Wednesday, May 31, 2017

An essay, a moment

I've been thinking, thinking, and thinking some more about Aisha Mirza's Buzzfeed essay, "White Women Drive Me Crazy." I still can't decide what to make of it. Is it a "must-read," especially for white women, as some on Twitter would have it? (Maybe.) Is it racist, as some of the less-savory Twitter sorts would have it? (No. Geez.)

What it is, then, is both compellingly written and deeply of-the-moment. It involves feelings-projection journalism (and in a yoga class! yoga!): A white woman in Mirza's yoga class looked startled. Much of the essay is Mirza's interpretation of that woman's facial expression. It concludes with Mirza noting that she no longer sleeps with white women. Mirza approvingly quotes a friend: "'Black and brown men experience as much gender discrimination as white women.'" As much discrimination, if not more. But gender discrimination? To me, at least - insert requisite disclaimer about my own myriad identity categories here - this feels like the sort of thing it feels righteous to nod along to, but that neither makes sense nor leads anywhere especially progressive.

So it's a frustrating essay in many ways. And yet the issue at the center of "White Women Drive Me Crazy" - a society where white people act as if people of color are inherently dangerous - is an important one. Its implications - police brutality, racist 911 calls of the 'there was a black man in my general vicinity' variety - are plenty real. There's value in hearing about what it feels like to be someone who, by simply existing, is perceived as a threat in mainstream society.

If you're looking for a prime example of a 2017 personal-political essay, with all the strengths and flaws that entails, this could well be it.

Here's how the essay opens, and why I'm so stuck re: what to make of it:
Yesterday I stepped on a white woman’s yoga mat by accident and she looked at me like she had woken up to me standing at the foot of her bed, like I had just suggested we murder her husband and run away together. She looked at me like I had escaped from a zoo, like a hippo had found its way into this Brooklyn yoga studio and was casually waiting for the 8 a.m. class to begin. She looked scared, like she had just found out that the world really did end in 2012, and she had been going to yoga three times a week since then for no reason, because she is actually a ghost.
I'm torn. Torn between the competing impulses to just not question a marginalized person's experiences of oppression, and to push back against the impulse to attribute racist tirades to people who simply looked white and startled. Between recognizing the pain of through life in a body that white people (white women?) fear, and recognizing the general ugh-ness of confident assertions that anyone knows, just knows, what some perfect stranger is thinking.

While the internet outrage of yore the piece first reminded me of was, of course, the xoJane story by a thin white woman moved to tears by the presence of a fat black woman in her yoga class, because yoga, thought-projection... But upon reflection, it also recalls another one. One involving - sorry - Lena Dunham. Remember the time Lena Dunham got everyone angry (bear with me) by claiming an NFL player had called her ugly, except... he'd done nothing of the sort? For those whose minds are not compendia of the various Dunhamgates, here's the Dunham passage in question:
I was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr., and it was so amazing because it was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards. He was like, "That's a marshmallow. That's a child. That's a dog." It wasn't mean — he just seemed confused. 
The vibe was very much like, "Do I want to fuck it? Is it wearing a … yep, it's wearing a tuxedo. I'm going to go back to my cell phone."
Because Lena Dunham is (rather famously) white, Odell Beckham Jr. black - and because of the "fuck" portion of her phrasing - this story quickly became one of Dunham engaging in, then apologizing for, racism. Which... yes. (Why exactly did she think Beckham was pondering her sexual allure?) But it was also, unavoidably, a story about life as experienced by a woman who does not look like a supermodel, but inhabits a world where basically all other women do. Dunham's feeling that people were looking at her like she was "a marshmallow" is unverifiable in individual instances, but absolutely based on the real phenomenon of ordinary-looking women in the public eye getting treated as if they don't count, don't belong. I'm sure it is tough for Dunham - yes, even with her success, her whiteness, her wealth - to have a significant part of the internet holding forth continuously on how they would not in a million years have sex with her.

It's difficult to talk about amorphous phenomena like how we imagine we seem in the eyes of others. If we're going to do so, it's certainly better not to name those others - that is, to avoid putting words into specific other people's mouths. Better still, I think, to make clear that what we're doing is saying what we think someone else is thinking, rather than presenting our own feelings as evidence of something tangible. (Even better: fiction! But that's even more difficult.) But given that Mirza's yoga classmate could be any one of the millions (?) of white women who do yoga, it's not a feelings-projection that crosses the line. No yoga-class White Ladies were harmed.

I suppose where I'm left is wondering whether to read the essay as an experience-testament piece, of value to the author and those who personally identify with her story, and in no way about convincing white people - white women - of anything in particular. If that's the case... then I suppose disregard all my thoughts on it, unless we're far enough into Trumpism that Ashkenazi Jews aren't white. If, however, there's an element of it that asks something of white women, what does it ask?

A generous interpretation would be that it asks white women to strive for a society where people of color are not treated as inherently dangerous, both out of anti-racist goodwill and so as to avoid having their startled expressions (maybe) misinterpreted. A less-generous one: it's asking for an eggshell approach to human interaction, in which white people (or just white women) second-guess their every facial expression, and just generally remain hyperaware at all times of the identity categories of everyone they meet, viewing every moment of human contact through the lens of, well, privilege. My interpretation, at the moment - very much subject to change - is that it's a bit of both.

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