March 9, 2007

Reflections on Assumptions About Race, Beauty, and Veganism

Posted in beauty, race, stereotypes, vegan at 5:09 pm by nevavegan

My Brain Exploded All Over My Computer And This Is What’s Left:
My likely offensive reflections on assumptions about race, beauty, and veganism

Sometimes everything gets all jumbled up in my head, so I can’t make any promises that this entry is going to make any sense!

Recently I had a somewhat heated debate with a fellow vegan on the topic of how much we all ought to be doing. Or to be more truthful the debate was about her assumption that I do jack and sit around sucking my thumb and contemplating my navel all the time.

Ok, I do spend a great deal of time sucking my thumb (just kidding).

The trouble with making assumptions is that they rarely inspire the other person to be better, do more, try harder. Most people have the same reaction I did, which is to jump into defense mode and start listing off everything I actually do. Which is sort of a stupid game because without a doubt I’m never going to do as much as someone who is employed in animal rights (or any other cause) full time. I only have so much time, and I spend the majority of it elsewhere. Sad truth.

This got me started in thinking about the many times in my life that I’ve been judged and how I’ve dealt with each of those situations.

Assumptions on Beauty

I look a certain way and lots of people think they can tell a lot about me by how I look. This isn’t entirely a bad thing—we all have to size other’s up often by somewhat superficial measures. We try to guess if the customer we’re talking to is in a good or bad mood and adjust our approach accordingly. If we’re talking to someone about veganism and see that her keychain has a picture of a dog, we might start trying to find a bridge between our views based on a common love of dogs. But I do think we should be open to revising those views as we get to know people better. Also, we might try to make the conclusions we draw a little kinder.

When I was younger and in school I got picked on a lot for supposedly being ugly. I don’t think I look significantly different now than I did then actually, but trends have changed somewhat for one thing, and for another kids are just mean and call anyone different from them ugly. I think when I was younger the only look that was considered acceptable was a sort of Northern European look. Blonde was always considered superior, but it was also about the facial features more than hair color. Even the non-Caucasian models I saw in magazines seemed to have narrow noses and small mouths. I got called “a frog” and much, much worse for supposedly having the hugest, puffiest, “grossest” lips on the planet. Now that larger lips are the trend, mine look pretty thin and paltry next to those of some of the popular actresses and models. My nose was also a target. People honestly would say “You must have picked your nose a lot to make your nostrils so wide” or “Were you dropped on your face as a baby to make your nose so flat?” as if nobody is born with a flatter nose and wide nostrils naturally. I spent year fantasizing of being an adult and getting surgery to “fix” my nose.

Then I realized my nose, my lips, my everything really, reflect who I am ethnically and genetically. We don’t have to all look like cookie cutters.

I bring this up, because I never thought of myself as one of the “pretty girls.” In fact, walking into a room and deciding where to sit, I’d gravitate toward the girls without much make-up on, their hair pulled back in careless pony tails, often wearing glasses and comfortable clothes. That seemed to be my crowd, the place where I’d be safe.

Later I found though that based on my appearance people made assumptions about me. Women who felt like outcasts when they were younger would make comments saying that someone who looks like I do couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to grow up chubby, grow up with thick glasses, grow up being picked on, etc. Because they weren’t able to see who I am on the inside, they felt that someone with my “lush” lips and big eyes just couldn’t get what it’s like to be judged as unattractive. Almost funny, really, except when it just isn’t.

I mean in some ways I’m just lucky when it comes to appearance. I’ve never had my hair professionally cut or styled, but I have this “birth mark” two streaks of blonde hair on either side of my face in my otherwise darker, brunette hair. People just assume I pay a lot of money to have someone do that to my hair, so even when I practice my normal “angry hair styling” (I leave my hair alone until it starts to annoy me and then I reach up and randomly chop of the bits that are bothering me) people just assume that this is all on purpose. But it cuts both ways as some people think my hair streaks make me just too hoity toity to get along with them.

When I used to do a lot of stuff for Peta, they liked to send me places where I was supposed to blend in as part of the “high fashion” crowd. I went to the fashion awards and I went to an all fur fashion show. Doing this I began to understand the concept of acting the part. I went to these things wearing shoes from Payless and dresses from the Salvation Army with my angry-hair-styling hair and walked in with my head up and the look on my face saying “I’m so much hotter than the rest of you.” I was sure someone would spot me as the plant and say “hey, your shoes are from Payless!” But nobody ever did. I wish I could go through my entire projecting that kind of confidence, but I find the effort wears me out after about 20 minutes. It did help me understand though why when I went to school with my aura of “I’m in so much pain, please don’t hurt me” I attracted so many bullies.

Assumptions on Veganism

I swear, this bit will be shorter.

When I was in college a young woman I knew asked to interview me (and a number of other vegans) for her Sociology project. She was studying vegans as self-proclaimed minority group and her thesis was (no, I’m not making this up) that most vegans are white, middle class, and have never faced any significant hardships in their lives, and so they have adopted a non-vital issue as their cause, since they’ve never experienced violence, hunger, discrimination, or other problems. I was a little annoyed, but I wanted to disprove her thesis, so I did the interview. At the end of the project she said she was shocked to discover that many vegans had been through some very traumatic events.

I used to table a lot for veganism and many people would come up and unload on me. A favorite thing seemed to be for someone to run up to the table and shout “You’re from the city, what do you know about farming? If you’d ever been on a farm you wouldn’t be spreading this b&##sh%@!” And I’d patiently start to try to describe my early rural years and most people would dash off before I could finish. They didn’t want to hear an honest answer because then they might have to adjust their stereotypes. Heaven forbid they should have to deal with something that doesn’t match the views they already hold.

Assumptions on Race

Ok, this is going to be longer, apologies all around.

To state the obvious right off the top here. I’m white. I look white, I was raised white; my skin is so pale it practically glows in the dark. There is no way I’m anything else except white.

So given this I really can’t fully understand what it’s like to be a minority and face systemic and subtle racism in this country. I can listen to my friends and try to understand their experiences. I can read articles and essays and blogs. But I still have advantages every day from just walking around in my own pale skin.

However, in the vein that nothing is ever simple or straightforward, it so happens that my entire family is not white. I have Peruvian cousins, I have ½ Korean nieces, and I have bits and pieces of non-white DNA in me despite my outward appearance.

My father has long been proud of the slight traces of Native American in his ancestry, and has also investigated the family rumors that parts of our family were part African and “passed.” My father’s facial features are like mine, full lips, the flattened nose, and the same blue eyes. But unlike me, my father has very dark skin and black straight hair. There are features we use in our culture to identify race, and mainly they seem to be eye color and hair texture, which is kind of strange.

So, my father had two vastly different assessments of his “ethnicity” by some co-workers of his, and I’ll tell the stories because I find it somewhat amusing what different views people can hold.

The first one occurred at a conference. My father was out walking when he saw a group of his co-workers, among them some of his closest friends, walking toward him. It turns out the entire group was African American, and when he asked where they were going, they replied they were just walking and talking, holding the “Black Caucus.” Then one of his good friends said “But hey, you can join us too. You can be honorary black, because we all know you’re on our side.” A woman in the group, objected, still keeping it humorous, but letting it be known that this wasn’t how she thought things should go. “No,” she said, “I’m sorry, but there’s a test to get in this group, and you can’t pass it. The test is, you’ve got to be this dark or darker to join us.” And she held out her arm next to my father’s arm. To everyone’s embarrassment, my father was significantly darker. The real factors by which everyone judged his race were his eyes and straight hair, not the color of his skin.

Then later, in his office, an African American female co-worker (newly hired, she had not been at the conference) asked him “Do you mind telling me? What’s your ethnicity?” My father answered “You know, a little of this, a little of that.” Emboldened by his response she said “I’m asking because looking at your face, with the shape of your nose and your lips, I think you’ve got to be part black, right?” My father replied “I hope so, because that’s what my family told me.” Pleased, she said “I knew it, I knew you were one of us!”

Of course on some level, all of this is irrelevant, because my father looks white enough that most white people (and even most non-white people) never question his race.

If most people never question my father’s ethnicity, nobody ever, ever questions mine. This often makes people feel free to say fairly offensive racist/culturalist things around me as if the color of my skin means I will automatically agree. Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of people I talk to never, ever say anything racist, but the ones who do are real pieces of work and it makes me ashamed of who I am in many ways. I always try to correct people and let them know that this offends me deeply of course.

On the other side, I’ve had some non-white people make some pretty big assumptions about me as well, based on my skin color. One incident that stands out for me was when a woman yelled at me for attending an event to discuss oppressed peoples around the world, as she thought white people had no business there. She told me that white people like me are to blame for everything wrong in the world and unless I’m able to admit that I’m personally responsible for the suffering of millions I have no business intruding on such events.

Of course, personally I think white people really should attend such things because too many people in the US bury their heads in the sand and ignore what’s going on all around us. But anyway, I couldn’t really respond in that situation, because I could see that this woman had a lot of anger and was looking for someone to unload it on, and I knew any response from me would just bring out more anger.

However, as she went on and talked about white people like me continue to actively oppress people and that I’ve enjoyed wealth and privilege at the expense of others, I felt torn. True, I, like nearly everyone else in the US, enjoy wealth and privilege that has truly terrible origins. The main reason I was attending the event was to learn what I could do about that. On the other hand, I wasn’t a super-wealthy girl who went to private schools, lived in a gated mansion, did beauty pageants, and never had a care in the world (if any such person really exists, because who doesn’t get a share or two of pain, or more). I really felt I’d been through some difficult things in my life, I’d encountered sexism, which isn’t exactly like racism but it might give me a window into the issues. I also felt that I wasn’t 100% white even if I appear that way, so rather than condemning me and all of my ancestors maybe she should only condemn 85% of them, and condemn me like 90% and give me a 10% benefit of the doubt. I didn’t say anything back to her, and she walked away from me with a look of happiness on her face, telling a friend that she was glad she’d told me off. Maybe she just needed to unload and that helped her settle in and learn at the conference, but aside from that I can’t think of anything accomplished in the exchange.

In a more positive interaction I’ve had some African American react with surprise, but in a positive way, when we’ve compared notes on family traditions. Some have told me that they didn’t know of any white people whose families ate chitlins or celebrated New Years with black eyed peas. Of course, I didn’t come from wealthy people—everyone who was poor in the South ate those things.

Reflecting on all of this my main feeling is that we’re just all inter-related. Not that I think anyone should have less pride in their culture, their race, or their National identity. But there’s more we have in common than not. It’s just that I have to wonder if someone were to take my blood and tell me who I’m most closely related to, would it turn out I’m more closely related to my African American neighbors than I am to the ancestry I’m most identified with, which is Irish? What if the people on my street are my real cousins, not some unidentified, possibly fictional Irish family? And then there’s extent to which that doesn’t even matter. Scientists say that all of us humans alive today have a relatively recent (recent in archeological years) common female ancestor, so even people living in isolated regions of China are cousins of some sort.

But like I said when I started this, this is just all pointless musings, since my physical appearance seems to bind me into one column, one cultural stereotype in this messed up racist country we live in.

So anyone that managed to read this far feel free to tell me I’m wrong. You can call me a privileged deluded creep if you want to actually.


February 22, 2007

I’m myself, not an example

Posted in stereotypes, survivors, violence at 2:43 pm by nevavegan

A discussion in the survivors forum got me thinking yesterday about both good and bad experiences I’ve had when sharing stories of my past with others.

I’ve done a lot of that sharing in a lot of settings, the scariest type of sharing is in my “real life” where people know my face and might run into me at the store and interact with me at work, or activities or social settings.

One of the main benefits of opening up about being the victim of abuse and violence has been that it helped me bounce my thoughts off others who’d had similar experiences. It helped me figure out patterns, make sense out of things. By turning to others I’ve found tremendous emotional support.

There have also been cases where the reaction has been less positive for a variety of reasons. I’ve suffered in the past from blurt-ism, which means that someone asks me a question that they probably don’t want a real answer to and I blurt out the whole truthful, ugly answer. And then the other person is just left there, not knowing what to do with this negative information. I’m trying to get that under control, although it’s such a weird balance. I need to understand that while I don’t need to be ashamed of things that have happened in the past, most people don’t need to know.

The sad truth is that though sometimes I can isolate myself to interacting with thoughtful, intelligent, well-read, liberal people, there is a whole different population set out there too. There are a lot of people who don’t get violence, domestic violence, abuse issues, sexual violence and so on. Such people can make very harsh judgments about the victims of violence.

For example, when I was living in New York, a young woman was raped on a subway platform in my neighborhood. Apparently a man with a gun grabbed her, showed her the gun, told her to be quiet, and dragged her to an isolated area away from the crowd and raped her. Many people I knew had a very negative reaction to this story, saying that there were so many people around, why didn’t she just run, why didn’t she scream, why didn’t she try to grab the gun away from him… Of course they were all missing the point of what absolute terror does to a human being. Similarly, at a job a co-worker remarked on a domestic violence news story “Well, apparently it’s not the first time he hurt her, so she must have liked it to stick around.” What can someone like me even say to something like that? The gap of experience and understanding seems huge and unbridgeable.

Given these prevailing attitudes in society it’s very difficult for those of us with past issues to open up, because most of us have played this game in our own heads for years. “Why didn’t I tell someone?” “Why didn’t I try to get help?” “Why did I always believe that it wouldn’t happen again?” And so on. We’re so full of the recriminations of ourselves that to get any such reaction from another person feels like it could totally crush us.

There’s a whole different weirdness that enters this tricky arena as well–an idealization that doesn’t fit and can be equally crushing. I’ve gone (in the past) to a lot of feminist groups and working groups to address violence. In such an environment there are still risks to sharing my story/stories, but there’s also encouragement to share. So many people there have been victimized themselves, so there’s typically a lot of support. And then there’s this: “You’re so brave.” “You’re so strong.” and so on. It’s nice to get compliments, but there’s a point for me where this crosses some line and makes me nervous.

How do I put this? I feel that I have experiences that inform my view on these issues. I feel that experiences that come from real life have a value and immediacy that needs to be present in a discussion on violence and related issues. However, it’s not just real life experience that shapes my views, I’ve also read a lot on these issues, I’ve gone to therapy, I’ve done some hard work. Also, I’m not necessarily right. I have no doubt that what I say and what I believe on these issues is the best view I can come up with for me at the moment, and it was not one easily reached, it’s not coming from a point of ignorance. But should new information become available, I’m totally willing to revise my views, because that’s what learning more is about. So it makes me uncomfortable if someone seems to be setting me up on a pedestal as if my experience gives me the final word.

And that pedestal doesn’t just make me the “resident expert,” a role I don’t think I can fill. It also objectifies me, because it implies that I’m nothing more than the sum of my experience. And because I’m articulate, in those settings, I hate to feel set aside as some kind of example of “the person we want to help.” This is so tricky, but the point is that all victims of violence are different. Some victims of violence are violent themselves actually, and then it is the culture of violence we need to address. Some victims of violence repeatedly put themselves in bad situations and tend to refuse help, but that doesn’t mean they’re less deserving. Some victims of violence are mentally disabled, physically disabled, elderly, or very young, or whatever other conditions limits their ability to help themselves. Some victims of violence don’t do well testifying in court because they aren’t very nice or likable people, but they still deserve help. Some victims of violence are men, and people feel they should be able to defend themselves, but they also don’t deserve to be mistreated.

But to go back to the idealization: I’m not here to necessarily save others. I want to help people, I care about people. But I’m still a person, with other interests and hobbies and my own beliefs. I have a different background and culture from some of the others present as well. I’m not a poster child. I’m not going to like every other survivor I ever meet–sometimes my personality and theirs just won’t mesh. I don’t represent someone else’s goals or illustrate their points.

I’m just me, navigating a difficult existence and trying to find answers and if an answer seems to work for me, I’ll pass it along. It has frightened me in the past, in such group settings, that the leaders often hold some foregone conclusions and then work backwards from those conclusions, looking in the group for examples. To me, I don’t think we have all the answers yet regarding either the roots of violence, the solutions to stopping violence, or on recovery either. I found that some of the accepted “wisdom” didn’t work for me and could actually be damaging or limiting to me. I’m interested in what works, not what tops the best seller list.

Another trap is the feeling that if I share too much information people judge all my ideas and actions subsequently on the basis of that information. I’m not sure what to say on that one. I don’t want to put myself in a position where people have a reason to think less of me and dismiss my ideas. But I also don’t want to hide a huge part of my experience because I’m afraid of ignorance. I have personally had some negative experiences in that regard, where people have claimed that I’m “single issue” because of my background, or that I’m so emotional on topics of violence that I can’t hold a rational view. But there’s a more insidious thing where someone can be very sympathetic, but the stereotype they hold in their mind of what a victim is, makes them underestimate my abilities and input in the future.

The stupidest part of this whole thing for me has actually been, after going through therapy, realizing there are a lot of people out there who don’t handle stress, emotions, conflict, etc. very well. In many cases this isn’t a result of abuse or some kind of traumatic injury; it’s more about growing up without ever being taught good cooperative skills for working with others. So when I consider that, it makes it seem all the ludicrous to me that someone could be thought less of for having had a troubled past, as opposed to being judged on ongoing performance. But it’s always a risk to those of us who open up to others.