Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Little Nicks to the Spirit (Other-Race Effect, III)

Some friends here and elsewhere are asking me about the post I wrote about being unhappy for calling a black coworker by the name of another black coworker.

I feel like I must have left out a lot of background, or it would have been clearer. So, if you're interested, bear with me, please? 
I want to try to fill in some blanks.

I. Starting with Little Old Queer Me

Why do I care so much about misnaming someone based on their appearance? 
What I did is normal (not to say that makes it OK--more on that later); I caught myself and apologized; and my coworker, I'll call her Deborah here, has since connected with me as if it never happened---we talked about astrology, for instance, and she said she likes Pisces (my sign).

Of course, if it happens to you all the time, you might well gloss it over––consider it, if you even do consider it, not worth getting upset about, especially if you can tell the person didn't mean anything by it, which was the case here.

I care because it--being named based on appearance, and misnamed at that--happens to me, and I HATE it. 
I don't want to do it to others.

For me, I am identified and misidentified mostly re my sexuality.

In 1977, when I was a teenager, I came out as lesbian. 
You who are my age will remember this was not an easy time to be gay. I always, always felt nervous, and when I say I "came out", that's not really true--I never told people casually.
And so people always assumed I was straight.

The normal default question at the time was, "Do you have a boyfriend?" not something neutral like we'd ask now, such as "Are you dating someone?" or "Do you have a sweetie?" or something.

So I have that experience of knowing something about me was ... socially iffy. Even possibly risky. 

I spent about twenty years in lesbian-feminist culture--a very particular culture, blending the consciousness-raising of above-ground feminism with the more underground experience of the gay minority subculture (gay bars didn't have signs in the 1970s and even in the '80s--you had to know where they were), plus the subversion of gay liberation. 
"The personal is political" was the guiding philosophy.

In 1984, Lucinda (bink) and I got together, and one year later, Rock Hudson died of AIDS--the first public figure to reveal his diagnosis (though he said it was probably from a blood transfusion...).
AIDS started to devastate the brother culture of gay men, and the president wouldn't even say its name or fund research to halt it.
This didn't much affect lesbian health, but it totally impacted the culture, in terms of political consciousness, much of which is transferable to the politics of race.

A dozen years later, I fell in love with a man.
It was confusing and uncomfortable, like having a mild but ongoing intestinal disorder. 
I broke up with Lucinda and had an affair with this guy.

He was married---another underground experience, and morally problematic in a way lesbianism never, ever was for me (I mean, I never saw sex between free, consenting humans as a moral problem)--and wow, I've gotta say, the way people feel free to condemn you for adultery is like nothing else I've experienced––except, weirdly! the way some people have condemned my mother, to my face, for taking her own life. One woman told me my mother had committed was "the only unforgivable sin."

Uh, so... Then I dated men for a while, but I don't really connect well with men, on an intimate emotional level. So I gave up the whole partnership thing, pretty happily, I must say.
(Both my parents were longtime single---I think maybe my family does pretty well, maybe even better, as single, cultivating friends rather than a lover or spouse.)

BUT... people still read me as lesbian.
Out of loyalty to my younger self and to my community, I don't mind that––in fact, it's something of a compliment, like, "I see you as an independent being"––
but I hate, hate, hate that people just ASSUME what I am.

It's quite, quite blatant. 
A couple years ago, a married guy I knew slightly said, 
"I'm glad you're a lesbian."

"I'm not a lesbian!" I said.

I think he meant that he was attracted to me and felt safe because if I were a lesbian, it couldn't be mutual. (Which right away isn't necessarily true anyway--though it was true in this case I would never have been attracted to this man, but not because I was lesbian. Which I'm not.)

Also, people have assumed that Marz and I were girlfriends.
(I know because bink told me at the time--also people have since told me.)
This creeps me out a little because, while we were romantic friends and are still, after some upds and downs, still close and affectionate, I always felt parental toward Marz, who is thirty years younger than me. 
At any rate, why didn't people just ASK?
It is such a horrible feeling to be labeled without your consent---and mislabeled at that. If you haven't experienced it, I'm not sure how to describe it--maybe it's as if people walking past brushed you with the sharp edge of a feather. 
Except when it's repeated over and over.

II. And then there's poverty 

I hope I don't sound like I'm preaching: I know you all know race is linked to poverty and privilege.
And that privilege in the United States isn't so much about having money to buy stuff---there's so much stuff (so much stuff!!!), we are drowning in cheap crap.
There is the financial side, of course––you don't have to worry about your car breaking down, because it's new!––but it's also about having options and confidence and hope, and about how other people automatically grant you dignity.

Poverty is about constant, low-grade humiliation.

It means working low paying, part time jobs where there's no chance of going full time with benefits; you have to punch out for unpaid half-hour breaks (which they only give you because they're required by law); you don't get free coffee or anything; and where they check your bag every time you leave the building. (All that's policy where I work now).

I learned most of what I know about racism + poverty by riding the bus. All my life, as a white woman, I've been given a pass by bus drivers if I'm short on bus fare.

Over and over and over again, I've seen white bus drivers give black guys a hard time. 
One driver called the cops---the actual city police--on a black man who argued with him about being 25¢ short, argued in a friendly, funny way!

When the driver put in the call, I went up and paid the quarter, but the driver said it was too late. The cops came and escorted the black man off the bus, and patted him down on the sidewalk.
I got off the bus and said, "He didn't do anything!"

One of the cops turned, looked at me with cold eyes, and said, "Move along, ma'am."

Let me tell you, if you didn't know, having a cop give you the cold eye is very scary.
I repeated what I'd said, but I moved along.

III. Mind the Gap

So... I've said that what I did, misnaming my coworker, was normal. More on that.
First, I want to be clear that I know, because I was there, that I called my coworker Deborah out of her name, not to insult, but because I saw her first as black. 

I'm not unusual here for reflecting the culture around me––how not?––and I'm not blaming myself, as if I'm personally a bad person. 
The cognitive biases I have around race are common, normal American things to have---they turn up in tests where people take a fraction of a second longer assigning pleasant words to the faces of black children than to white children.

Oh--hey, I found it--you can take the test, hosted by Harvard University: 
Project Implicit Tests

Project Implicit is a research project, started in 1998, that "investigates the gap between intentions and actions." The PI tests collect data to investigate "thoughts and feelings that exist outside of conscious awareness or conscious control. " 

I took their Race test, which "indicates that most Americans have an automatic preference for white over black." 

Heh, I just now took it, and my result was the opposite:

Perhaps because of me feeling bad, misnaming my coworker? You could say it was a minor incident, but by writing and thinking about it, I've called it into my consciousness.  

Anyway, it's not a judgment on me as a person, it's not a moral issue, it's just a tragic situation that I am caught up in, that I--that all Americans--have inherited.
And denying that does no one any good.

Perhaps by becoming more aware of it, I will be less likely to pass it on unthinkingly.

IV. Call Me By My Name

Some people have kindly suggested I forgot my coworker's name, the same as I would the name of a white person.

Of course that happens, but I have to ask you to believe me that in this case, I know that I didn't just forget her name, or I wouldn't have felt bad about it the way I did--it was not the embarrassment of an etiquette breach, but of something less meaningless.

It's a common enough name, but it's pronounced with the accent on an unusual syllable, like De-bo-RAH, so I'd made an effort to remember it. 
And I'd not only worked a couple shifts with her, I'd ridden the bus with her,  and she'd told me some things about herself.

One story that stays with me is that when she was in high school, a friend who was five-months pregnant took a cab to school one day because she felt sick. On the way, she started to gush blood. The taxi driver took her to the ER, but was angry at her:
"Who is going to pay to clean up this blood?" he demanded.

That wasn't Deborah's point, though. We were talking about health care, and her point was that this young woman's preemie spent a year in the hospital and now is fine.

No, I knew her name, and I knew even as I called her the wrong one that it was a Freudian slip, that I was replacing her name with her race---it was one of those little, revealing accidents of speech that betray a subconscious bias.
I called her out of her name because I saw her first as "black".

You know, this is both a tiny little thing, and a massive huge one.
Names are political.

Here's an article along those lines by Dr. Rebecca Boylorn, an African American professor, about not being called by her title, and how that means something different for a black, female, working class professor  than it does to a white male who might choose to have a student call him by his first name:
"On Being Called Out My Name" 

OK. I hope that clarifies where I'm coming from, for those who asked.
It helped me to spell it out a little more.
Here's another privilege I notice all the time at work:
the privilege to assume unthinkingly that I have a right to ask questions.

And that asking questions is a Good.
Right? Socrates asked questions! 
I say that as an argument in its favor.

Those who don't have privilege might point out, 

And look what happened to him.

It's a matter of perspective, like with To Kill a Mockingbird.
For white people like me, it's a feel-good book about a heroic resistance to racism.
But if you read it from Tom Robinson's perspective, it's a story about how black people can't get justice, even when good white people stand up for them.
When I realized that (belatedly), all of a sudden I realized why some black people rejoiced when O. J. Simpson was found not-guilty.
People who say they don't see race, they are essentially saying they don't see history.

And we know where that leads.

So--thanks for the comments and questions, which gave me this chance to try to get my head straight (as it were).


Anonymous said...

Next question, if you had been working with two people with red hair and inadvertantly called one by the wrong name would you feel the same, or what about two white haired old ladies?

ArtSparker said...

Nice hedgehog.

Fresca said...

CATHY: I'd be unhappy if I hurt anyone inadvertently, no matter who they were.

SPARKER: Ha! That's Cathy's hedgehog---don't know why that thumbnail image got so big and took over my post! I temporarily took her blog off my blogroll (nothing personal, Cathy--your hedgehog ate my post!).