alex, Olivia, Gianna, Ryan, etc. and not black, white, Asian, underprivileged, wealthy, etc.
Can this last? Oh, how I wish.
These days, I can't help thinking that we, as adults, are all suffering from a collective pathology, a disease of taxonomy that compels us to classify everything by shape, size, color, heritage, etc. that tribalizes and trivializes the people around us, then ranks us according to the levels of grievances that we share in common. And the grievance paradigm demands victims and victimizers to be defined and identified, resulting in a dizzying exercise of mutual finger-pointing in which everyone is wronged by one another.
What worries me about today's identity politics is that it actually reinforces our disease of taxonomy ― it merely adds another divisive classification to the mix, making it more toxic. If racism is identity politics practiced by one group against another, then being against racism by generalizing groups of people ― based on color ― into victims and victimizers is inherently racist because you are playing the same game. The same goes whatever yard stick you use to "identify" one organizing narrative against another. Being against something has the same effect of being for something if you are reinforcing the same reference framework.
Moving beyond this paradigm doesn't mean that we are giving blank pardons to the wrongs of the past. I am not blind to the pervasive effects of white privilege, wealthy entitlements, patriarchal oppression, and other systemic distortions that have become the default state of injustice and unfairness through the entirety of the modern world. Grievances can be legitimate. Systemic oppression exists. Human beings are commoditized and dehumanized everyday as sexual objects, slave labor, criminals, bullet fodder, etc. We must educate ourselves of these distortions and try to bring as much empathy and fairness to the world as possible.
Document the wrongs. Articulate the grievances. Demand representation. Drive changes for the better. And don't stop doing all these things. At the same time, however, let's move on and escape the taxonomy trap. Let's not wallow in it. Voicing grievances can feel empowering, but only for a moment. After a while, it becomes a shrill noise that only serves to amplify its own echo chamber. Real empowerment happens when we step beyond the noise and start to listen.
Maybe the key is to see each other as kids do: as individuals with whom we share a common humanity. And perhaps the next superhero movie my son sees features an Asian Star-lord, a Black Panther, white Thor, and a green Gamora, but he sees only plasma cannons, vibranium shields, storm-breakers, and blinding kicks.
Seeing the world as a kid does is something that we can all use.
Jason Lim (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture.