We often talk of bigotry - both racial and misogynist - in overt terms: names called in the playground or street, laws enacted to limit our freedoms, safety, dignity, histories of structured discrimination and centuries of complex and Hydra-headed narratives that enable it. And for many of us who live the daily experience of bigotry, as a woman or a person of colour, or in that double-whammy, as both, we know that we have continuous legal, political, economic, social battles to fight, and struggles that continue regardless of how long we have been fighting. But there is another sort of bigotry that many of us face, probably more frequently, one that is more insidious, damaging and soul-destroying. It is also more prevalent and harder to counter.
This sort of bigotry is not as easy to counter with intellectual debates on structures of power. Nor is it as terrifying and upsetting as slurs or shouted abuse on the streets. Or as physically harmful as hate-motivated physical violence. It is far more subtle and insidious. And perhaps because it is none of the above, it is the one we often are taught no strategies to counter.
As a young girl, I was taught about personal safety, specially in face of sexual harassment or assault. The men and women in my family were enlightened or informed enough to teach me the four key points to strike in case I were attacked. I was taught, perhaps more than most women, how to yell out, attract attention, make an escape. I was even taught how to speak up and seek support both from family and friends, and from the law. Unfortunately, the first time I faced sexual harassment, none of these lessons helped at all. You see, it wasn't a stranger on the street, with a scary mask and police record. The attempted assault came from someone we knew socially, was part of my parent's social circle, and occurred in a house inhabited by family friends. Suddenly, hitting hard or yelling to attract attention didn't seem like applicable or effective strategies. I remember removing myself from one part of the crowded room to another, running into another teenage friend who giggled nervously about 'groping hands' and feeling utterly powerless. And yet in some ways, the social groper is still an overt phenomenon, one you can fight against in a range of ways...personal and social.
But how do you cope with embedded prejudice that shows up not only in a host of ways that are not only socially acceptable but also socially sanctioned and enabled by everyone around you? For me, and for many others, there is a social ritual: we walk into a gallery, book launch, literary talk, and we smile while we are consistently and repeatedly othered, devalued, dehumanised by those who are holding forth.
Yes, rape jokes in comedy clubs are a part of this experience as are literary events where 'witty' writers are lauded and applauded for their use of language while their misogyny is enabled by that same appreciation. Subtle valuing of male opinions over female ones, especially on 'big' topics such as economics, politics, war, are part of this casual sexism. Here race gets a slightly better hand: thankfully racism disguised as wit is not nearly as acceptable these days, at least in overt ways. However, racism cloaked in more subtle forms walks the same polite spaces: what many race activists call 'white saviour complex,' is rife in the more polite parts of Western capitals as is an embedded Eurocentrism that values certain narratives, experiences, histories over others. It often manifests itself with 'amusing' personal anecdotes about travels abroad or apparently unself-conscious tales about 'foreigners' (the key to this is the implicit 'othering' with its corollary of exoticising, devaluing and dehumanising the foreigner). It shows up in academic studies including scientific ones that extend and reiterate reductionist views and stereotypes, often in guise of 'study.' It shows up in the choice of approved cultural informers, be they journalists, writers, artists, who can and do restate older dominant narratives rather than challenging or subverting them (and are rewarded for the subservience). It also shows up in virile defensiveness when the othered dares offer an opinion that is contrary to the accepted, popular one.
For the 'othered', this subtle socially sanctioned form of bigotry is much harder to counter. As a woman, I can call out misogyny in my writing, in my classes, and in public fora. Yet when faced with persistent casual sexism in social situations, I have no recourse. At a recent literary event, I sat feeling utterly repulsed not only by the speaker's casual misogyny but also by the laughter around me that enabled the speaker's continued and cherished belief that he were merely exercising his 'wit.' At the end, the only act of resistance available for me was my decision to not buy his book (even though that is usual form in this particular forum) and thus register a silent, personal and most likely unnoticed dissent. Had I called him out on his sexism, I know exactly how the conversation would have unfolded: it would start with a vehement denial of the prejudice, followed by rallying of support from surrounding similar minded people, and ended with accusations hurled at me for lacking humour or worst yet, that ultimate social poison, 'being difficult' (sometimes the order of these changes slightly or all three are simultaneously taken up).
As a woman, I know from experience that I am supposed to 'play nice' or be punished with professional, social and personal repercussions in face of such subtle, socially enabled misogyny. After all, terms like harridan, harpy, bitch have all been created for and deployed against women who are socially inconvenient. As a person of colour, I am even more aware that any attempt to point out socially embedded, accepted and enabled racism - either structural or individual - marks me as the 'angry' one, the one who cannot be 'trusted to behave appropriately in polite society' that I have been let in to as reward for 'good behaviour' (as in not challenging the prejudiced narratives and actions). The punishment for not playing nice is grim and has social, professional and personal repercussions...after all any token 'other' is easy to replace by a more amenable one!
Yet the price for living with such casual bigotry is immense. Despite the decades that have passed, I find myself seeking solace in repeated readings of Franz Fanon, if only to remind myself that the constant sense of feeling conflicted is neither a new nor solely my experience. I find myself questioning myself on a daily basis whether I am enabling the rife and casual bigotry by not taking a more active stance in challenging it. And yet, I also know that I am unwilling to pay the social, professional, personal price for a more aggressively dissident stand. On good days, I tell myself that I am working from within the beast, that every time I survive a micro-aggression, that every time I make it back to the safety of my mind and home, I am fighting the good fight. On bad days, I find myself wondering if I am a modern version of the 'house slave' (or the ayah, the collaborating Maharajah, the Macauley's elite) who help sustain the edifices of prejudice by participating in them for the lure of the dregs from the master's table. And on both sort of days, I find myself angry at the invisible privileges that ensure that I shall remain on the margins, regardless of all I work toward and/or achieve. And on all days, I am reminded consistently that there is no escape for the likes of me!