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?