It's not pie.
Last week, I was out and about with one of my homies in Berlin, and we were discussing the current state of American culture wars around gender and sexuality. As always with me and my peeps, we both brought up times in our lives that we’d experienced this harshly rigid, reactionary expectation of how we were to express ourselves, based on our gender presentation or our public sexuality. Tobias pondered out loud, “What is so threatening about any of this? Why are they so inflexible?”
I blurted out, “Because they’ve never had to be flexible.”
Let me first explain who I mean by “they:” YOU.
Just kidding. But maybe you!
Generally speaking, I’m thinking about people with mainstream, culturally-dominant identities: white people, cis people, heterosexual folks, people considered able-bodied, and the like. Your basic spectrum of privilege. And of course things get more complicated when you enjoy some privilege in one arena, but are marginalized in others— a queer Black man is going to move through the world differently than a nonbinary white person with a disability. For the purposes of this exploration, I’m going to boil things down to oversimplified examples, and blame everything on cishet white men. Har har. But yes, I’m going to use this dominant identity as my foil for the argument.
Those of us who aren’t cishet white men have to move through the world in extremely aware, extremely careful ways. We are constantly, either subtly or overtly, aware that our fundamental safety and well-being are on the line— whether that’s walking down the street, or making it through the day at work. In every moment of tension we experience, we’re doing a mental calculus of how much we’re going to risk versus how much we’re going to protect ourselves. An example: street harassment. When a dude catcalls a woman, that woman has to calculate her reaction based on a million factors: Does she know him? Does she see him regularly? What’s going on around her? If she reacts negatively, is he likely to escalate? If she ignores him, is he also likely to escalate? Is there somewhere safe nearby to go if he does escalate? What about her own anger or shame? Where does that come in? And on and on.
That’s a large and looming example, but it plays out in small and medium-sized ways, too. When you disagree with a coworker, is your disagreement viewed through a lens of “bitchiness” (women, queer folks, etc) or “aggression” (Black people and people of color generally)? These are all the things we’re constantly navigating, and my hypothesis is that this constant, exhausting calculation also gives us a gift of flexibility and maneuverability that both ensures our survival and gives us a degree of emotional intelligence that cishet white men don’t have. Because they don’t have to.
Moving through the world with the default identity doesn’t mean you don’t experience challenges, it just means that you’re moving through the world with lower difficulty settings than others. And I’m suggesting that makes those people more inflexible, because they don’t have the layers and layers of negotiating and navigating that we do. Our burden as people with marginalizing factors is also our superpower: we can be open to unexpected and new circumstances, because we have to be.
So when extremists suggest that a cishet white man’s identity is under attack, is somehow “not allowed” anymore, is to “blame,” and thus society needs to push back and reinforce the existing dominant hierarchy, we’re looking at the rigidity and fear of inexperience. I mean, first of all, inclusivity and human rights are not pie. My identity being welcomed into the fold of society does not mean your identity gets less. We’re setting more places at the table and making the table bigger, not kicking people out of the table to make room for new folks.
People who don’t want the table to get bigger, and who don’t have the life experience to have to navigate emotionally fraught situations where they might, in fact, act in the “wrong” way, or do things that hurt others, basically turn into toddlers. “NO! THIS IS MY TABLE!” they cry, having never had to share identity space before, and not having developed that part of their brains.
This toddler-freakout is part of what we’re seeing with the huge attack on trans people right now in the US, stoked and funded by power-hungry corporatist conservatives who know they can use cultural difference as a cudgel to distract everyday people from the fact that they have been abandoned by the American political system, that they’ve been sold the lies of capitalism’s “work will set you free,” and so much more.
In Buddhism, there’s a lot of talk about the tender heart, to learn to approach challenges in life with softness and curiosity. This sounds pretty hippie-dippy on its face for most of us, amirite? “Oh sure, I get punched in the face and I’m supposed to be all soft and curious about it?!” No, my friends, that’s like, a level 1000+ Buddhist who does that. And they only got to level 1000+ in the great role-playing game of life because they practiced having the courage to be open to life at times where the stakes weren’t so high— i.e., someone poked fun at something they loved, and they looked at their own hurt feelings with tenderness instead of slapping the crap out of that person.
This is the difference, ultimately, in how we choose to go forward. Whether we choose rigidity, hardness and ultimately, brittleness, or if we choose tenderness (starting with ourselves!), adaptability and the courage that goes with them. Courage is not a synonym for dominance and aggression. Vulnerability is not a synonym for weakness, though people often use it that way. We can choose whether we shatter, personally and culturally, or if we embrace the turbulent road of cohesion and commonality.
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