“The First Thing You Do”: On Engaging With Difference

By | September 25, 2008

I’m not a big poetry person. Well, not anymore. I am reluctant to admit that my life and my daily focus have shifted sufficiently that I have a difficult time appreciating poetry in the way that I did in my late teens and early twenties. I don’t notice things like I used to back then; for example, this time of year I tend to be utterly unaware of the changing foliage until well past the color’s peak – in a few weeks I’ll be driving and I’ll suddenly realize all the leaves have changed at once, and I’ll be baffled that I didn’t see it happening before now. I am too distracted, it seems.

The point being that I am not one who is easily moved by poetry, with its high regard for small details and nuance. But back when I was a grad student, taking one of my first courses on race, we read a poem by Pat Parker entitled “For The White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend“, and the first two lines go like this:

The first thing you do is to forget that i’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that i’m Black.

Those words, for whatever reason, have stuck like a burr in my brain for many years subsequent, and have probably done me more good than the multitude of graduate-level coursework and academic readings I did on the subject both before and after hearing them. They make a seemingly impossible suggestion: that white folks must be aware of the fact that the experiences and cultures of people of color are different, but they must not fixate on those differences to the extent that the behavior becomes tokenizing, or discomforting, or – possibly worst of all – self-aggrandizing.

Those words have stuck with me also because they are so viscerally true of so many oppressed groups. I say this knowing I’m at risk of sounding like I am conflating racism with other forms of oppression – but that is not what I am proposing here. I am saying that this requirement of both remembering and forgetting is one that works in many situations, for those of us interested in showing respect and support to people whose positions or experiences we may not personally share. I am saying that when I am interacting people with identities that are not culturally normative, or culturally acceptable, and identities that I can’t claim, I can remember these lines as a guide.

If, for example, I am engaging with a friend who is disabled, when I am not myself disabled, and I feel all adrift as to how I should address situations that may be potentially problematic for a person with a disability, I will think to myself, as if my friend is speaking to me: “The first thing you do is to forget that I’m disabled. Second, you must never forget that I’m disabled.” It doesn’t provide an answer, no. But it gives me a framework, or at least a touchstone, from which I can begin; some firm ground on which I can stand while still leaving fair room for said friend to do her thing as she needs or prefers to do it. It reminds me to listen at least as much as I talk. Pat Parker’s poem really touches on the work of being friends with someone whose experience or abilities are unfamiliar, while at the same time noting that the work shouldn’t be made harder than it needs to be.

This poem also speaks indirectly to the concept of “colorblindness” – the idea common amongst many white folks that by claiming not to “see” race, they are therefore absolved from benefiting from or participating in institutionalized racism, no matter how conscious or unwitting that benefit and participation may be. Of course, the reality is that anyone who is physically capable of seeing race does see race. You can’t turn off culture inside your head just because there’s a person of color in front of you. What the idea of “colorblindness” is really meant to represent is that folks who claim “colorblindness” are claiming to be able to interact with a person of color without any preconceived notions, stereotypes, presumptions, expectations, or suspicions about said person based on their race, even the most persistent, involuntary, or unwelcome preconceived notions, etc., that those of us with aspirations toward living anti-racist lives still fight in our own heads on an almost-daily basis. Basically, “colorblindness” makes the case that it is possible for some folks to exist outside of the dominant, relentless, brain-hammering culture in which the rest of us live – the culture that both subtly and overtly reinforces racist stereotypes in everything from soft drink ads to textbooks. Colorblind folks have found a way out! They don’t cotton to that trash anymore. Somehow, the culture on which our whole damn world is built doesn’t affect them.

How in sweet fuck is that even possible? Short of being raised by wolves, or born with a brain wrapped in permanent tinfoil hat, how is it possible for anyone to escape culture? It’s not, unfortunately, something that can be done through sheer force of will. If it were, wouldn’t those of us who write and speak out as fat activists be totally free of the lingering effects of cultural fat hatred? Wouldn’t we not even need to watch our Sanity Points when entering the fray, because man, that stuff doesn’t even enter our consciousness. We’re above it; we’re outside it. We’re Teflon to fatphobic remarks; nothing gets to us, nothing sticks.

Inside my head, I’ve often changed the lines of Pat Parker’s poem yet again, to reflect one of my own positions: “The first thing you do is to forget that I’m fat. Second, you must never forget that I’m fat.” In other words: don’t assume I can’t climb the stairs; ask if you’re concerned. Think before asking for a booth or a table at a restaurant. Don’t try to protect me from your fatphobia by saying “Oh, but I wasn’t talking about you,” or “But you’re not [that] fat,” – I’m going to figure it out. Realize that my being fat is an important thing that affects my life in lots of ways, but it’s not the most important thing, nor is it the only thing I want to talk about.

And so on.

I don’t want people to be “fatblind”, because my fatness affects me and needs to be considered. I don’t want people not to see my fatness (or to pretend not to see my fatness), but I don’t want them to see only my fatness either. This expectation is paradoxical and insufferable and difficult but it’s also extraordinarily true. And when I’m trying to negotiate the tricky waters of intersectional politics, I use this feeling, this constant striving toward balance, to try to be both respectful and supportive of those with identities and experiences different from my own, even when I can’t directly relate to them. By doing so I’m both modeling the respect with which I’d like to be treated, as well as simply doing the right thing by being Not An Asshole to people who are different from me, as much as possible, even knowing that sometimes I am going to be an asshole no matter what. The real work of negotiating difference – both mine and yours – is half in an eagerness to do the right thing, and half in a willingness to look like an idiot by doing something wrong, but learning for the experience. As Parker sums it up:

In other words-if you really want to be my friend-don’t
make a labor of it. I’m lazy. Remember.

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