Wednesday, October 1, 2008

is this the women's bathroom?

so I pointed to my tits.

It's been that kind of day, you see.

I'm teaching two tremendously time consuming, yet rewarding freshman writing class. So far, I've found that the less sleep I get -- the less control I have over my mouth and how it chooses to express itself politically and resistively.

I'm in the bathroom -- as black and butch as God made me:)

In walks a young white woman.

I purposely avoid making eye contact with her -- which is my way of shielding myself against what I experience as the daily assaults of heterosexist-sexist-racism or racist-sexist-heterosexism -- 

(or any combination of the 3 oppressions -- the effort to accurately hyphenate my experience of oppression is difficult to do because it's hard for me to tell exactly what social identity someone is reacting to or what oppression someone is targeting me for because my various social identities (and that of everyone else on planet earth) are immutably convergent. 

So, in situations like the one I will return to discussing soon:) I'm always left wondering if I would have been more recognizably female if I were a white gender non-conforming woman. 

I can't help but wonder how much race influences a person's interpretation of my gender identity/gender expression because, historically, in the United States, queer women of color have been perceived as "mannish" or more stereotypically masculine than white queer women precisely because white females have been held up (even worshipped) as idyllic models of femininity. 

In the U.S., to be feminine was/is to be white -- period. 

Women of color, particularly black women (or women perceived as "black") whether heterosexual or queer were considered masculine -- were considered nonwomen, which made it acceptable for them to put to work in the fields in the slave South. (White women were regarded as "too good" -- or too white -- for field work or any kind of public manual labor. Poor and working-class white women did do field work/manual labor, of course, as indentured servants, as hired hands, as domestics -- white farm women of all classes did manual labor but that was not to be talked about -- not on a wider societal level -- because a white women "forced" to do "dirty" work with her hands was taken as emblematic of her white father's or white husband's failure to fulfill his patriarchal duty as the successful, hardworking "breadwinner" whose wife should not do any kind of wage work and/or manual labor).

Back to the bathroom story:)

So, this young white woman enters the bathroom -- I don't make eye contact with her.
She walks towards one of the bathroom stalls as I wash my hands.
I turn away from the sink to leave the bathroom and she says to me: "Is this the women's bathroom?"

I look at her... and point to my breasts.

She says, "Oh!!! I'm sorry!!!" and more of that... as I leave the bathroom.

I've been asked the gender question many times -- so many times I couldn't recall them all. I've been asked non-verbally with confused or scared gazes --only from white women.

One time a white woman left the bathroom and "told on me" -- a woman barged into the restroom so loudly I heard the doors swing open. She yelled, "Is there a man in the woman's bathroom! Is there a man in the woman's bathroom!" I wrapped up the thing I entered the bathroom to accomplish:) and slowly -- nervously -- exited the stall. I said, "I am a woman."

The experience was mortifying.

So mortifying that most of the time I completely avoid multiple stall public bathrooms, so I don't have to deal with the embarrassment and awkwardness of having to tell someone that I'm a "girl."

I know.

I shouldn't be embarrassed. 

At least, that's what logic tells me.

Women look all kinds of ways. I'm a woman. I should be able to enter a bathroom without being stared at, ridiculed -- without becoming the target of someone's hostility and without having to feel uncomfortable.

But, I still go out of my way to avoid the situation. If I'm not with a more stereotypically looking partner/girlfriend/date/friend, then I will go without using the bathroom for such a long time that hurts my bladder.

So, today, having had very little sleep and another 24 hours of sleepless paper grading ahead of me -- I got angry. And I pointed to my tits.

It doesn't end there though.

On my way home to a loving Femme (hey girl;)

I'm buying wine in a liquor store and an employee decides to follow me around.
The liquor store by the way is located in the "white" side of a several blocks that divide said white folks from an overwhelmingly Latino/as and African American community.

After a few minutes of the employee standing near to me -- near enough that he moves closer when he sees me pick up a small bottle of brandy (a very steal-able size I imagine) -- as I become increasingly ticked off, I say to him, "I'm not going to steal anything, dude."

Startled (that "the negro" speaks) he replies, "What?"

I specify my grievance based query: "Do you follow all customers around or just the black ones?"

He says, "What are you talking about"... uttered those words and trying so hard to mean them... but he just sounded nervous...scared...surprised.

I look him in his eyes and say, "Nothing -- I'm talking about nothing."

I walk away and say, "If you're going to follow customers around the store, then follow all of them -- not just the black ones"... there's a bunch of white women in the back of the store -- why aren't you watching them?

I make my way to the back of the store -- the employee waits, then walks to the back of the store as well -- but he doesn't make eye contact with me. He grabs a case of pumpkin beer and returns to the front of the store. I hope it is shame that stopped him from looking at me the entire time I was in the store...

so pissed.

Walking around the store considering whether or not to spend my money there. 

I decide to spend my money in the store but not without having a conversation with the owner first. I put several bottles of white wine on the check-out counter (they were having a 20% of cuz it's Wednesday sale:) and ask the him the same question as I asked the store employee: "Do you tell your employees to follow all the customers around or just the black ones?"

He gave me the same confused look -- "Wha -- no, no, we don't do that..."

We go back and forth a couple times before I stop him from denying that I was racially profiled as a potential thief and I say to him: "Listen -- just listen to me -- because I am this close to walking out that door without buying this wine. I know that he was watching me shop -- following me because I'm black. That's not ok. If he's going to follow someone he should follow the white people too -- look at all those white people in the back of the store -- nobody's watching them -- why? White people are far more likely to steal from you *precisely* because they don't get followed around your store -- nobody's watching them!"

He says, "Listen, I know, where near [insert university title], the students come here and steal --"

I cut him off again, and say, "Yes, I know that college -- I teach there. And I don't deserve to be followed around a store when I'm shopping because your employee believes that black people are criminals. Please ring up this stuff please."

Silently, he rings up my wine and bags the bottles.

After a fairly long silence, "He hands me a small bottle of cognac and says, "I'm sorry."

I consider his offering -- I consider the racism.

And I think about what it means to be "compensated" with a $4 bottle of alcohol... Does it mean that he really heard me? Or does it mean he wants me to return ready to spend another $70 in his store...

I settle on the hope that he is motivated by both intentions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What you said about the bathroom moved me, L. I had no idea. Thank you for that teaching moment.