Monday, October 20, 2014

Venturing across the tracks.

I've been thinking about an area of racism that I think is really common in white Americans.  It's been highlighted for me as I've spent a lot of the last month staying for work in a hotel in a working class black neighborhood.  I'm pretty much writing to my fellow white people here.

Here's a conversation from work today:

Dude:  Where are you staying?

Me: Oxon Hill.

Dude: [eyes wide] That's the ghetto.

Me:  I mean... not really, no.

Dude: Some parts of it are.

Me: It's a black area, but it's fine.  People are nice.  It's not a big deal.

[I'm hoping to indicate that his bias here is unjust without making a scene about it, but what I get are crickets followed by a topic change.]

This is an aspect of racism.  "Ghetto" tends to get a lot of racist usage to begin with, but calling any area with black people in it ghetto is like racist squared or something.  White people: seriously stop doing this.  This is a white fear of black people in any context where the white person is not operating from a position of superior power.  It was taught to me.  I think it is taught to many, because I have had conversations like this a lot of times and because I have virtually never been in a conversation full of white people where it was suggested that a black area was an ok place to go.  We have all, I think, seen these fretful conversations about black areas happen.

The problem is not avoiding seriously violent areas, that's just common sense.  The problem is the automatic association of blackness with crime and violence.   The racist version just leaps from the predominance of black people to an assumption of danger.  The non-racist version looks for indicators of violent or criminal intent that are not about race.  Simple indicators of blackness, it must be explicitly pointed out, do not count.  Nice rims, bass, sagging pants, speaking Black English - these things are all just culture, they tell you literally nothing about criminality, even though they have been strongly associated with it in popular culture (which is racist, and you are probably infected with that to some degree.)  The real signs of danger or criminality are the things that would trip your danger circuits if white people did them.  Perusing the contents of cars in a parking lot.  Loitering in a way that seems more territorial than social.  Being watched with predatory intensity.  Being followed.  Changing paths to intersect yours after noticing you.  Groups moving to surround.  And so on.  A man walking towards you with plastic bags in his hand is just a man that walks to get his groceries, or his beer and smokes, or whatever.

So if you find yourself having a fear response because you're in a black area, take a second look.  Are people just going about their lives while black?  Would the scene you're seeing seem fine if the people in it were white?  Then your fear response is not warranted, it's just a racist reflex that you've been conditioned to have.  I still have these; I can't just choose not to because it doesn't come from my conscious thoughts..  But I can recognize it for what it is, and then take a second to clear all that out of my head and move on with my day.  And I find that this racist reflex diminishes more and more as I accumulate experiences of being in black spaces that contradict the racist lies of my upbringing.

I have also had the occasion to notice that, ok, NOW I am actually driving through a sketchy area.  That's legitimate too.

I wouldn't say that it should be treated completely casually.  I am aware that I am in someone else's space, and I try to act like a respectful guest while also recognizing and accepting that some people will not welcome my presence.  Some people are friendly, some people are just professional or polite, some people are like "the fuq is white boy doing here?", and some people give me a bit of narrow-eye.  No one says anything explicitly, but I can see it in their reactions.  By being here, my whiteness is brought to the forefront of every interaction, which is a thing that I am not and most white people are not accustomed to. We do not usually have to think about how our race might color an experience, might negatively affect how we are perceived.  Most of the time here it is obvious to me that people are noticing my whiteness.  Some of them are judging that immediately, which I do not prefer but also do not resent, because frankly white people as a group have earned some side-eye and it would be bullshit for me to get indignant about it.  Some of them are sizing me up, trying to sort out what kind of white guy I'm going to be.  A few do not respond to me like I am other at all, which is really nice and a bit of a lesson for me to absorb about how it feels to be othered.  My experience of being racialized has been a bit uncomfortable at times, but minor compared to the scrutiny that black people often receive in white spaces.  Ultimately, a healthy dose of respect and a little bit of deference to the community that you are not part of goes a long ways.

There are perhaps some personal advantages that work to my favor, here.  I have a lot of experience in white lower economic class settings, and some of that is not about race and transfers over - like the ability to discern between someone with criminal intent and someone who is merely in public while poor.  (Basically some people will be struggling with racial and class biases, whereas I need only deal with the racial.)  Knowing when to mind my own business, and when a bit of interaction would be welcomed or expected.  I dress and act working class.  I'm a cis straight man, which makes all kinds of spaces safer for me.  I have long hair, which some black people have told me they take as a sign that a white guy is probably alright.  I have no idea how prevalent that assumption is, and I am less sure of how significant that really is to my experiences, but it makes some sense that any signs of an anti-establishment disposition might be received favorably by some members of a group that is constantly struggling with the establishment.  Things would probably be a bit frostier if I came here looking like Mr. Entitled Douchetool, Enjoyer of the Status Quo.

I have also noticed over the years, as I have excised more and more of my racist upbringing, that my interactions with black strangers are strongly colored by my own attitude to the situation.  If I'm having an internal "oh shit, black person" moment, people can sense that and will be offended by it and react poorly to me.  If I feel casual then our interactions will probably be casual, too.  The white person who is on edge because of blackness is being racist as hell, everyone knows it, and no one likes it.  I think a lot of white people with this fear-based racist response will go into black spaces, get poor treatment because they are acting racist as fuck, and then consider that a confirmation of their biases instead of noticing that they brought the problem with them.

I am not saying white people should saddle up and go invade black spaces.  I am saying that you should not be terrified of being the racial minority in a situation, nor resent that it requires a little social navigation.  Black people are dealing with this turned up to 11, and more, all their lives as they navigate white spaces because they must.

It's becoming more and more natural for me, and I'm glad for these experiences.

So I hope this is food for thought for someone.  If this racist fear reflex is a thing that you also experience, I recommend exerting the effort to unlearn it.  People everywhere really are just people.  They just live in a different normal from your own, that is as legitimate as your own.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Confusion: Rape and "Mild Negative Reactions"

I read a thing that Ally Fogg wrote concerning the rape of men.  It really made me think of an incident that I struggle to categorize.  It is, I think, a rape.  But I also feel very complicated about even calling it that.

I'm going to tell the story now, so if that is an uncomfortable thing for you, consider this a content warning.  There is also some victim-blaming because I can't talk about my honest feelings surrounding this without acknowledging that I feel some responsibility for it.  And other stuff, perhaps.  Confused post is confused.

The scene was that I was with my partner at the time, X (woman).  We were out with another couple, Y (man) and Z (woman) who we had met very recently and were considering a partner swap with.  Things were going well that evening, we were having fun, getting close, getting drunk.  I was pleased that we were all moving in the direction of a future sexual encounter together, but: I needed more time to get to know them, and I wanted to have some sober adult conversations about boundaries and whatnot before proceeding.  I tried a few times throughout the evening to apply the brakes without throwing cold water on the whole thing, which was not effective.  I don't remember the exact wording I used, or whether I explicitly said that tonight was too soon for me, but that is what I was trying to communicate.  It was more or less swept aside. 

Fast forward to their house.  Everyone is drunk, and X and Y have begun stripping down naked and initiating sexual contact, and it was clear that I was supposed to do the same with Z.  I remember thinking "Here we go..." and feeling a sinking sensation, like despite my efforts the roller coaster had now reached the top and was headed down with me in it.

There was no reason, really, why I could not have just said "No, I am not ok with this and I'm stopping it or at least not participating."  I think they would have pressured me further, but if I had held firm no one was going to force me to do anything.  The problem was that I felt enormous social pressure.  I felt like the fun of X and Y was going to be ruined if I didn't sleep with Z, like it was a package deal that had been invoked when X and Y started.  Z clearly expected my attention and would maybe be offended if I refused?  I felt like my masculine identity would be under threat if I walked away from the immediate sexual opportunity - that was particularly strong, like there was just no face-saving way for me to refuse this.  Y and Z had kind of a "cool kids" thing going on, and I wanted to be part of that.  I wanted them to like me, and I wanted, ultimately, for us to have a sexual thing together.  I just didn't want that yet.  (I need time to warm up to a person sexually, to build some non-sexual intimacy that can be a foundation for sex itself.  And we were too drunk to parse the decision as responsible adults, and I was aware of that.)

So I did it.  I slept with her.  And I was on top, and I controlled the pacing, and when I had difficulty getting an erection I asked her for help, which she provided, and I basically got through the performance and orgasmed.  The experience was stressful and meh for me, which really wasn't about her not being good in bed so much as me not really wanting to be there.  Afterwards, "cuddling" until morning, I felt vaguely like I wanted to throw up whenever I was awake.  I was caught a bit off-guard by that.  I wanted desperately to go to X and retreat to the comfort of her presence, but I again felt like socially this was just a thing I could not do.  So I waited for morning.  I felt better pretty much immediately after X and I got up and left, and later when we discussed this she said she'd felt pretty uncomfortable and rushed with the whole thing as well.  I do not know how X categorizes her experience from that evening, we never discussed it again, but it was something of a relief to me at the time to not be the only one who was unsettled by the evening.  (Which reads as horribly selfish of me now, but that is a true account of what I felt.  This is also complicated and ties into jealousy and security and things not connected to whether or not I'd really consented.  A worst case morning for me would have been X saying "I had an awesome time! Let's do it again tonight!"  Part of my relief was knowing that she would apply the brakes with me and that I would not have to make a case to her about it.)

For myself, I wasn't particularly traumatized.  I have not had flashbacks or nightmares, I do not get triggered.  I did not feel like it could happen again at anytime, or that I was unsafe in general.  The encounter did not detract from my social standing in any way.  I understood that I had the power to stop it all and I had chosen not to use it because I felt pressure.  I knew that now, armed with the memory of how doing something I didn't want to do had been unexpectedly icky for me, I was not going to let social awkwardness push me like that again.  Saying "NO" would be worth the social price and I would do it.  So I felt like I had control at the time, and going forward, still had control over what happened to my body - and I think that is a major factor in why this was largely, for me, just an unpleasant evening that came and went and not a cloud of past trauma that followed me around.  In a strange way I feel like I violated my own consent, if that makes any sense.  This hasn't been disruptive to my sex life in any way that I am aware of and I later went on to have fully consensual sex with Z, and considered her a close friend for a time.  I had categorized this as "sex that I was not ready for", and excused the drunken ignoring of my reluctance.

Looking back on it all, I think Z is a person who deliberately pushes past people's boundaries when she wants something, whether that is sex or a mutual drug experience or whatever.  It's her MO.  Despite that, I still feel extremely protective of her in some ways, and I'm not really angry about that evening, though I do look dimly now at her pattern.  I would say that I can't really see her behavior with emotional clarity.  I want her to stop violating people's boundaries (if she is in fact still doing it.  I have no idea. We aren't in much contact anymore.) but I would never sick the police on her and wouldn't want that outcome.  I don't really feel comfortable talking to her about it.  Really what I want to do about this is nothing.  I can sort of hear the arguments about "what if she hurts someone else and does more serious damage?"  Half of my brain just seizes up at that, and the other half starts spouting rape-apologism and disbelief.  And then I come back to where I was before the question, which is that I just want not think about this beyond mere introspection; I don't want to think about doing anything.  There might be some answers in that muck, but I don't feel good about or even capable of dredging it.  I don't feel comfortable condemning her, and I don't feel comfortable not condemning her.  My judgment feels fundamentally compromised, and I end up just going in circles if I try to nail the issue down.  It was also not just her, for example, there was this whole group dynamic happening, and I don't even know how to start parsing something like that.  One of the nice things about not telling the story is that no one can scrutinize my response to or interpretation of this event if they don't know about it.  That's probably the part that makes me most anxious about sharing this.  The second thing is that I don't want anyone involved to see this story, because I super do not want a confrontation on the matter or names named or any of that.  To that, I will just filter connected parties and hope for the best.

I discussed this with my counselor once, asking whether "rape" was even the right term for it.  His call was no, based largely on the lack of significant or lasting trauma.  But I'm not sure that's really the definition, or that he got this right.  My experience is emphatically not equivalent to the experiences of many rape victims, but ultimately I had sexual contact not because I consented to it but because I felt like it was not going to be ok if I said no and in part because I was too impaired to deal with a complicated situation.  It felt icky, and it was a situation that I really did not want to be in.  I think it would be easy to play "you really wanted it" bingo with the story.  Throw in a short skirt and I would have done almost everything a woman is not supposed to do if she wants her lack of consent to be taken seriously in our culture.  But my consent was not there, and I know this because I was.

What do I want you to take away from all of this?  Look for real consent.  Look for its absence.  Look for reluctance.  Look for anxiety.  Heed the signs.  This is like tail-gateing on the highway - if someone taps their brakes its because you're too close and you need to back the hell off.  Stop telling people that they "must have wanted" something when they're saying they didn't want it, just because their actions don't line up with what you imagine a person who doesn't want to have sex would have done.  Stop propagating the myth that "real men" are always ready for sex with a willing partner.  Have conversations about consent, and what it means to you.  Listen to your "nope" feelings.  Be kind to each other, and yourself.  Create consent culture.