“Mom? Do you think someone wearing whiteface is prejudiced?”
I’d called Jeremy from work to say goodbye before he left for school. It was an interesting question but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to answer it. Although, to be fair, neither did he.
When I got home I found out where the question was coming from. Jeremy had been listening to the radio before school and discovered the musician Nick Cannon had released a new album titled “White People Party Music”. The artist also posted a picture of himself in whiteface via Instagram.
This necessitated an explanation of blackface. Jeremy needed to know it was more than comedians simply painting their faces. I explained blackface was popular comedy at a time when black people were considered second class citizens. How joking about white people, who already are in a position of privilege, is completely different than mocking black people who most certainly weren’t.
I went on to tell him that people who are not in a position of privilege end up getting options like Black History Month and Pride Parades in an attempt to even things out. At one point on Facebook, I saw a meme that explained privilege in video game terms and I shared that with Jeremy.
“Hon, you know how when you’re playing Mario Kart and you’re in first place, you don’t get stars or rockets? That’s privilege. You don’t need something to get you ahead if you’re already in front of everyone else. That’s why there’s a Black History Month. White history is pretty much the rest of the history class.”
“Whoa, wait. You mean black history’s only for February and we get the rest of the year? That’s not right.” Jeremy stared at me indignantly while I repressed the urge to remind him I don’t set school curriculum anywhere.
“You’re right,” I agreed. “It should be equal…”
“Along with Asian history,” Jeremy interrupted.
“And Native history,” I finished. “It also bugs me when people complain there’s no straight pride parades. I’m straight but I wouldn’t want to go to one.”
Jeremy snickered. “What would that look like anyways? Men in business suits? It would be boring.”
“It would look like Tuesday,” I said dryly, surprising a giggle out of him. “Our society is pretty much straight pride.”
Two days ago I was reminded again of my own position of privilege.
I am a white middle age female. I look female and I identify as female. On top of that I look innocent and trustworthy. One memorable time I stepped into a convenience store and got asked to watch the till while the person ran to use the washroom. I’d never been in that store before yet he trusted me, on first sight, to keep an eye on his unlocked cash register.
I get called honey, dear, and sweetie all the time. By everyone. I also apparently wear two signs; one says “tell me your life story” and the other says “I offer free hugs”. Both are regular occurrences. Yes, I have had random strangers tell me they’ve had a bad day and ask for a hug. Yes, I did hug them. I actually don’t mind the conversations or the hugs.
All of this means that going by my past experiences, I can confidently step into an elevator or a bus shelter with anyone and know their reaction is going to be a smile at the very least and, at the worst, an overly detailed life story (yes, I am truly sorry about your incontinence issues). I never feel at risk for my personal safety.
I am fairly innocent but I’m not naive enough to think this is what happens with everyone. I’ve been with Emma before and heard what young men yell out their windows when she’s standing at bus stops. And I’ve walked with Jeremy before and heard what young men yell out their windows at him. And yet…
Two months ago, we had a new worker who left after a few days. That isn’t unusual, most new workers disappear after a few days as my job has a high turnover rate. What was unusual was I had absolutely no idea what gender this coworker might be. That realization was immediately followed by the reality that we have gender specific uniforms. I have no idea why but we do just the same. I introduced myself and was given a name that could be male or female, depending on spelling. I didn’t ask, I just commented on the crappy work videos and moved onto other small talk.
The following day the coworker showed up in a female uniform and with a feminine spelling on the name tag, trailing whispered comments about “the girl that looks like a boy”. I skipped any mention of gender whatsoever. Two days later the coworker walked over to me, smiling, then said with some relief, “I’ve been assigned to work with you today.” Coworker was sent to work in another section a short time later then never returned after that shift. I wondered what would have happened if someone came in, wanting to get hired, and their gender didn’t match some of their ID. I figured, knowing my managers, it probably wouldn’t go well. Their resume would end up in the garbage.
Two months ago Jeremy commented, entirely unprompted, that washrooms should be genderless. That we should have single stall washrooms in a hallway with solid doors. People would just use the first empty stall then wash their hands in public. I told him that sounded like a great idea.
Then two days ago I read the article 5 Shocking Realities of Being Transgender the Media Ignores by Amy P and was both shocked and horrified. I knew transphobia exists but had no idea how much of it was built into the legal system. The article is American but I doubt Canada’s much better. And I had no idea how bad the risk of violence was.
This is the point where I find myself pretty much speechless. I know I’m in a position of privilege and have no real idea how to make things better.