Wishing for gender-invisibility… and wishing I wasn’t wishing for it.

When I was growing up, I often fantasized about having a gender-invisibility cloak. It would be this magical object that would make all my girl-parts invisible, and people would have to deal with me without knowing whether I was a girl or a boy (or neither/both/something else). I didn’t want to be invisible as a person, I didn’t want to present myself as androgynous (I don’t think my body lends itself easily to androgyny anyways), I didn’t want to HAVE a different body (or face, or hair, or whatever), and I didn’t want to present myself as a boy (in order to pass as one). In my mind, this magical cloak thing was more of a Schroedinger’s box type of contraption, or maybe a Rawles-ish veil of ignorance where people would have to interact with me without being able to know what sex (biological) or gender (expressed) lay behind the curtain. Or maybe a big ol’ Care Bear plushy suit that would modify my voice so it didn’t read as distinctly male or female. You get the idea, I hope. A totally impossible object, to be sure. But yet… I just wanted to be seen for my accomplishments, for my ideas, for my point of view, for my quirks, basically everything that makes me ME. Except my gender.

Partially it was because I didn’t really feel that I fit into the version of femininity commonly presented in the mainstream media. Didn’t fantasize about my future wedding dress. Didn’t want to have children (still don’t). Didn’t like wearing dresses or skirts (I do now). Didn’t really care about fashion. I think I wore jeans, plaid shirts and a Cowichan jacket for about 5 straight years. (And no, I was not a proto-hipster. My outfits were comfy and kept me warm in freezing lecture halls in uni.) Partially it was because I was very aware of (and uncomfortable with) all of the gendered things that people would say to me. Comments on my looks or clothing. Comments on being a woman in a “man’s” discipline (I studied math and stats in undergrad). Assumptions that someday I would be a wife/mother. And on and on.

As I got to my early 20s, I slowly started to embrace public acknowledgement of my woman-ness. I started wearing skirts more often. I started wearing a bit of makeup. I was really proud to be a woman in mathematics, proud to be a woman teaching high school math, proud to be a woman in grad school studying statistics. And as I moved into a more and more professional setting (and into a rather progressive neighbourhood), I felt more and more that I could just be myself (in whatever way I chose to express that), and not be terribly bothered by anybody. OK, except maybe the marriage/babies thing. I never totally escaped that. Although now that I’ve been married and separated, it’s really just the babies thing that attracts unsolicited advice, if anything.

Just recently, I spent a week in New Orleans. I was there for a stats conference, and, since I’d never been before, decided to take a few extra days of vacation to go check out the city. There was nobody that I knew that was going to be at the conference, I didn’t know anybody in the city, and nobody else came with me, so it was going to be a solo adventure (which is a big deal for a risk-adverse, shy person like me.) For the most part, it was a fantastic trip… I ate a lot of delicious food, heard some great music, and made a few new friends who took me to places and parties that I would have never found on my own.

It was also a very challenging trip in one specific way: whenever I was out by myself, I kept getting talked at by men in a way that made me wish desperately for that gender-invisibility cloak of my teenage daydreams. Pretty much every conversation included one of the following: a.) a comment about my attractiveness or my body, b.) a statement about how I was a woman travelling alone (“your boyfriend lets you go off and fly places by yourself?”), c.) a straight-up pickup line or inquiry as to my phone number, or d.) an exhortation for me to smile.

None of those comments would have been made had I been a man. Nor were any of those comments made when I was in the company of a man (I spent the better part of three days hanging out with new friends of mine*). When I was with my buddies, other guys would just talk to me like a person, and make the same kind of conversation that I imagine they might have made with a man. “What brings you to New Orleans?” “What do you think about the city?” “What kind of work do you do?” These are non-gendered questions.
The last day was particularly hard, as I was wandering by myself. Stopped in at a nice restaurant for lunch, and my server SAT DOWN AT MY TABLE and started trying to pick me up. And then got annoyed when I mentioned that I had a boyfriend (who I’d just been texting). Doorman at the hotel: “With a face like that, you BET I’m going to remember you.” Got to the airport and two TSA agents said some version of “you’re such a pretty girl, you should be smiling”. Walking through the food court in the Houston airport trying to figure out what I wanted to eat: “Hey baby girl, I got some pizza over here for you.” (Yelled at me from ACROSS the food court, no less). Plus the usual stuff on the street where men follow you intently with their eyes and either a.) grunt, b.) say “damn” or something like that, or c.) (AND THIS I HATE THE MOST) “hey pretty girl, won’t you stop and talk to me for a second”? As if. One guy even tried to grab my arm, I dodged, and then got a “why you gotta be like that” as I was walking away.

Arm-grabber aside, I never felt threatened or unsafe, but it was emotionally exhausting to constantly have to deflect questions about my relationship status, or respond to the various comments in a reasonably polite way (maybe polite isn’t the way to go, but I’m generally a conflict-avoider, and I didn’t feel like people were actively trying to make my day miserable, plus I figured it’s best not to piss off TSA agents). I ended up pretty much hiding in a quiet corner in the Houston airport during my layover because I really didn’t feel like I could handle being talked at* by another man that day. And I was wishing desperately that the magical gender-invisibility cloak of my teenage imagination was a real thing.

I don’t WANT to hide away in a corner. I’m just starting to become a bit more outgoing and adventurous; I want to go out and meet new people and travel and have adventures, and be able to do those things alone if I want. But I’m realizing more and more the ways in which being a woman makes that so much more complicated. And the ways I live in a bit of a bubble, working in an upper middle-class professional environment and living in a social circle that highly values equality and social justice. Even in the local Cuban salsa scene (in which I work and socialize), I rarely feel threatened or sexualized***.

The fallout of my trip has been that I came back with a more complicated and troubled set of feelings towards masculinity. I feel more self-conscious than before when men I don’t know are looking at me, and I’ve found myself feeling completely non-sexual towards men, which is a.) highly unusual for me, and b.) obviously affects at least one person besides me. Add to this the fact that my apartment got broken into last week, and the thief rifled through all my drawers and my closet (in addition to stealing my laptop and camera), which leaves me feeling violated, especially since I’m extremely protective of my space. It creeps me the fuck out that anybody was in there without my permission, and adds to my feelings of vulnerability.

These feelings of discomfort and vulnerability will pass, and I’m sure I’ll be back to my reasonably confident, trusting, sexual self before too long. But I know I’ll be wishing for my imaginary cloak the next time I decide to venture out of my bubble. And I feel a greater sense of empathy for (and solidarity with) women who have to deal with genuine harassment, overt sexism and concern for their safety every day just by daring to be a woman out in the world.

I realize the irony of wanting to be gender-invisible on International Women’s Day. Even more so because later tonight, I’m going to perform my gender by putting on a pretty dress, cute shoes, and some shimmery makeup and go out dancing at the Vancouver International Salsa Festival with friends from near and far.

It’s complicated. I’ve struggled with gender relations my whole life. I’ll probably continue to do so. But I’m hopeful that we’re moving closer and closer to a world where I won’t even need to think about my imaginary gender-invisibility cloak. Because it just won’t matter. I’m not even sure such a world is possible. But a girl can dream, no?

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* Met a guy at a bar in the middle of the day (vacation = scotch at noon on a Tuesday, why not), after an hour and a half of conversation, he invited me to come along on a bike ride with his friend. I am very thankful to both of them that they treated me with respect and took very good care of me. It was the fact that they DIDN’T immediately hit on me or make super gendered comments that led me to feel comfortable enough to go on what turned out to be a super fun adventure, and led to more fun hang-outs.

** As opposed to being talked TO, which is a totally different thing. I have NO problem with people making friendly conversation when it doesn’t immediately start with some comment about my woman-ness.

*** I have been groped on the dance floor, and there are some men who I avoid because they give me the creeps, but they’re not part of the main Cuban salsa community, and I feel like I have an entire room full of friends that I can turn to if something does come up. And it’s been RARE in my experience.

Happy Valentine’s Day

To my many loves:

Thank you for hugs and snuggles and dance parties and brunches and sushi dates and random texts and long walks and laughs. Especially the laughs.

Thank you for sharing your vulnerability with me, and allowing me to do the same without fear of judgement, rejection, or shame.

Thank you for making me feel like the only person in the room when you talk to me.

Thank you for allowing me trust you with my body, my secrets, my hopes, my joys.

Thank you for inspiring me with your courage, passions, ambitions, ideas.

And thank for loving me in return, in whatever way it is that we’ve defined love.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Towards a world where vulnerability is okay.

Over on FreeThoughtBlogs, Crommunist wrote a post this morning about what happens when the (black) masculinity myth came into conflict with the intense storm of emotions that emerged for comedian Anthony Griffith as he was losing his baby daughter to cancer.

Go read the post. Go watch Anthony’s video. I’ll wait.

You back?

As Crommunist points out, Anthony’s story touches on so many facets of what it means to be a man, and more specifically a black man. The expectations. The isolation. The utter and complete dissonance between how he felt and how he was “supposed” to act. A man in the depths of pain. And shame.

Shame of having to worry about things like get his car repossessed and getting evicted.
Shame of feeling like his pain is indulgent when he’s “not the only one” losing a child.
Shame of not knowing what to do.
Shame of appearing weak. Of being weak. Of crying.

And resolution for him came in screaming at himself “man up, nigga”, and thus putting himself back in the tiny box of acceptable male emotional expression. Which is arguably smaller for black men than it is for white men.

The article ends with the conclusion that the world would be a better place if men were able to more freely express their emotions. If therapy wasn’t seen as a thing only for well-to-do white folks. And it’s hard to disagree.

But I am left wondering “so how do we get there?” How do we even start creating “a world where it’s okay to be vulnerable and to need help” (to quote commenter mythbri)? It seems like an gargantuan (and perhaps impossible) task.

I think we have to start small. In our own little worlds, our own spheres of influence. In our own heads and hearts, foremost. We first need to start to accept vulnerability within ourselves. And taking a close look at how expectations about our gender/race/class/etc. informs how we process and express pain, sadness, loss, helplessness. (This. This is hard. This work never stops. But it is oh so powerful.)

In relationships with others, we can start looking out for what Dr. John Gottman calls “sliding door” moments. The moments where someone (a romantic partner, friend, coworker, anybody) is reaching out to us. Sometimes it’s an overt plea. Sometimes it’s as subtle as a look or a hesitation before changing the subject of conversation. In each of those moments we have a choice: to open the door to the vulnerability, or to shut it and walk away. Shutting the door is easier, and if we walk away enough times, the reaching out stops. So often we fail to even notice these sliding-door moments. Because we’re sitting in our own shame. Or our conception of the other person just doesn’t allow for them to be vulnerable in our eyes (they’re our boss, or our parent, or someone we turn to when we need strength). At other times we turn away deliberately because we are unwilling or afraid to open up to a potentially raw, intimate, uncomfortable conversation.

We can start being more aware about how our gender roles lead us to shame, and the different ways in which men and women are expected to act, especially when we are in struggle. With respect to male vulnerability, I think women have a important role to play. And I say this not because most a lot of vulnerability plays out in romantic relationships, the majority of which are heterosexual, but because women’s expectations of men (by mothers, daughters, sisters, female partners) often play directly into how men deal with vulnerability. Brené Brown explains here how the expectations of men and women operate differently when it comes to shame.

We women can so easily be hypocritical: we usually say we want (to date, to be friends with, to raise, to have been raised by) a man who is sensitive, open, and in touch with his feelings, but we are often quickly repulsed when a man comes to us vulnerable. And then we wonder why they shut down. We often forget that as women, it is far easier for us to “get away” (in the sense of social acceptability) with crying, with reaching out for help (a hug, a therapist, a tear-filled couch-moping session), with admitting that we don’t know what to do, with expressing feelings of insecurity (not too much, mind you, lest we be branded as “crazy”, “neurotic”, “unstable”, “oversensitive”, etc.)

We (not just women, everybody) can commit to sitting with men in their times of pain and putting aside our own discomfort. We have been socially conditioned to see a man’s vulnerability as weakness, when admitting vulnerability is perhaps the most courageous thing anybody can do.

We can commit to not using phrases like “man up”, “be a man”, “take it like a man”, which all serve to put men right back into their tiny box of limited acceptable emotion.

We can choose to not use words like “weak”, “pussy”, “sissy”, etc. to refer to someone who is no longer conforming to the mold of male stoicism.

We can dare greatly and choose to share our own vulnerability with others.

And we have to accept that we will fuck up at all of the above, probably often, sometimes badly, despite our best intentions. But I think we have to make the effort. It’s the only path I see towards a more empathetic world.

I got kissed by a girl.

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I braved the rainy lineup to go party at the Work Less Party’s annual masquerade ball. Drinking beers. Dancing. I was covered in black sequins and hot pink fishnets, sporting a devil bandit superhero mask (I don’t know what else to call it… it is cute though… and I crocheted it myself.) Admiring the body-painted performance artists. (The pole dancer? Impressive.)

Anyways, we were drinking away, when all of a sudden I got sneak-smooched (and simultaneously ass-patted). And not by my boyfriend. For a split second, I thought it was maybe one of my friends who’d finally found me. I am on kissing-on-the-lips terms with a few of my friends, so this would have been totally fine and welcome.

But no… it was a total stranger. A girl no less.  I was stunned to say the least. By the time I realized what was going on, she was already walking away. I didn’t really have much of a reaction at the time, I just kinda went back to drinking my (terrible) beer. (Seriously. Cariboo Lager. Ew.) Kinda chalked it up to things that happen at parties and I didn’t really make a big deal of it, although I was a bit weirded out. I pretty much shrugged it off. We ended up leaving the party soon afterwards.

For the most part, when I’ve told people what happened, their reaction has been something along the lines of “good for you!” or “was she cute?” or “jealous”. And the men have for the most part been particularly high-five-y about it.

SERIOUSLY?? HOLD THE PHONES. NO.

If it had been a man who’d kissed me, reactions would have included “ewww, what a CREEP”, “OMG”,”what??”. Ie. this would have been perceived as an uncool invasion of my personal space. But because it’s woman-on-woman, it’s OK? No. In retrospect I’m actually surprised that *I* didn’t have much of a reaction at the time. Granted I was tired, tipsy and just plain stunned.

Can you imagine people being all like “yay, you got your ass groped by some guy at the club!” *fistpump*. No. Not any people I’d want as friends anyways. But it’s fine when it’s a girl?

NO. It’s not OK. I don’t know if it’s just because women are generally perceived as less threatening than men, or if it’s part of the fetishization of girl-on-girl action (particularly by straight men*), but why are people stoked about this? I’m effectively getting high-fived for having my personal space invaded. I don’t get it. The more I think about it, the more fucked up it is.

I feel I should mention here that I’m not entirely straight. Heteroflexible is probably the best label, if I have to pick one. I make out with girls. I LIKE making out with girls. Sometimes more than making out. So it’s not the being kissed by a girl bit I have a problem with. It’s the being kissed without my consent part. And people’s reactions to it. MAJOR distinction.

I have no idea what her motivation was. Maybe she thought my hot pink fishnets were, well, hot. Maybe she thought “oooo, girl standing there with her boyfriend, I’m going to give her a taste of the wonderful world of lesbianity/pansexuality/[whatever construct gets straight girls out of their man-only-kissing shell]“. Maybe she was just high and was hallucinating some mistletoe hanging over my head. I have no idea. And the motivation doesn’t even matter. It didn’t feel predatory or anything like that but still. It’s not right.

I can hear some men out there saying “oooo, but I’d TOTALLY want to get surprise-kissed by a girl”. Ya. I’m sure that you do. But you might think differently if you’d had years of experience getting your butt grabbed at clubs, being visibly given the up-and-down, overhearing people daring each other to get the biggest handful of your ass, getting molested on the dance floor at salsa parties**, getting catcalled by old men sitting outside coffeeshops, seeing people make sexual gestures at their crotch while watching you dance, getting thrown a slew of insults because you politely declined to make out with somebody, basically having your personal space and dignity apparently be fair game all the damn time. Never mind all the anti-choice, anti-sex, rape-as-method-of-conception conservative/Republican types who really are of the opinion that a woman should not have sovereignty of her own body, which is essentially another facet of the same mindset. You deal with that your whole adult life, you might not be as enthused with getting kissed without your consent. And you might especially not be enthused about other people wanting to high-five you for such things.

And I really can’t think of too many straight men who’d be fine with being surprise-kissed by another man. Most would take rather, um, unkindly to the situation, to say the least.

So to EVERYBODY out there: please ask before you kiss somebody you don’t know. I don’t care about your gender, or that of your potential kissee. I don’t care about your sexual preference or that of your prospective smooch-target. Doesn’t matter. Ask. Please. No sneak attacks, whether that’s ass-grabbing, kissing, whatever. Get consent. Every time.

(And, if you’re wondering, if the girl had ASKED if she could kiss me, I’d have probably have gone for it.)

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*As an aside: If you’re a straight man who likes watching girls make out but opposes same-sex marriage, you are an asshole. Just putting that out there. I mean, if you oppose same-sex marriage at all, I already think you’re an asshole. But this makes you a super-douchebaggy asshole.

** This happened to me the first time I ever went out salsa dancing. I almost quit dancing right then and there. It was a particular group of men visiting from out-of-town. My salsa scene is generally super safe, but you better believe I keep my eye out, especially when there are men that I don’t know.

Giving thanks: the obvious and the not-so-obvious

At Thanksgiving I, like most people I know, take a moment to stop and think about how lucky I am… while stuffing my face with turkey and trimmings of course. I’m on Day 2 of leftovers now, and maybe it’s the last of the tryptophan haze, maybe it’s all the wine I’ve had in the last few days, but I am gobsmacked by my good fortune. What am I thankful for? A hell of a lot.

  • I’m healthy.
  • I have a small but awesome family.
  • I live in Canada, which is not without its problems, but I’d rather live here than almost anywhere else, especially as a woman (voting! property rights! birth control!) In particular, I live in East Vancouver, which is the first place I’ve lived where I feel truly at home. Beautiful tree-lined streets, lots of small shops, good transit and bike routes, diversity on a number of fronts, and a great sense of community. And most of my friends live here.
  • I have a job. It pays me well. It gives me good benefits. It lets me afford my great apartment. And the things in it that help make my life comfortable.
  • Getting my job was made possible by the specific aptitudes that I have, surely, but also by the fact that I was encouraged to and had the opportunity to get a very good education.
  • I have a second job. People pay me to teach them how to do something I LOVE to do (Cuban-style salsa, for those who don’t know).
  • I have amazing friends that support and inspire me every day.
  • I’m in a wonderful relationship with a man who makes me laugh, makes me think, values my independence and autonomy, and is apparently entertained by all my quirks and weirdness.

These are some of the obvious aspects of my life for which I am thankful. But more and more, I’ve been thinking about the circumstances of my life that I’ve tended to take for granted have made it easier than it might have been otherwise.

The ones on my mind lately:

  • I am (mostly) heterosexual. I have never had to out my sexuality. And because I live where I do (Canada/Vancouver/EastVan) and WHEN I do (and have the friends and family that I have), I have felt free to explore same-sex sensuality and sexuality without fear of judgement, harassment, or violence. The worst I’ve had to deal with is annoyance when straight men seem to think that my penchant for sometimes making out with women somehow exists for their enjoyment (FYI – it doesn’t.)
  • I am fully abled. I was born with all the body parts that are typical of a human female, and they all work as they are supposed to. I have been free of major injuries or conditions which would impair my usual function in any way. And I am free of chronic pain. (I did have a horrible and ultra-vivid dream last night that I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • I am cis-gendered. Nobody has ever questioned my gender. Not me, not anybody else. Sometimes I dither about how to express my gender (or not), but I’ve never felt that I was meant to be anything other than female.
  •  I am an atheist who was raised in an atheist household. In a country/city where we don’t talk about religion all that much (relatively speaking). Sure we read Bible stories as a kid (my mother was raised Catholic after all), but they were treated the same as Aesop’s fables or the Berenstein Bear books. Just stories. I’ve never had to out my atheism in any circumstance in my life that might have had negative consequences for me. Having the odd stranger plead with me to go to church while talking to them on the street or in a bar does not amount to consequences. There are many atheists who face serious repercussions for disclosing their status. Being shunned by their family. Losing a faith-based community that they grew up with. Violence. I never really thought about it much until recently. But that’s exactly my point: I’ve never HAD to think about it. It just wasn’t a thing.
  • - I am ethnically ambiguous to a lot of people. While I have never deliberately tried to “pass” as anything other than what I am or deny my mixed background, I realize that my particular phenotype has probably saved me from a lot of racism/discrimination that I might have faced if I had been darker. Again, I’ve also been lucky to live where and when I do. When I was little, my mother thought about moving us back to her hometown in Austria. I would probably have been the only coloured kid around. It was bad enough being whispered about when I visited as an adult. I am convinced that things would not have been easy for me growing up there. I am so glad that we stayed here in Canada, and specifically in my fairly sheltered suburban childhood neighbourhood. I just came across this video yesterday which looks at NYCs discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy. This makes me nauseous and sad and angry. And hyper-aware that my life has been so far free of this kind of experience.

While I haven’t always explicitly recognized these privileges or lucky circumstances, I find myself more and more aware of them as I get older. And I wonder how much they’ve influenced things I’ve said or done in the past (or do now). Certainly I’ve said things that are ableist. Or heteronormative. Or other things that were just in ignorance of some of the struggles other people have gone through that I haven’t had to. And being increasingly aware of them doesn’t mean that they don’t slip into my blind spot at times. Hopefully a lot less so now…

So as I pick away at my slop-pot Tupperware container full of gravy-slathered leftovers,  it’s really this awareness for which I am most thankful. It is humbling to truly realize how lucky I am.

“its not rape if thats your woman” – asshole on Twitter

^ This is what I sat down to when I opened up my internet box the other night when I got home from work. Some days I really REALLY hate the internet. This was one of those days. A few folks I follow on Twitter were calling out this guy for making the above statement. (As they should). It offends me to no end that people a.) believe this stuff and b.) say it in public. And even on the off-chance that this was somehow either trolling or a joke taken out of context (and I doubt it based on the guy’s profile and other tweets), it’s not funny. It is so BEYOND not funny.

It is rape. Even if she’s “your woman”.

It is rape. It absolutely is. I should know. It’s happened to me. Twice.

I’m not going to go into details. Don’t ask if I could have stopped it. Don’t ask me if I saw signs beforehand. Don’t ask me if I reported it. In fact, don’t ask anything. Just listen.

I can tell you that there are few things more shattering than experiencing someone who you love and trust (or did until that point) negating your consent and violating your body.

There’s that horrible moment of having to choose whether to fight back and risk escalating the situation or to just give up and take it. I’m a small person, the chances of me winning a fight with a man who is intent on getting what he wants are slim to none. In some situations, you don’t fight back unless you are prepared to die. If you’re horribly outmatched in size and strength, and if the other person has the will to do damage, this is a reality. I have fortunately never been in a situation where I felt death was preferable. I hope I never do. But I had one moment where I sure as fuck had to think about it.

Then, after it’s all over, you have to choose whether to tell anyone. Because there is no proof. And you don’t know if people will believe you. And you like his family. And these were both people I was just dating. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for a woman who is far more trapped in a relationship than I ever was… because he owns the house. Because he makes most of the money. Because you’re married to him. Because he is the father of your children.

And beyond my two specific experiences where my lack of consent was fully ignored, I’ve had incidences with several people where I’ve had to say no more often and more forcefully than anyone should have to. They eventually listened, but not before I started seriously questioning whether they would end up taking no for an answer or not. And freaking out over what would happen if they didn’t.

Since the first time my lack of consent was ignored, my “STOP” has always been followed by a split second of fear that the other person won’t respect my wishes. That may never entirely go away. It has faded to near-nothingness as time has passed and as I accumulated a lot of really wonderful, completely respectful sexual experiences where ‘no’ and ‘stop’ were heeded immediately. But it’s still there. That “what if”. I hate it.

And I know that these experiences are far more common than anybody would like to think. The true prevalence of these moments of threatened and actual violation of non-consent within relationships is unknown. And unknowable. This report from the US estimates that 1 in 5 women in North America has been raped, with 90% of those rapes by an intimate partner or acquaintance (which can include more casual dating/relationship scenarios). If you were to include women who have ever felt threatened (overtly or implicitly) by a sexual partner (even if consent was ultimately respected), the numbers are obviously higher. But numbers aside, ANY is too many.

Sleeping in the same bed as someone gives you zero rights to their body. Marriage. Cohabitation. Sharing a bed, whether a regular occurrence or not. None of these involve women (or anybody) signing away their rights to decide what happens to their body and when. There was a time when marital rape was NOT illegal. Thankfully this is no longer true.

If she doesn’t want it, it’s rape. It’s that simple. And if you disagree with me, then there is something terribly wrong with you. And I’m terribly glad that I’m not your woman.

On being black. Or not. Do I have to choose??

I had a bit of a strange experience on my way to work a couple weeks ago. That morning, instead of my usual casual Friday jeans and sneakers, I decided to put on a dress and a pair of shoes I’d just bought (round toe! twist detail! and on sale to boot!) Walking down the street, enjoying the sunshine, minding my business. When all of a sudden a man stops to tell me:

I gotta say, black people don’t wear shoes like that, it’s not our thing.

Direct quote.

I was a bit stunned, obviously (who stops and tells someone they DON’T like what they’re wearing?) but also confused. Firstly, what kind of shoes did this guy think I was supposed to be wearing? I wasn’t aware that footwear was divided on *those* kind of colour lines. Usually when I’m in the shoe store, I’m thinking “but do I want these in red?” That’s as far as my relationship with shoes and colour goes. My sister, brilliant person that she is, later provided me with what I think would have been the perfect snarktastic response:

Pray tell, sir, where can I find the nearest appropriately racialized footwear retailer?

Secondly, shoe choices aside, I was just actually surprised at being called a black person. You see, I’ve never self-identified as black. This isn’t a label I’ve ever chosen for myself. And so few people have ever called me black. That I know of. I mean, I’m clearly not white. But beyond that, my appearance seems to be fairly ethnically ambiguous. People don’t seem to know what box to put me in. I know this because they so often ASK. “Where are you from?” “What’s your background?” All euphemisms for, “I can’t identify your colour or features and this confuses me. Please help.” (And I don’t begrudge them the question. We all like to put people into categories.)

I say I’m mixed, if I have to say anything at all. Partially, it’s because I’m a bit of a literalist. If you saw an object (a shoe, say) that was painted the same shade as my skin, “black” is not a word anybody would ever use to describe it. “Tan”? “Dark beige #4″? “Tawny cappuccino sunrise”? I don’t know, I don’t work at Benjamin Moore. “Black” seems a misnomer. I know, this probably seems like a really stupid argument. But this is how my brain works. If I’m supposed to use black to describe skin colour, it fails, in my mind, as an appropriate descriptor of me.

So perhaps I might alternatively use black as a proxy for background? For me, this is even more of an inaccurate descriptor. I was raised exclusively by my white mother. (And by exclusively, I mean financially as well as custody-wise.) We spoke her language, read stories of her culture. I’ve read all the Brothers Grimm tales in the original German. The only cousins/aunts/uncles/grandmother I’ve ever known have all been white. Family photos = white (other than me and my sister, obv).

I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood. My suburban highschool was pretty white, from what I remember (I could go do a census of the photos in my yearbook, but I’m lazy). I have NO connection with the black side of my family. I’m not on speaking terms with my father. I know almost nothing about my (deceased) paternal grandparents. I’ve never been to Barbados (where my father is from). Labelling myself as black would almost feel to me like claiming a cultural background and a lived experience that isn’t really mine. Not mine in any direct experiential way. It just doesn’t sit quite right. Plus I sort of feel like I would be somehow discounting my Austrian side. My mother. The relatives that I do know. The grandmother that I did know and love, though she died many years ago. Again, “mixed” seems more honest.

Further, I have never felt like I was a victim of racism, not in Canada anyways. Not once that I can remember. Have I blocked stuff out? Certainly. I’m sure somebody, some time, somewhere said SOMETHING. But I honestly can’t call to mind a single incident where I felt like I was being discriminated against. I had people whisper about me while visiting small-town Austria (saying I must be adopted while I was out for lunch with mom and uncle)*. But other than that. Nothing. I realize this makes me very VERY lucky as a person of colour. I am also aware that this wouldn’t have been possible in too many places in the world. Not even everywhere in Canada. Not by a long shot.

I honestly feel like I’m neither white nor black. Both of those labels seem incorrect to me. Too dark to be white. Too light to generally be presumed to be black. I don’t mind “person of colour”. At least then I don’t have to specify the colour. One-drop rule be damned, if most other people can’t seem to put me in a convenient race box on their own, do I have to do it for them? Do I get to choose? Do I have an obligation to identify a certain way? Do I get to continue on with this privilege of getting to label myself? Or NOT label myself? Am I being selfish?

I’m not actually sure if these questions HAVE answers.  But I’m going to keep wearing whatever shoes I please.

* When I was travelling in Rwanda, I was actually labelled WHITE. People stared intently (not a lot of tourists in Rwanda). Little kids would point and say “mizungu, mizungu”. Which was definitely a new experience, but you get used to it quickly. You also get used to being overcharged by the moto-taxis for clearly being a foreigner.