Try me.

Scott Eric Kaufman asked this in one of the comments threads:

The real issue here, I think, is how to ask such a question in the first place. How does one scale that first wall which prevents the ignorant from acquiring much-needed information easily. What I always tell me students is that it’s a matter of presentation, plain and simple. Are you asking the question honestly and openly, in a way that communicates a desire not merely to acquire information but understand the individuality of the person from whom they acquire it. What I sense here is the questioner considered nubian a “representative,” communicated something like:

Well, any old black person will do, so why don’t I just choose–hey! You over there, with the nappy hair! What? Did I say something? Crap. Guess I’ll have to try again–hey you! Yeah, you! C’mon for a second. Could you generalize about every member of your race for me real quick? I have a burning but ephemeral desire to know something trivial about you…

That said, I’m an intensely curious person myself, interested in all aspects of the human experience in a personal, not sociological sense. So I’m always asking questions like this…and answering them for that matter. For example, I can now give people a taste of how deaf I am by saying “Check this site out and tell me which ones you can hear. Finished? Alright, I can’t hear a damn one of ‘em…” It may be that I feel more comfortable asking such questions because I’m more accumstomed to people asking them sans racist/racialist overtones. But I like to think I’ve concocted a system others can use. Try it and tell me what you think, or think about it and tell me if you’d be offended if I “used it” on you. (I say this seriously, since it’s worked for the crop of kids I’ve had so far, but there’s no knowing whether that’s success or some statistically improbable fantastic string o’ luck.)

And followed it up with this:

Under what conditions would you think it appropriate to answer questions about sexual/racial/gender differences? I say this because, for example, the LGBT community at UCI frequently has outreach seminars designed to inform the study body about issues important to LGBT community. Almost without fail, the first and most important is “tolerance.” They feel that its promotion comes best through structured events in which outsiders are soaked in an atmosphere of “difference,” an experience which is often as alienating as it is educating. (Esp. for people like me who are naturally uncomfortable in social settings.)

Outside of pre-planned and, frankly, inhumanly anti-septic events–not because of the participants, obviously, but because of the nature of all such events–how are ignorant folks to learn to be sympathetic with members of a community they may not even know the existence of? Or, if they do know of its existence, what if they have been raised such that they would never participate in, and may actively protest, a LGBT event?

There are some ignorant people out there who are ignorant by circumstance, not choice. Every year I teach more home-schooled kids who’ve never watched television, read books or seen movies which their parents haven’t vetted for content. All they “know” about the LGBT community is what they’ve been told, and there’s been no opportunity for them to humanize members of it. If one of them asked a sincere, non-judgmental question about homosexuality, how would you–general “you” here–answer? “Go online”? What would Google turn up and would you want that to be the first images of homosexuality this ignorant child encounters?

Over at nubian’s follow-up post to the “White people say the darndest things” post, James said this:

Nubian, you don’t have to suffer the indignity of White people’s passive racism. You don’t have to care.

Frankly, I shudder at the focus on “changing the White mind”; it’s just not that important what White people think. Somehow, anti-racist liberalism froze on the concept of educating and redeeming White people; with rampant unemployment, cyclical incarceration, dismal drug policy and ever-increasing STD infections plaguing the Black community, I do not see how the excessive emphasis on teaching White Americans to discover the racism they promote (but will never notice) helps anyone.

In any racist situation, especially those like the one you describe in that earlier post, the one constant is that your racist interlocutor has already racialized you. They’ve called out your melanin with negativity and derision, you can’t change that, and the only independent agency you have left is your response. So have fun with it: do whatever’s necessary to deal with the situation in the moment.

Sometimes, that means cursing the racist out. Sometimes that means walking away. Sometimes that means assault. Whatever. It’s all about what you can live with, so you don’t leave upset with yourself about the situation.

That way, situations like that don’t morph into White people pity-parties in reflection, where the fragile lily-White soul meets the pitying judgment of helpless, bruised Black folk desperate for White liberal messiah Jim Caviezel’s to deliver them from evil in a deleted scene from The Passion of the Democrats. I hear Trent Lott’s playing Pontius Pilate.

Maybe it’s cynical, but I don’t feel responsible for assuaging White ignorance or White guilt. Sure, White racism stings, but often the White liberal antidote proves just as acidic.

I appreciate this. Usually, these discussions–in any context, for any outsider-group–assume an independent value of education that trumps any humiliation involved in accepting the asker/educator dynamic.

I can only speak for myself here. Let me put it this way: In theory, I think that parents are obligated to start using correct pronouns in reference to their transitioning children, and that it is extremely disrespectful for them not to. In practice, I am overjoyed that my parents have stopped outing me at restaurants. As much.

In theory, I consider all of these questions to be extensions of a power disparity, and most of them to be invasions of privacy or violations of dignity. In practice, I have answered questions about my genitalia (form and function) politely and in detail while standing in front of a busy buffet table. In theory, I consider ignorance to be as much a manifestation of privilege as hatred. In practice, I am usually far more generous to people who seem ignorant rather than hateful. In theory, I think that everyone has the right to tell every interrogator to go suck off a capuchin monkey. In theory, I consider that kind of response to be an education in and of itself. In theory, I recognize the questioner/”educator” dynamic to reinscribe the very disparities it is attempting to dismantle. In practice, I know that it is not always voluntary. In practice, I would like to learn how to be more constructive, more diplomatic–more educational. In practice, I envy people who are.

On the one hand, I have an understanding of what this dynamic means and how it feels; on the other, I have the knowledge of how it plays out when I enter into it, as well as a few examples of arguably successful communication. I don’t have answers to Scott’s questions, honestly. For all of you who do negotiate similar problems, what are your conclusions? What are your solutions?


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23 comments for “Try me.

  1. June 23, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    Yay! I’m glad you’re commenting on this because I wrote a post for my own blog (then deleted it) going off in this direction. I agree with all you’ve said, Piny.

    One thing I’ve been mentally toying with but don’t know how to articulate (so bear with me, please) is that the decision to not answer these intrusive and Othering questions feels like a form of… privilege (?) too. The perception that you don’t need the mass of public to understand you as part of a group they are Othering is either illusory or speaks to a level of public acknowledgment that some of us can’t afford to have. I actually don’t think all black people can afford to have this perception either, but I don’t speak for them.

    Not that this doesn’t all massively piss me off. I don’t believe it’s my duty to educate the nondisabled. I just believe that if I can manage it, it is, sadly, in my best interests.

  2. piny
    June 23, 2006 at 6:38 pm

    One thing I’ve been mentally toying with but don’t know how to articulate (so bear with me, please) is that the decision to not answer these intrusive and Othering questions feels like a form of… privilege (?) too. The perception that you don’t need the mass of public to understand you as part of a group they are Othering is either illusory or speaks to a level of public acknowledgment that some of us can’t afford to have. I actually don’t think all black people can afford to have this perception either, but I don’t speak for them.

    I think I see what you’re saying. As a general prescription, it assumes a level of respect that most people just plain don’t have, either on an individual basis or as members of x group. As an individual course of action (hope I’m not getting this wrong), it involves demanding treatment that should be a right but is currently a privilege.

    And this was something that I had trouble getting across when people seemed to assume that I didn’t answer those questions: not yet an option, unfortunately.

    To maunder on: I’m wondering if there’s any way to challenge the interrogation dynamic while participating in it.

  3. June 23, 2006 at 7:57 pm

    I’ve had politeness ingrained in me, both by example and with words, since I was a child. It’s very difficult for me to be impolite, even with rightwingers (although I can “politely” eviscerate them, but still ;) . I also recognize that I am extremely lucky, in some ways, to have been brought up in the household I was, with people of every color and gender in and out all the time, and all welcome. (My 83 year old mother thinks that everyone should boycott marriage until gays have equal marriage rights, and that Native Americans should be asked to decide the immigration question. Retroactively, even ;). Again, by example and just proximity, people have always been people to me… who they are as opposed to what they are.

    I am also a very curious person and love asking questions and learning about people – but I don’t at all get people who feel they have the absolute right to ask intrusive questions, especially of relative or complete strangers. What could cause them to think such things are perfectly okay except for a sense of contempt (even if they don’t think that even to themselves) for the person they are speaking to? It’s almost as if they feel that because you have the nerve to be someone outside of their experience that it is thus your duty to explain yourself. Which, like others, I usually do. I’ve thought of just turning around and asking all my “what about white folks” questions in return, especially if the interrogator happens to be furry, but then… that would be rude ;). Can’t have that, sigh.

    I agree somewhat with Scotts’ first paragraph, though, especially “understand the individuality of the person”, as that is often the most important component in dealing with anyone, but especially someone you are seeking what could be invasive knowledge of. And that is something that some of the commenters, in various places, on nubian’s post seemed to have great trouble with – falling back into, presumably, comfortable racism and denying her (and everyone of her general color) her individuality even then.

    So, I guess I don’t have any answers either.

  4. bluwhisper
    June 23, 2006 at 9:36 pm

    –how are ignorant folks to learn to be sympathetic with members of a community they may not even know the existence of?

    This is a good question, and one that’s difficult to answer.

    Unfortunately a lot of times I think that a lack of sympathy for “others” is too often a failure of imagination on the part of the ignorant.

    I especially have trouble with this question due to the fact that many of the ignorant demand that they be able to learn from within their own comfort zones, when sometimes their own comfort zones actually prevent them from experiencing the uncomfortable moments which jar them from their own positionality and allow them to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

    The question for me is how can we let people be unsafe without alienating them?

  5. bluwhisper
    June 23, 2006 at 9:45 pm

    er, that should be

    The more important question for me is how can we make people feel unsafe without alienating them?

  6. Imani
    June 23, 2006 at 10:19 pm

    One thing I’ve been mentally toying with but don’t know how to articulate (so bear with me, please) is that the decision to not answer these intrusive and Othering questions feels like a form of… privilege (?) too.

    You make an interesting point here. I’ve never felt that I had the easy option of just walking away from an interrogative situation, however much I might have wanted to. I always try to answer, but I’m often stymied by my inability to live up to the professor/griot ideal I’ve somehow internalized. Knowing that I know something is easy; it’s representing what I know in the realm of (an already lop-sided) discourse that’s a bitch.

    And I keep coming back to the issue of speaker credibility. I don’t want all black people speaking for me, period. This leads me to suggest, somewhat deviously, that the flip side of black people withholding their knowledge from whites is white people “learning” from blacks they have no business learning from (and may even know that they shouldn’t be).

    This possibility won’t be really compelling unless, like me, you’re already aware of our Interrogator Class’ tendency to canonize only those encounters with the Other that confirm their prejudices (or even those that don’t but are just weird or outrageous), while keeping at a remove other kinds of knowledge. So O.J. and Kobe–canonical. All of my hot air about equality and justice–not. Al Sharpton’s pompadour–canonical. Any good points he had to make during the 2004 presidential campaign–not. Forever troubling my attempts to educate whites is the fact that ill-represented blackness has likely beaten me to the punch many, many times over.

  7. togolosh
    June 23, 2006 at 10:29 pm

    I grew up in a somewhat odd situation as a white boy in Africa, and encountered questions that presume a norm I am not part of on a regular basis – “what is it like to have straight hair?” and the like. Since I was a kid the dynamics were very different, but my first thought on reading the original post was “why didn’t she just say that she has no idea what temperature white people feel?” It’s not my place to judge, and I have no understanding of the detailed context of the interaction. Still, a question is an attempt to reach out across a barrier and connect. The fact that the question is grounded in biases and presuppositions need not be the primary determining factor in how you respond. I understand how much it sucks to be an object of curiosity when you just want to get on with living, though certainly not to the extent that I imagine a transgendered person or a black person in the USA must feel. Nonetheless we are who we are, and our social context is not under our control. How we respond to the ignorance and presumptions of others is our own business, but if we choose to respond in a way that builds bridges and helps to spread understanding, I think we do a good thing.

  8. Imani
    June 23, 2006 at 10:50 pm

    I grew up in a somewhat odd situation as a white boy in Africa, and encountered questions that presume a norm I am not part of on a regular basis – “what is it like to have straight hair?” and the like. Since I was a kid the dynamics were very different, but my first thought on reading the original post was “why didn’t she just say that she has no idea what temperature white people feel?”

    I’m pretty sure that Nubian did, in fact, respond to her interrogator’s question with an answer of “I don’t know.” But it’s interesting that you seem to be assuming a more extreme reaction.

    As to your second point, although it could be my own cynicism talking, I’m willing to bet that many a nervous breakdown has been had by black people who have made sincere attempts to “bridge the gap” with whites. It goes both ways.

  9. June 23, 2006 at 11:18 pm

    I think I see what you’re saying. As a general prescription, it assumes a level of respect that most people just plain don’t have, either on an individual basis or as members of x group. As an individual course of action (hope I’m not getting this wrong), it involves demanding treatment that should be a right but is currently a privilege.

    Piny, it assumes a level of respect and accommodation and safety. I guess I can’t relate to James, the last commenter you quoted in your post above. I don’t buy that “you don’t have to care.” I appreciate his anger, but I don’t believe that’s true for black people and I definitely don’t believe it’s true for GLBT or disabled people.

    So, partly, my thoughts about the privilege to not educate interrogators are a musing about what James must feel is true for black people in order to say that vs. how far I think disabled people would have to go for someone to claim that as a group we don’t have to care what people think and we don’t have to take on the burden of education. When you need to tell this nondisabled businessman to follow the law and build a ramp into his bar, and hire that nondisabled personal assistant to help you wash your hair or wipe your ass without any of the aggression that can come out during such clear situational power differences, it matters how educated the ignorant masses are.

    Having said that, I do think that one of the ways to challenge the interrogation dynamic — particularly in forums like this where many people can be reached at once — is to sometimes play good cop and sometimes play bad cop. (I recognize the irony in using the stereotype of police as an example when sometimes actual cops are a big part of the problem, btw.) Or have different people play different roles. Most of us need to get burned once of twice with the shame of our own ignorance to really examine racism, heterocentrism, sexism, ableism, etc. But we also need generous counsel.

  10. Loosely Twisted
    June 24, 2006 at 3:53 am

    Infinite patience. While it doesn’t always work, and it will wear you out just trying to accept that people are sheep, it will eventually get better.

    I too see it as a bridge, and a reaching out to find the answers. Intrusive, arrogant and plain rude as they may be, I can’t be rude to them. I have tried.

    The only time I was able to be rude to someone, was because my twins were sitting on my full bladder in a mall and an older woman came up to me and touched my stomach which set the twins off kicking me. She didn’t ask, she didn’t say a word. She just reached out and invaded my personal space, luckily I had prepared before leaving the house with the embarrassment pads.

    She asked then how far along I was, and I looked her straight in the eye and said very loudly, “Do I look like a friend, relative or close family member to you lady? Get your hand off my stomache” Her reaction was stark and quite shocked, she stopped and said ” I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to invade your space.” I ran to the nearest restroom at that point.

    But I am sure, to this day that woman didn’t dare touch someone she didn’t know with out asking first. I was so embarrassed I cried. I was determined to find her, to appologize after I finished in the restroom. I didn’t find her. I still remember it very clearly though, Usually I didn’t say anything. I am quiet and shy person. And I was very large for my small frame. I weighed 90lbs (wet) when I got pregnant with my twins. I had two basketballs by 5months. This stick with a belly walking around, I was quite the sight, and attracted alot of attention which I hated. It was one of the only times in my life I could “NOT” be invisible if my life depended on it.

    This experience, my pregnancy taught me alot about social interaction and how ignorant people really are. If we start young and teach our children IN SCHOOL, about different cultures, peoples and social types we could end the ignorance. It starts with the parents and is perpetuated by how are schools are set up, and disadvantages exposed.

    I think the answers (rather believe) the answers to these and other troubling situations is to educate people, without seeming to, which I somehow happen to be good doing.

    One thing I am not though is very articulate. I tend to take too long to get to my point, and sometimes miss it completely.

  11. June 24, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    As a woman of Muslim origin, I get peeved when acquintances think its acceptable to ask me why I don’t cover my head. I know they speak out of ignorance that’s caused by a very 2-D picture of Islam portrayed in the media, and I know how hard it is to find information about Islamic societies other than Afghanistan/ Iraq/ Saudi Arabia. But their presumptions still infuriate me.

    In urban Pakistan, where I grew up, the choice to cover one’s head (and the manner in which to do so) is a politically-charged issue complicated by identity, class, education and fashion. I’ve internalized the conflict so much that even in the US, I’ll risk heat-stroke before I put on a hat.

    When my interrogators (ignorant of this background) presume to ask me why I go about bare-headed, they push buttons on me that are best left unpushed. The questions they ask are ones that only the most virulent proselytizers would have asked me in Pakistan.

    While I’d love to respond with a smackdown, I’m conditioned to politely tell them that I choose not to cover, and then change the subject. It’s worse when a coworker or boss asks the question, because Smackdowns would not be in my best interest. And that frustrates me more.

  12. June 24, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    Heirobobulus, when you people ask you that question, do they do so in an accusatory way? From the sound of it, what you’re saying is that people ignorant of the cultural situation in Pakistan base their question on some generalization that “all Muslim women wear head-coverings.” I agree that many Christian Americans believe Islam a monolithic faith, but couldn’t you disabuse them of their ignorance by responding about the audacity of wearing zippers and buttons when, you know, the Amish don’t; or you can ask them about their “garmies,” and look feign surprised when they tell you they don’t wear them. In other words, can’t you point out how fragile their simpleminded idea of a monolithic Islam is by reminding them of the existence Christian literalists as well? This way, you get all the satisfaction of a devestating smackdown without having to vacate the moral high ground.

    But you make an excellent point here: White, middle-class Americans are blind to distinctions in others despite living in a highly hierarchical society themselves. The long tradition of denying that class exists in America leaves them with the impression that their culture is “straightforward” and “direct,” whereas everyone else’s is hopelessly confused. These same people go home at night and watch The Breakfast Club on TBS and fail to appreciate the irony. Ugh.

    Loosely Twisted:

    One thing I am not though is very articulate. I tend to take too long to get to my point, and sometimes miss it completely.

    I assume you must mean verbally, because you were sharp and coherent here. The whole “violation of personal space” phenomenon with regards to pregnant women astonishes me; once you’re with child, the whole word has permission to grope you. I remember going to the movies a few years ago with a pregnant friend, and a woman approached us, assumed I was the father, put her left on my friend’s stomach and her right on my shoulder and informed us how I proud I must be. You know, because what better use could one put a woman’s body to than impregnating it. That’s what they’re here for, after all.

    An aside on personal space: since the car accident I’ve been, shall we say, “slow and awkward.” (“Deliberate” is more dignified, but less accurate.) I shamble, planting my right foot hard and swinging my left hip and leg forward in such a way that once I start, I have no choice but to put lightly (and painfully) place my left foot down and quickly replant the right hard. Point being, once my left side swings forward, I’m committed to the movement. Despite this–and despite being obviously infirm–I’ve been running into people constantly. Why? Because they refuse to yield their space on the sidewalk and/or in the aisle. They are “confident” young professionals, men and women alike, who for some reason have been taught that it’s better to violate someone’s personal space by skimming past them than to take a step to the side and let the other person past. I’m normally conscious not to violate people’s personal space, so I normally move aside; what I’ve learned is that some people use their personal space as a weapon, a means to direct traffic. For example, a young woman in a business suit flattened me the other day: she bumped into my left shoulder mid-swing, pain shot through my body, I crumbled to the ground and she stopped, gave me the dirtiest of looks, then kept walking. (Fortunately, a couple of nice undergraduates behind her helped me back to my feet.) But I seriously, seriously digress.

  13. June 24, 2006 at 5:25 pm

    bluwhisper:

    I especially have trouble with this question due to the fact that many of the ignorant demand that they be able to learn from within their own comfort zones, when sometimes their own comfort zones actually prevent them from experiencing the uncomfortable moments which jar them from their own positionality and allow them to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

    That’s a damn fine point, and one which I struggle with both inside and outside the classroom. Inside, it takes the form of: How do I get the brilliant shy kid in the back row to come out of his/her shell? Do I create a comfortable zone for him/her to speak in–mandatory oral presentations, asking only questions I know (from an essay, email or office hours) s/he already has a sophisticated answer to, &c.? Or do I put him/her on the spot, which is what will happen in other classes? Do I create the comfortable environment first then slowly, as his/her confidence increases, put him/her on the spot more and more often, so that by the end of the quarter s/he jumps in sans provocation? I tend to take it on a case-by-case basis, but if I were forced to generalize, I’d say that last approach is easily the most common one.

    It certainly removes the burden from the shy student–and, analogously, the ignorant person. And if you have a couple shy students, teaching can become incredibly taxing as you juggle what each of them have said in different venues (essay/email/office hours) and when each last spoke in class and how the rest of the class is responding to the direct questioning of a classmate, &c. So I have an incredible respect for people who go out of their way to educate people in ways which keep the ignorant comfortable; but I also understand entirely how exhausting such an effort is, and think no less of anyone who lacks the energy to do so on a regular basis. It is exhausting work.

    piny, the distinction you raise between theory and practice is an excellent one, and what you do in practice no doubt changes from day-to-day depending on whether you “have it in you” to deal with such questions in the moment they’re asked. One of the distinctions often lost online is the theory/practice one. It is so easy to claim to be the noble, self-sacrificing culture-warrior who siezes every opportunity to educate the ignorant American public as it arises. I mean, it’s easy to cast stones when no one can definitively prove you live in a glass house. (Actually, given the heat of online rhetoric, I’m sometimes inclined to think that no one with access to the internet lives in anything less stone-proof than Ft. Knox.) The “reasonable” standard you advocate here won’t fly in a company of political puritans whose ducks are all always in a row–seriously, they are, trust them. I mean, it’s not like they have any argumentative ground to gain from being perfect embodiments of their chosen ideology.

    Pffft.

  14. kate
    June 25, 2006 at 12:30 am

    Here’s my take on this interesting and very important topic:

    I have found that some concepts white middle class people especially, will take to and absorb some of, other concepts, especially those that put into question their own ill gotten priviledge are stones preferred left unturned.

    I remember going to activist trainings on racism and as a white person, losing my patience with white folks who wouldn’t budge from their pedestal and would have hissies of all types, from crying and whimpering, begging forgiveness and then the all-out, “this is just bullshit, I’m going home!” when they got that icky feeling of questioning their personal identity politics.

    As a single mother who lived mostly in poverty in my young adult life, I never had the experience of strangers touching me when I was pregnant, no one in their right mind would touch me, much less acknowledge my existence. My goodwill clothes, youth and alienation worked like skunk oil and kept all but those who felt aligned with my plight, or who were paid to care, away from me.

    Going into stores, I was followed. I remember terse comments directed to me by strangers to express their disgust at my condition, like once when at a flea market I said to a woman selling bridles, “I love horses and love to ride western.” as she seemed chatty about horse stuff, she turned to me, lost her smile and responded coldly, “Well, I guess you can’t now can you?”

    My way to deal with this constant shaming was to become an activist and yet even in the activist community, my position on welfare and poverty issues was met with cold or patronizing indifference or outright disdain.

    White, middle class people have no obligation to learn anything they don’t want to learn and feel a deep priviledge to assume that others must either hide their difference, or explain and justify such to satisfy their idle curiosity. This curisoity also derives I think from a need to ensure themselves that they are still in control and that the ‘other’ isn’t going to get the better of them anytime soon.

    To have to humanize the other, enough to make room on the sidewalk, at the office or in the boardroom is to admit their tenuous and unjustified hold on the upper rung of the social strata.

    Might I also add that such behavior usually gets worse the further down the social strata one gets as the need to believe one superior to the ‘other’ and thus to forget their own oppression becomes even greater.

  15. kate
    June 25, 2006 at 12:39 am

    Might I add what I see as a great example of middle class blindness in my experience.

    I would often explain that the deconstruction of welfare would mean that women trying to leave abusive relationships would have a harder time. Try as I might, the many white middle class feminists would only pay lip service, agreeing with me and others, but taking no public stand or position on the topic, much less putting any effort into the fight.

    As if aligning with women on welfare was so distasteful they couldn’t imagine it or get near it. Or, that, as I think is more the truth, that frankly, the only women they really cared to help were those who passed the class test like them.

    Poor women and their problems just didn’t touch them. Period.

    Many have learned differently, but after the fact was too late.

  16. June 25, 2006 at 1:24 am

    And I keep coming back to the issue of speaker credibility. I don’t want all black people speaking for me, period. This leads me to suggest, somewhat deviously, that the flip side of black people withholding their knowledge from whites is white people “learning” from blacks they have no business learning from (and may even know that they shouldn’t be).

    This possibility won’t be really compelling unless, like me, you’re already aware of our Interrogator Class’ tendency to canonize only those encounters with the Other that confirm their prejudices (or even those that don’t but are just weird or outrageous), while keeping at a remove other kinds of knowledge. So O.J. and Kobe–canonical. All of my hot air about equality and justice–not. Al Sharpton’s pompadour–canonical. Any good points he had to make during the 2004 presidential campaign–not. Forever troubling my attempts to educate whites is the fact that ill-represented blackness has likely beaten me to the punch many, many times over.

    Imani, yes, it’s a problem, isn’t it? It’s nearly impossible to represent a community and represent yourself as an individual in these interrogation encounters. (Christopher Reeve-canonical. My hot air about preferring social accessibility to death or a cure-not.) It’s especially a problem when, as you say, the Interrogator Class chooses who they want to make canonical in accord with the ignorance and privilege they carry.

    The sad truth is that whatever Nubian chose to tell the woman who grabbed her arm, it was likely to be filtered through all of this and end up distorted anyway.

  17. geoduck2
    June 25, 2006 at 1:41 am

    The ability to ask private questions, like the ability to invade others space, are both related to perceptions of power.

    That the “questionee” is defined as an ‘other’ is a way to excuse the asking of a question that is rather personal and would otherwise be defined as impetuous.

    Can you imagine someone who is merely an acquaintance asking you: What’s it like having your period? Are you having your period now? What do your breasts feel like?

    Or can you imagine someone asking a heterosexual man: “What’s it feel like to have sex with your wife?” Or – “What do you genitals look like?”

    I just wanted to underline how power dynamics correlate to the ability to ask personal questions.

  18. bluwhisper
    June 25, 2006 at 8:06 am

    Scott:
    It is interesting that you took my point about comfort zones to simply be about shyness or simply unfamiliarity, when I was intending to talk about ideological comfort zones.

    Kate:

    …explain and justify such to satisfy their idle curiosity

    I was just floored by what you wrote. Not because I’m shocked, because I’m not at all surprised and have observed the same thing. But the way you lays it out, it seems fairly hopeless.

    I think the word idle is really important here. All of the questions that Piny, Heirobobulus, Nubian and others have been upset by really aren’t informed and penetrating questions about trans issues, the Muslim faith, or race asked by people who are looking to have an open and sincere dialogue about anyone else’s perspective. Their interegators have an idle curiosity that they want scratched. No matter what Piny or Nubian or whoever else answers, the questioner wasn’t looking to have their opinion changed and broadened, the questioner was looking to have their idle opinion about a superficial detail confirmed. What’s more, the question usually demonstrates that the questioner hasn’t really thought about or looked into the question on their own. And the frustrating thing is that Piny and Nubian et al feel like they have to answer this idle question or lose their asker forever. And if the idle question is answered, the questioner is satisfied that they have done some real learnin’ on the topic. They don’t seek out more information about trans issues or about race in America. I think that if the askers wanted that, the asked would be more than happy to point them to sources and even to talk with them about what they’ve been learning. But because the askers got a real answer to their idle, right from the source, the is case closed.

  19. June 25, 2006 at 5:39 pm

    bluwhisper:

    It is interesting that you took my point about comfort zones to simply be about shyness or simply unfamiliarity, when I was intending to talk about ideological comfort zones.

    I know you were, that’s why I said “analogously.” Most people have a very aggressive idea of what it takes to “shake” or “shock” people out of their ideological complacency, whereas I was talking about how to create a space in which an intelligent person can acclimate themselves to unfamiliar environs. I don’t think it requires an overthrow in sensibilities, in part because I believe “sensibilities” are stable over large segments of society.

    This is why I believe, in the long run, that gay marriage is inevitable: people may not like homosexuals, but now that it’s entered public consciousness that homosexuals have been making life-long commitments for the better part of human history–and thus Santorum’s slippery slope from gay marriage to “man on dog” monogamy is beyond moot–I think the argument for equal protection under the law is the one that will win hearts and minds. (In a sense, it already has: the Right has caved on the topic of civil unions, and will eventually cave on gay marriage to.) The reason? Because even if they don’t understand individuals involved, they do understand the motivating sensibility.

    People don’t accept difference easily, but they do accept the structure of relations into which they themselves enter; i.e. they may not be able to fathom a transman marrying a homosexual and what that involves, but they understand the desire for “whatever it is” to be recognized by the law (if not by God). Same thing happened with interracial marriage, for largely the same reasons. I’m not advocating a gradualist approach, mind you, only talking about the larger social trends activism will synergize with over the next couple of years.

    But to return to my original point, and yours: on some issues, a direct ideological confrontation (while cathartic for both parties) isn’t necessarily productive, if only because it puts people in the absolute wrong state of mind for the absorption and acceptance of new information. (And by people I mean “some people,” since we’re not talking about some abstract “person” or social absolutes.)

  20. RachelPhilPa
    June 25, 2006 at 8:56 pm

    I want to preface this comment by saying that it involves a situation with my own parents, who are having great difficulty with my male-to-female transition. So what I am about to say is probably colored by the nature of this conflict.

    I’ve a need to refute, to some extent, a theme in some of the comments that the less-privileged person should always be polite, patient, and ready to educate the more-privileged person. I am thinking especially of Loosely Twisted’s comment (#10).

    I respond from two viewpoints – from someone who white / upper-middle class (privileged) and someone who is transgendered.

    First, white / upper-middle class – On a message board for transgender folks, where it is well known that I am white, I made a very stupid comment where I judged the statements of people of color. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that several poc replied in a manner that was civil, but made clear their anger over my statement. They clearly put the onus on *me* to educate myself. I had a typical Liberal White Person Hissy Fit, which included cancelling my membership in the board. I then reinstated my membership when I got over my fit and saw things from their point of view, and posted an apology. Sure, that experience stung, but I’m still here and doing just fine, and I learned a lesson that I would never have learned had they tried to ‘educate’ me.

    Now, from the transgender perspective. I’ve been transitioning, and out to my parents, for a year and a half. They still refuse to acknowledge my gender, and insist that I present as male when I visit. I have had many discussions with them, and given them books and links to websites, PFLAG, etc. They flat out refuse to take advantage of those resources. It’s time for me to stop educating, in order to save my own sanity. It’s a complicated issue here, because my parents are getting old and need my help, so I can’t just say goodbye. But I can stop putting out this energy that gets me nothing.

    As another example that has nothing to do with my parents, I was at a Passover Seder. I was out to most people there. One young woman came over specifically to ask me a series of very intrusive and ignorant questions, including the typical “why are you mutilating your body” stuff. I clearly got the sense that she was asking these questions not out of ignorance or true curiosity, but out of a hostility thinly veiled with a veneer of “Please edumakate me”. I do not have a responsibility to educate such a person. I do not have a responsibility to educate those who openly resist being educated (like my parents).

  21. June 26, 2006 at 3:34 pm

    If anyone uses the word “mutilate” in a question directed at another person, they’re not lookin’ fer edumakashun.

  22. June 26, 2006 at 11:41 pm

    That the “questionee” is defined as an ‘other’ is a way to excuse the asking of a question that is rather personal and would otherwise be defined as impetuous.

    Geoduck, I disagree with this. There is an additional level of power differential involved in Othering that I think is being referred to in this thread-and-blog-hopping discussion. “Othering” is a weird term but I recognize it at least partly as a feeling evoked in the questionee by the question when they are, in fact, part of a minority group. Using “other” as a noun serves this experience in a similar way to the awkward verb. But if someone has a term that works better than the verb, I’d like to know about it.

  23. pq
    June 27, 2006 at 1:13 am

    For those of us who sometimes find it hard to be “impolite” — the most helpful thing anyone ever said to me on that subject was: “consequences are a gift.” They’re a gift to the person who receives them, and to everyone who encounters that person thereafter (viz. the woman who ain’t never gonna touch another pregnant lady without at least asking first).

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