Sunday, January 30, 2005

Rings, skin and assumptions

My deep thinking friend Matt (who needs to get his punk-ass up to Chi to visit soon!) posted an interesting series of anecdotes on the intrusive questioning his wedding ring sometimes evokes in public that spawned an even more interesting discussion.

I actually had similar experiences when I ended my first serious long-term relationship and continued to wear our promise ring (we had a pair of interlocking matching doves that we each wore) on my right ring finger.

Sometimes it hurt when I was forced to recount in gory detail the history of the wonderful, but now defunct relationship, the non-explosive, but gruesomely long decline and my current aloneness. When I mentioned this to anything but my closest friends, my acquaintances would say, "Well, you shouldn't be wearing that stupid thing anymore, anyway!" Which of course, made me feel so very much better.

I think that sometimes we act in visible ways for ourselves, not for the benefit of others. The assumption that our fashion, public behavior and public manner are solely to solicit the response of others is a comment on the shallow society that we live in. I needed to wear that ring to grieve, but that did make it hurt any less when forced to relive the pain I was passing through. I didn't resent others for it, but I sure did resent people who were assumed to be friends who couldn't understand that.

Some of the responses to Matt remind me that it's not fair to respond to someone's pain, bewilderment or discontent with a simple, "Well, if you didn't do XXX, then it wouldn't be an issue." Those type of responses support widespread bigotry in society.

What I mean by this is that as human beings, we all are weak occasionally, we need to act illogically occassionally and we need understanding and empathy perpetually. Sadly, the inequities rampant in our society dictate that not all people receive understanding of this equally. As a person of color, a poorer person, a non-heterosexual person, a female, or a person who is different or quirky in any number of other ways, we are expected to defend ourselves and whatever identity we hold constantly in ways that others are not.

There are certainly times that anyone in society doesn't want to openly answer 20 questions about their person life, and certainly everyone has been in a situation that they've been forced to otherwise.

But privileged people act like this all evens out in the end because they want to believe that. It doesn't. It never does. This week, I'll have to answer more and put up with more and the next week and the week after that. And plenty of others will have to do so more still than me. Everyone gets weird questions everyday, but not everyone gets told three times a week, "Your English is SOOOO good!" or "Where are you from? No, I mean where are you really from?" or just a tight squint and "What are you?" The question itself is not the issue, but the assumptions and possible unintentional bigotry behind the questions.

Equity doesn't mean that the society is forced to justify the crappy ways it treats minorities, it means that people are not discriminated against on the basis of the groups that they are identified as belonging to.

There's one weird twist in this social dynamic, however. I do want people to ask me questions. I do want them to push to fill in their areas of ignorance, even by asking uncomfortable questions. If the whole society moves toward more open discussion on these topics, it will benefit all of us, persectured groups most of all.

The litmus test is whether the questioner would put up with being made to feel the same way. This is tricky--a lot of white folks try to similate this by saying, "I don't mind people asking me where I come from!" or "I would love to be complimented on my Chinese!", etc. This fails because the statements are not reflexive. It's not the same thing to just "flip it around" and often, the attempts to flip the statement replicate the original prejudice.

Think about the assumptions behind the statements or action--"Colored people can't speak English!"; "Colored people are always foreigners, not Americans"; "You are an unknown and that's a problem!", "You are a man, so you should have a woman attached to you somehow!" These are the key points of contention--not the speech or action itself. Understanding the assumptions behind the speech we can see why these intrusions make people uncomfortable or upset--they are, intentional or unintentional, mechanisms for establishing what is normal or good in the society. Whites are normal. Whites speak English. Straights are normal. Married people should not hang out with people other than who they are married to.

To really flip the situation would be to find a way to make the questioner feel uncomfortable in their own skin, sexuality or own hometown and country. I don't know too many people who would welcome that, but if they do, by all means, they are entitled to their sensibilities and values.

So I challenge people coming from all perspectives to challenge this dynamic in the society. Engage strangers and teach and learn from them. But do it in ways that destroy the social assumptions instead of supporting them. When confronted with nosy questioning, attack the root prejudice, not the questions themselves and craft strategic responses to force them to think about those prejudices.

If someone asks you questions that delve into your sexual preferences, answer as well as you can for you comfort level and then ask them personal questions about their sex life. If they compliment you on your native language, tell them that they suck at their native language. Challenge assumptions and create a better world. Make people see beyond the wedding band or whatever symbol and see the human being beyond it and slap them around a bit if they refuse to, and when you tire or its too much, come vent to your friends or your journal (online or otherwise).



Blogger Matthew said...

Thanks for writing and posting this, Xian. It's great how you were able to take the initial topic, and then relate it to other issues.

Awesome job. Keep it up!

12:36 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Listed on