Tag Archives: Politeness

Talking to White Girl

“I don’t want a video of me giving a lap dance to be on some white girl’s phone,” I said. Honestly, we weren’t even friends. We would go back to our different schools on the same campus, and she would have that. Would other white students, strangers, see it? That’s just what I needed: to be sexualized by more white people. People had finally stopped expecting me to twerk on command. Enough time had passed since The White Boy Who Tried To Colonize My Vagina had demanded I send him sexual pictures of myself (and looking back, Why did he feel so justified in doing that? Had he seen a different video? Had he just assumed?). I didn’t need anything new popping up now.
“Some white girl?” the white girl repeated, clearly offended I’d mentioned her race. It’s funny. Black people know that they’re black. Hispanic people know that they’re Hispanic. Casually tell a white person that they’re white, and nine times out of ten they’re dumbfounded that you can tell races apart. “I’m a person, you know,” she said defensively, white tears already forming in her eyes. I sighed.
“Oh, I know that,” I told her. Believe me, I thought, Doesn’t no one doubt that white people are people. In fact, when speaking politically correctly, white people are the only people. You have African Americans (qualified Americans), Latinas, Asian Americans (qualified Americans)…no one else has ‘people’ next to it other than White People.
I don’t dance for white people. It’s a principle. I’m not here to entertain. If I dance for my friends, that’s one thing, but if we aren’t friends, you have no right to possess what I’ve done. Enjoy yourself in the moment, then let it go. It’s Not For You.
“Listen,” I said, trying a different approach. “There is a history of women of color being sexualized. I don’t want to add into that.”
“There’s also a history of simply women  being sexualized,” she said, and this was so exasperatingly White Feminist, I didn’t know whether to groan or laugh. I decided to do neither.
“That’s true,” I told her, “But it’s a little worse when it comes to women of color. That’s their role.” I hurried on, before we could get into a ‘black women are beautiful v. ALL women are beautiful’ situation. I also needed to ignore the fact that despite attempting solidarity with the ‘all women being sexualized’ bit, her filming me without permission and feeling entitled to keep it wasn’t exactly feminist. To point that out would derail the conversation. “Why do you think people were so upset with Miley Cyrus?” I asked, inwardly groaning that I had to bring this girl up again. “It’s not because they thought she was a slut, despite what some people were saying. (Some white feminists, I thought, but didn’t say to her. No one wanted the white tears to fall.) It’s because of the wall of women of color she had behind her, the oversexualized women of color who were only used to validate her sexuality as a white woman. This is a problem.”
“Yeah well, I deleted the video, so I don’t get what the problem is,” the white girl said. It was funny. Her head bobbed from side to side, she barely looked at me, her teeth were slightly bared, and her voice was mean. I was talking slowly, quietly, looking straight at her, my hands at my sides. Watch me do everything you’re doing right now, I thought. You’re already telling me that I’m being aggressive as I am. Is that a default? Are all black men thugs, and all black women aggressive?
“You and I just don’t get along, and I don’t see why we need to interact.”
“I agree,” I said, “But for different reasons. I still need you to try to understand why you weren’t in the right.”
“Oh, so you just understand everything, Khalilah? You just have all the answers to the situation, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t know everything.” But I understand more about the situation than you do, white girl.
“Well, if you’d just asked politely, I would have deleted it the first time. You need to be nice when you want people to do things for you.”

So here we were. This white girl was teaching me how to properly behave myself in White World, where you have to politely beg people to consider respecting your rights. Where telling someone that they have to delete something that doesn’t belong to them is the height of rudeness. Where speaking seriously is aggressive, but yelling, “Jesus Christ…you need to chill out!” is not. Where you aren’t allowed to do anything to better yourself, improve your situation, or have any sense of pride, because it either leaves white people out or makes them uncomfortable. Shutting a program down because it’s ‘reverse racist’, and refusing to listen to someone because they’re ‘aggressive’ are the new forms of oppression.
And honestly, who are we even kidding? How can we be surprised when people who have been silenced and oppressed for centuries are even slightly hostile? Do you know one of the reasons the Rwandan genocide happened? The Hutus were tired of being forced into subservience. All of the coups, all of the uprisings, they’re violent. You don’t go up to your oppressors and say, “Excuse me, but would you please give up the majority of your privileges and respect my opinions and see me as a valid person so that we may actually be equals?” It won’t work.
They say, “The Revolution will not be televised.” Some say, “The Revolution will not be on World Star.” I think it should be added on that “The Revolution will not be polite,” because it seems that people do not understand this yet. Particularly those with power.

She’d had enough, I could tell. She was about to leave, and she wouldn’t know anything.
“They tell us to respect SHOFCO youth and the people of Kenya, because we’re coming from different situations, and we don’t understand how we can be offending them,” I said. “And we do that. But we don’t practice it with each other. You and I, we come from different situations, and you won’t understand that. We go to different schools.”
“You’ve said that already,” White Girl said. Offended again, because I guess she thought I was unnecessarily emphasizing our racial differences. I put on my Educate White People Cap, and slipped into my softest, most possibly docile voice.
“When I got accepted to Wesleyan, behind my letter was a page that said, ‘We have great programs for students of color – LIKE YOU.’ That was my first label. Then, they sent us to our separate WesFest – “
“Wait, they were separated?” She was interested now. “Like, at different times?”
“No,” I said. “Well, yes. SOC WesFest was two days before, last year. Otherwise, it’s just separate events.”
“That’s fucked up,” she said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “So then, you come to campus only knowing a small amount of people, And now, I don’t know if you know this (you probably don’t) but the administration pushed SOC into five majors only: English, Psych, Soc, Economics, and AfAm. But as you may know, we only have one and a half professors left in African American Studies. It’s a failing department. That’s why we had all the protests and the march, because what they’re doing to us isn’t fair. And,” I gave a sad laugh, “It was pretty much only students of color who showed up, except for maybe three white people. No one is there for us, and in our majors we’re stuck learning about institutionalized racism, and recognizing micro-aggressions, and smaller-scale racism, but no one else knows and we’re left to deal with it. And then everyone else wants to know why ‘they only sit with each other’ and why there’s ‘self-seggregation’ as if we weren’t behaving the way the administration set us up to! Wesleyan doesn’t care about its students of color.
That’s where I’m coming from, and now here, it’s worse, because there’s no one on this trip to understand me, except maybe Roshanna. And every indication is that we aren’t supposed to be here. People only say ‘howareyou’ to us half the time on the streets.”
“But isn’t that what they call white people?”
“Yes, but we didn’t know that.”
“Ture,” she concurred.
“And besides, that doesn’t always lessen the feeling that we aren’t welcome. People who smile at you, won’t make eye contact. They put their hands out for you and withdraw them when they see us. We aren’t counted…even by SHOFCO! They only praise ‘the great work the mzungus are doing,’ and it’s as if we don’t even exist. We aren’t important.” I was almost talking angrily at this point, so I had to pause and calm down.

“So when I dance on my friend, my friend, and someone else records it, and refuses to listen to me when I tell her she needs to delete it; refuses to see me as a valid enough person to respect – “
“Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t understand,” the girl said.
“I know that you didn’t,” I told her. “I’m not trying to be condescending.”
“I didn’t know it was like that,” she said. “I wish you’d have said that before.”
“White people don’t like being told about the racial undertones of situations,” I explained. “It makes them uncomfortable.”
“Well, not me!” She said. “I want to know when I’m being racist. I don’t want to be racist at all!”
“Alright,” I told her.

I chose not to point out to her how messed up the situation was. That in order for her to listen to me, I’d had to be as nonthreatening as possible. That despite the fact that she’d wronged me, I’d had to stop and apologize multiple times throughout the story to appease her, and allow her to keep listening. That I’d had to stand below her and make sure she was comfortable before she could take me seriously, despite the fact that this was a part of my life I was talking about, and so had always been serious to me. And most annoying of all was the fact that I’d had to play educator in the first place, and that the amount of contrition she felt was directly related to how personally I wanted to let her know about my life. The situation was racially fucked. I decided to let it go, for the moment.
“I think we’ll be able to get along better, now,” said Martha.
“Yeah,” I agreed, “So do I.”

Dilemmas

Once, I was at a train stop, waiting for my train to pull up. I was sitting at one of those benches that has the arm rest for two seats, and then two seats without an arm divider. A trio came and sat down next to me. I was journaling, they were talking, and we all did a great job of peacefully ignoring each other.

Then the guy next to me started sneezing. In the middle of his conversation, and I mean sneezing. My knee-jerk reaction was to say, “bless you”, but I held myself back. What followed was a very uncomfortable inner debate.

I didn’t know this guy, and he was with people who did know him. I didn’t know their situation. He was violently sneezing, and they were continuing the conversation without acknowledging him. Was this something that was common? Was this what they did? Maybe he didn’t want anyone to say “bless you.” Maybe he subconsciously did, but wouldn’t realize it until I said it to him. Would that make him reevaluate his relationship with his friends? What if my saying “bless you” made them seem exceptionally rude, or make me seem obnoxious?

The other thing about me saying “bless you” is that it would require my breaking our unspoken agreement to ignore each other. Saying “bless you” would mean acknowledging that I could hear him, and acknowledging that I could hear him meant acknowledging that I could hear All Of Them, which would mean that I could also hear their conversation. Not like I was actually listening to their conversation. I was busy writing. They, however, would have no way of knowing this. What if my saying “bless you” would make them all so uncomfortable that they didn’t feel that they could continue to talk in front of me, and what if that would make them all resent me? I didn’t want to sit for another twenty minutes with three people who resented me.

But that thought process was so stupid and selfish! I had manners. I was not an impolite person. What if all of them were testing me, waiting to see if I was some rude person (rude person of color? No, don’t go there) ? I didn’t want to fail a test or reaffirm negative beliefs about strangers. All of this was unlikely, but the pressure not to be rude was building up inside me, matching pace with the pressure not to make them uncomfortable by talking to them.

“Bless you,” I finally said, almost under my breath, about a minute after the sneezing had already stopped. There, I thought, if he really was testing me, he’ll have heard that. It’s all good.

If you say “bless you” and the person doesn’t hear it, does the politeness count?

If you say “I love you,” and the person doesn’t know it, have you improved their self esteem?

If you think positive thoughts and send warm fuzzes to a person far away, without them being aware, will they be any happier?