On the politics of gender, race and privilege

Each of these scenarios highlights nuanced, complex and often understated political implications to seemingly “normal” (or generally socially accepted) behaviors.

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Scenario 1

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.

“Brazilian, right?”

“Huh?”

“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. 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.

By asking the question, by presuming that having an answer will give some “valuable” [read: exotic, intriguing, “different”] information about me (despite not knowing me at all) there is a necessary cultural stereotyping that occurs – 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 unless you are engaging with me in a meaningful conversation, the information sought offers very little in return.
Scenario 2

I am sitting in the Apple Store at a long wooden table waiting for assistance. 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) which actually falls more often than not 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. 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. My silence did not reflect acceptance of what was happening. Sometimes silence just means that a long list of complicated social and political factors have stopped a person from speaking (back) including perceived power, safety, and security.

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See Kamala Visweswaran and Sara Ahmed’s works for more reading on topics of racial and cultural difference, estrangement, and belonging.