Sometimes, when I talk about “white people” in front of actual white people, there’s this pause…this moment of awkward. It’s a combination of “Did she just call out our skin color?” and “But…we’re people.” Yes. Welcome to my world on a daily basis. How does it feel? That, my friends, is the luxury of being the default in the western world. “People” means “white.” “American” means “white.” The “reader” is white. The “audience” is white. It’s the baseline, the normal…and why would you point that out?
That’s EXACTLY why I point it out. Because “people” should encompass everyone, but it doesn’t.
“Being The Default is the largest privilege granted to white Americans, yet it is so deeply entrenched it is the most invisible,” says Kartina Richardson in this April 24 article on Salon. And she’s right. Because it’s there in everyday speech, in the simplest of words: “us,” “we,” “them.” In the South Asian and South Asian American community, elders still say “Amrikan” to mean “white,” even if they themselves are citizens and their children identify as American. Because it’s the norm, the bottom line — and, often, the aspiration.
There’s this unspoken, perhaps even unconscious, sense that the only true western legitimacy, in terms of success, place and identity, is in whiteness. Everything else is the Other. “Black people.” “Indian people.” To just be people is the goal, the driving force of ambition. Too bad that slot is occupied…largely by folks who don’t even realize they have it.
It would be nice to never, ever have to specify someone’s race, ethnicity or skin tone. It really would. To just be like, “Duh. This is a person. With a name. A history. An individual identity.” I’ve been fighting that linguistic battle my whole life. But as long as Default privilege keeps fighting back, the deck is stacked. As long as “everybody” and “anybody” is presumed to be white…nobody wins.
When I was in my late teens, visiting Calcutta (this was pre-”Kolkata” conversion, not that renaming a place changes its ethos), I was groped by a guy as my cousins, my mom and I stood on a curb waiting to cross over to a shopping mall. Stunned, I whirled around and glared — I was so shocked that the expletive-laden tongue I’ve cultivated in the nearly 20 years since was struck silent. He locked gazes with me, defiant, those coal-black eyes unrepentant, as he vanished into the crowd.
Yes, I still remember his eyes. His pencil-thin mustache. The abject hatred for a girl he didn’t even know but felt he had to touch. What I also remember is the mix of empathy and shrugging from many female family members. “Oh, I’ve been groped xyz times…” was the refrain. Everybody had an assault story. As though we were trading campfire tales, because it’s so normal for Indian women to experience unwanted touches.
That’s what it was couched as: normal, every-day behavior from men that just had to be endured and accepted. I would roam the para, our neighborhood, with my cousin sisters and we would, without fail, pass packs of young men clustering on street corners and staring at us like prey. We walked a little faster, made scornful comments to stave off our fear, but there was nothing we could do to stop how they looked at us and, more than that, how they saw us. Like meat.
Almost 20 years later, it’s still an issue…that gaze. That hatred. “The India rape case” trumpets western media in headlines, as if there’s just the one…but there are multitudes. From rape to street harassment and forced touching, I honestly don’t know a woman who has lived in/visited South Asia who hasn’t been victimized or depersonalized in one form or another. I haven’t heard all the campfire stories, but that’s because women aren’t generally encouraged to tell them. After all, why would you acknowledge something commonplace? “It’s raining today, I went to the bajaar and, oh, some creep felt me up on the metro.”
It’s with a sort of numb horror that I’m thinking about how, the same week that the Internet explodes with condemnation of Daniel Tosh and his crass gang rape joke about a female heckler at a comedy club, a young woman was attacked by a mob in Guwahati, India, while a camera crew recorded the assault. Tosh’s target went home and shared the incident on social media. Reactions spread like wildfire through Twitter, and to the news media. In so many instances, in every country in the world, it’s not just an offensive joke and the woman never gets home.
I’m not trying to dismiss the Tosh situation as trivial in comparison to actual sexual assault — although, I do think there are issues of privilege at play; we have the luxury, in America, of calling out misogynistic humor — it’s more a sad, disgusted acknowledgment that rape culture is cross-culture. It doesn’t really matter where you are. It doesn’t matter how developed the nation is. Are you a woman outside your house? Someone thinks you deserve to be raped. Do you have a job? Someone thinks you deserve to be raped. Did you accidentally look at a man? Someone thinks you deserve to be raped. There will always be a group of men who think the simple act of breathing means a woman is “asking for it.” It’s a pandemic of ignorance, this idea that the genetic lottery of being born a woman means you are a lesser creature.
I spent entirely too much time last night thinking about Charlie Sheen. War is raging all over the world, political dissent brought down the Internet in Egypt, and I was thinking about Charlie Sheen. That speaks, obviously, to my own entertainment-oriented consciousness, but it also, to me, is indicative of how our culture is so celeb-centric. And there’s a glee in it. At the same time that the Hollywood machine pays this man over a million dollars per episode for Two and a Half Men, you have consumers sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting for him to snort it his paycheck and go out in a blaze of hooker-fied glory. I mean, I was lying in bed last night thinking, “My God, Charlie Sheen might actually die this time.“
But how screwed up is it that I was thinking that at all, considering I’ve never met the man and what he does has no impact on my life? It’s not like I routinely sit around wondering if the Joe Blow coke addict down the street, who beats his wife, is going to overdose one of these days. Yet, there’s clearly a part of my consciousness that thinks because Sheen is Somebody, it’s worth having on my mind.
Obviously this is vastly different from the Sheen issue, but it reminds me of how, after the shooting in Arizona, the bulk of the attention turned not to the tragedy but to dogpiling on Sarah Palin. When the news media as a whole — both liberal and right wing — weren’t focusing on Palin and her supposed culpability, they were focusing on the face of the tragedy, Rep. Gabby Giffords, and telling us every little thing about her condition. She improved, she blinked, she spoke, she walked. What about everybody else who got shot? What about the federal judge who died, John Roll? What were they? Amorphous, anonymous collateral damage? I felt terrible for Giffords and her family, but I also felt for those whose loss wasn’t acknowledged at all because it wasn’t exciting enough for the 24-hour news cycle.
We iconify people, whether that’s in a positive or negative way, and gravitate towards their particular experience.
I feel like I never have to look very far to be reminded that a “post-racial” society is still very much a pipe dream. In this case, I only have to look as far as my own neighborhood. It’s been hard hit by the recession, with businesses on the main thoroughfare closing left and right. When a new business does pop up, it’s something like a pawn shop or a nail salon. And you would not believe some of the ensuing rhetoric. There’s a distinct sense of reverse-gentrification, that such establishments aren’t as optimal as a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s…and, of course, that such establishments are for Those People — the ones that don’t speak English. And I kind of want to go, “Really? Really that’s what you’re going with?”
Because, let’s face it, with our proximity to Manhattan, the people who can afford to shop there will shop there. Period. They’re not staying in the neighborhood to do much of anything, whether that’s patronizing a nail salon where one manicurist whispers to the next in Korean or just picking up essentials at the corner store. If they were patronizing the businesses in the neighborhood, so many of the kitschy shops and pubs wouldn’t be shuttering, would they? Rents are astronomical! A business doesn’t sustain itself on hopes and dreams. It’s all well and good to wring your hands after the fact and bemoan “what’s happening to the neighborhood?” but how about actually contributing to the local economy instead of waiting to do it when a Barnes and Noble opens up next to a Pinkberry?
Is there a woman out there who is actually 100 percent fine with her body? Or are we all, particularly in the West, hard-wired — thanks to media messages and peer pressure — to find constant fault with ourselves?
I ask, because I don’t go a day without disparaging how I look. It’s an exhalation of breath every morning, “God, I look like crap.” It’s a self-deprecating remark when I’m out with friends. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing my moon-shaped face, ever-widening, and sliding on jeans that are ever-tightening… and hating what I see. It’s shaming myself into not eating, or into being a calorie miser, and then shaming myself further when I “fail” and stuff my face. It’s a vicious, vicious thing. Not the pressure to be thin, but the pressure to try.
I’m a pretty together person (as neurotic, obsessive writers go). I’m intelligent and media savvy. Shouldn’t I know better than to perceive myself in such narrow strokes, than to shove my square-pegged self into the round hole of what women are “supposed to” look like? It’s weird, isn’t it? How being analytical about it doesn’t change the feeling?
I bumped my head earlier and felt along my hairline to make sure everything was okay. “Phrenology,” I thought, giggling and remembering some comedic bit from Men At Work, a movie I saw when I was 12. And then I remembered that Charlie Sheen was in it and a wave of nausea replaced any minor headaches I might have incurred.
See, I had a massive crush on Charlie Sheen when I was growing up. How massive? I rented Cadence, then bought a VHS copy, made my friends watch it with me on my birthday, and hung the movie poster on my wall. I went to sleep every night and woke up every morning with the official, begged-the-store-for-it, poster and Charlie Sheen’s big ol’ face staring down at me. Wraith? Check. Lucas? Check. Three For the Road? Check. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Check. Courage Mountain? Yup. I saw every movie of his that I could get away with seeing. (Navy Seals was problematic, what with it being rated ‘R’. I’ve still never seen Platoon.) I was 12-13…he was my major icon, even before New Kids on the Block.
By the time the mid-90s rolled around, my Charlie Sheen phase was over. In the 2000s I would tune into Spin City once in a while, but liked the Michael J. Fox seasons better. It was no big thing. But I always remembered my early obsession with all those movies fondly. I mean Wraith is a cheesy, cheesy cheesefest, but I loved it anyhow. And whatever happened to Kerry Green and her gorgeous red hair?
But the bigger question is this: What happened to Charlie Sheen?
While Albany persists in being an episode of Romper Room and the MTA keeps trying to hike fares, what is New York State busying itself with? Really annoying campaigns to control its residents’ bodies! Doesn’t the NY State Health Department have anything better to do?
First, there is the graphic anti-smoking campaign, with the amputee and the guy with the voice box warning you what will happen if you don’t put down your Marlboros. Then, there’s the anti-soda pop campaign (this is gross; watch at your own risk) and the fact that any restaurant with x or more locations has to post calorie-counts on its menus. Now…we have the WIC pro-breastfeeding campaign, and it’s the most annoying invasion of a citizen’s personal business yet!
Check out this PSA, framed very much like a perky, cheerful ad for Jenny Craig, that says breastfeeding will help you lose weight: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjoWWUYDKQM
It’s too bad that, unlike those ads for weight-loss shakes and nutrition programs, there’s no tiny disclaimer that says “results not typical” or “when combined with a daily exercise regimen.”
And then there’s this one, all about how breastfeeding is the best thing for your baby: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vyxh8RnuK3U
This one really steamed me, because, unlike the previous video, which treats breastfeeding like a freakin’ Slim Fast shake and is just stupid, this one basically indicates that women who don’t breastfeed are harming their child, that formula is substandard and antiquated. It passes judgment on mothers who don’t, for whatever reason, choose that option and uses a strong element of fearmongering as well: ZOMG, if you don’t breastfeed your child will be sickly and diiiiiiiie. That the mom in this video is basically like,”Gee, shucks, I was stupid, but my daughter will be smart with her baby” makes me want to punch someone in the face.
BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL is in the midst of a big story involving Stephanie and the plight of the homeless community on L.A.’s Skid Row, and I’d like to discuss the pluses and minuses. I was actually thinking of doing it in print, but I have so much going on in my head that I don’t think it would all fit on one page. So buckle up (or bail out!) as I get myself in gear!
Conceptually and stylistically, B&B’s location scenes have been beautiful. The Angels Flight sequence last Wednesday, intercut with Stephanie, Brooke and Taylor all having flashbacks, was gorgeous. You really got the bittersweet sense that Stephanie was looking forward to ascending to another plane. And I love the following episodes being a callback to Stephanie’s time wandering the streets in 1991. I thought it was incredibly haunting and on point when she observed, “This is my town. I live 20 minutes away, yet it seems a thousand miles away. I promised I’d make a difference. Instead, when I see them, I turn away.” By the time “Lean on Me” cued up, I was sniffling. And the last shot of Friday’s air show, of Ann’s scarf floating off on the breeze, was breathtaking. (I was “off duty,” on vacation with extended family that day, and still watched. That’s how much I love this show!)
I think the idea of Stephanie deciding to fight her cancer so she can do some good is wonderful. It’s a great message to put out there: that those with privilege and power should give back to the less-fortunate. “What have I done with my life? What is my burden compared to theirs?” Stephanie mused. Those are questions more people should ask themselves! We live in a very materialistic world, where it’s all about lining up for the unveiling of the iPad and filling your Hummer’s gas tank. Punk kids from the Jersey Shore become rich and famous simply for being punk kids from the Jersey Shore while teachers get laid off and schools get shut down. So I like that B&B is shedding light on such an important, still relevant, topic. I remember when Phil Collins’ Grammy-winning “Another Day in Paradise” came out in 1989. I was 11 and it was my first real exposure to the issue of homelessness. I was floored by the power of the song and the message — as many others were. That our society and our government hasn’t really improved the homeless situation in this country since that song’s release, and since Stephanie’s initial journey, is a sad state of affairs. So, kudos to B&B for reminding us that there is still much to do.
Aaaand now for the more delicate and critical part of my entry. If you don’t want to read a lot of pontificating about racial dynamics, you can hit your ‘Back’ button now.
It’s really easy to bury yourself in bubbles of pop culture, like it’s the ball pit at a Chuck E. Cheese. It’s comforting to hide amongst your fellow Trekkies and Browncoats and tell yourself, “I’ve found my people!” But then you poke your head out the window, peer around the door of the TARDIS, and realize that the real world is still out there. And in the real world, being an alien, a Big Damn Hero, an Other, isn’t nearly as cool.
I was never cool. I was one of a handful of South Asian kids in my entire school system. Not driven enough to be a top tier nerd, not stylish enough to be a prep, too square to be a stoner. I did not fit in. And, boy, did I know it. Like so many children who were bullied or shunned in school, I suffered from low self esteem, depression and anxiety. It was all I could do to get through middle school and high school with any sense of self. This pre-dated the casual use of the Internet, so I had a few fellow “weirdo” friends with whom I talked about comics and vampire novels but I still felt very much like a nonentity. I wore a lot of shapeless clothing that rendered me as amorphous and invisible on the outside as I felt on the inside.
Thank goodness I had the X-Men — a beautiful metaphor for outsiders literally coming into their own power. And The X-Files‘ Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, nerdy FBI agents who told me, “The truth is out there.” And General Hospital‘s Robin Scorpio, a feisty teenager who contracted HIV and fought to survive it. They are who I sought solace with, the place I ran when I felt like I was nothing.
Looking back, I am both heartened and saddened by that. I’m glad that I had a safe haven, entrenched in fannish pursuits, but I’m disappointed that I had no tangible refuge from bullying, from those terrible, pervasive feelings of not belonging. What’s even sadder to consider is how, almost 20 years later, not much has changed for school-age kids. Whether you’re brown or gay or socially awkward…bullying persists and few schools do anything to stop it.