25 October 2009

All aboard the clue boat...*

Mine is a strange and terrible affliction.

I suffer from foot in mouth disease.

Or rather, the people around me suffer from my foot in mouth disease. No matter how thoughtful or empathetic I am, I can only take my foot out of my mouth long enough to put the other one in.

Witness my latest moment of idiotic thoughtlessness.

I went up to a group of Aboriginal people to ask for a light. We made a bit of small talk, and I asked where they were from. They said they were from the central desert. And I responded: "Really? Hey, do you have some relatives in there?" Pointing behind them - at the zoo.

They gave me a look of what the fuck. I continued, "because I was just talking to a woman in there, with a toddler, and a beanie, she comes from the desert..." Their faces cleared and they relaxed. "Yeah, that's my Aunty."

And I didn't even realise the possible implications of what I had said until afterwards when the clue boat came by and smacked me in the back of the head.

Way to imitate a racist fuckwit, Cinnamon Girl.

*an expression totally ripped from this excellent post by Harriet Jacobs.

19 October 2009

A piece of ableist language I could really do without.

I've read a few posts lately about ableist language; things like 'blinded by privilege' or 'that's so lame' or that judge must be insane'. But there's one piece of ableist language that I personally could really, really do without.

It's that dreaded question, upon meeting: So, what do you do for a living?

It hurts. And what's worse, people often don't stop there; they keep on asking. 'Oh, you don't work? Why not? So are you on the dole then? Are you looking for work? But how do you afford to live? A pension? What are you on a pension for?"

Honestly, sometimes I just want to tattoo it on my forehead: "Hi, I'm Cinnamon Girl, and I'm insane. Thanks for the tax dollars!"

You see, I have a psychiatric disorder, and receive a disability support pension as a result. I don't work to make my living. I also don't want to disclose to every last person I meet that I have a mental illness. But, with that loaded innocent question, that's pretty much what I'm forced to do.

It hurts because there's a lot of people out there who resent pensioners. There's a lot of people out there who don't believe that mental illness is real. I've been sneered at more times than I can count by bus drivers who look at my card, look me up and down (noting the lack of wheelchair and apparently fully-functional body) and mumble 'yeah right' under their breath. I've had people get angry that they pay tax dammit and people like me are bludging off the system because we're just lazy and we're scamming their tax dollars dammit.

Never mind the excruciating and rigorous process I had to go through to get the pension - no, you'd think people just walk in off the street with a fake sickness certificate and sign on the dotted line.

Never mind the debilitating affect my illness has, how close I've been to death as a result, how much of my life, my life has been wrecked and ruined as a result of this illness. Never mind how crippling it is to my self esteem to not have a job. Never mind that I'm not fucking lazy, and that being able to be consistently employable and employed is my most deepest and most secret desire, and being a useless waste of space is my most secret fear. Never mind who I am, and what I've gone through - all that matters is I don't work and I get money from the government and I don't look sick.

And, although not everyone thinks like that, I don't know who does. I've been hit with other people's ignorance and prejudice too many times to think it's a minority who feel that way. And when you so innocently ask me what I do, my adrenaline starts pumping because I don't know how you're going to respond when I answer. Some of the responses I've had have been nasty and cruel, and my self esteem is fragile enough without spending another few days having to overcome that feeling of worthlessness that these interactions bring up in me.

And even if you don't think like that - maybe I just don't feel like telling you about my illness today, any more than I'm inclined to talk about my yeast infection with a stranger. It's personal, it doesn't affect you, and it's none of your business. Maybe I just want to feel like a normal person and be able to go see some music and meet people without having to disclose my illness - just once.

I keep myself busy when I can. I've studied, and things were easier then when it came to 'the question'. I've done a lot of volunteer work over the years, and sometimes when people ask the dreaded question I tell them what I do - without telling them it's volunteer. Because once they know it's volunteer, you're back to square one. 'But how do you make a living then?'

You see, somehow work has become synonymous with 'worth'. If you have a job which pays money, no matter what the job, you're worth more than someone who doesn't. Even if your job is cutting down trees, or killing people, or painting over old paint that didn't need retouching at all, you're still worth more than me - even if my time is spent revegetating riverbanks, helping refugees, or caring for injured wildlife. If no one gives me money for it, it's not worth shit.

So, if you are one of those people who doesn't think that a person's worth is measured by the fact they have a pay packet, if you're one of those people who understand that mental illnesses are illnesses, if you are one of those people who is mindful of ableist language - please, do me and others like me a favour, and stop asking people what they do for a living.

It would really help.

18 October 2009

Etymology and ickyness

When talking about white privilege it's pretty hard not to talk about the people who don't have it. My reading of blogs suggests that in the beginning, that was black people. But it was pretty quickly worked out that there are a whole lot of people who aren't black, but don't have white privilege. So the term PoC (people of colour) was born.

Now, one geographic group which I have had a lot of connections to are people from the Middle East*; in particular Persian people. Now, they comfortably call themselves Asian, because, logically, they come from Asia (challenging the standard Aussie reading of the term Asian to mean East Asian), But they also very strongly identify as Aryan. That is where the name Iran comes from - land of the Aryans. Many of the Persian people I have met look no different to Southern Europeans; many are fair, some are blonde, some are dark, yet all are discriminated against for being from the Middle East. They are Aryan, they don't consider themselves to be People of Colour. They do not fit comfortable into a theory which was made for a specific set of circumstances and then enlarged into a one size fits all theory which forces them into an identity they don't quite share. And yet there is a whole level of privilege they don't share with me, one that I examined intensely well over a decade before I read the term PoC.

I'll use that term while talking about privilege on American blogs, but I'll say here that something about it grates on me. And to be honest the terms back and white grate on me as much as the term PoC. I think it grates because they are short hand words, which are by nature reductionist. And they are unwieldy. Most of the situations in my life where I am talking about racism and privilege I am talking specifics, not generalisations, so it's easy to avoid them. But lately on the blogsphere I have caught myself using them and I wince. I am using them out of their cultural context, America, often to comment on some aspect of white privilege that affects both our countries that has been written about by Americans. Maybe if I was talking about some specific aspects of privilege in Australia I would use the words blackfellas and whitefellas, but to be honest as a woman those terms sometimes grate as well.

Language, I love it. I love the etymology of words. I love using it precisely and I love playing with it. I love learning about it. I love thinking about it. But I hate the icky feeling I get when I know I'm not using it well to express what I mean.

*Speaking of words that grate, this Colonial term is one that grates like nails on a blackboard.

17 October 2009

The invisible knapsack of boundaries

The invisible knapsack of privilege has been an enormously helpful contribution to sociological theory. The knapsack of male privilege, the knapsack of white privilege, even the knapsack of Christian privilege.

However, it's not string theory. It's not the unified theory of everything. And I've seen people treat it as such. I've seen people forget that all sorts of privilege exist in each persons backpack, a different mixture for each of us, and any one of them may be at play - or none.

I've been trying to work out if there ever can be a unified theory of privilege. I suspect not, because I don't think it's possible to find a unified theory of a dynamic system like human enculturation. But I've noticed one thread which runs through each account I've read lately of peoples experiences without privilege, and that is something which stands out to me.

The privilege to have boundaries, and have those boundaries respected.

Black people don't have their boundaries respected. Women don't have their boundaries respected. Lower class people don't have their boundaries respected. When a man thinks he has a right to objectify a woman, rape her or control her, he's not respecting her boundaries. When white women think it's OK to touch black women's hair and get affronted when told it's not, they're not respecting boundaries. When a Christian secretly tucks a Bible into someone's stuff because she knows they are Wiccan, she's not respecting their boundaries.

In every case, there are a group of people who have their ability to create or maintain boundaries challenged, by a group of people who have never been taught to respect or even see the boundaries of the other group, but have been taught to maintain and respect their own.

I see this because I have been abused by people in positions of male privilege who never considered my boundaries real because I was a woman, by people in positions of Christian privilege who never considered my boundaries real because I was a Pagan, by people who were mentally healthy who never considered my boundaries real because I was mad. In every case they not only violated my boundaries, but became angry when I asserted that I had a right to maintain boundaries - and outraged at the mere possibility of anyone violating theirs.

It's not a small stretch for me to see the boundary violations in other situations. This seems to me to be one aspect of the invisible knapsack, and a very important one. I don't think it's the only one, but I think boundaries are not spoken enough about, not addressed in our society, not taught to our children as something that needs to be respected. I think it would really lighten the load if they were.

I remember once telling a male friend how rude I thought the constant sexism I encountered was. I said that I had decided to confront it, whenever I heard it, by simply saying "that's a rude thing to say." He told me that he believed it would be equally as rude for me to tell someone that what they had said was rude. I found this very perplexing. It didn't make sense. And the only way I can explain it, was that they felt entitled to say anything without having to worry about how rude it sounded, but I had to be careful I wasn't rude to them. Privilege, much?

Our society grooms males into having strong boundaries and applauds them for maintaining them; but the same society teaches women not to have those boundaries, and withdraws support for women if they do.

It could easily be seen as an aspect of male privilege alone. But I have seen the same process time and time again with many different protagonists. It happens with white people, males, heterosexuals, the employed, the mentally and physically abled. It happens in many other contexts, like military hierarchies, caste systems and peerages. The privilege in the invisible backpack is the privilege to maintain boundaries while being oblivious to the boundaries of others.

16 October 2009

Asian friends

A few months ago, I was visited by a friend from Taiwan. When we met in my city, she commented on how many Asian people there are here, and observed 'you must have heaps of Asian friends!'

I laughed a hollow laugh and asked her to look around the city again. 'Asian people hang around with Asian people, white people hang around with white people, and the only time you'll see them together is when they're all wearing business suits'.

Since then I've tried to pinpoint exactly what it is that stops me, and people like me, from having Asian friends here.

Jumping back a few more months: I was camping with a bunch of people - half Aussies, and half working visa travellers. There was one Japanese girl who dressed like a typical hippie. But when she sat down at my table while I was rolling a joint, I felt a ripple of disquiet. I hesitated about it, and then thought fuck it, she's a hippy - and asked her if she was interested. She said sure, and had a bit. That broke the ice, and we ended up talking about all kinds of stuff. Later, one of the Aussie guys called me into his tent for a smoke, and I called her in too. He nearly fell over and said "I didn't think Asian girls smoked!" (This was the same guy, btw, who had asked me if this girl was a prostitute, because he had seen her go into two different white men's tents and could think of no other reason for her to do so).

It made me think of the stereotypes we have about Asian people - that they don't do drugs, that they don't want to hang around with us, that they don't talk to white men unless they are prostitutes, that their habits and culture are so alien we can't imagine being friends with them.

But there's something else I began to pick up on, which is that we're afraid they will judge us.

In white circles, I've become fairly adapt at spotting who will judge me, for a few reasons. Firstly because I have a mental illness and get a disability payment for that; I don't have the energy or time to defend myself on that front to people who don't believe in mental illnesses or in welfare. I also smoke marijuana medicinally, and need to know that the people around me don't judge me on that and won't report me to the police. I am a woman, and need to discern very quickly which men are safe for me to be around; I am also very open minded and interested in many things, so my life is easier when I can seek out people who are also open minded.

I can pick up on these cues very quickly amongst white people; I know their manner of dress, their manner of speech, the way they greet each other, their body language, their symbols - all kinds of small and subtle cues which tell me who I want to be around. I have no idea how to pick up on these cues amongst Asian people.

The Asian friends I have had over the years fall into two categories - people who have been raised as Aussies, and people I have met at hippy festivals, who have taken on board my culture's cues and I can be fairly sure will be non-judgemental of me and my life. Other than that, I am just like every other white person - hanging out with other white people in a group while the Asian hang out together in their own group.

Now I know there are a lot of racist people here who just don't want to hang out with Asians. But I also know there are a lot of people people like me who couldn't give a toss where you are from or what your culture is as long as you don't judge us personally. I think we naturally gravitate towards those we think we will relate to and feel comfortable with, and that's a small group of predominantly white people. Unfortunately that means we pass over a lot of white people who we erroneously assume will judge us, and we also pass over everyone else unless they have taken on our cues.

It has become my new mission to learn their cues.

15 October 2009

Some thoughts about dreadlocks on a white woman.

Reading the post on how white folks ask black men wearing dreads for weed made me think again about my own dreadlocks.

I decided to get dreadlocks to see how it changed the way people related to me. I had observed this effect with other people, and I was curious enough to explore it for myself. Unfortunately, I didn't think about what a high maintenance hairstyle dreadlocks are for a white woman. I didn't want to fill them up with cement, but I had never before had a hairstyle that required any maintenance. However white dreadlocked hair needs a lot of maintenance, and often just looks scruffy, dirty and matted.

Some things did change in the way people related to me. What I noticed most having locks were the ways white people tried to ally themselves with me, simply because I had locks.

White people spoke more, and more loudly in front of me about drugs. I got a lot of people casually mentioning what drugs they were on in a loud voice once they saw me, and others who didn't bother to lower their voices when I passed them talking to each other about drugs in the street. I never realised before just how many people are talking about drugs in the street.

I thought the little old ladies would start being afraid of me and stop telling me their life stories at the bus stop. But no, they didn't change, and I even got a compliment or two on my lovely hair from ones who couldn't see properly.

One of the most common remarks, particularly from white men who were trying to pick me up, was how much they like reggae, or how they're really into Bob Marley. They strongly identify dreadlocks on a white woman with Rastafarian appropriation and Bob Marley's image.

(Interestingly, as a side note, there was a 'hippie trail' to India from Australia in the 70's.I've heard white people who spent a long time there express their surprise and bewilderment at seeing dreadlocks appear in white culture when they came back home, as they strongly associated it with the Sadhus in India and had no idea why white people had suddenly started taking it on here.)

Over time though, dreadlocks have become more and more popular amongst white people, and for more and more reasons. But they have always been associated one way or another with defying social norms or choosing alternative lifestyles. Another way white people try to ally themselves with someone wearing locks is somehow work into the conversation that they wore them too at one point, even though they have a 'straight' hairdo now. It's pretty well accepted that almost no white person would have dreads forever (a few months to a few years is the norm), and the circumstances around getting rid of your dreads becomes part of the story.

Just recently I've seen a new phenomena - dreadlocks becoming a fashion statement. This is a remarkable shift because it brings dreadlocks into the mainstream white culture for the first time and normalises them, reducing them to 'fashion' removes the overt associations with Rastafarian culture which white people have linked with locks. As a result, a new thing white people do is to talk about dreadlock care and mention that their son has them - and often say that they would themselves if their hair was up to it. By doing this they're conveying that they understand the stereotype and don't go by it, and that they aren't judging you or making assumptions about you based on your locks. It's another way of allying yourself with a white person who wears them.

I still get a lot of random questions from white people about dread care; the most common one from adults is 'how do you wash them' and from kids it is 'why is your hair like that'. People do ask if they can feel them occasionally, but usually it's very excited teenagers who are thinking about getting dreadlocks themselves; I went through a stage around the time I got mine done of being intensely curious about the various ways of making them and the results, and had to stop myself asking people if I could touch their locks in that stage, so I usually say yes. Curiosity doesn't hurt.

It's not all positive. Overall, slightly less white people would speak to me. The occasional old man would gave me a filthy look. I think some people assume I am too cool for school, that I wouldn't want to associate with them, because there's been a lot of snobby people with locks around who won't talk to people who aren't in their subculture. Others believe the stereotypes and don't want to associate themselves with it.

Dreads are a very personal thing. When you start them you don't quite know what they are going to grow into. Over time you develop a relationship to them and you invest meaning in them. I will say I invested a spiritual meaning into mine; but as a Pagan I'm pretty much making it up as I go along.

2 October 2009

The red pill of feminism

While writing a comment on Shakesville, I suddenly realised I am at the beginning of my journey as a feminist. I never articulated that to myself until I was writing it.

I thought no, that's not true, in some ways I took the red pill years ago, I was always a feminist - but no. I didn't even call myself a feminist. I called myself an equalist, because I truly believed in equality, and I thought the word feminism by its very nature didn't express equality. If I said I was a feminist it would sound like I was all about teh wimmenz, and I really and truly wanted equality. Sometimes now I wish the early feminists had just used the word equalist and avoided this whole damned problem. I'd almost prefer to call myself a suffragette.

I took the red pill recently, and I realise that I had never been a feminist. How could I? I was half blind and half deaf, seeing only the worst excesses but burying my head in the sand when it came to the everyday acts, trying to harden the fuck up so I wouldn't feel the death by a thousand cuts, caring about the men in my life and accepting the terrible bargain of the blue pill. Because of that, I am at the beginning of my feminist journey; and once I sloughed off the excess misogyny I found myself increasingly alone. But I had glimpsed what a feminist support network looked like, and I was determined to get myself some more of that.

I have a clue as to why I continued to swallow the blue pill for so long. I remember at one point I was studying sociology, and when I stopped I said to several people "I'm sick and tired of hearing how oppressed I am". It got a laugh, and it was true - at the time I thought that there was no way I could rise above the many layers of oppression if I focused on them; I was afraid I would be overwhelmed by despair. But now I wonder if there was something else - a particular form of oppression that I wasn't willing to face. I can think of no other reason to explain why I already understood so many things yet was completely oblivious to the one that affected me most. I think I somehow subconsciously knew I wasn't ready to be confronted with it, and that to encounter it would mean that I couldn't deny it any more. It was the red pill, and I refused it. I was afraid of being overwhelmed.

But continuing to take the blue pill nearly killed me, so in the end the red was the only option. I became a feminist because I had no other choice. Once I had taken the red pill, I could not be silent, I could not call myself an equalist, I could not accept the terrible bargain, and my friends and family dropped away like flies as I began demanding respect and support unequivocally.

The red pill can be a bitter, bitter pill in this stage.

But I knew that one must prune in order to see new growth emerge. I am happy with my choice, even if at this point it means solitude for the most part. I am rebuilding my life, and I am making sure my supports are not rotten at the core. I have seen the awesomeness of a feminist network, and I am determined to be part of one, no matter how hard it is.

It is worth it.