September 2009


Whenever someone accuses a person of disliking Obama because he’s black, or that racism fuels a lot of the debate against him, the accused person automatically becomes exacerbated and criticizes the accuser for stooping so low as to “play the race card.” Obviously they’re not racist, they have black friends! Heck, some of them even voted for Obama, America’s not racist any more! How dare they suggest that!

I never really understood what it meant to “play the race card,” or any card for that matter. Are people trying to say that race has nothing to do with people’s perceptions of others? That in a country where where segregation was legal not even 45 years ago, where immigrants are currently being discriminated against for their inability to learn English, or rather, our inability – nay, unwillingness – to accommodate to new cultural changes in the melting pot that once defined our great nation, where women still don’t have equal pay for equal work, for people to say that there’s no racism or sexism or other forms of discrimination in today’s society is plain ignorant.

No one likes being called a bigot. Our society has changed so that it’s no longer socially acceptable (or in some contexts, legal) to be overtly discriminatory. No one likes having their faults pointed out to them. So for someone to accuse you of being racist, regardless of your actions, you may honestly think that you’re not simply because you want to believe it. Also, some people think that being racist means being a member of the KKK, or actively denouncing integration, or any other public form of extreme racism. But what many people don’t realize is that discriminatory behaviors can be subtle, even subconscious. Just because we don’t recognize it or admit it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I watched a clip from a South Carolina news station today about civility in discourse, and how it’s disintegrating. One question asked was, “Are we a racist society?” Two of the guests said yes, definitely. The other man said, “We’re a racialized society where race matters profoundly.” What the hell does that mean? For one, I think he made that word up. Is he saying that it’s possible to be un-racialized? De-racialized? That it’s possible to strip people of fundamental parts of their identities and not see their race? If it were simply that race matters, fine, it matters but all races are treated equally, but that is not the case in America. Racial minorities are discriminated against in so many ways I won’t even get into, so yes, we are racist, not just racial or racialized. Why are people so unwilling to admit that? Because we don’t want to own up to our own shortcomings?

As for people supposedly not caring that our president is black, let me reiterate that racism can be unconscious. Having black friends or having voted for Obama is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for being racist (a phrase I’ve borrowed from one of my favorite writers, Tim Wise). I certainly do not mean to say that everyone who criticizes Obama is automatically racist, or doing so out of racist motivations. That’s ridiculous. That’s like saying everyone who hates George H.W. Bush does so because they hate Texas. I’m saying instead that everyone who claims they’re not racist for criticizing Obama isn’t necessarily right… some are, but not all. Maybe racism isn’t the only factor. Maybe they disagree with his policies, but the fact that he’s black makes them that little bit angrier; it’s the difference between going to an Obama protest and going to an Obama protest with a poster of him dressed as witch-doctor.

As for Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC), the one who everyone’s been defending lately: he didn’t just blatantly disrespect the President in a joint session of Congress. He didn’t just state his opinion (and the opinion of many other Americans) in an inappropriate manner. He called the President a liar.

If two men walk into a department store, one black and one white, who is the salesperson most likely to follow to make sure he doesn’t steal? The black man. If two men are walking down the street in jeans and a T-shirt, one black man and one white man, which man is the one that will unconsciously be perceived as the criminal, the one who will be shied away from in passing? The black man. White people are always given the benefit of the doubt and assumed to be honest people. (No one called Bush a liar for a few years, even though by the end of his terms there was enough evidence against him for Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to impeach him, yet it’s not even a full year for Obama and people think he’s dishonest despite lack of solid evidence.) No one knows what Wilson was thinking or why he said what he did. My guess though, is that at least part of his motivation to so blatantly disrespect the President was due to the fact that he thinks black men are inherently dishonest. I’m sure many other Americans feel the same way, but of course would never admit it or even acknowledge it.

Am I “pulling the race card”? Am I being so ridiculous as to assume that subtle, unconscious racism fuels some (if not most) of today’s political debates? Why is it that I’m the one chastised and criticized for pointing out racism when I see it, when those acting racist are protected by this invisible, evil “race card”?

Fine,  maybe I can’t fully understand because I don’t experience racism first hand because I’m white (and no, I don’t think there’s such a thing as reverse-discrimination). But I do experience sexism first hand, and I have people tell me I’m just overreacting, I’m just a crazy, angry feminist who over-analyzes everything. I am thoroughly, genuinely offended by certain actions, and I’m told that my concerns are unwarranted, that I’m being an “irrational” female (and then furthering my disgust at sexism in society).

Example: I was walking down the street in Morristown the other weekend with two female friends, heading to a local bar. A man outside a coffee shop calls out to us, “Oh look, it’s Charlie’s Angels! Are you an angel?” I just say, “No,” as I walk by. He screams to our backs, “That was a fucking compliment!” Oops, my bad. How silly of me to not realize that some random man calling out to me on the street was trying to be a gentleman! I say this is sexism, I pull “the sexism card,” or “the feminist card.” I was offended. He would not have called out to me if I were a man. But because he has the authority of being a man, if he says it’s a compliment, then it is a compliment with 100% pure intentions. Just like if a white person says they didn’t act racist, then it must be true. Right?

Wrong!

My message is this: next time you’re about to accuse someone of “pulling a card,” stop for a moment and analyze your actions. Is it possible that perhaps your actions can be perceived as having discriminatory implications even if you didn’t intend to do so? Is it possible that due to social perceptions of minorities, you might act subtly racist even if you don’t realize it? It’s not a definite, but it’s a maybe.

When I first heard that the Hofstra student who was the alleged victim of gang rape recanted her accusation, I was a bit skeptical. To me, it sounded as though she was harassed and forced into saying that it was a consensual act in order to clear the four men of charges. I later learned that there was apparently a cell phone video of the event, in which she claimed she was tied up and beaten, which the video showed no evidence of.

I’m naturally still skeptical of the entire situation, but what I’m more upset at is the media portrayal of it. I read the news on a daily basis and would like to think that I keep up with major events in today’s world. However, I hadn’t heard of this case until after she recanted her accusation. Now, the media’s painting the four men as the victims. I’m not denying that they are victims, that they were wronged and they deserve justice. If this woman really did falsely accuse these men of gang rape, then she deserves to be punished and these men deserve to have their names cleared.

But that’s not the issue. The issue is that too many times these are the only stories that we hear. So many times, either through the media or through the friend of a friend, the stories we hear are the horrible women who falsely accuse men of rape, assault and harassment. These men will forever have their names tarnished, and that is a shame. I am in no way justifying the actions of women who charge false allegations against innocent men to either hide their own actions or to simply be vindictive, because it is a crime.

But what about the millions of women who actually get raped, beaten and harassed, and their perpetrators are never found nor tried? What about the millions, yes millions, of women who are true victims and are too scared to speak out, who are shamed into thinking it was their fault or that they deserved it, who are never given justice? What about the millions of rapists who go unnoticed, undetected and keep on raping, who live their lives every day knowing that they got away with something? Where’s the justice there? Why don’t we hear about those stories? Why is it that these stories exponentially outnumber the cases of false rape accusations, yet we hear so little about them unless it’s an extreme situation such as a father kidnapping and raping his daughter for 30 years?

A few months ago at home for break, my mom’s boyfriend was reading the local newspaper. A woman who worked for the county clerk accused her boss of sexual harassment and he was fired. It made front page news. My mom’s boyfriend picks up the paper, reads the headline, and the first thing he says is, “Oh my god, this woman accused her boss of harassment, how dare she, she ruined his life, all these women, ruining men’s lives over false accusations of harassment, they’re just overreacting!” It never occurred to him that maybe, just maybe, this white man was actually guilty of the crime he was being accused of. It never occurred to him that just possibly, her right to freedom from harassment at the workplace overrides his right to say and do whatever he wants simply because he’s a white male.

White men think that whatever they say goes, they make the rules, they set the standards, and anyone who disagrees is obviously out to get them. If a man says to a woman in the office, “Those pants make your butt look great!”, they think they’re giving a compliment. They think, “Well, if a woman said that to me, I’d think of it as a compliment, so therefore it must be a compliment.” I.e., “If this is what I think, anyone who disagrees with my white male view of the world is obviously a lunatic and just needs to suck it up.”

Newsflash: not everyone is a white male, and not everyone processes things the same way. If a man that I worked with said my butt looked great in a pair of pants, that would mean he was staring at my butt (which is inappropriate for the workplace), and that he felt that he had the right to comment on it. Why does he have that right? Why does he think that my body is out for display and he is free to comment on it in any way he sees fit? Some may say, “Well if you didn’t want to be complimented you shouldn’t wear such form fitting clothes, you slut, you’re asking for it.” I’m sorry, since when were baggy pants in fashion for women? Since when did a woman wear baggy pants to work and not get criticized for “not being feminine enough”? Double standard anyone?

Point is, we need to stop making women out to be the badguys. We need to stop only focusing on the few cases in which some women abuse the system set up to protect them. There are people that abuse every system; does that mean we should take away the systems altogether? E.g. Just because some people kill others with guns, should we take away the 2nd Amendment, are all gun owners bad people? Certainly not. We need to direct our focus on the women who actually are victims, the women who are assualted and raped on an hourly basis and have no voice in this world. I (and many other feminists) are not trying to paint all men as evil, or assume that every man is a rapist. We’re not trying to accuse every man of wrongdoing. We’re calling those men who aren’t rapists to stand with us and end the violence, to end the pain, and to give a voice to those women and men who are sexually abused and assaulted. Don’t let them remain silent in fear.

I’m home. I’ve been home for about 3 weeks now, but the lack of anything to do has made all of my days just meld together. Coming back was at first a bit strange, not going to lie. It’s so green here, people have front lawns instead of walls around their houses. It’s also cold. I’m used to sweating simply from sitting still. I connected in London and spent the night with a friend. It was 15 C (60 F). There was no sun, and I was downright cold! During the past 3 months I’ve felt a chill occasionally, a light breeze, etc, but the actual feeling of cold was so foreign to me. As I shivered in my sweatshirt by the bus stop, my friend walked over in a T-shirt and laughs at me.

I also noticed how much calmer everything is here. Granted, I’m in a fairly rural suburb, but people actually obey traffic laws, cars wait for each other, they stay in their lanes… what is this? I even walked all the way down Main St. and didn’t get cat called a single time. It was glorious. I’ve been so used to being on guard all the time when in public, that I forgot how nice it is to just be able to walk in peace.

The strangest thing for me so far is the fact that everyone speaks English. Not only is it a shock that everyone around me can understand me and I can understand them (unfortunately, at times), but it’s a shock that I can’t speak another language. Even simple things like “Hello” and “Thank you” must be spoken in English, even though my first instinct is to say “Aslaama,” “3ayshek,” or even “Merci.” I worked with my mom at a restaurant twice this week where everyone else who works there is Hispanic. All but one man is fluent in English. While my first reaction was to want to speak to him in a language other than English (because he can’t understand) I found myself going to Arabic first, then told myself no, I need so speak a Romance language, and would go to French. Neither of those is Spanish. I’ve just been so used to speaking those 2 languages (or at least trying to), that even 3 weeks later, and even though Spanish is my best second language, my brain doesn’t automatically switch to Spanish yet. Perhaps if I were saying more complex things, words that I only know in Spanish, then it would be different.

I’d have to say that the most frustrating part about being home is not being able to get around. I do not have a car, and there is nothing to do in town within walking distance except go to the grocery store. Even in La Marsa, a suburb, it was busy and there were many taxis, and it cost about 1 dinar to get across town. Even in the town next to mine, Morristown, which is the county seat and very happening, a taxi would cost at least $5 to get around. Hardly a regular form of transportation.

Of course I also miss the small things, like couscous, eating fish multiple times a week, fresh baked bread at every meal, the constant view of the sea, and naturally, my friends.

I’m currently job-searching within the public health field, specifically women’s health and trying to combine it with some form of advocacy and outreach. Graduate school is of course in the future, but like most college grads these days, I need to garner an income for a little while. As my hard-earned tan slowly fades and the sun periodically peaks through the Northeast clouds, my time spent in New Jersey has yet to be anything comparable to my time abroad. While I do plan to return at some point, until then at least I can say that I dreamed of Africa, and I lived the dream.