In a post following the protests in Ferguson, I talked about my friend’s rules for shopping as an African-American male. I finally began to emotionally (rather than intellectually) relate to his experience when I began mapping them onto the “rules” I have internalized as a woman and a mentally ill person.
Being a woman has, at various times, meant for me…
- Having my keys out when I leave the building to go to my car, often with them sticking through my knuckles.
- Skipping the seat on the crowded bus next to the man in the sweatshirt to go three rows back to sit with the woman with the baby. (I learned this as a teenager, being groped on public transportation to and from the library. I have never discussed with this anyone, mainly because it seemed to be such a common occurrence as to be unremarkable, which is in itself sad.)
- Don’t get drunk with men you don’t know. It used to be “don’t get drunk with men you don’t know unless you have a friend to watch your back,” but bitter experience shortened the rule.
- Never leave your drink unattended.
- Watch out for frat guys.
- Do not argue with angry men — or any male stranger — in public. I was once threatened by a man much stronger and larger than me for “disrespecting” him. The “disrespect”? Telling him not to discipline my child because I would handle it. I have had men shout at me for not doing a good enough job parking. (Although, in fairness, I am a terrible parker; the only people who ever get angry at me about it are men, though.)
- Don’t make eye contact with strangers on the street.
- In urban areas, be alert for strange guys following you after dark if there is no one else around. (I know African-American men who have complained about white women crossing the street to the other sidewalk; in my case at least it is not because they are black but because they are male.)
- Be resigned to the fact that if you go out with a man and you refuse to have sex with him if he wants it, he will call you a slut, not only to your face but to everyone he can relate the story to. (This happened to me while I was at a program for high school students at the University of Florida. Of course, I should probably have wondered why a graduate student would want to go out with a seventeen-year-old in the first place, but I was young and stupid.)
Some of these rules I learned through bitter experience, some through having them drummed in my head by well-meaning people who thought they were looking out for me. There are other rules — don’t dress provocatively, e.g. — which I never thought applied to me because I never had the urge to dress in anything that could be considered provocative.
Many of these rules applied to me as a young woman, but don’t any longer. The “don’t argue with angry men,” though… Remember the incident with the man blocking my driveway who told me I needed to “ask nicely” before he would move? My response was not to answer him directly and appropriately with “I don’t need to ask nicely; move your damned car,” but to be passive-aggressive. Even my alternate solution (sit in my driveway and call the cops on him) had someone else confronting him rather than me.
Not every woman I know follows rules like these. One friend from work, D., does whatever she damn well pleases. She is the toughest (in the nicest sense of the word) woman I know; of course, having been a Teamster and a long-haul trucker at twenty-one probably has something to do with that.
I was relieved that I did not have a daughter because, among other reasons, it would break my heart to see her living in a world where she has to follow “rules” like that, knowing it would be difficult to teach her otherwise. Teaching boys to treat women as they should seems like the easier task.
There are the “rules” you have to watch out for as a mentally ill person:
- Be careful about talking to yourself in public. While there are a lot of neurotypical people who talk to themselves, it is often, or used to be, at least, considered a sign of “being crazy.” (All of this has changed, of course, with the advent of Bluetooth: mutter to yourself and people just assume you are on the phone.) People actually ask each other on the Internet “I talk to myself, does that mean I’m crazy?”
- Be careful about how you show anger. One experience that many bipolar people I know have had is to express anger in an appropriately strong manner, only to be asked “You seem angry — have you taken your meds today?” (Or “are you manic?”) A few nights ago, I got angry with my sons for not doing a task which I had repeatedly asked them to do. I was not yelling, but I was speaking strongly in upset tones. The rest of my family looked at me askance because I was clearly angry.
- Prepare yourself to hear people misuse psychiatric diagnoses in casual conversation: “That situation was just schizophrenic;” “I was really bipolar this week.” Question whether or not to call them on their ableism, and decide it probably isn’t worth it.
- Listen patiently to the stories that many of your non-mentally ill friends have to share with you about other people they know who are just horrible because they are mentally ill. Pro-tip: being mentally ill is not a “get out of jail free” card — if someone repeatedly acts awful, they may just be an awful person. There are mentally ill people who are dicks, just like in any other segment of the population. Another pro-tip: the answer to the question “Why wouldn’t X take meds?” is “The meds often suck, that’s why.” So don’t ask.
- Be resigned to the fact that there are going to be people who are afraid of you. This is more of an issue for mentally ill men, for whom it can occasionally become a life-threatening problem: cops do not always know how to deal with them. I am not immune to being afraid myself: a man came into the Starbucks where I was web-surfing yesterday, and loudly asked several women, myself included, if we had been born after 1962, and if so, would we be his roommate? He was wild-eyed and disheveled. The woman next to me looked actively scared, and I had to remind myself that he was unlikely to actually be dangerous. I thought of answering that I was too old for his criteria; instead, I just smiled at him and shook my head. The manager asked him to leave shortly thereafter, and he did so docilely, presumably on his quest to find a new roommate. I do feel a little guilty, not because I was momentarily afraid, but because I did not ask him if I could help him.
- Weigh whether being honest about yourself trumps the probability that some people will abandon you, or at the very least change how they interact with you. I decided that it does, but it took me decades to come to that conclusion, and I frequently second-guess myself.
I am not saying by all of this that what I deal with is worse than anyone else. Quite frankly, with the challenges I face, I would much rather have them than what young African-American men have to contend with.* I am unlikely to be thrown out of stores or shot by cops in part because I was young and black. (And that is not to even get into the prison-industrial complex, which is another post I keep meaning to write.) Nor would I want to have to worry about the things that transpeople are understandably afraid of.
Power does not exist only along one axis: it is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. Intersectionality matters: we need to understand how America is skewed against all people who are not “normal” — with normal being defined as white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and abled. We need to understand the role class plays in the dynamics of power as well: one of the most effective stratagems used against poor whites is to convince them that the enemy is minorities, or women, or the labor movement, rather than a system which massively privileges the wealthy. (Organized labor is an effective tool to protect the working class; the extent to which it has been undermined during the past few decades has made “the American Dream” a pipe-dream.) We are allies: I have to support the fight against the treatment of my African-American male friends as strongly as I want them to help change the world for me. I need to respect picket lines, and speak out against homophobia, while at the same time realizing it’s not all about me.
We need to kill all the heads of the hydra.
*I understand that race is not merely a black-white issue: Latinos and Asians face their own brands of racism. Geography changes things as well: the experience of a Mexican-American in southern Arizona is going to be different than that of a Cuban-American in Miami.