One day last summer, I took the subway across town to meet friends for dinner. When the train arrived at a particularly busy stop, a group of black teenage girls got on together, all a bit giggly and self-conscious. When we were moving again, one of the girls addressed the train at large: "Hello everyone! We're from the youth group at such-and-such church of downtown Toronto. We believe that singing brings us closer to God, and we'd like to sing for you today. Would that be all right?" Most of us on the train applauded enthusiastically. I took my earbuds out and even moved seats to get a better view of what was about to unfold. Then they began to sing. I wish I had a camera. Because they were TERRIBLE!
I'm no singer, but objectively, these girls were not prepared. They were off-key and off-rhythm and many of them forgot the words and collapsed into giggles. They tried several different songs and couldn't finish any of them. As I say, I wish I had a camera because something about it was like a clever sketch. A candid-camera style scenario that made us all look like fools. Because the girls' singing group wasn't the butt of the joke, the joke was on the rest of us. We were the chumps who saw a giggling group of teenage girls, got SUPER-excited when they told us they were going to sing, then stared in disbelief when it all fell apart. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I know my initial enthusiasm stemmed solely from the fact that the girls were black. "Black singers from a church?!" I thought. "Hallelujah!" What makes it worse is the fact that a really similar scenario played out about a month ago. A group of white kids got on the subway with me after a Jays game or something and they all sang that K'naan song "Wavin' Flag" and I turned my iPod up as loud as it would go and scowled until my stop. Because white kids? Fuck that shit.
I can't remember who it was, but somebody introduced me to the following conversational ice-breaker: If someone were to spot you from across the street, what do you think the first thought that popped into their head would be? I suppose it's a Rorschach test of one's own self-awareness. A tall friend of mine said she bets people would think, "That's a really tall girl." A small-framed friend with large breasts said, "They probably notice my chest first." A bald guy pointed to his head and said, "Y'know...this." Jon says people probably can tell that he's queer. But, unless I'm totally missing something obvious about my appearance or demeanour, I don't know what my own answer is.
I think part of white, male privilege, if not the very essence of it, is the idea that white men like me can be considered nondescript. What I mean is, if you and I had a mutual friend and you were trying to get them to remember me, you wouldn't say, "Oh you know James! The white guy!" But you know who gets a version of that all the time? African Canadian guys. Korean women. First Nations teenagers. And almost never in those politically correct terms. This is a sensitive issue, obviously, and I don't want to be perceived as making light of it. But I'm intrigued by the idea that, as a white male, I'm a kind of blank slate. I wonder what I'm missing by not having an immediate descriptor.
Dream: Don several disguises and see what different impressions I make on people.
Goal: Achievable. People forget this, but I am a fantastic actor. One time, I played a King and my line was "Not a penny!" A dear classmate of mine was doing a scene from Shaw's Saint Joan as her final performance piece, and while the piece was by necessity mostly monologue, a few lines of dialogue had to be spoken to contextualize the scene better. Joan has a dramatic argument with the Archbishop, who says, "The army will disown you, and will not rescue you. And His Majesty the King has told you that the throne has not the means of ransoming you." And then I say, "Not a penny!" That's literally ALL I had to do, and I couldn't do it. Maybe it was because it was my only line in a really long scene where I otherwise just sat on a box pretending it was a throne. Maybe it was because, as was often the case when I was in a scene with somebody, I'd get so invested in my partner's good work that I'd forget about my own and just sit there with my mouth open. But every time I delivered the line, "Not a penny!" I would laugh, then the Archbishop would laugh in turn, then Joan. I ruined the scene and was cut from the performance. But one time I was chosen to be the alarm voice in a library which says, "Apparently your materials are setting off the alarm. Please return to the circulation desk." My point is, people forget this, but I am a fantastic actor. And with a little makeup, costumes, necessary padding, and prosthetics, I could be just about anybody.
Plan: Don the necessary disguises and see what it's really like to be...
A fat person. What must that be like? I lovingly carry my pizza gut with me everywhere, but a big sweater or bulky hoodie easily hides it from prying eyes. I don't actually know what it's like to be physically fat, but I would imagine it's terrible. People make all kinds of assumptions about your health, your diet, and your activities. They think that you're lazy, or gluttonous, when perhaps neither is true. They judge your character based on your carriage. I really wonder how, in my generation and those subsequent, attitudes will change toward overweight people. On one hand, obesity rates per capita, particularly in children, are increasing. That can't be healthy. But on the other hand, maybe we should leave other people's bodies the fuck alone, y'know? Judgement doesn't help anyone slim down. An overweight friend of mine doesn't talk about his size a lot, but did say to me one time, "People always act like I don't know that I'm fat. They always bring it up. Like I don't know this body I live in." He didn't elaborate, but I took his point, and it's pretty heartbreaking.
A pregnant woman. I'm not suggesting this is the same as being a fat person, but there is still a bizarre emphasis from total strangers about your body. I have a friend about six months into her first pregnancy and she said, "It's pretty great, with the exception of people suddenly thinking that it is acceptable to call me fat. That can be a little hurtful." I'm sure! Plus, people always want to touch a pregnant woman's belly. Why is that okay? People will say, "Oh well I just want to feel the baby!" But why is THAT okay? You don't run up to a woman carrying her newborn in her arms and just paw at the baby. "I JUST WANNA FEEL IT!" Also, I'm sure people make constant assumptions about what you should be doing at all times. "Shouldn't you be sitting down? Are you sure you should be sitting so much?" Ugh.
A bearded guy with shorts. Why do men grow beards? Are their chins cold? It just adds weird facebulk. You know who looks good with a beard? Treat Williams. Santa. End of list. And SHORTS! I want to make this perfectly clear for the millionth time: About one percent of the population has the coordinating legs and height that make shorts acceptable. One percent. Gather one hundred of your closest friends. Elect one of those friends to wear shorts. They can wear shorts. YOU CAN'T! Am I being unreasonable because my legs look like uncooked Vienna sausages covered in tiny hairs and so I can't wear shorts? Yeah, maybe.
Horny, ugly teenage couple. I'm not into public displays of affection in any way. I hug furtively at airports, glancing around, paranoid that someone witnessed me express physical love. But I reserve a special corner of my brain to wonder about the ugly teenage couple you occasionally see making out hardcore on a bus. Say what you will about appearances, but that couple enjoys an unselfconscious joy that I will never, ever know! I just want to experience that for, like, an hour.
A different race. Racism is a huge problem in this country, but it's one that white people get to dissect from a distance. I will never know what it's like to be racially discriminated against, but I wish I knew enough about race in our culture to be truly, deeply sensitive to it in a meaningful way, not just to pay the problem lip service. I think, for instance, that referring to the young women in my earlier anecdote as "black girls" is categorizing a group of people based on race, so isn't that racist? And if that is racist, am I better off examining my behaviour in that situation to better recognize my own racism, or is this a false over-sensitivity, akin to treating a pregnant woman like a delicate flower, or flattening myself against a nearby wall when a fat person walks past me?
A classy guy. I wish I knew precisely what makeup and props it took to be a classy person. And I don't mean classy as in debonair, I mean classy as in polite, respectful, and socially clued-in. I want to be the type of person who writes thank you notes, who deftly avoids conversational minefields by never saying the wrong thing. I'd like to stop stammering, over-analyzing, sweating, and retreating. Maybe that means not thinking about beards and teens and pregnant women and other races, or at least not having hard opinions about any of them. I would hope that one day, none of the masks that I routinely wear conceal my true nature, and that if I'm ever spotted across the street, you think to yourself, "There's a classy guy I'd like to know."