Sunday, August 13, 2017

An Awokening

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Why Aim for Greater Cultural Intelligence?

A series of experiences come to mind because I’ve read two articles today that make me uncomfortable -- my brilliant, openly queer friend Li Sian Goh’s essay and openly gay NYT columnist Frank Bruni’s op-ed:

An adorable Asian young man and I are talking with other lovely, mostly Asian people at the 31st birthday party of MJ Yap, my colleague and friend, several weeks ago. He tells me that he’s from Bhutan. He’s got the same complexion as many South Asian people I’ve met from India. He says, “They call me Baby. That’s my nickname.”

“There’s an amazing lesbian novel called Babyji that I loved – about a lesbian in India, who –“

“I’m not from –“

“I know you’re from Bhutan, not India, but in India, adding 'ji' to a name is an endearment –”

He doesn’t care, his expression tells me, he’s not lesbian and he’s not from India. Get me out of here, I’m thinking. I’m just trying to affiliate with this otherwise sweet guy and I’ve made a faux pas and want to disappear.

Earlier in the evening, I’m feeling awkward around three attractive Asian-American women and blurt nonsensically, “Do you ever feel invisible from an attraction standpoint because the older I get, the more invisible I feel.” One of them dignifies my comment with an answer, “No, but I do routinely have to deal with people cutting ahead of me in lines as if I’m not there. I think they think I won’t say anything.”

Which is better? For me to have avoided going to a birthday party, where I’m one of the only non-Asian and older people there or to go and make at least a couple of potentially alienating remarks? Li Sian has gently helped me see that this is not where my focus needs to be. Rather, it needs to be simply on apologizing for my microaggressions. I'll apologize here and then will also do so individually. I'm sorry for my cluelessness and will work on becoming less so.

Or what about the recent event that included a screening of “Moonlight” and a panel on the intersectionality of diversity and sexual orientation? Does it help or hurt for my gay white friend who is with me to hear one of the panelists, Andi, say that he could never call himself gay and chooses queer instead because gay is “a white men’s” term? (Scroll down for more discussion on this.)

Or how about when a friend who is visibly differently abled posts her despondency at being made fun of by strangers while walking down the street recently? And then clarifies for those of us who write outraged responses, saying that she isn’t looking for pity, just had needed to post about the indignity.

Or the heterosexual Indian friend who posts a 1995 photo of himself the other day with the caption that it was the day he was going to kill himself, but then didn’t? And then explains to friends who comment at how they wish they had known of his unhappiness and how glad they are that he is not dead, saying that he has deleted the original post because it was going in the wrong direction – that he was only trying to point out that things can be bad and then they can improve.

Or the sincere people who ask about Pat & me, “Who’s the husband?” And how I answer graciously and factually, “No one. We’re both women, so both of us are wives.”

Or the colleague when I worked in Schaumburg, Illinois, who wanted to know how I could have blue eyes since I’m Jewish? And who was thrilled when I gave her the ham I won in the company’s free, random Thanksgiving lottery? (I was not the only non-pork-eating employee there. Just ask my colleague Farooq.)

Frank Bruni’s is first, during my breakfast omelet, which Pat has made with love. The op-ed begins snidely, and even though I can tell that it is coming from hurt feelings, I can hardly stand to keep going: 

“I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice.” Of course, he’s upset. No one likes to feel excluded or silenced or that his or her opinion doesn’t matter. That same white, gay friend who came to the “Moonlight” event has explained to me similarly over the years: I’ve never known from white male privilege because since boyhood, I was routinely beaten up and made fun of and did not feel part of that club. Yet Andi's experience is no less Andi's experience.
I’ve written about this before: I learned what “inclusion” meant when co-facilitator Steve Basile invited me to the United Auto Workers’ Diversity Conference in the late-90s; our topic covered how to be inclusive of gay and lesbian colleagues at work.

The first night, I went to the opening reception and even after Steve arrived, I was among the only non-Black people in the cavernous hall. I said to myself then, I know what the definition of Diversity is: Environments / teams / places qualify as diverse, as long as I’m included, whoever “I” is in that statement. (Ironically, in the late-90s, LGBT seminars, including ours, unfortunately, did not routinely include education on bi and trans people.)

Li Sian’s essay also is difficult for me to read. Li Sian is writing about the racism of the novel, Jane Eyre.  Somehow, I wasn’t required to read it in high school and I’ve never done so. The essay is difficult because it also challenges privileged people who feel proud of reading books by authors from the margins, and by extension, for feeling pleased whenever they make an effort to stretch themselves beyond their social cocoon.

As a relatively well-educated, employed and solvent American-Jewish lesbian, I am more and less privileged than others. I want to be proud of the times I extend myself to gain some cultural intelligence because if I can’t celebrate my bravery and encourage myself to keep extending myself, then I just want to burrow in and stick with apparently my own people exclusively. That's my experience, and Li Sian's is hers, just as Andi's is his, and the Bhutanian's is his, and the Asian woman's from the party is hers, and my differently abled friend's is hers, and my heterosexual, Indian friend's is his, and Frank Bruni's is his, and my white gay friend's is his, and my Muslim colleague Farooq's is his and Pat & mine is ours.

After reading these articles today, I’m on high alert:

I turn to the last page of “The New York Times”, where I am annoyed by the headline and story, “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism”. Why Non-Lesbian Women Had Better Sex … is what the reporter means, I confirm by reading the article. More lesbian invisibility. Get me out of here – this is the phrase that springs to mind whether I’ve embarrassed myself through my own cultural ignorance or someone has irked me with his or hers.

What would “getting out of here” achieve, though? I prefer to transform indignities into art, whereas escaping just allows me to escape the particular situation, but the unhappy feelings come with me. Getting out of here does not foster art or connection with people. Acknowledging their experience, and my own, does.

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