I was recently in a conversation about the ever-growing string of instances in which white police officers used lethal force against black citizens, usually when it appeared to make little sense in the context of the situation. It seems as if almost every week another story pops up with the same tragic outcome, just different names of the people involved. In this particular conversation, the other (also white) person claimed that while she thought all the incidents were tragic and avoidable, there is also an undercurrent of "over sensitivity" when it comes to the way black Americans perceive the actions of others. She said, "I just think there are plenty of instances when what takes place doesn't happen because of the race of the people involved, but that's the immediate conclusion a lot of black Americans will jump to."
And to be perfectly honest, I don't think this is an uncommon perspective among a lot of white Americans -- no matter how liberal or open-minded they appear (or at least want to appear). I think there was a time when I also would have taken to this line of thinking, the "not everything is about race" perspective. But the older I've gotten, and specifically the more time I've had to reflect on being a woman in our culture, the more and more outrageous I find the "over sensitive" argument. Let me try to explain:
When I walk outside, the world perceives and categorizes me as a woman, and whether I like it or not, this affects the way I experience the world. And there are certain experiences that come along with this to which I think only other women can fully relate. Some of these experiences include, but are not limited to:
-Getting cat-called by strangers
-Feeling your heart pound in your chest as you walk home at night, thinking of all the ways you could defend yourself if attacked by a potential rapist
-Feeling mortified as you pretend you can't hear the lewd sexual comments from a man on the subway, when you're really just waiting until the next stop so you can bolt out the doors and get on the next car
-Sensing the boys club at work. There is no technical proof of this on paper, no "Official meeting of the boys club" memos you can physically hold in your hand, but you can tell. You can tell for no other reason than you're an intelligent, socially aware person.
I could go on, but for the sake of time, I'll leave it at that. I have even experienced blatant (although admittedly, non-threatening) sexism when my boyfriend has been standing right next to me. There have been multiple times when we have been in line for coffee or breakfast holding hands, and when I get to the counter and say, "I'll pay for mine separately" the male clerk looks from me, to my boyfriend, to our interlocked hands and laughs. One guy once even looked directly at my boyfriend, shaking his head, and said, "Are you serious?"
Rudeness aside (way to make a paying customer not want to come back), when I would rehash these often subtle moments with my boyfriend, he had either missed them entirely, or if he had noticed, had taken away an entirely different meaning. "He probably just didn't want to have to put two different charges on the credit card machine" he said (I was paying in cash by the way). I was told I was being overly sensitive, or just "trying to find discrimination" (yes, because that's where my head is at 8am on a Tuesday morning when I just want a cup of coffee).
But the thing is, I know I'm not crazy or just being sensitive, because when you talk to other women -- people you know to be normal, rational people -- they can not only relate, but all too often supply you with their own grotesque treasure trove of stories. Times when they feared for their safety, when they pretended to be on the phone just so someone would leave them alone on the street at night, when they had 911 on speed dial because something was just not right with the way their cab driver was looking at them in the rearview mirror.
As women, these are all things you can feel in your gut, even when it may be incredibly hard to "prove" concretely. The best we as women can hope for is that we are not dismissed by men when we claim to feel unsafe or discriminated against, or just plain weirded out. That they trust our judgment as intelligent, sane people to know when, for lack of a better way to say it, something is up. Just as they know when someone is rude to them at a bar, or when a friend is acting strange.
And it is because of this that I just can't get behind dismissing a whole entire group of people's shared experience as "over-sensitivity." Just because I don't see it day-to-day or have not experienced it first hand doesn't mean it's not very real. And I'm sure every person -- no matter what group or groups they identify as (or maybe more importantly, are identified as by others) can relate. Maybe it's even just being a bald man, or overweight, or speaking with an accent. There are surely ways that you have experienced the world treating you a certain way, and others may not be tuned into it simply because it is not happening to them.
So the next time you want to roll your eyes because you think someone is being overly-sensitive when discussing race-relations, perhaps take a moment to consider the possibility that you're just not being sensitive enough.
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