Message received

argument stubbornI love being right almost as much as being proven wrong. I don’t enjoy being contradicted per se, but I do enjoy it when someone shines their light on a situation from a new angle, putting my truth to the test. I don’t mind admitting I was wrong (or at least incomplete) when new facts are presented to me in a fair way.

This happened to me a couple of months ago, when I got into a cyber discussion witih a Jewish FB -er. It happened to me again last week when a fellow WP-er, Being Woke, called me out on my use of the word “exotic”, among other things.

All though part of me is still a bit defensive and wants to emphasize how good my intentions are and that that should be what counts, I know deep down that she was right to cyber-slap me on the wrists.

polar bear facepalm.jpgLet me summarize what happened. I read a blog in which a muslim girl described how threatened she feels on a regular basis (and during one especially aggressive encounter in particular) by looks and remarks she gets about her muslim appearance.

Instead of stating straight away that I hated that she had to deal with these kind of reactions, I inadvertently channeled my inner oaf and pretty much asked her to sympathize with the burden of my white privilege.

I told her how muslim women (or anyone foreign looking in general) stick out in my predominantly white hometown and how I struggle sometimes with how to react. I tried to explain how I would want them to feel welcome and acknowledge their presence, but at the same time I know that they would much rather just blend in. So how do you forcefully help someone blend in, when in all truth they stick out like a sore thumb?

Making myself explicitly not look makes me feel like a silly child ignoring a former friend on the school yard. It doesn’t feel nice or friendly or welcoming or productive in any way. Looking at the person in question however, even if it’s just to give her a smile, might make her feel uncomfortable and exposed, which is pretty much the opposite of what I intended in the first place. My idea was to acknowledge the facts, show her that I see her but that this has no negative connotation.

And then I earned myself a one way ticket to hell by referring to foreign looking people as “my exotic compatriots”. It’s  really bad… right?

My comment was met with a verbal eye-roll and a couple of questions to top that off:

I personally do not believe your stares are required to acknowledge someone’s presence. Do you stare at people who look like you to acknowledge their presence? Or is that reserved for those who don’t look like you – and therefore are your stares for them or to fulfil your own curiosity?

The answer to the first question is probably “no” and I go back and forth on how to feel about this. I know she is implicitly calling me a racist here, and I myself have admitted at some point I am not perfect in this field. The answer to the second rhetorical question is “yes” and again, I know I am being expected to feel bad about this.

What I want to say is that I have been on the receiving end of stares myself. I grew up in a country where my appearance stood out and I was the odd one out in a crowd. I tread a fine line here; because even though my skin and hair color made people point at me and call me names that have a negative connotation I will always be privileged by the simple fact that I am white.

Or as Louis CK puts it:

So, yes I am white and “thank god for that shit, boy”. I am guilty but I mean no harm. I am one of the good ones, I really am. I understand why it must annoy the hell out of you to be called “exotic” and have us whiteys defend ourselves by saying we meant it as a compliment. I understand you feel you are being compared to a tropical parrot or something.

I should have never touched the word. I understand that now. I do want you to know I didn’t mean it as a compliment… or an insult, for that matter. I used the word as an adjective, to describe all my fellow countrymen and -women that may have lived here their entire lives and maybe even their parents did too, but lack the Northern European look the majority of us Dutchies has. I wasn’t saying you are not Dutch. Or less worthy. Or extra sexy-feisty-squeezy-easy. Or whatever other negative connotation it may have.

So, let me be completely open and disregard all political correctness for a minute and ask some frank questions of my own:

  • How can I, as a member of the white majority population, find the balance between acknowledging your values, respecting your right to wear different clothing and help you blend in? The only way I can think of is stop looking all together, which is most definitely not what I want. I love my sense of wonder!
  • Can I, as a white person, ever say you are too sensitive? Thin ice cracking, thin ice  cracking, thin ice, thin ice…
  • Am I allowed to say “I understand” or is the impossibility of me ever getting the struggle of a person of color so evident that it would always be either a lie or a display of my ignorance?
  • Why does us discussing semantics feel so silly?

Anyway, I promise I will never stop trying to improve myself and trust I will find a balance at some point, all though I am starting to sense that it is almost inevitable to tread on some toes along the way. I apologize beforehand. I really do try!

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6 thoughts on “Message received

  1. Thank you for writing this – honestly I did not write with a verbal eye roll or think to myself that you are racist but genuinely questioning because these are discussions I have had with people before on threads such as “race matters” on FB which you might be interested in.
    I acknowledge your comment was a genuine attempt to start a discussion and I especially appreciate this post.
    In response to your questions – I personally never misunderstand smiles. When a stranger smiles at me and I smile back it really does warm up my day. So please – continue smiling. We having a saying as Muslims how a smile is a form of charity.
    The issues I was talking about is the aggressive stares – trust me, you can just feel the hate in some people. And I’m not talking about resting bitch face – my sister has that and it’s very different to looking like you’re having a horrible day – it’s a face that is a I hate you look that I think if you face it enough times you will pick it up. Like even my white friends notice it when I’m out with.
    So my response – in a ramble because it’s late but I really want to respond now because I feel like your effort deserves one – keep being nice, challenge horrible things that you know are not true – whether that’s in the media or things people say, keep learning (not just about racial injustice but all injustices – the more we know the better tooled we are to fight back) and listen to people of colour if they explain something – but at the same time don’t expect they have to. Not everyone wants to, not everyone has the energy at that moment of time and needs to prioritise is.
    Have a lovely day 🙂

  2. Oh and in response to a whit person saying someone is too sensitive – you can say what you want. But if I am hurt by something and try to explain it or simply tell the person I am hurt and they respond with thats my problem – I will personally take that as they are my problem. They are refusing to acknowledge what I have told them. It is easy for someone who does not face structural and repetitive daily issues to knock it off as too sensitive. It just shows they not only do not understand but are also not willing to understand.
    For example – my manager called me a silly little girl – as a joke. That hurt. Was I being too sensitive – to his eyes yes. But to many of the women I shared this story to – no. They have to deal with sexism day in and day out and they new what the true weight of those harmless words were.

  3. Hi Epi, Zeefje here.

    I’m not even close to finished thinking about this article and the questions in it. So just some random thoughts and questions on my end.

    There is a difference in staring and looking. You don’t have to stare to acknowledge somebody. How do you acknowledge the existence of somebody of the white majority? And why should there be a different reaction for anyone in a minority?
    For example, you may know I always greet the homeless people selling papers near the grocerie stores. I rarely give money, but I will say hello on my way in and “have a nice day” on the way out.
    I guess my question is: why putting a lot of pressure on making a specific group feel welcome? And why should they blend in? Or need help with that?
    Just a example. A while back in a board meeting a collegue mentioned he was gay. Not as an argument for his point, but just as a sideline. Me and the others didn’t react. Just took the needed information in his argument en told him why he was wrong 😉
    Later, after the meeting, he told me he was surprised that nobody reacted. I asked him if that wasn’t the best reaction. That telling you’re gay is becoming more and more a non-event. Just like telling you’re straight.

    On the subject on your intentions versus the impact, I watched a YouTube a while back that I agree with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8xJXKYL8pU

    She explaines it a lot better than I ever could.

    Hug!

  4. Wow! The way you wrote about this encounter and your thoughts and feelings – it’s amazing. You so clearly express and share yourself in a way that I better understand myself. A really good post! – (also appreciate beingwoke’s response)

    1. Thanks RK. Yes, I am glad beingwoke stopped by and responded as well. I think it is the only way forward. And like Zeefje also said (backed up by the accompanying youtube video), there should be no “but” after I am sorry and offending someone always deserves an apology, intentional or not.

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