Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Elevators, Women, and Dogs

This is about the whole elevator sexual assault incident, cf. this, and this, and this, and this, and this. Yes it's quite clear that this is a major incident of some kind. Therefore, why don't I chime in with some well thought insightful interesting commentary?

Okay, first off. Richard Dawkins is being a dee-eye-see-kay. The public discourse about this encounter does not give enough information about what was said in the elevator to know if it was threatening or not. There's a real difference between
[hê(.).wʌ̄d.jùːˈla᷈ɪ̯k.tūː.gɛ̄t.sʊ̄mˈkɔ̀f.ǐ]
and 
[he᷈ː(..).wʌ̀dˈjúː.lāɪ̯k.tūː(.).gɛ̄t.sʊ̄mˈkɔ̀f.i᷅]
If you don't read IPA, imagine the first in a friendly and neutral tone, actually asking for coffee, and the second a bit more intimate, with the coffee clearly just a representation of a different question. We don't really know which of the two, or any of the other possibilities it was. We don't even know how exactly it was worded. So it is perfectly reasonable, in this case, that it may have been done 'in a bad way' and made Rebecca Watson uncomfortable. Richard Dawkins, it is not your place to question this. Rebecca Watson was uncomfortable and was perfectly within her rights in expressing this discomfort.

This fact notwithstanding, there is something very disturbing about the arguments people are offering in favour of Rebecca Watson's position. At first, I couldn't put my finger on it, but I became able to the moment I read Greg Laden's post about dogs.

Let me retell Greg Laden's story but use events, real events that happened to me. I want to stress that this actually happened. I am not saying nobody else's story happened, I just want to emphasise that this did too.

One day, after completing jury duty, I hopped on the Houston train. Using my smartphone, I plotted a course home. I had to get off at a station (Wheeler) and then get on a bus to go to another bus and then I'd be home. I was quite happy that mass-transit fare is free when serving for jury duty here. Now, when I got off at wheeler, I went to the waiting stop for the bus and began waiting.

I was the only white person there.

Now, I'm not racist. I genuinely believe that we need racial equality and open and honest discussions of race in this country. But when I found myself surrounded by African-Americans who were speaking AAVE, listening to rap music, (and yes, one was eating Fried chicken and Grape Soda) and in general, simply being there. I became nervous. I had been routed through 'the ghetto' or 'the bad part of town' or 'the wrong side of the tracks' or any number of phrases that mean 'a place with more black people than I was used to.'

I stood, nervously, the only white person I could see… and I was terrified. I was terrified of black people. "But wait!" I said to myself, "These are just fellow Americans, just like you! Just like you have always said! They are just waiting for the bus, just like you! Put that 'I'm not racist to practice!'"

So I did my best to do so. I stood and fiddled with my phone, reading blog posts and checking e-mail, acting like I was just another human being like everyone else there. I did my best to fight and face my fear and not give into it. As I waited, a man approached me. A black man. He reached out towards me.

"Here it is! You're about to become a crime statistic! He saw the phone and knows you have money on you! Somehow somebody here has guessed that you're not straight!" But I didn't become a statistic.

All I got was a simple question, "Hey man, got a smoke? I'll pay two bucks for one."

My reply was simple and civil, "Nope, sorry. I don't smoke." He smiled and said "Thanks." and asked the person next to me, bought a cigarette, stepped away politely, and lit up.

Now, according to Greg Laden, my discomfort here was 'natural'. There was a non-zero chance that this was a mugging about to happen. One can imagine the line of questioning: "Do people get what it is like for a white man to have a black man approach him randomly on the street? Do they understand that this is ALWAYS something that raises one's stress level, even if just a little?"

Well, I think we can all see that my stress here was racist. It's easier to reach that conclusion when I'm white, in the privileged class, and feeling discomfort about someone who is black, in the unprivileged class. However, even as 'food for thought' as this is, my discomfort with these arguments grows when I reached Greg Laden's semi-advice.

Greg Laden proposes, actually seriously proposes crossing the street to avoid someone who you might discomfort. Just to explain it, he does so here:

So I learned this trick. Cross the street about a block back and "pass" the lady that way. Same with a potential head-on encounter. If you see a woman walking towards you in the middle of the night on a lonely urban street, my practice in those days was to cross the street to not stress her out.
 And here:
All men. ALL men who have given sufficient consideration to women's position in our society do this walking trick. If you are a man and you do not know about this trick then there is a problem with you.
I am going to guess (just a guess!) that Greg Laden has little experience in the southern US, but this was the exact reasoning that lead to Jim Crow. Black people made white people uncomfortable, so white people required black people to cross the street and avoid them, to use separate parts of buses, to go to separate schools and live in separate parts of town and, well, it's a well known story.

Now, the situation here, obviously, is very different. In that case, white had power over black and made black do things, in this case man has power over woman and is asked to do something. But that something is so familiar as an oppression on the race side, that I cannot see it as an even remotely good idea on the gender side.

I have, instead, another proposal. The majority of men are not rapists, so instead of most men avoiding situations that might discomfort women, perhaps we should take steps to show women that it is safe to be a woman around a man. Rather than avoiding women, walk right past them. Rather than not talking to them or propositioning them, do so (when genuinely interested) in a polite and friendly way and don't get pushy or creepy when they say 'no'. This way, rather than doing as Greg Laden suggests, reinforcing the discomfort society says women should feel when they are near 'a potential rapist', us guys will help to show women that they are equal members of society and that we will respect them, their bodies, and their desires.