Review: Rebecca Solnit’s Essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me” (and Arguing with My Dad about Affirmative Action)

By Doctor Comrade

No topic gets my dad as angry as affirmative action. Despite being well-educated, well-meaning, and liberal, my white father hates affirmative action because he asserts it is racist against white people. He has insisted on explaining race to me, even though he has never lost a job because of a person of color, and even though I’m mixed race and my mother is an immigrant with Chinese heritage. I have spent my life trying to understand my mother’s immigrant experience and I studied the history of race in America during my graduate work. What I discovered was a culture of white-dominated social science that insisted on explaining putative reality to people of color even though people of color are the individuals who exist within the relevant lived experience.

Similarly, Rebecca Solnit found vitriolic responses to her analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the story of a man named Humbert Humbert who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl named Dolores Haze. In Solnit’s analysis, the story is an example of a protagonist’s failure of empathy. In her reading, she identified with Dolores, not with Humbert, and felt that the serial rape of the young girl was worth analyzing rather than dismissing.

In her poignant response, “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” Solnit analyzes the cultural characteristics that give rise to the seemingly pervasive belief that white men are entitled to explain experience to those who are different from them. Specifically, she argues that men feel entitled to correct women’s opinions regarding significant literary works because they have been inculcated in a cultural system that privileges male views. She pithily observes that “some of the men out there respond on the grounds that my opinion is wrong, while theirs is right because they are convinced that their opinion is a fact, while mine is a delusion.”

Detroit, 1942.

Detroit, 1942.

Correspondingly, my own experience has shown that white people feel entitled to egalitarianism only when their structural powers become challenged. They cry for equality only when the system that has enabled their alleged cultural superiority is forced to change by historical circumstances. As in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, white people are demanding “fair” treatment in a system that is inherently biased in their favor. In effect, when people of color and their allies attempt to level the playing field, white people cry foul and attempt to re-balance the field so their privilege remains, thereby explaining to people of color that their experiences of discrimination do not exist or do not count. Repeatedly, structural racism has been shown to exist, yet when activists attempt to change the structure, their opponents cry for colorblindness. But colorblindness only stands in for white supremacy, obscuring the daily experiences of people of color by removing race from consideration.

Solnit identifies this inability to acknowledge the experience of others as a failure of empathy because straight white men are so used to seeing glorified versions of themselves in literature and pop culture: “This can happen if he’s been insufficiently exposed to the fact that there are also other people who have other experiences… This is a problem straight white men suffer from especially, because the western world has held up a mirror to them for so long.” The protagonists with which white men identify also happen to make up the overwhelming majority of the western canon (and as Solnit pointed out, 79 of the 80 books on Esquire’s “80 Books Every Man Should Read” were written by men). She found herself, when reading as a woman, empathizing with the female character of Lolita, and from this perspective, “you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child.” Reading as a man would, distancing himself from Dolores (“Lolita”), not “identifying” with that character, misses a significant message from the work that is only explored through empathy. When her identification with Dolores was dismissed, it was only because Solnit’s interlocutor was dismissing Solnit’s lived experience as a woman: “Sometimes art reminds us of life.”

Debating Solnit’s reading on its substantive grounds would be a more interesting and fruitful discussion, but it’s clear that men were more interested in telling her that her opinion was wrong rather than contesting its justifications.

To put this response into historical context, Solnit observes that “So much of feminism has been women speaking up about hitherto unacknowledged experiences, and so much of antifeminism has been men telling them these things don’t happen.” Solnit’s example is rape, and the fractious debates over what is “rape” in recent years only demonstrate Solnit’s point. In parallel, affirmative action has been hotly debated because it posits that contemporary definitions of worthiness are insufficient.

For example, during oral arguments on Fisher v. University of Texas, Justice Antonin Scalia claimed that African Americans would not do well in top-tier institutions because they would be left behind. Instead, they should not be pushed into schools where they would fail, but should be sent to “less-advanced,” “slower-track” schools where they could succeed. This is called mismatch theory. What it amounts to is an elite white man explaining to black students that they are incapable of success on the level that white students are. This relates to Abigail Fisher in some tangential way, I’m sure, but we have to recall that mismatch theory is only applied to black students who would be beneficiaries of affirmative action, not to whites like Abigail Fisher, who would have gained automatic admission to UTA if she had been in the top 10% of her graduating class. What we see instead is a dismissal of relevant life experience: that black students in particular are completely incapable of success, and therefore unworthy to participate in white-dominated institutions.

Rather than allowing black students to speak for themselves, Scalia is content to explain that the world is not made for them and they are not welcome to enjoy its products. Under the veneer of science, an elite white man gets to justify the exclusion of black students, all because one white student did not succeed in the first place. This is a failure of empathy, a refusal to understand the worthiness of students, and a refusal to understand discrimination in its most heinous forms.

When criticisms indict the white-male worldview, that’s when “you see the rage, the pettiness, the meltdowns and fountains of male tears of fury, you’re seeing people who really expected to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days,” as Solnit found, and “there is a canonical body of literature in which women’s stories are taken away from them, in which all we get are men’s stories.” Excavating women’s experiences, or the experiences of people of color, risks exposing white-male power and privilege. Feminist work calls out men who believe women are merely “crazy illegitimate gatekeepers” of sex and pleasure. This is how men mistake their opinions for fact and therefore see the need to correct women who proffer different theories; they have been taught that they are entitled to certain rights, whereas women are not. This is the message that young women receive from men constantly: “You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you.”

That’s why pushback happens. Because culture matters, countercultures emerge to reject and redefine structures of power. Affirmative action is a relatively benign attempt to help disadvantaged people access the same opportunities as white men. To call affirmative action “racist,” as my dad and so many other white men have, is to attack not only egalitarianism, but also to assert a particular vision of the nature of reality. When any attempt to address structural inequities is denigrated, it is always done so as a reaffirmation that those structural inequities are not only correct but also morally praiseworthy. In my essay identifying the pathologization of black culture, I argued, “Relying on discourses justified by the patina of scientific legitimacy, social scientists have constructed African Americans as inferior Others... Blackness went from something to be eliminated, suppressed, and conquered to being something to be treated, remedied, and civilized… [because blacks adhered] to a dying and dysfunctional culture. Their inability to rescue themselves from poverty had been the result of the disease of unhealthy culture that not only destroys their ontological wellbeing but also their physical health.” In another essay about the dismissal of gangsta rap’s political themes, I argued, “its central themes also included nuanced and highly-developed critiques of racism and police brutality. Packaged in an increasingly fashionable medium, gangsta rap was not only dangerous in terms of its expression of black liberation, but also because it was becoming popular with teenagers of all ethnic groups. The predominantly-white and elite media reaction exemplified wide-ranging efforts on the part of white elites to silence and marginalize the political messages of gangsta rap” because gangsta rap’s methods didn’t conform to respectable politics.

Solnit argues that women are portrayed as disposable, less-than, non-agents. Students of color are portrayed as incapable, pathological, violent. All because empathy, the ability to interpret the world from another point of view, is absent from the dominant, white-male worldview. These are discourses of power, essentially foreclosing opportunities of agency and self-representation for women and people of color.

In essence, white people feel entitled to explaining so-called reality to people who dare to upset status quo power relations. What becomes obvious is that opponents of programs that favor true egalitarianism are blind to their own privilege, what Solnit calls “privelobliviousness.” When my dad accuses affirmative action of being racist against white people, what he’s actually observing are attempts to erode the structural advantages that have always existed for whites. In the crudest sense, affirmative action does not seek to bring white people down, but to bring people of color up. But in relative position, all white people can see is their own privilege waning, rather than observing the increased prosperity of those around them.

I’ll probably never convince my dad that affirmative action is good for society, and Solnit will probably never convince her male critics that reevaluating the treatment of western literature is good for literary scholars. What is most troubling is the preponderance of responders who never pause to consider the experiences of other people, whether those experiences include violence, discrimination, or systematized silence. They cling to ideologies that privilege their own supposed greatness rather than taking a wider view of society that includes the full plethora of perspectives. But of course, the very existence of that wider view is what challenges their authority in the first place.