Masonic Boom

"Crazy" "Oversensitive" "Feminazi" "Bitch" bloggin' bout pop music, linguistics and mental health issues

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Racist Bone

This blog has been some time coming, mainly because I don't have a clue how to address the topic. I've been talking about the concept of Privilege, with regards to gender and sexual orientation, and of course that brings up the enormous elephant in the room that is the fact of the Privilege of my race.

Recently, I was reading an article about a (white) comedian, who justified his "edgy" jokes about black people by claiming "I can make these jokes because I'm not a racist! I don't have a racist bone in my body!" I've never been deluded enough to make this same assertion, I've never had the privilege of denial. The fact is, I was raised within one of the most racist cultures on earth, and grew up in one of the most deeply racist countries on earth. I've lived, surrounded by racism, soaking in it, both overt and covert. It is very likely that I have a great many racist bones, some I'm aware of, but others so deep in my skeleton I don't even know they're there.

I was born in suburban London to white South African parents. In the 70s and 80s of my childhood, this mere fact was enough to damn me. (Never mind the actual politics of my family, or their reasons for leaving the country.) When I was 9, we moved to America, total innocents who had actually believed the internationally promoted myth that America was a perfectly free, perfectly classless country.

Even to South African parents, the racism of nice, suburban America was a vicious shock. My mother told me that it seemed actually worse than South Africa. There, due to the entrenched political system of Apartheid, at least racism was out in the open where it could be owned, addressed, spoken of. American racism, economic and social, seemed somehow more vicious for being covert, even denied by those that were perpetuating it.

When we were first looking for a home in suburban Connecticut, the estate agents were legally obliged to show us a house which seemed nice enough, but advised strongly against buying it. "Look around you," they hissed. "Look at the other families on the block!" My mother looked. To an African, being surrounded by black faces was neither particularly shocking nor the slightest bit frightening. But the realtor moved us swiftly on to an all white neighbourhood. (A nice, white neighbourhood where a cross was burned on our lawn with the accompanying message "Brits, go home" but that's another story.)

My mum soon started a cub scout troop in order to meet other young mothers, and for us to meet other kids outside school. One mother called, warily wanting to know if there were any spare places in her troop for her sons. Of course; it was a brand new troop, my mum told her, and asked the two boys to come to the next meeting. When their mother dropped them off, she explained that every other boy scout troop in the town had mysteriously become too full when a black family wanted to join. Indeed, a couple of kids abruptly dropped out after they joined - which was good news for me, as suddenly there was extra space and material available for the annoying little sister who wanted to tag along on everything.

At school, things were supposed to be different. My brother and I attended one of the most elite, upper middle class pre-prep schools in New England, albeit one with a supposed "liberal" tradition. (This meant they admitted the occasional scholarship kid to boost their athletic or SSAT scores, which was how we ended up there, naively unaware of the differences between the UK and US class systems.) Divestment was a big buzzword in these circles, the Problem of South Africa was a popular topic of conversation at upper middle class dinner parties.

How this filtered down to the world of an eleven year old was somewhat more direct. A group of girls confronted me in the locker room after gym class. "Our mothers say we can't play with you any more." (They had never really played with me - the scholarship kid, the English kid, the cootie girl - much to start with.) "My mother says you're South African. She says you're a RACIST."

I had to look it up in the dictionary. Being British, and not used to American English, I often had to do that with insults. ("Cootie" hadn't been in there, but other perennial favourites such as "Dyke" and "Lesbian" were.) Racism: the prejudice that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. To an eleven year old, it seemed a kind of prejudice that members of the group "Americans" distinguished themselves as possessing characteristics superior to all members of another group called "South Africans." But I hadn't quite got to the page of the dictionary with the word "hypocrite" on it yet, to realise that this message came from the same mothers, calling my mum "racist" for being South African, that had refused to accommodate two little black children in their cub scout troops.

We eventually moved to a new town and a new school, where I learned not to tell people about my parents' nationality. My mother started to tell people that her charming accent was from New Zealand. (It's astonishing to me that Americans couldn't tell the difference.) At high school, my closest friends were girls in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program, whose families came from places as far flung as Malaysia, South Korea, Brazil. It was years later that I understood, what had brought us together was a specific part of the immigrant experience. They understood the conflicts of using one language, one culture, one way of presenting ourselves outside the house, and a completely different one inside our family homes. I learned to *pass* for an American, changed my accent, my clothes, my hair, though I never got the hang of that American race thing - that although my skin was the same colour as those nice, white, middle class American girls, our experiences were nothing alike.

I moved to New York City, as soon as I was an adult, and it seemed like another world. I loved Queens, with its profusion of colours and languages and cultures. For the first time in my life, I experienced the freedom of living in a neighbourhood where everyone was an immigrant. Everyone came from somewhere else, and in a place where no one *really* belongs, *everyone* somehow belongs. I spent a lot of time in an Indian neighbourhood because, desperately homesick, I discovered that one could get Crunchie bars, Birds-Eye custard and Bisto powder in the shops there. I didn't, at the time, think about the inherent British Imperialism of this. And I cringe now, thinking of the cultural appropriation whereby I started to take on the trappings of my new neighbourhood, wearing Indian clothes and jewelry, watching Bollywood films and listening to classical ragas and bhangra. But it was as much a rejection of adopted American culture as a co-option of Asian culture. I couldn't stand the mawkish anglophilia of places like Tea and Sympathy; instead I ate dosas at a restaurant where the waiters, immigrants like me, commented on my accent because they had family in Manchester and Birmingham. British-Asian culture seemed more familiar, more homey to me than American culture ever did.

Don't get me wrong. NYC wasn't a racially harmonious paradise. Second generation immigrants can often be more hostile to first generation immigrants because they have more to lose. And back in Manhattan, WASP culture reigned supreme. At one of my first proper, post-college jobs, a young Latina woman and I were interviewed and hired at the same time, so we went through the company induction together. We were the same age, so we chatted in the waiting room as we filled out our forms, about clothes, television, which subway lines we'd ride in to work. The HR person approached my colleague. "I'll need to take a copy of your Green Card before you can start work." She rolled her eyes, explained that she was a third generation New Yorker and neither had nor indeed needed a Green Card. "OK, I'll need to see your birth certificate, then." Me, I had my documents, my Green Card, my Social Security card and my British passport, all ready to go, but HR ignored me. "Would you like to see my Green Card?" I asked, worried. "Ha ha, very funny," the HR person replied dismissively. "No, really," I insisted. People *never* asked me for one, but I knew it was illegal to even have me on the premises without one. "I thought you were joking," the HR person told me as she, flabbergasted, took and xeroxed my documents.

It was utterly eye-opening. It was the first time I actually understood what it meant, the idea of racial privilege. That although *I* was the immigrant, only 12 years in the country, and some of her ancestors had been on the American continent when mine were painting themselves blue and hurling themselves at Romans, the white girl got to pass, unchallenged, and the brown girl had to prove her right to work, to even exist, within the American system.

That year was the year of the OJ Simpson trial. America was divided in a way I didn't understand. I can remember arguing about it at one of those endless druggy boho parties, me, my housemate and a handsome young black man. (He was a model, who had just starred in a Toni Braxton video, so maybe there was a subtext of competitive flirting.) For me, the issues were clear cut. Males had one legal system in America, whereby a man could beat or even murder his wife and get away with it, females had another. My housemate brought up the time I'd spent in jail, and the male model gaped at me, wide-eyed, my chances of pulling in ruins. "They put a white girl in jail? What'd you do, kill a cop?!" For him, the issue was just as stark - white people had one legal system in America, black people had another.

I was hugely ignorant then. I am, still, hugely ignorant, but I try to be at least aware of mine own ignorance. Race and gender and the privilege thereof intersect in ways that are complicated and difficult to detangle. There are stories I've left out - the fellow writer, on a radio program, who shouted at me, patronisingly, that I had no right to speak of Feminism or the prejudices that women faced, because little white girls had nothing to be angry about. The time my mother accidentally joined the African American Students Club when she returned to university, because she took it literally - she is, indeed, an American who was born in Africa - and they, in bitter irony, could not throw her out without being accused of racial discrimination. (She found herself repeatedly on the same side of arguments as a group of Nigerian exchange students, against American born black students, Culture seeming much stronger than Race alone.)

I do not pretend in any way that my experiences as an immigrant are remotely comparable to experiences of Race in America - if anything, my experiences only prove how different they are. I know that no matter what I've seen, I don't *get* it. I will never understand the American experience of Race, despite living there for over fifteen years. There is no hierarchy of privilege, race does not trump gender or vice versa, though they can intersect powerfully. (I recognise this is one of my faults, that I will stop and listen when a woman of colour calls me, or my kind, on issues of privilege, when my kneejerk reaction to a man of colour is to tell him to check his own male privilege first. Is this because my immigrant distrust of American WASP hypocrisy makes me identify more powerfully with my gender, rather than my Race? Or is it in point of fact some kind of racist misandry?)

I do not know. But ignorance is not an excuse. Although I cannot change the way I was raised, the culture I was imbued with, I can only try to be aware of it and try, not always successfully, to make conscious choices not to *act* in a way that is racist.

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

How Many Things Constitute a *THING*?

OK, so there's this *thing* that I repeatedly notice on ILX, and it bothers me. And how many times does this *thing* have to be repeated before we can say it's a pattern, a general tendency, and talk about that pattern, rather than dissect each individual example, which can always be explained away.

Because this is often exactly how things like harassment, and sexism and The Patriarchy all work. That it's not just the one example that can be easily explained away, it's the repetition of these things happening over and over until you realise it is actually a pattern, and it's patterns that move to show intent as much as individual actions.

It happens like this:

-Link is posted to an article. It's always a *woman* columnist, she's always addressing some kind of aspect of feminism. (It happened with Laurie Penny today, it's happened before with Bidisha, with every female columnist or blogger ever from Lucy Mangan to "The Indie Professor".)

-ILX media-wannabes start circling the article, usually with this aghast "OMG, how is this dreadful columnist allowed to have a job at this paper!" (with the following "...and I don't!" never explicitly stated but usually implied) subtext.

-The resulting circlejerk usually takes on a slightly ad hominem tone, or rather, an ad-writing-style tone, whereby the writer's style, and "lumpen prose" and "jargon" (because, of course, the use of words like "patriarchy" and "heteronormative" in an article explicitly about feminism are jargon in a way that, say words like "offside rule" are so totally NOT jargon in an article specifically about sport) are implicated, rather than the actual message because *that* would mean they had to actually take the feminist principles being discussed seriously.

-The actual *content* of the article (hey, this thing! it's kinda sexist, huh?) is never directly addressed, but more the writer's whole ouvre is dismissed as being, oh you know, all the usual things like "PC" and "student left" and "humourless and strident" (we've never heard that one before, have we, ladies?)

And then all the mens get together in this giant circle jerk where they congratulate themselves on being so much more enlightened and politically aware and realist-cynical-ironic-snarky than that *terrible* strident, idealist, student-newspaper type woman-journalist. And in this masturbatory frenzy, they invariably somehow just forget to even *discuss* the actual, original *point* of the article. (This thing, it remains kinda sexist, you guys!)

But oh no, of course you can NOT go calling them out on this because oh noes, we do it to *male* columnists as well. Even though, actually, when they go in on terrible male columnists, for some reason, they are actually able to discuss, thoroughly, the on-point or off-point message of said male columnist's argument instead of just circling it like a bunch of squeamish teenage boys poking it with gingerly with the toes of their shoes because god forbid they might actually have to have a discussion of feminism which could challenge their own male privilege.

So, how many times does this approximate script have to happen before we can say, "Hey, guys, so this is actually a *thing* for you, right?" and call it for the subtle sexism it actually is?

Re: Fry himself. As I stated myself on the thread, "if I'd wanted sweeping gender essentialist pronouncements about the sexuality of women from men who, you know, never actually *had* sex with a woman, I'd have joined the Catholic Church. I have not actually read the Attitude interview he claims was misquoted, but I'm all too familiar with low-level "eeewwww, FISH!" misogyny which has been so popular among older generations of gay men. (You know, from before the memo went round that misogyny and homophobia are actually two sides of the same male-heteronormative-privilege coin.) So I'm prepared to write it off as a "horribly formed" "joke" from someone who turned the clocks back a little too far on Sunday morning. Because really, his descriptions of female sexuality bear little to no resemblance whatsoever to my own personal experiences or the experiences of friends and other women of my generation.

If people were to simply roll their eyes and forget it, writing it off as the kind of retrograde stereotype "white people drive like this, black people drive like this..." JokeFail, it would end there. What bothers me is the posters, usually men, who read this kind of thing and retort, uncritically, "LOL, this is the truuuuuuuuth" rather than countenance any kind of challenge of the stereotypes and the damage they do to all of us - all women (straight or gay), gay men, and also actually, straight men themselves, most of whom *do* actually have emotions and affections and the desire to form attachments, rather than *just* a penis.

But hey, that's the message that actually gets lost. And that's the real shame.