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.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

"The lady at home who watches it"

This is a makeup post. An intentionally subjective one, which maybe more makeup posts should be. It's about two products: one which works for me, one which works, but not for me. In that order.

-Charlotte Gainsbourg Nars Multiple in Jeanette

I will get the embarrassing bit out of the way first: I bought a nearly $40 makeup product named after Jane Birkin. Not as expensive as her namesake handbag, but this still makes me a victim of the Gamine Suggestibility Industrial Complex.

Now, the excuses-excuses part: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Birkin's daughter, as well as the celebrity behind this makeup collection, just happens to look more like me, coloring- and features-wise, at least on paper, as it were, than maybe anyone else whose face has ever been used to promote cosmetics. She also has a personal style in that enviable effortless-Frenchwoman realm, evoking those Parisian and now global boutiques (Sandro, etc.) where ordinary (but chic!) clothing costs ten times what you imagined it possibly could.

And on a more practical note: I'd been looking for a non-sparkly blush, and intrigued by the idea of lip tint, despite never quite figuring out which tint-marketed product would do what "tint" suggests. (I also had bought a different Nars Multiple that turned out to be basically glitter, and thankfully done so within Sephora's zone for returns.) This product is, on my coloring, absolutely correct in both of those functions. If your issue, beauty-wise, is looking washed-out and sickly even when feeling absolutely fine, this is your product.

-Glossier Boy Brow, Brown

I had, as readers know, been apprehensive about entering the Glossier store. It seemed too cool for the likes of me. I've read Into the Gloss basically since it started, and probably visit the site daily, which made visiting its shop this thing. But you know what? It's a store that sells beauty products. It's not showing up at a media office uninvited. (Something I did do in that very neighborhood, actually, en route to a different media office where I was expected, but the elevator didn't go to the floor I needed. Point being, this is a not entirely irrational fear on my part.) Yes, visiting Glossier involves taking an elevator to "penthouse" in a building that seems as if it would have a secret bar, and not a secret millennial-oriented version of a Clinique counter.

I say "secret" but the day I went, at least, there was a woman out front in a pink jumpsuit (think astronaut, not romper) waiting out front, directing in potential customers. The store, or "showroom," was also staffed by young women in that uniform. The space was too busy to be intimidating, and filled - as on some level I realized it would be - with readers of Into the Gloss, as versus the site's cool-girl staff (a couple of whom I did recognize on the street nearby) or the tastemakers who (I think?) get sent these products for free.

I'm reminded of that great line from "30 Rock," where Jenna's saying who would be which character from "Sex and the City." She says she'd be a Samantha, Liz Lemon "the lady at home who watches it."

Anyway, the other ladies at home who watch it (that is, envy-read ITG) were very cool, yes, as well as very... younger than millennial. Which I should not have found surprising, this being a brand that recently came out with a new lip gloss.

The product I was curious about, due both to the zeitgeist and their persuasive marketing campaign, was Boy Brow. The showroom is all-tester (if you like a product, a salesperson gets it for you at the register), and includes disposable tester wands and such, which is very wise, I think, where hygiene is concerned. I'm familiar enough with eyebrow makeup as a concept to know I would need ("need") the brown one, as the thing is to go a shade lighter than your hair, so as to avoid the Uncle Leo look. I put it on and... hmm.

Technically, kudos to the product. It worked, as in, it did what it's supposed to do to eyebrows. It made mine look naturally prominent, and even allowed for some shaping in ways that looked sort of high-fashion editorial. The thing is... I can now say, with confidence, that I look worse with more prominent eyebrows. It also just felt weird. (As would eyeliner or mascara, I'm sure, if you didn't get used to those at a young age.) The moment I was back home, I was swiping those waxy eyebrows with eye makeup remover, returning my eyebrows to their yes weirdly light for my coloring natural state.

I have a theory: I think the dark-bushy-brows thing took off as worn (are brows "worn"?) by women who are otherwise fine-featured (and, often, fair-haired), on whom this one stronger, perhaps sliiiiightly less gender-normative feature (thus, I suppose, "Boy Brow") adds an edge. That is, women who already met society's beauty standards to a T can add (or, in rare cases where this is what nature provides, choose not to remove) A Brow and thus have one of those imperfections that brings about perfection.

As a woman who resembles neither Cara Delevigne nor Natalia Vodianova, but is more (to bring things full circle) Tina Fey- or Charlotte Gainsbourg-like in appearance, thicker eyebrows added nothing. They made me look like a grown-up version of a girl who wants desperately to be allowed to tweeze her eyebrows but isn't permitted to do so by her, I don't know, eyebrow-fundamentalist parents. Yeah, I image-searched Gainsbourg and Fey just now and their brow game is, like mine, non-existent. Which, on them, works just perfectly.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Why I'm not moved by the plight of a theoretical sincere Rachel Dolezal. (Hint: note the word "theoretical.")

OK, so. I’m kinda-sorta up to date on the philosophy controversy over an article arguing that if transgender is fine, then so, too, is transracial. The article itself, that is, and some but not all of the heap of commentary the article has inspired. I come at the topic not as a philosopher, nor as someone with a team on the campus speech meta-debate. (For the long version of my thoughts on campus politics, yup, it’s in the book.) No, I come at this as someone who’s found something not quite right about the Dolezal-inspired “transracial” debate all along, beyond the obvious (it's offensive, yes, but why?) but who was only able to sort out, for myself, the… actually quite simply issue at hand this morning, while walking my dog podcast-free. 

To be clear, I’m addressing the topic, not the academic-politics angle. While the short version is, yes, that I think Tuvel’s argument (or, more to the point, premise) is way off, enough so that I do think there's value in people outside her field expressing opinions, my aim here isn't to protest the article appearing in the first place, a debate I think is outside my role to even have.

One more disclaimerish thing: If this overlaps with what any of the other 100,000,000 Dolezal takes have already argued, apologies in advance. I admit I have not read each and every one of them, and so can only say this isn’t one I can recall coming across. With that, here goes:

The problem - not just in Rebecca Tuvel’s article, but in the mainstream conversation about this topic - comes from looking at the issue too… philosophically, or just too much in the abstract, and missing key facts on the ground. In The Article, Tuvel “suggest[s] that Dolezal offers an important opportunity for us to think seriously about how society should treat individuals who claim a strongly felt sense of identification with a certain race. When confronted with such an individual, how should we respond?”

I’m suggesting, in turn, that we take a step back and ask: Are we, in fact, confronted with such individuals? Because if we’re not (and Tuvel admits as much), then we’re giving rather a lot of weight to the well-being of made-up, thought-experiment-inhabiting people, and putting their feelings above those of people who do in fact exist and do in fact make their wishes known.

Put another way: Transgender is a thing, transracial is not. There are people who suffer tremendously from being assigned a gender at birth that does not match up with who they are. These are real people who really exist. Are there people in the same boat where race is concerned? Well, there’s Rachel Dolezal, who seems, above all, a mess. There was a tabloid story a while back about a white man who’d had cosmetic surgery in order). Life, as Mallory Ortberg often reminds, is “a rich tapestry,” and if you comb the planet you can find everything. But it’s unavoidably the case that in the society where this conversation is taking place – and I avoid saying in our society, for reasons you’ll understand after reading philosopher Eric Schliesser’s post on this, which you should* – there is demand for transgender rights, while "transracial" remains an abstract concept, associated almost exclusively with one case, a case that, as Tuvel herself notes, may not even fit. 

There are certainly cases of racial identity being ambiguous, and yes, racial identity has margins. (Trust me, I’m an otherwise white person not considered white by white supremacists!) That, however, is something else. If margins and ambiguous cases were the topic at hand, there’d be intersex analogizing, not transgender.

So the question to ask is what the stakes actually are. If there aren’t – Dolezal aside – white people identifying as black, it makes sense to ask what it is white people do want when rooting for Dolezal (and theoretical other Dolezals) to get to count as black. What comes to mind: While there’s hardly a stampede of white people wishing to be black, there are a good number who wish to be able to say the n-word, or two wear blackface, or to engage in other, less overtly racist forms of (to use a term requiring more unpacking than there’s room for here) cultural appropriation. There are, in other words, plenty of white people who want to live in a society where they can be casually racist without consequences. That phenomenon – unlike transracial – is a thing.

Where transgender is concerned, yes, there are some (cisgender) women who take offense at the existence of trans women, and who feel that the phenomenon of a person assigned male at birth identifying as a woman is the appropriation of a marginalized identity. (That would be "TERFs", but also – and I say this anecdotally – some cisgender women who aren’t radical feminists of any kind.) There, however, the concerns of cisgender feminists – however legitimate in the abstract – tend to fall apart in the face of trans women’s actual existence and actual suffering.

With transracial, meanwhile, literally all that’s at play – again, where actual people are concerned – is, there are many black people who find “transracial” to be, well, racist. But there isn’t any competing concern of the transracial community because guess what? There isn’t a transracial community, let alone an oppressed transracial community. So what you’re defending, in effect, when you defend the non-existent transracial community is the right to be gratuitously offensive. Because that’s the demand white people – not all, but lots – are actually making.

*Schliesser – who also happens to have been my favorite college instructor – also says what’s needed to be said about Tuvel’s discussion of Jewish conversion.