Recently, I’ve had a series of encounters that have brought (again) to the forefront important reminders regarding the politics of gender, race and privilege. Each of these scenarios highlights nuanced, complex and often understated political implications to seemingly “normal” (or at least today socially accepted) behaviors.
I am walking down the street near my house coming back from the grocery store in shorts and a tank top on a hot Saturday afternoon. The neighborhood is quiet. A (white) man rides up next to me on his bicycle.
“You’ve got to be Brazilian, right? You’ve got to be.”
“Not Brazilian.” I replied coolly as I quickened my pace down the street. Not that he noticed my quickened pace, my short tone, my disinterest in presenting (or withholding) my history as a game for him to play.
“Seriously? No way. K’mon…” He said as I continued to not engage and move swiftly towards my front door. He followed me onto the path and building entrance before riding off. When I got in and told my partner he said, “It’s such bullshit that a woman goes out in a pair of shorts and a man thinks he has the right to harass her”. Indeed, it is bullshit, among other things.
In this short exchange, this man a) imposed on my physical space, uninvited, and b) imposed on my emotional-historical space by assuming he had a right to satisfy his curiosity about my ethnoracial background without hesitation, without permission, without even a basic, polite introductory conversation. This reflects a gross set of entitlement (and privilege, both male and white) and is a problem for me for a number of reasons.
First, it highlights my otherness, racializing me immediately as non-white, as not from here, as if that is something different from most other people in Canada – excluding Indigenous people, of course (who are the only people who are indeed from this land) – meaning that “white people” (European settlers) are also foreigners or “from somewhere else”. And yet, white people are rarely asked (or ask each other so far as I understand it as an opening line) “So, where are you from?” in a way where “Canada” is not an acceptable answer. Second, were I to answer the question, the response would be an inadequate reflection of how my complex ethnoracial, gender, socioeconomic and other intersecting histories relate to my identity, which leads to the third problem. By asking the question, by presuming that having an answer will give you some “valuable” [read: exotic, intriguing, “different”] information about me (despite not knowing me at all) there is a necessary cultural stereotyping that would occur – because why ask unless you already have ideas about what my answer might mean? Why guess unless you’ve already presumed to know something about who I am based on how I look? Curious because my ‘look’ is a mystery to you (and you need to categorize it/me)? Too bad, you are not entitled to know and all of these “reasons” why a complete stranger might ask or guess my “background” point to what some call racial profiling – and an opportunity to construct racial profiles – intended or not.
In some ways, to this latter point, I do believe that we can all engage in this basic and limiting means of trying to understand individuals by assuming a quick answer about race/culture/nationhood (much like gender and sexuality) might quicken the slow work of actually getting to know a person as an individual. Similarly, these forms of categorization may be efforts to escape what is for some people an uncomfortable reality that there are people/experiences/communities/cultures/histories we do not know and may never know or understand.
At any rate, what the man on the bike did not consider (in all his privilege and power) are the multitude of things I had to think about regarding my safety, security, comfort, and positioning as a woman of colour in that moment, in my own community, at my own front door (literally) – my refuge now known to this man, leaving me estranged within my own community and vulnerable against his embodied and imposed power.
See Kamala Visweswaran and Sara Ahmed’s works for more reading on topics of racial and cultural difference, estrangement and belonging.
I am sitting in the Apple Store at a long wooden table waiting for one of those fabulous geniuses to come and bring my phone back to life. The (white) man sitting across from me is staring at me. Let me be clear. He looked at me, and that is fine. And then he looked again, and held his gaze for a while longer, and this continued periodically as I sat there (im)patiently waiting and working on my phone for the next 30 minutes (not fine, and to be clear would not have been fine even in a much smaller dose).
Somewhat like Scenario 1, this man’s prolonged gaze was (or could have been, to be generous in explaining the possibilities) a number of things: ‘admiration of physical beauty’ (as some would argue) that falls more often in the category of objectification (because is it really admiration or are you just turned on, which is actually still about you); fetishism, exoticization, perversion, curiosity, or worse hate, judgment or anger. Perhaps his prolonged look was none of these and instead a matter of mind lost in memory or…who knows. But the key (political) point is that he (clearly) felt that he was perfectly entitled to experience whatever he was feeling/thinking/wondering/seeing/wanting without considering how I would experience his gaze. Or at least, he was completely unaware that this was something that needed to be considered.
I could have asked him to stop looking at me (which I thought about) but felt that would expose me further, leaving me subject to at best an even more uncomfortable scenario where I (again) began to think about my position. Would this guy follow me through the mall to intimidate me (that has happened to me before)? Would he verbally harass me in the store, calling me a “bitch” or “crazy” for asking him to respect my physical and social space (has also happened before)? Would this encounter then contribute to an already distorted and overplayed portrayal of brown women as not “allowed” to be looked at [read: oppressed and under the control of brown men] because of my response? In this case, I felt that no matter how I reacted (if I reacted) the power in his gaze and the perceptions of the public (pre-informed by mass media very much portraying the world through a racializing/white privileged male gaze) might still leave me in a vulnerable and judged position. As a minority, outlined clearly by postcolonial feminist scholars like Uma Narayan (for example), women of colour are all too often assumed to represent their entire communities, making the weight of these very public decisions additionally burdensome.
Sometimes silence does not reflect acceptance of what is happening. Sometimes silence just means that a long list of complicated social and political factors have stopped a person from speaking (back).
The third scenario is a tricky one and I almost feel guilty writing it, because the way it played out was subtle and the people involved were friends. Four of us sat down to dinner with one new addition to the group, a friend of a friend who was joining us for the first time. He was from the outset evidently kind and friendly. We had a nice meal with interesting conversation ranging from the ingredients in our food to parenthood and thoughts on the power of media and international affairs. In many ways, I enjoyed his banter and ideas. Looking back, however, he did most of the talking (more so than he listened or asked questions of the rest of us). He jumped into conversation as soon as there was a pause (or he had something to say), and he (relatedly) didn’t often pause to let others into the discussion. While it may be a (politically situated and complicated) choice to not fight for discursive space, it is also a choice consume it (and arguably in a respectful dialogue no one should be ‘fighting’ to talk as opinions and dialogue should be solicited across participants consistently).
As an academic (and a talker) I can relate in particular to this (social and economic) privilege of voice and authority to speak. It is important to me to try to ensure that conversation remains a dialogue – an exchange of ideas and information between people rather than an opportunity for me to tell (presumably those who I would then assume need to hear it, as is implied in lecturing/preaching) what I know (though I often fall short of my intentions). With the larger scope of gender and racial politics circulating in my mind, in retrospect, it is hard to swallow (my voice) given that three minorities – two of whom were women – were sitting with a white man who was doing most of the talking. It is not his “fault” that he is talkative or confident (or white or male) enough to speak his mind without a second thought, but it is his responsibility to know when to speak (and when to stay silent). It is a matter of history and current political reality: a reflection of the positioning and privileging of certain voices over others that makes it easy for him to speak (and us to remain inaudible) unwittingly, maybe unknowingly and certainly unintentionally in this case.
The point is not to silence one person or community in order to empower another. But creating social equity – building fair opportunities to participate in society and having a voice requires that those already in power recognize their/our positions and create space for others to simply speak/share/contribute in whatever ways they want to (if they want to). Since we can’t always know at first sight who may be part of a minority or marginalized group, perhaps learning to listen (as opposed to hear) more than talk is a good way to stay aware our own privileges, to mind our expressions of interest and expertise into (or onto) what might be other people’s (positive or negative but ultimately private) lived (and ancestral) realities. It is not only about what you/I/we/they have to say, it is also about how others will receive it.
This is in part what Peggy McIntosh attempts to address in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” (a straight forward, short read), and it is deeply related to the complex and ongoing patriarchal social, economic and political system we all live in. These scenarios reflect larger inequitable social structures that continue to circulate in our imperfect world. Each of these reproductions of inequity (and oppression) could be avoided if greater efforts are made to live and practice our politics, recognize, and move to interrupt our own positions of privilege, not only here in writing, or in verbose academic theory, but in interactions with the unique human beings we encounter every day.