Identity and state
I have it pretty good, in America. I’m White, male, young. Grew up with books. With enough food on the table during critical phases of brain development. In a neighborhood composed of people who looked and spoke like me, a neighborhood with a creek, and trees, and street hockey, somewhere safe. Through deterministic happenstance–a confluence of genetics and education and economics and municipal investment in public education and intellectually challenging parents and the right teachers at pivotal moments–I’m good at thinking about a class of problem which too few people are working on, and present market dynamics allow me to do what I love for far more money than I need.
People grant me the authority to speak as is expected of males, with the lack of recognition of my skin color that comes for people of northern European origin, and for my youth I am forgiven all manner of brash and disrespectful rejoinders. I am significantly more likely to be a victim of a murder, and feel constant pressure to be resolute, correct, gruff. I have never worried for my physical safety in the presence of male companions, and think nothing of walking alone at night. As a motorcyclist and as an engineer I am never the odd one out. I can wear comfortable clothes at formal gatherings. I can enter any building freely, and when boarding a bus, folks never rustle and stare at the delay. I feel tremendously self-conscious when surrounded by people of color. My coworkers never comment about how pretty I am. I am never expected to speak for all young, White males.
I will never have the experience of being a woman; to keep it together when my male coworkers take credit for my ideas and I’m still making $20,000 less than the junior devs fresh out of college. To move from Pakistan to the rural Midwest, to a new culture and bureaucracy, and struggling to learn math my classmates can barely cope with–in a language not my own. To be told all my life that I was White, because the family that adopted me was so much darker, and I was told I had beautiful light skin and to keep from getting tan, and when I moved to New York they called me Black, but I don’t know how to be Black and no one will teach me. To be the only kid from the Rez who went to college, and to have pleaded with admissions to let my dad off the hook for when he wouldn’t lift a fucking drunk-ass finger to fill out the FAFSA, and to remember my grandmother’s strength and intellect and passion: my inspiration always.
I have different memories.
I’m chopping zucchini for dinner. Let slip: my friend is dating a bisexual girl. “People like that are… no good for relationships,” my family explains, and I assent, numb, cursing that I was born as the abomination that I am, but I’m straight, not one of those homosexuals, not sinful, I can’t be, not any more–I can change. We don’t believe in God, but being gay is a terrible sin somehow. We talk about whether there are more gay people these days because of industrial pollution.
Months later it comes back. I kiss a man and hate myself for it. There’s a cancer in my brain, a sickness, and I think like chemo if I hurt myself badly enough, maybe that part will die too, and I can be normal. That day I hit two of my best friends. Matthew’s in a rage, shouting in my face. “How dare you do that to her,” and he sees something in my eyes, and softens, and I can’t explain, can’t say a word, just run into the woods and keep going while the night air chars my lungs into cinders. It’s minus fourteen degrees, a quarter moon in the trees. Silent. I’m face down, in the snow, waiting to die. I deserve it, for who I am, for what I’ve done.
I don’t remember much, of my life before. I’ve done such terrible–such unforgivable–damage to the people around me. I am imbued with sorrow, for all of it.
I lie to my dad about a date. “Her name was Anna,” I say. Honesty is at my core, I resolve, and two weeks later I bite the bullet and my jaw goes numb at the words. “She doesn’t exist. His name was Eric.” He says he’s hurt, and asks why this happened. He needs time to think about it. Dad’s coworkers ask him where he went wrong as a parent. Long-time friends of the family–people I respect, who I look up to–cut off contact altogether. My mom, paradoxically, gets closer. She wants to be a part of my life again. I wonder.
It’s winter in Minnesota. An old woman in enormous black sunglasses, driving a minivan through the mudpacked snow, slows to a crawl and stares as I walk, hand-in-hand, with a man. We laugh and share the story later. On road trips, we gauge people at the gas station, at the motel, at the restaurant. Will they talk. Is it safe. Maybe we don’t need to fight this battle, this time. Separate beds, please. Just buddies grabbing a beer.
My boyfriend leaves a wedding in rage and tears. The groom pushed him to the wall, hands on his throat. No two fucking gays will dance at his wedding. “It’s his special day,” the family says, “and we have to respect his wishes.” There are partners from the firm here. We can’t give them the wrong impression.
I’m getting groceries, in San Francisco. A Black woman, on her phone, with a toddler in her stroller screams at me in the grocery line. “Faggot!” she screams. “Pussy cocksucker! I’m going to get my brother. He’s right outside. He’ll fuck you up real good!” I go back to that grocery store each week. I wonder when the next time will be. I wonder if she’ll try to make good on that threat. I think about my vulnerability as a cyclist. Two of my gay friends have been beaten unconscious and robbed this year.
Every trans woman has a story of How Things Were, and How She Changed; each bi man knows the experience of justifying one’s self to utter strangers and the people one falls in love with. Coming-out stories unite strangers in the most unusual, intimate way; so strange, and yet so alike. “It happened to me too.” I understand you.
I took a course called “The Psychology of Prejudice”. A litany of cognitive psychology studies, some better constructed than others, pinned together in a web of models. Stereotype formation and ingroup-outgroup bias. Priming and subtyping. We talked about experiment design, and we shared stories. It’s tough to shut up. To keep the voice in your head which constructs a reason for everything, a story about how the world works–to hold that voice still for a few minutes, and listen to someone else’s voice. Sometimes we didn’t do so well and people got nervous or scared. But mostly, they shared stories of extraordinary depth. I won’t repeat them, but I can extemporize.
A Black freshman says he feels his affirmative-action scholarship is completely unjustified. He didn’t need the money, he says. Another differs: his only shot at college was an endowment for Black journalism majors, and when his family went homeless in high school, he lost the grades required for a purely academic scholarship. Losing your legs means you have to be an advocate for accessibility standards every fucking day, just to get to work, find a home, and pay taxes. Dating is different when 30% of Black men your age have been incarcerated. Working is different when your average earnings are only 77% of your peers, or when you’re cited 10-20% higher costs for an auto loan, or home. When you’re two-spirited, half Mexican, and half Native, you may not feel like you fit in anywhere. Misunderstood or shut out by the very people who should be on your side.
You learn the joy of belonging. Of meeting a woman just like you, who’s a chemist like I want to be. A computer programmer came to talk to our class, and look, he’s Lakota, and someday I could be one too. Of going to the salon or supermarket or the bar and they know how to work with my hair, they have the right kind of beans, they speak sign language just like me and for the first time I didn’t have to scribble everything on paper. You learn these cultures have their strengths, their diversity, their drugs and violence and insularities, just like yours; that you can be an A-list gay torn between their law practice and binge drinking at the club four times a week, or an Oklahoma farmer who hates Katy Perry and isn’t too sure about marriage and that’s a way to be gay, too. That total strangers will march for your struggle to survive a virus. That sometimes you can look around you, and everyone is like you in this way that doesn’t really matter, except that it’s so rare.
I didn’t know. I didn’t expect… well, that any of this existed. My friends and sometimes, if I listen well, even acquaintances or strangers will share these little pieces of their lives, and there’s a multitude of questions I’ll never even think to ask. They’re not quantitative. They’re not even generalizable, though sometimes you can get a feel for some partial, shifting communities. I know I harp on data, and reasoning, and the importance of quantitative thinking, but it’s not enough. These stories are fucking important. There’s tremendous value in understanding the lives of the people around us, especially those with different circumstances.
Sometimes my friends can shy away. Sometimes I shy away, afraid of asking the wrong question–and believe me, I’ve said some pretty insensitive, hurtful things. Discretion can be a virtue. But sometimes, when the topic of class comes up, we say, “there’s no winning that discussion,” and “I’m not racist–we both know that–but I don’t want to say the wrong thing by accident,” and “I know I’ll just be called homophobic so I won’t say anything,” and I feel like we’ve lost something important. That by bludgeoning people with the privilege bat, and “hierarchies of oppression”, and seeing everything in terms of The System and The Patriachy, we’ve told family, coworkers, friends, allies–the people we need most to understand our experiences, that not only can they not speak, but they can’t even listen. That our language as activists is too different. Or that their stories are less valid than ours, because only people of color are truly in the struggle.
When people feel excluded, looked down at, rejected, it’s damn hard to understand each other.
If we want a richer society, a balanced admixture of ideas and values and humans, a culture of equality: we’ve got to have these conversations more often. As uncomfortable and dangerous and fucking heart-rending as they are, we must talk about it. No, it’s not your responsibility to explain to men what it’s like to be a woman, or a Muslim, or intersex. You’ve got enough on your plate already. There are insufferable assholes, yeah. Maybe most people will never get it. But I guarantee you there are people you know who can come to understand your story if you take the time to reach out to each other. I don’t think we should assign guilt for who people are–I think we should seek a common understanding.
That means you, dear member of an outgroup, please leave the judgments at the door. Make a safe space. Promise not to get angry, at least for a few minutes. There will always be time for rage. Instead of telling people how privileged they are, and trying to force them to see things in your terms, share with them how you feel as someone on the outside. If they tell you you’re wrong, “that’s not how things are”, it’s OK. Maybe next time. Sometimes, it just takes a bit to sink in.
That means you, “normal person”–whatever that means in a certain context–just promise to someone that you’ll listen. Unconditionally. Ask them for their truth. It’s OK to ask questions, but don’t tell them they’re wrong. You can always argue later. Remember that it doesn’t matter if they’re objectively correct, because each person behaves according to their experience. At the very least, getting to see through their lens can be interesting.
At best, it changes your life.
My thanks to those who reviewed early drafts of this piece, including Duretti Hirpa and John Mullerleile.