KUOW: “‘Is There a Problem?’ That Scary Brown Man and White Privilege”

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Awhile back, I published a response to the #YesAllWomen movement. I just went back and re-read it, and this line jumped out at me:

So what can men do? […] They can interact with women more mindfully, especially in risky situations like at night and in enclosed spaces. […] I’ve heard from other men who used to feel a little hurt when they saw solo women eyeing them suspiciously or crossing the street to avoid them. Now that they’ve caught a glimpse of the degree of caution we’ve been raised to cultivate, they’re more understanding of these actions.

Then I found this article on KUOW: “‘Is There a Problem?’ That Scary Brown Man and White Privilege.” While I’m still all for men interacting mindfully with women, Gyasi Ross’s story is a gutwrenching example of how often authority figures assume that in any tense situation, it’s the man of color who’s at fault: “A huge Native guy in camouflage was arguing with a clean-cut white couple (and a white captain). Three guesses who started that one. That’s privilege.”

In case you don’t have time to read the article, the confrontation was started by the white woman — the type of move that Jessica Valenti addressed in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal: “Yes, all white women — all of us — are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism.”

I hadn’t really considered either Ross’s or Valenti’s points when I wrote my response, but they’re right — race plays a part in my snap judgments about who I consider “safe” to walk past on a dark street. It isn’t my only consideration, but it is a consideration. And as Gyasi Ross points out, that’s a problem, not least because skinny unarmed girls aren’t the only ones using race as a metric for threat assessment.

By his own admission, Ross got off easy. But what about the people who haven’t? Later in my article, I said this (emphasis added):

Men, again, we love you. We’re not asking you to wear only pastels, or walk around with your hands up, or get a women’s studies degree.

That was published on May 29, 2014. Michael Brown was still alive at that point. So were Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and Rumain Brisbon, and Akai Gurley, and Kajieme Powell, and Ezell Ford, and Dante Parker, and John Crawford III. Within seven months, all of them would be victims of tragic snap judgments.

Early in his story, Ross said: “I knew the drill — I’ve been trained since I was a kid: ‘You’re a big brown guy — don’t be too scary. Don’t be too big. Don’t be too brown.’ We’re taught these things for our own safety and to get along.”

At this point I wanted to jump on a bus and find him and give him a big hug. Because as I discussed in my post, we women know the drill. We’ve been trained since we were kids: “Don’t show too much skin. Don’t walk provocatively. Don’t travel alone.” Women of color have additional “rules” they’ve been taught. Transgender people have others. Like Ross, we’ve been taught these things for our own safety, and no matter how effective they are at keeping us safe, it still stings that we have to compensate for other people’s assumptions and prejudices.

(And speaking as a straight cis white middle-class able-bodied young person, my knowledge of prejudice is limited to what I experience as quite a sheltered female — in short, not much.)

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My knowledge of oppression: an analogy.

So for my original question (“What can men do?”), my answer hasn’t changed. But to pose a new question to this matter of race and class and tragic snap judgments, “What can we all do?”

I’m still trying to find the answer, myself. But for starters, I recommend Franchesca Ramsey’s video “5 Tips for Being an Ally.”

If you could forget about one of the “rules” you’ve been given for your demographic, what would it be?

What are your must-read/must-watch resources for people who want to be better allies?

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Image credit: Shadow from PublicDomainPictures, flea from WikiImages on Pixabay.

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