Saturday, December 10, 2005


Yes, this is a reactionary post. Bear with me. I'm a little pissed off. I'm at lab happy hour tonight. I'm having a few beers, not drunk but certainly enjoying the social scene and getting to know people a little bit better. A little alcohol always makes me more chatty, and I'm careful not to supercede my limits. N has brought his girlfriend, and I'm meeting her for the first time. M is drunk off her rocker and her husband is embarassed. J, a non-American of colour (this will be relevant later) is showing the non-electrophysiology side of himself that I didn't know existed. It will be relevant to note at this point that M has started waxing philosophical about feminism, being counter-culture, and other good things. She's going on about how she's so in-your-face, not afraid of standing up to the Man, loves being a protester, saying things for shock value, ecetera. We spent a good four hours at the bar. Early into the night, a couple of creepy guys walked past the table and stared at N's girlfriend. They actually maneuvered themselves (rather obviously) such as to get a better look at her. They made her very uncomfortable, whether it was checking her out or just staring, she noticed them and over the course of the night, repeatedly mentioned that they were making her uncomfortable. By the end of the night, I half-jokingly said that she, her boyfriend, or someone else should go over and tell them that the ogling was not appreciated. I would've done it, too, but it didn't seem like she was that upset. But meanwhile, M and her husband decided to tell me (patronizingly, like I'm a naive four-year-old) that any situation in which you approach a stranger to tell them that they are being offensive, rude or obnoxious is stupid. Because it might start a fight. Because they might have a gun. They proceeded to lecture me about how stupid it was to confront others, how it was much more intelligent to walk away, about how no situation is bad enough to warrant calling another person on how much of an asshole they're being. You know what? I don't give a shit. If someone is giving you crap, if it is more or less safe, if you have factored in all the possible outcomes, if you are intelligent about your choices, and if you feel so bothered and are made so uncomfortable that you have tried unsuccessfully to ignore the offensive stimuli, and (I cannot over-emphasize this one) if it is safe, there is absolutely nothing wrong with approaching another person you do not know, calmly and cooly informing them that their behaviour has been noticed and is unappreciated, and be willing to accept the ramifications of that action. Obviously, I've qualified this situation heavily -- don't confront someone if you don't think you and/or all of your crew couldn't take them and/or all of their crew in a fight, don't confront someone if you don't really care that much about the situation, don't confront them if you haven't thought through your next actions, and don't go into the situation just looking to knock someone out. Tonight, M's husband condescendingly informed me that "if I were to take a martial art, the first thing I would be taught is not to get into a fight". Never mind that I am actually a brown belt in karate. And more appropriately, what my sensei taught our class was to never look for a fight, but that oftentimes, there are reasons when you simply must fight -- choose those situations wisely but don't back down. Especially if your honour is being challenged. Bruce Lee, for example, was a great martial artist -- he was challenged to fights regularly on the sets of his movies, in which his honour and the honour of Jeet Kune Do (and I know I've massacred that spelling) was at stake. He didn't walk away because he felt this was a situation important enough to fight in. Similarly, while I'm rarely one to resort to fists (I wasn't exactly a good karate student, and I consider my brown belt largely worthless), one's tongue can be just as sharp a weapon. Especially because I consider myself an activist, I think it would be hypocritical for one to on the one hand parade around their bravado and willingness to confront others over injustice and discrimination when in a mob situation (like an organized picketing event), and on the other hand to be too terrified to confront a single person who has disturbed you. But just because you don't want to fight someone, doesn't mean that you shouldn't be prepared to. Those who fear confrontation usually end up getting trampled, and those who usually get trampled are the disenfranchised, oppressed and marginalized. When I was ten years old, I was molested by a man in a crowded subway. He was standing in front of me, and, subtly, hiding his motions with the rocking of the subway, reached his hand to me and began tickling and touching my pelvis. His elbow pushed against me to rub against my budding breasts. I looked up at him, and he looked down at me and smirked. Being ten years old, I panicked. I did exactly what M and company suggested everyone should do -- I moved. I ran as fast as I could through the subway car and didn't stop until I had reached the very front, next to the glass window through which I could see the tracks as we hurtled through the tunnel. I still remember that man's face. I was ten years old, and I still remember what he looked like as he looked down at me; I could probably describe him to a sketch artist now, thirteen years later. He has had a relatively profound impact on my life -- I'm moderately phobic of large crowds, and crowded subways in particular. And I sometimes wonder what that guy is doing now, if he ever hurt another little girl, if he ever got caught. I was only ten years old, and yet I chastise myself. I wasn't willing to admit that the incident had even happened to me until a couple of years later in a women's self-defense course. There, the instructor told the story of a woman whose ass was grabbed in a crowded subway, similar to what had happened to me. Rather than run, the woman reached back and grabbed the hand by the wrist, raised it high above her head and yelled out "Whose hand is this?!? It was just grabbing my ass!!" Obviously, everyone stepped back -- except for the person whose wrist was still firmly attached to his body. When I heard that story, I was mortified, not because that was a terrifying thing to do, but because I felt guilty that I had not done something similar. I had let the man get away with it. I had ran and thus allowed myself to be used without consequence. At this point, I will put this disclaimer on the situation. Do I think this particular situation was worthy of confrontation? Probably not. I only caught a few glimpses of the man, and didn't notice him nearly as often as N's girlfriend did. Plus, he hadn't actually said anything to us nor had he threatened anyone or caused anyone to feel physically insulted or unsafe. So, in this situation, I didn't seem worthwhile to start any shit. But, all too often (at least for me), a situation does pop off that requires intervention. An idle "model minority" joke. Electroman being called the "n" word. Little boys and girls pulling their eyes back when I went to a DC movie theatre (to simulate slanted eyes). It would be completely hypocritical of me to talk big on this blog about the importance of feminism and race activism and then to be too afraid to stand up for my own rights in the real world. Sometimes, when it's smart, I think it's essential to be able to stand up for yourself, and, yes, even run the risk of starting an argument. J, the other visible person of colour at that table, pulled me aside -- after I got so furious at being called stupid that I scared off the rest of the dinner party -- and told me that he both agreed and disagreed. As people of colour, we are under different circumstances, and he conceded that there were times that confronting others might be acceptable, although he argued that those times were rarities. Above all, he told me I shouldn't get visibly angry in front of the others -- I think he was trying to tell me that it wasn't worth ruining a good party and/or that it was against my better interests to show when I'm upset. Can't say I fully understood. I apologized to him for possibly ruining the event but I still stand by getting upset at being talked down to, being called stupid, and generally having to deal with hypocritical people who are too afraid to put into practice all that they preach. To me, protesting only in the safety of numbers is worse than the armchair activist -- it's the activist who tries to take all the supposed "glory" of being counter-culture and seeks all the attention that comes with the territory of being vocal and active, but who shirks the identity as soon as it becomes inconvenient or scary in any way. I'm not letting anyone run roughshod over me ever again.


Blogger yellowbaby said...

How irritating.

Your dinner companions didn't make any sense.

I wouldn't hang around this M person too much.

12/10/2005 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous normal2 said...

that happened to me so many times. i agree with you.

i think nonwhite people have a very different experience of upsetting other people. in general we don't like upsetting people but we're very used to it because we upset people every day just by being there.

i grew up around a lot of white people and my whole life i had to deal with rude stares and tensions and people being bothered or threatened or uncomfortable every single day. it's as normal as air. just walking down a white street any nonwhite guy is gonna feel like he's bothering somebody. somebody always acts bothered or hostile or threatened or upset or something. it's a daily drag we rise above. so bothering people isn't very special for us. it doesn't mean we like it. but if someone needs to be confronted we can do it, and it doesn't feel like a huge revolutionary experience or anything. it's just a little more than the usual.

but for some people it's different, especially some white women. for some of them it's like they've never upset a pompous white man in their whole life. so to them it's a really big deal. to them it's like a revolution or something. like it's a once in a lifetime drama that you write books about and sing anthems about and talk about to your grandkids.

it's sad. there's people i just can't be friends with because they could never have my back in a thousand trivial daily situations. they can't just do the right thing in a casual way. because for them this kind of conflict is so special that it's gotta be a major revolution every time. in the daily little situations it seems they have to either turn against me or else turn it into a huge drama - either way it ends up being a burden and it would be easier to just deal with it myself. they can't just do the right thing in a casual way. because for them conflict is so special that it's gotta be a major revolution every time.

i know you didn't explicitly mention any whiteness in your post and i apologize if i'm projecting my own experiences too much, but i think race does influence these things a lot for the reasons i described and others.

12/10/2005 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger daveawayfromhome said...

I'm going to go along with you. Bad behavior should be pointed out, as long as it doesnt lead to someone kicking your ass all over the floor (although sometimes even then). In a group, that's your back-up. If they wont back you up, you need a new group.
My real question would be why M+hubs felt the need to chew you out. N's girlfriend had the problem, you just agreed that someone maybe should do something about it.

As for your subway incident, child molestation is one of those areas where my thinking turns ugly. Crimes against children are the worst crimes of all, because it's a crime that lingers on as that child grows up and becomes an adult.

12/12/2005 03:11:00 PM  

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