I suffered through years of debilitating mental illness (and I didn’t even get a lousy t-shirt)
One in three adults will suffer from clinical depression in their lifetime, so at least I’m not alone.
This isn’t really comforting, though, when I’m curled up under the blankets smelling of three-day-old sweat because that’s how long it’s been since I was able to convince myself to leave my bedroom and take a shower and I’ve already missed two days of work and I know someone’s going to start asking questions soon because nobody has the flu this often and for this long. At those times, I feel really alone. I even feel alone as my husband, who is very kind and very caring and very supportive, does all the things you’re meant to do when faced with a morbidly depressed wife-shaped blob in your bed refusing to move – the hugs, the reassurances, the offers of food or other physical comforts, the reminders of my worth as a person. It’s all pretty meaningless at times like those. When you’re underwater and you can’t breathe and it feels like your lungs are going to burst, it doesn’t really help to know that some day, long after you’ve already inhaled a lungful of ocean, you might get to breathe a little stale air again.
This won’t be the most eloquent thing I’ve ever written about my illness, not even close. The reason for that is that I am too depressed right now to create something beautiful. Everything inside of me right now looks dark and ugly and jagged at the edges, so I expect this will look the same. I don’t remember what air tastes like or the feeling of it in my lungs – I’ve been holding my breath against the onward drowning rush of the turgid waters of depression for so long that all I can feel is this kind of weary resignation, like maybe if I just give in at least I won’t feel so dizzy any more. It’s not a perfect metaphor. It’s pretty ugly, actually, which makes it just about right.
I’ve been depressed since I was five, which seems like a really long time. It is a really long time. Sure, it didn’t get really terrible until I was twelve or thirteen and puberty threw in a whole bunch of hormones to destabilise me even further, but being even slightly depressed at age five is a big enough deviation from the norm that I was always very acutely aware that there was something weird about me. When you talk about death as an adult, people think you’re profound; when you want to walk in front of a car at age five because you think you’d rather take your chances on heaven being fake than listen to your parents fight again, people think you’re a freak. So I guess I’ve been a freak for a long time now, long enough that the word doesn’t even hurt any more, like the scar on my right arm from the time I broke it in three places, which I acquired around the same time. I have a whole lot of scars, but some of them are in places you can’t see, like right over the parts of my psyche that are meant to help me trust people and love them and feel happy with where I am in life. Those are the deepest and ugliest scars of all.
I wish I had the kind of depression you see in movies, where you sit at a window and feel melancholy and create poetry and win the affections of pretty girls. Instead, I have the kind where you lose all sense of self-worth and doubt everything you say and think and do and you can’t write any more because you’re pretty well convinced that everything you create is garbage that nobody would want to read. When was the last time I wrote something just because I wanted to – not because I was being paid, not because I felt like I owed someone, but just because writing is something I love that makes me happy? I can’t remember. I have a beautiful leather-bound journal with crisp pages that still smell new that I’ve only written in once because I don’t want to dirty it with the trash that’s currently spinning around my mind. I feel like it deserves better. I feel like I probably deserve better too, but I don’t know how to provide it for myself any more. I feel like this is how I’ll always be: unable to remember any of the things that make me good or useful or beautiful or worthwhile because they’re buried down under so many layers of dust that I wouldn’t even know where to start looking.
The ridiculous thing is that I know people like me and respect me and even love me, and I know there are reasons for that and they must be as plain as day from the outside. I look at the things people say about me and I try to wrap my head around the fact that I’m the person they’re talking to. It doesn’t seem possible that the person they see and the person I see could possibly occupy the same space. Doesn’t the theory of special relativity say two bodies can’t occupy the same space at the same time, or something? I feel like there must be two of me: the one who goes to her day job and writes a column every week and calls her mother just to see how she’s doing at work and teaches people things on the internet, and the one who lies here and cries for no reason and can’t remember how to stop. That these two people can exist inside my one (failing) body is a paradox. All Cretans are liars. This sentence is false. Something like that.
I’m making myself write this because I want to prove to myself that I can – that I can write a thousand words (even if they’re not very good ones) and publish them for no reason other than wanting to. And I want to, I really want to – I want to spend hours creating fairy tales in longhand and then spend hours longer sitting at my computer polishing them until they shine, and I want to share those fairy tales with the world because I genuinely do believe that when I’m at my best, I create beautiful things that are worth sharing. I’m not at my best now, but surely that version of myself, the one who can take care of herself and handle her everyday life and make beautiful things, is here somewhere underneath all this dust. And I can tell myself forever that I don’t know where to look, but what if I just start digging and see what I find first? I’m so tired of feeling like there’s no way out of this hole. I’m tired of feeling like there are no options, no answers. Why not try? If I finish this, it’s proof that I can do it. And if I can do it, I can do it again. And if I can do it again, maybe I’m still alive in here somewhere and my head doesn’t have to stay under the water forever and one day real soon I’m going to take in a huge breath of air and feel it burning in my lungs and know that I’m still alive.
Reader Question (is this becoming a pattern?) – being yourself when the world doesn’t want you to be
Y’all, I’m not becoming an advice columnist. I swear I’m not. Do you know how bad I would be at that job? I would be terrible at it! But here’s a question I received that I felt particularly moved to answer. The questioner, as always, has asked to remain anonymous. Because she is not a native English speaker, I’ve taken the slight liberty of editing her question.
I’m 19 years old (20 soon) and I grew up in a very, very, very conservative Muslim family. I have worn the hijab since the age of 8 years old, and honestly, I hate it. I feel imprisoned and like a hypocrite. Every single day wearing it is torture, it’s like I’m lying to myself, to God and to the entire world, only for the sake of pleasing my parents, and because I’m scared as hell of my dad might do if I take it off.
I have no self confidence, and it really hurts more and more as I age. I feel like I’m not doing anything in my life, because I’m not even myself, so how can I achieve something?
Recently, I’ve been thinking about taking it off in secret. I feel guilty for those thoughts, but it’s honestly my only escape, what else could I do? My dad is not mean, nor is my mom, and it makes me feel even more bad. If they were bad parents, I would probably have done it without hesitating, but I love them, and those feelings also make it hard.
I really don’t know what to do, and I’ve never felt so lost in my entire life.
It’s hard enough to rebel against people we hate, but it’s harder still to rebel against people we love. I’m sure your parents really are wonderful people – most parents are! And I think that’s why you will probably need to have a conversation about this with them eventually.
I used to take off my hijab in secret. I would wear it out of the house, take the bus to university, then take it off the moment I got on campus. I’d fold it neatly, stow it away in my satchel, and not take it out again until it was time to go home. I felt terrible about it, not because I felt like I was lying to Allah (who could see what was in my heart anyway), but because I knew I was living a lie.
My situation was a little different from yours. My mother and I get along just fine, but my father is a very conservative Muslim who is fond of strict punishments for small infractions. I did try talking to him about not wearing the hijab, and he told me that I had no choice because I’d “decided” to start wearing it at age 12 and couldn’t back out now. (I didn’t actually decide – he made that decision for me. Had I had a say, I probably would have refused to begin with. I wear the hijab to pray, but I don’t feel the need to wear it outside.) So I had to lie to him instead, even though I didn’t want to, even though I would much rather have just been honest.
My father and I don’t talk any more, and this is one of the reasons why.
Have you tried talking to your parents about these feelings? You say they’re very conservative, but also that they’re kind people. Maybe they’ll hear you out and maybe they won’t, but isn’t it at least worth trying? If they refuse to listen, then you know you’re not rebelling against people who want you to live your own life – you’re rebelling against people who want to control you, no matter how good their intentions. I think that’s an important distinction. If your parents aren’t violent or abusive, you should at least give them the chance to do the right thing here.
Wearing the hijab is such an intensely personal decision. Nobody but you can make it. If you don’t feel like it’s right for you, you shouldn’t wear it, and nobody should force you to wear it. By the same token, if you wanted to wear it and your parents didn’t want you to for some reason, I would tell you the same thing. Your body is your own, and it is up to you what you choose to hide from society and what you choose to show. Allah did not give control of your body to anybody but you, nor did Allah give anyone else the right to take that control away from you.
Here’s what I think your game plan should be:
- If you think you can do so safely, find a good time – when you and your parents are both in a good mood – and sit down and have a conversation about your feelings. Tell them what you told me – that you feel like a hypocrite, that you don’t want to lie to Allah or to anyone else, and that while you’re still a devout Muslim, that wearing the hijab just isn’t the right choice for you.
- Let your parents respond. If they’re good people – and you say they are – they should at least be willing to hear you out and have a reasonable conversation.
- If they agree with you, great! You can stop wearing the hijab freely and feel better because you’re being honest with yourself.
Of course, there’s a chance – a pretty good one – that even if they understand your reasoning, they won’t agree with it and will want you to keep wearing the hijab. In that case, there are a few things you can do:
- Keep wearing it and feel miserable
- Take it off in secret (but in the knowledge that you tried your best to work out an accommodation with your parents and they refused)
- Take it off in public (knowing that this will probably cause conflict with your parents)
This isn’t an easy decision to make. You’re 19 years old, so I assume you’re either in university or working, if your parents allow you to do either. You’re a young adult and should be allowed to choose how you live your own life. On the other hand, living at home means making certain compromises. Only you can decide what you’re willing to sacrifice and what you’ll refuse to give up.
It might turn out that living at home just isn’t a feasible option if you want to decide how you live your own life. I was your age when my dad kicked me out. He and I simply can’t live together. I’m happier when he’s not around. It might be that your relationship with your parents would be better if you didn’t live with them and had a little independence.
It also might be that you can’t afford to move out, so you have to put up with a few concessions, like wearing the hijab. It all depends. How much is this issue worth to you? You’ve said you feel like you’re living a lie and you can’t achieve anything because you can’t be your authentic self. It sounds like something’s got to give. You just have to decide what it will be, and what kind of price you’re willing to pay.
Talk to your parents if you think it’s safe to do so. See how they react. Make your choices from there. Remember that safety always comes first. And no matter what, don’t forget that Allah gave your body and your life to you only, and that you are the only one with the right to decide how you live it.
Allah bless you and guide you, wherever your path may lead.
[TW: depression, suicide] Reader question: when being in the closet kills
I received this last night. I really don’t want to turn into an advice column, but this is another question that mirrors many I’ve received in the past, so I’ll do my best to answer it.
Hi Salaam!So I’m a 20 year old queer muslim male, currently in college. I’m realized I was queer when I was around 14 or 15 years old. I’m not out anyone at all in my life. However over the past couple of years since starting college, keeping my queerness a secret has been taking quite the toll on my mental health. My anxiety and depression associated with my secret are at an all time high, and I feel worse than I ever have. My situation now is that mom and dad have now both noticed over the past year how depressed and anxious I have been. They can tell I’m much more reclusive and not as happy as I used to be. I guess I couldn’t hide it forever. Anyways, so just last night, my parents confronted me directly about why I’m so depressed. They walked into my bedroom and just asked me what was going on. I was sitting in front of them, crying uncontrollably and I just can’t tell them why I’m so sad. So at this point, my parents now know that I’m depressed and suicidal, but have no idea why, and I refused to tell them when they asked me. They’re really concerned about me and they’re coming from a very loving place and they now want me to go see a therapist to try to work things out. I come from a practicing Muslim Sunni Arab household and I’m practicing myself, my parents aren’t super conservative,and generally make a good distinction between cultural and religious practices, but they’re conservative enough to not accept LGBT people, at least that’s what it seems. But given that they know I’m in such a terrible mental health situation, would they maybe accept my queerness? I don’t know.So yeah, I just don’t know what to do right now because my parents know my mental health is terrible, and I refuse to tell them what’s going on. Any thoughts on how I could approach this situation?
For pretty obvious reasons, this reader also wanted to remain anonymous.
I want to preface this by saying that I am not a doctor and that if you’re having thoughts of suicide, you need to see a health professional. I’m a blogger on the internet, not a psychiatrist or a counsellor. Everything I suggest you do should be done in conjunction with a treatment programme devised for you by a pro. This isn’t as daunting a prospect as you think – if you’re in college, you likely have access to free or very cheap counselling services, and there are therapists that charge on a sliding scale in a lot of cities, particularly bigger ones. Therapists are bound by patient confidentiality. They’re not going to tell your parents or anyone else that you’re queer. I recommend that you find one ASAP and schedule an appointment.
Now, onto other things.
I don’t say this often because I’m not generally in favour of outing yourself if you aren’t assured of a positive reaction, but it might be time to tell your parents.
You’re worried that your parents are too conservative to accept you. That might be true. Maybe they’ll react terribly. Maybe they’ll kick you out or cut you off. Maybe they’ll try to get you to pray it away. Those would all be awful scenarios, and if you honestly think that they’re the most likely, then you can keep this between me, you and your soon-to-be-therapist and maybe you’ll be fine. But it sounds like your parents are pretty good people. You’ve said you think they’re coming from a loving place and that they’re worried about you. Maybe – just maybe – it means that if you come out to them, their first instinct will be to help.
Coming out to my own mother wasn’t easy. I had no way of knowing how she would react. I had to trust that she would continue to accept me for who I was even once she knew everything about me. It was dicey at first. It took her a long while to get used to the idea. I’m not sure she’ll ever really be thrilled about it. But she loves me and supports me, and it’s a huge weight off my shoulders knowing I can rely on her now. I could never have had that assurance if I’d never come out.
- The worst case scenario – they cut you off, disown you, never want to speak to you again. This seems unlikely based on your description of them. Even some more conservative religious types listen to love over judgement sometimes. But that doesn’t mean this can’t happen.
- Slightly-less-worse-case-scenario – they don’t disown you, but they decide your depression would disappear if you just prayed the gay away somehow. I have a couple of family members like this, and I avoid them at all costs.
- A liveable scenario – they’re not thrilled, but they try to support you anyway. They help you seek therapy for your depression and try not to make it all about how if you were straight, you wouldn’t be so upset. I would like to believe your parents are capable of this, but you know them better than I do.
- A really good scenario – they’re supportive, they tell you they love you no matter what, and they help you seek treatment. In an ideal world, all parents would be like this, right?
Only you know which of these scenarios is more likely. I hope it’s #3 or #4, but obviously I can’t say for sure.
If you do decide to come out to them, you can always test the water first. Bring up gay rights issues and see how they react. Decide if you could deal with that level of scrutiny or judgement directed at you. If you mention anti-gay laws in Uganda and they say they hope everyone there gets the death penalty, it’s probably not safe to come out. If you mention statistics about gay people being beaten and murdered and they’re horrified, maybe things might not be as bad as they could be. Find a time when you can sit them down and tell them what’s going on with you. Usually I’d suggest that you bring a friend, but you’re not out to anyone, so that’ll be tough. Maybe establish a connection with a therapist first, then invite your parents along to a group session. If nothing else, they’re much less likely to become violent if there are witnesses. (I hate that I have to talk about these things as though there’s always potential for violence, but we all know there is.)
If you don’t decide to come out to your parents, I think you’re still going to have to come out to someone. Definitely your new therapist (I really can’t stress how important it is that you find one), and at least one friend or family member you can trust. This is not a burden you can carry by yourself. It’s eating at you every day and endangering your life. You need at least one ally in your everyday life so that you don’t have to do this all alone. We are not solitary creatures, we humans. We need love, support and community. Those things are sorely lacking in your life right now. Consider joining a campus LGBT solidarity group – you don’t have to be queer to be in one, so this won’t necessarily out you – and see if you can’t find some friends who’ll empathise with you and support you.
Mental illness is such an ugly, unbearable thing. You are not weak or childish or in some way defective for being unable to handle it on your own. I remember being roughly your age and sitting in my doctor’s office, just talking about how I was. He told me, “I think that if you don’t get help, if you don’t get out of the situation you’re in, it’s going to crush your soul.” He was talking mostly about my abusive father, but he was right. Some things a human being simply cannot tolerate forever. I implore you to find a counsellor, doctor or psychologist. I promise that there are some available to you. Your parents may even help you seek treatment, even if you don’t come out to them, given how worried they are about you and how much they want to help. Take advantage of the services available to you as a college student – they won’t be free forever, and you should use them while they are. Find that one person who will offer you a safe, non-judgmental space where you can finally be yourself.
Whether or not you decide to come out to your parents, I really hope things work out for you. Remember that you are never alone. Allah’s blessings be with you, wherever your path may lead.
Campaigns for #MikeBrown #Ferguson
Pass this on – it’s useful information for people who want to help the citizens of Ferguson.
View original post 560 more words
Reader question: navigating Islam in the 21st century
I promise this isn’t turning into an advice column (wouldn’t I be the worst advice columnist ever?). When I got this question from a reader, however, I figured I ought to make the response public. I get questions like this a lot and I don’t have the time or energy to give them all the lengthy, in-depth, personal responses they deserve. I hope this will help some of the people who write to me asking for advice on navigating their lives as Muslims whilst staying true to themselves.
Hi!I came across your blog when I was searching about Islam, feminism, and other random things. I was surprised to read something so open and honest regarding topics that are generally taboo in the Muslim community.I’m a teenager living in a family that strictly follows Islam (Islam mixed in with culture and my parents’ upbringings) in a community that does the same. While I believe in Allah and his prophet, I’m not very religious and I believe many practices/thoughts/beliefs are outdated.Reading your article on Islam, it seems you have your mother’s support. despite practicing your religion a different way. What should you do when you don’t have parental support? Every time I try to leave the house in a loose t-shirt, my mom reminds me to put a scarf around my neck or on my head.Did you receive any backlash from your extended family or community for going against the religious and cultural rules they live to follow?I dream of the day when I can go to college and live on my own, without having to explain myself or my actions.Thank you for reading. 🙂
So You Just Met a Bisexual: a Guide for Allies (and “Allies”)
Congratulations! You just met your very first bisexual! Isn’t it exciting? I’m sure you’re brimming with questions about everything from your new friend’s sex life to whether or not it’s true that they’re invisible. (They are. All bisexuals have the ability to disappear whenever they like.) Before you draw up a list and start the interrogation, however, let me preempt a few of the questions you’re most likely to ask – and explain to you why you probably ought not ask them.
Here are some things you don’t know about your new bisexual friend:
You don’t know how many sex partners they’ve had. They could have had one or a hundred and one (go them!) or none at all. They might have sex with multiple partners over a year long period, or they might be into long-term relationships. Bisexuals, much like what I’m going to call “non-magical folk” (that’s you), haven’t necessarily all slept with the entire football team and all the cheerleaders (though, again, if they have – damn, your new friend has got some game!). Bisexuality does not automatically correlate with promiscuity. (And if it does – so what? You’re not one of those terrible people who thinks that someone who sleeps with a lot of partners is immoral, are you? Are you?)
Speaking of which, you don’t know what their sex drive is like. Some bisexuals are like me and would have sex ten times a day if they could. Some like sex very rarely, some once every couple of days. Some like sex a lot with a particular partner but not at all with other people. Kill the myth that every bisexual is a sex addict. We’re human, you know. We can control our libidos just as well as you can (or better, if you’re a straight dude – YEAH, I SAID IT).
You don’t know if they’re polyamorous, monoamorous, in an open relationship or happily single. Some bisexuals are poly. I know lots of poly bisexuals! But I also know lots of monoamorous bisexuals (I don’t like the word “monogamous” because it refers specifically to the number of a person’s wives, which is kinda sexist and useless). For example, I’m married to just one other person. Truly, I am! He grows a fantastic beard and makes a cute giggling sound when I tickle him. Lots of people are surprised by this, because for some reason, they think all bisexuals are either poly or not in relationships at all. I guess I was single at some point in my life, and many of my bi friends are single now or in open relationships, but bisexuality does not somehow preclude monoamory or other kinds of long-term relationships.
On that note, you don’t know if they’ve ever cheated. No, shut up. You really and truly don’t. Thanks to television, people assume that bisexuals are incapable of forming commitments or keeping to them afterwards. The reasoning seems to be, “well, you’re attracted to everyone, so you’re bound to cheat sooner or later.”
Really? Let’s break that down.
You, the monosexual reader, are attracted to one gender, correct? It might be your own, or it might be another. I don’t know your life. Whatever. The point is that there is a group of people to whom you are attracted.
Are you attracted to every single member of that group?
Neither are we. It really is that simple.
Which brings me to my next point…
You don’t know if they’re attracted to you. To be fair, this is something gay people get as well (holla, fellow queers!), but bisexual people seem to get it twice as bad, partly due to the fact that as I said above, everyone thinks we’re untrustworthy cheaters. Let me tell you right up-front: I am not attracted to people who aren’t attracted to women. I’m just not. Straight girls? Turn-off. Gay dudes? HUGE turn-off. Non-binary people who do not dig women? Sorry, but nope. If you’re not into me, I am most definitely not into you. So relax – you can be in the locker room together. They’re not checking you out. You’re probably not their type anyway, so don’t flatter yourself. If they were into you, you’d know.
Actually, while I’m on this topic, you don’t even know the genders to which they’re attracted. “Bisexual” means different things to different people. Sometimes it means “attracted to both men and women”. Sometimes it means “attracted to both cisgender men and cisgender women”. Sometimes it means “attracted to both my gender and other genders.” Some of the latter group identify as pansexual, but some don’t, and it’s absolutely zero percent your job to tell people which labels to use. If your bisexual friend is attracted to men and people-who-aren’t-men, that’s cool. If your bisexual friend is attracted to binary people and non-binary people, that’s also cool. If your bisexual friend is into both men and women but mostly likes women, that’s cool too. (Also, can I get her number? She sounds rad.) We choose how we identify – not you, not anyone else, but us.
So it turns out you don’t know much about your new bisexual friend, do you? All of your preconceptions are useless, and you’ll only embarrass yourself by blurting out questions like, “how are you married to a dude if you’re bi?” (I get this in bars a lot) or, “why don’t you have a girlfriend too?” (I also get this in bars a lot). Bisexual people vary as much as monosexual people do. We have sex a lot or not at all. We have a partner or three partners or a rotating roster of partners or no partner at all. We are attracted to men or women or non-binary people, and not always equally. Some of us cheat because people cheat sometimes, but most of us don’t because most people don’t. And don’t think you can pick us out of a crowd, either – in terms of appearance, we run the gamut from roller derby girls with pink spiked hair to belles with long, dark curls and killer red lipstick to gym-going dudes with buzzcuts to quiet, skinny guys in Zelda t-shirts to non-binary femmes or androgynes rocking suit jackets with their Converse. We’re not a monolith any more than any other group is.
So, what do you know about your new bisexual friend?
You know that they’re bisexual, and now you know not to irritate them with asinine and offensive questions. And most importantly, you know that they’re human, so treat them that way.
See? That was easy! Think of how much time I’ve saved you.
If you were wondering why women feel unsafe around you, here’s why:
So, a few days ago, I wrote this.
That letter is a semi-autobiographical composite based on a guy who not only stalked me and made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe, but did the same to several other women, including friends of mine. Some of those things he did to me; some of those things he did to other women; some of those things he told us about during group gatherings, seemingly under the impression that we would empathise with him in his struggle against all the terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad women of the world.
When I wrote that letter, it wasn’t really aimed at the Nice Guy in question (I honestly haven’t seen or heard from him in months, and thank [insert deity/deities/lack of deity here] for that). It was written for every woman who, like me, has known a guy like that or been “befriended” by a guy like that or feared for her life because of a guy like that.
Because yeah, that’s a thing. Women fear for their lives because of guys like that.
That guy? When I very politely told him that I needed him to message me less, the backlash started immediately. He trashed me on social media. He would show up to events he knew I’d be at and find reasons to sit across from me, saying nothing the entire time. He told people what a bitch I’d been to him. He started making ultimatums – he would stop being friends with people if they so much as mentioned me in his presence. He knew where I lived, where I worked, where my family members lived and worked. He had mentioned violent impulses (both internally and externally aimed) several times during our brief “friendship”. He had made life difficult and uncomfortable for friends of mine in the past (which I did not know when I first met him), and now he was doing it to me. And while I like to think that I’m a fairly strong, independent kind of girl who can fend for herself, and while this guy seemed pretty quiet and shy and like he was more bark than bite, I was still pretty fucking scared.
The thing is, women don’t know which guy’s going to get violent when we tell them no.
Will it be the guy who approaches us in a club and insists on buying us a drink even though we repeatedly say we don’t want one? (Friend’s 20th birthday a few years ago – he eventually went and started buying drinks for someone else instead, and my friends and I watched the girl he was talking to like a hawk all night to make sure he didn’t have a chance to get her alone.)
Will it be the guy who calls us a bitch because he was “just trying to make conversation” while we were reading a book with our earphones in? (Outside a shopping centre in broad daylight while I was waiting for a friend to pick me up. He screamed in my face for twenty minutes while I kept telling him he needed to leave. Passers-by did absolutely nothing but look at me in annoyance, as though I was responsible for this public disturbance that was getting in the way of their grocery shopping.)
Will it be the guy who tries talking to us on the bus when we just want to get home after a long day at work, his voice raising in volume every time we steadfastly ignore his leering “compliments”? (Guy who used to catch the bus route that took me past my house. I would wait until the bus had driven off before walking home just so he couldn’t watch me go to my front gate, and I would always make sure to lock it behind me just in case.)
Will it be the guy who offers us lifts everywhere and goes shopping with us and buys us gifts and worms his way into our circle of trust so that eventually we start letting him into our private spaces, where nobody will see if he attacks us?
It could be any of them. It could be all of them. For some woman, somewhere, it has been one or more or all of them. (For some man, somewhere, it has also been one or more or all of them. Predators thrive on societies that will not believe the claims of their prey.)
None of this is news to you, I’m sure – or, if you have even the slightest hint of cultural awareness, it shouldn’t be.
But it was apparently news to this guy:
What starts with “r” and ends with “ape culture” and is incredibly well-illustrated by this image? I’ll let you supply the answer.
This is why women feel unsafe around you, Nice Guys – because when we stand up to you, when we point out that your behaviour is predatory and your advances are unwanted and that we want to be treated like actual human beings, your immediate response is to tear us down, belittle us and invalidate us. We feel unsafe around you because you are possessed of so much entitlement that when we don’t repay your (unwanted!) favours with romance and sex, you label us whores and liars and sociopaths. And you are backed up, not just by the friends who don’t want to make things “awkward” by barring you from social gatherings, but by the entire fucking patriarchy, right down to random internet strangers who don’t even know us but will construct elaborate “proofs” that your predatory behaviour is our fault because we should have known what we were getting into when we accepted what looked like an offer of friendship.
You want to know why we don’t want that drink? Want to know why we don’t want a bar of your “normal social interaction” (ha) or your “polite conversation” or your compliments that you swear are innocent?
Because any one of you could be the guy I wrote that letter about. Because any one of you could be the guy backing him up by calling me a sociopath and a liar. Because any one of you could be the one we shouldn’t have trusted, and because when you hurt us, any one of you could be the ones insisting it was our fault all along.
You want to know why women feel unsafe around you? It’s because you’re fucking unsafe, asshole.
A letter to that Nice Guy I ignored that one time
Dear Nice Guy,
I’d say you probably don’t remember me, but I know you do. I know you remember me the way you remember every single girl you’ve ever latched onto like a leech who also happens to recommend books and carry shopping bags. I know you remember me because this is a small town and people talk and you wouldn’t believe some of the things people tell me you say about me, except that I guess you would because I know for sure that you said them.
I know you’ve waxed poetic at length to anyone who will listen (and a fair few people who won’t) about how I don’t know what I’m missing. And you know what? I guess you’re right. I don’t know what I’m missing. Maybe if, somewhere between the endless offers of a lift home and the free coffees I didn’t want and the little intimate gifts “just because”, I’d read your mind and deduced using my psychic powers that you were in love with me, things might have turned out differently. (Like maybe I’d have filed a restraining order. Maybe I’d have stopped seeing the favours you did me as the acts of a friend and started seeing them as the acts of a predator. Maybe I’d have never allowed myself to be alone in a room with you. But I digress.) For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right and I don’t know what I let slip by when I decided to go after that [confident] jerk [with a sense of self-worth and a whole host of interesting hobbies] instead of letting you woo me like a princess in the tackier class of fairy tale.
You want me to know you’d have treated me like a princess, but I’m not a princess. You want me to know you’d have worshipped me like a goddess, but I’m not a goddess. You want me to know you’d have waited on me hand and foot, but I’m a functioning human being with agency and independence and I don’t need anyone to wait on me. You want me to know you’d have given me everything I could ever have possibly wanted, but you’re wrong there, because one of the things I wanted – one of the things I still want – is not you.
That’s the thing, see? You could drive me to the edges of the Earth as a “favour”, you could come shopping with me and take me out to dinner and watch movies and let me cry to you over the phone, but you couldn’t make me want you as anything other than a friend and you still can’t. You’ll never be able to. Oh, sure, if you’d asked me out when we first met, before we settled into the routine of girl-and-secret-admirer, maybe I’d have thought about it. Maybe I’d have let you take me out to lunch at a little bistro somewhere and we could have talked like real people and not like Pygmalion attempting to breathe life into his Galatea, and maybe we’d have found out that we had things in common and it would have led to a few more dates and maybe a relationship. Or maybe I would have turned you down and you’d have felt sad about it for a while but you would have moved on and we could have been friends – real friends – and you wouldn’t be obsessively combing through my Facebook photos at midnight and I wouldn’t be writing you this letter.
But you couldn’t make me love you just because you wanted me to, and you still can’t.
You say I’ll regret it. You say that ten, twenty, fifty years from now, you’ll be the one that got away. You say that when I’ve been rejected by a string of [confident, interesting, engaging] jerks and I no longer have my youthful beauty and I’m too old to have kids, I’ll wish I’d settled for you. And maybe you’re right. Maybe one day I’ll be fifty years old and single and childless – but even then, I still wouldn’t regret not being with you. I wouldn’t regret not signing up for a lifetime of being treated like a marble statue on a pedestal created by an obsessed boy-child with an ideal of perfect womanhood to which I could never truly measure up. I wouldn’t regret avoiding that slavish devotion, that expectation of reciprocity of a passion I didn’t and don’t and will never feel. No, I’m sorry – even if you end up being right and I find myself alone and unloved and unlovable, I will never regret that.
Since we’re making predictions, though – and oh, how you love to do that when you talk about me (did you really think I wouldn’t hear of it? did you really think they’d never tell?) – let me make a few of my own.
I predict that I’ll have an enjoyable, interesting relationship with my jerk (who has introduced me to sports and taught me how to shoot a gun and helped me rediscover my love of philosophy and supported my dreams of being a writer and held my hand while I cried without expecting anything in return). I predict that if things don’t work out, I’ll find someone else, and maybe he’ll introduce me to painting or sculpture or belly dancing or yoga or basketball because he’ll have interests other than pleasing me and he’ll want to share them with the woman he loves. I predict that some day, if I choose to, I’ll marry one of those jerks you hate so much and we’ll probably have a few kids and we’ll fight sometimes because nobody’s perfect, not even people in love, but we’ll make up because nobody stays angry forever, especially people in love. And maybe we’ll divorce in five years or maybe we’ll grow old together and see the birth of our great-grandchildren, but the one thing we won’t do is live out some fantasy of a man “winning” a woman with niceness and a woman showing her gratitude with sex.
That’s what you never understood about relationships, Nice Guy. You can’t win people, not with all the put-on niceness in the world. You can’t mould yourself into what you think a woman wants and hope she’ll fill all the gaps in you. You have to be your own person (do you even know who that is any more?) and cultivate your own interests and live your own life and hope that one day, you’ll find someone who thinks your life is pretty neat and wants to share it with you, someone with a life of her own that’s so neat you want to share it with her.
That’s a relationship, Nice Guy. Not unwanted gifts and free rides home and pining over someone and hoping that if you hang around her long enough, she’ll feel the way you want her to feel. A relationship is two people sharing their lives – their messy, imperfect, fantastic, exciting, terrifying, amazing lives – because it’s what both of them want to do, not because one of them wants the other to want it.
This guy I’m seeing, this jerk? He’s pretty sweet. We’re talking about getting married, maybe having kids some day. He read Hamlet for me because I mentioned I liked Shakespeare and I went to a football game with him and had the time of my life. We fight sometimes and we laugh a lot of the time and we never expect anything of each other that the other wouldn’t be willing to give. I think maybe we’re going to go the distance. But even if we don’t, it still will have been worth it, because he’s helped me grow as a person and I’ve helped him grow as a person and neither of us is Galatea and neither of us would want to be Pygmalion because what kind of relationship can there be between a man and his idol?
I hope you figure that out one day. I’d hate for all your prophecies about other women to come true for you.
Get over me. You never had me to begin with. You never will.
A girl who goes for jerks.
Passing privilege, and other curses in disguise
My mother is Turkish, my father Pakistani. I have absolutely no Anglo-European blood in me. I am relatively light-skinned, but I am neither ethnically or phenotypically white…
…which has not stopped people from telling me I’m “too white to talk about racism” about half a dozen times in the last week alone.
They tell me anonymously. They tell me while I’m relating my lived experiences of racial abuse and harassment. They tell me while I’m expressing solidarity with my darker-skinned friends and loved ones. They tell me while they mock my appearance in Reddit threads devoted to lambasting me. “This bitch,” they say, “is practically white anyway. She just wants to feel like a victim.”
Day after day, I am forced to defend my identity. I am half-Turkish, half-Pakistani, Australian by birth and upbringing but ethnically no more white than I am male or straight or neurotypical (mind you, people challenge those aspects of my identity constantly as well – but I digress). But because I possess that most tenuous and contingent of privileges – the ability to “pass” – my lived experience of racism and abuse is constantly dismissed, trivialised or outright silenced.
I was educated at predominantly white Catholic schools, but at home, I recited the Qur’an with my father, learned skerricks of bad Turkish from my mother, watched Bollywood movies with subtitles, ate curries and naan and Turkish lentil soup. I wore the hijab for eight years. I still wear it when I pray. I finished reading the Qur’an in Arabic when I was seventeen years old. I call my mother’s friends “aunty” and “uncle”, speak in broken Turkish to my grandmother on the phone. I have become adept at acting white in public because doing so means I face less abuse and ridicule, but I am not white, just someone who knows how to play-act for the amusement and pleasure of her oppressors.
I am tired of having to defend myself. That you believe me to be white does not undo the years of slurs and racial abuse I have received not just because of the colour of my skin or because of my Muslim faith, but because of the times I have dared not to conform to ideals of whiteness in public. You can deny my heritage, my culture, my lived experiences, but you cannot make unreal the sidelong glances from passers-by, the yelled threats from people driving past me as I walk home carrying groceries, the obnoxiously loud “SO HOW ARE YOU LIKING OUR COUNTRY?” from well-meaning but misguided whites on the bus. You cannot undo the times people have assumed I was my father’s wife because they think all brown men take child brides, or the times people have assumed my mother doesn’t speak English even though she has lived here since she was sixteen and speaks as fluently as any native, albeit with a slight accent. Those things happened to me and to my family and no amount of denial on your part will undo them.
I am not white. I can pass as white if I must, though the intentional erasure of my true identity feels like going without a limb or a vital organ. I can talk white and act white to appease white people, to deflect the abuse and the mistrustful glances and the whispering behind my back that I must be a terrorist or a radical or that I probably believe in honour killings. I can do all of those things, and I often have to, because survival in a white-dominated society comes at a price and one must pay it one way or another. Given the choice, I suppose I’d rather pay in assimilation than in violence and torture and death. It’s not much of a choice, mind you, but it’s the only one I have.
Sometimes I think to myself that it’s somewhat ironic that I have become so good at passing as white that people insist I must be even when I assure them that I’m not. Have I merely beaten myself at my own game? Am I too good an actress? Or is it rather that people see what they want to see, and they’d rather see Jay, their example of successful assimilation into “civilised” society, than Aaminah, who still says insha’Allah when she makes a commitment and prays in Arabic and wears tights under her skirts because she doesn’t like to bare her legs? I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the latter – that people would rather believe me to be white because it makes their lives less complicated than having to deal with the complexities of my life as a brown girl negotiating white society.
Here’s the thing, though – passing privilege is contingent. And there’s the rub; I’m only white as long as they want me to be. I’m white in discussions of race because it’s an effective way of silencing my voice, my lived experience, the truth of my struggle. I’m white amongst people who don’t want to have to think about the implications of my non-whiteness. I’m white when people want to love me but don’t want to think about what loving me entails.
But I stop being white once they want to oppress me.
I was not white when, the night before last, a man yelled at me to “go back to where [I] came from” as he drove past me. I was not white when people called my boyfriend a “n****r-lover” for being in a relationship with me. I was not white in the aftermath of 9/11, when one of my fellow students tormented and bullied me for months until I gathered up the courage to tell the school counsellor. I am not white when people can’t pronounce my “foreign” name and ask if they can call me something else instead. I am not white when it does not suit white people for me to be so.
I am not white unless white people want me to be.
I tire of having to explain myself and defend myself. I tire of people who arrogantly assume they know more of my ethnic heritage than I do. I tire of being mislabelled, mistaken, mistreated. I tire of having to carry both the burdens of a non-white woman and the expectations of a white-passing one.
Passing privilege is a curse in disguise. It’s a reason for white people to invalidate your oppression whilst simultaneously only granting you the privileges of whiteness if you choose to conform to their standards and ideals. Honestly, I would rather not be mistaken for white at all if it would mean I could stop having to pretend to be someone I’m not in order to please people who are not prepared to face the truth of me. But since I am possessed of the privilege of light skin (and I know that within the broader community of women of colour, this is a privilege whether I like it or not), I am forced to play-act as someone I’m not, only to be told I’m not doing it well enough when white people tire of the pantomime.
I am not white. I just play a white girl on the internet.
Navigating male entitlement, or: how I learned to stop caring and block dudebros
There’s this funny idea people have about free speech.
See, here’s how it actually works. You can say whatever you like, so long as what you say doesn’t harm anyone. If you can find a platform for yourself, even more power to you. Start a blog, make a Twitter account (make ten Twitter accounts!), post on Reddit, find your happy place and go for it. Free speech, whilst not constitutionally protected the world over, is a basic human right.
Here’s what’s not a human right: an assurance that anyone will listen.
Yeah. This is where it gets funny.
I get cat-called a lot. I mean, I get cat-called a lot. And before you rush to say something snarky about my outfit choices or the height of my heels (I see you in the wings, slut-shamers – you’re not as subtle as you think), I’ve been cat-called in my daggiest jeans and my oldest t-shirt and my rattiest sneakers and no makeup. I’ve been cat-called by old men and young men and men with their young sons in the passenger seat next to them. And the one thing all those men have had in common is the idea that they have the right to make me listen to their opinions. It’s not enough for them to have the opinions; it’s not enough for them to voice those opinions to their friends (or, I suppose, their young children – seriously, dude who did that, I will never stop judging you); they have to voice them to me. They have to make sure I hear them. They think they have the right to make me listen.
And the thing is – and like I said, here’s where it gets a bit funny – the thing is, they don’t have that right at all.
One afternoon, a guy tried talking to me for the entirety of my bus journey home. I had earphones in and I was doing a sudoku puzzle on my phone and I very, very purposefully ignored him – I even had my back turned. He tried talking to me anyway. “Hey, love,” he whined from a seat behind me after I refused to make eye contact and took a seat far in front, “hey – I’m talking to you.” He kept it up as I got off the bus, too. I loudly thanked the driver and waited until the bus had departed before walking to my gate, lest the guy figure out which house was mine by watching through the window.
Recently, I was sitting near a bus stop waiting for an evening bus into town, earphones in, when a man came up to me. I didn’t notice that he was trying to talk to me, so he walked right up and started waving his hands in my face. Thinking something had fallen from my purse, I took an earphone out, looked up and asked what was wrong.
He wanted to tell me I “looked cute”. I gave him my best “not in your wettest, wildest dreams” stare and responded with a, “move along, dude,” in the kind of voice one uses for pronouncements such as oh, look, the new puppy isn’t house-trained yet. I mean, seriously? He waved his hands centimetres away from my face for that? I own a mirror, and even if I didn’t, I don’t think strangers on the street would be my go-to resource for fashion critiques.
He broke into an expletive-laden tirade about what an uptight bitch I was. I put my earphones back in, turned the volume up and waited until he was gone.
(I was lucky – it was a crowded area and he was pretty small. I doubt I’d have been brave enough to reject unwanted advances so brazenly otherwise. Even surrounded by people, it took a fair amount of chutzpah to pretend I was unruffled by the spittle flying from my harasser’s lips as he screamed epithets at me. Guess those public speaking classes paid off.)
I recently noted that the threats directed at Suey Park, creator of the #CancelColbert hashtag, were born of the idea that violence against women, particularly women of colour, is an appropriate “punishment” for non-conformity. It’s the oddest thing – people don’t seem to like it when we express our right to free speech. As though to prove my point, I was inundated with replies verging from the nonsensical (“you’re racist against white people!”) to the sickening (“I hope you die, you ugly bitch!”) to the simply tiresome (“but why are you trying to oppress our freedoms?”). I merely made an observation – that white “progressives”, when forced to choose between allyship and protecting their own, will invariably protect their own. When I refused to engage in “debate” on whether or not racism against white people exists (it doesn’t), I was met with more vitriol still. I was silencing people (by…letting them talk without responding to them?); I was a white-hater (because…I pointed out that if white people don’t want to be seen as racist, they should probably stop doing racist things?); I was unwilling to “defend my arguments” (you might just as well ask me to “defend” my belief in the existence of gravity).
At first, I amused myself by inventing colourful ways of telling the trolls to fuck themselves (my favourite is still “go fellate yourself with a chainsaw”), but after a while, responding to the barrage of internet word-vomit grew tiring. I blocked any new troll accounts, made an announcement that I would not be engaging further, and went to bed.
That was when the real hate began.
I won’t sicken you with the details. Suffice it to say that waking up to threats of murder and sexual abuse was something of an object lesson in my original point. Exercise free speech to criticise white progressives and watch the mask of liberalism crack and shatter. Freedom, it would seem, is a one-way street.
With privilege comes an overweening sense of entitlement – entitlement to our spaces, entitlement to our stories, to our culture, to our voices, to our resources, to our time. When I tell men I’m not interested in talking to them, they treat it like a personal affront. How dare I, a woman, refuse to pander to them? How dare I refuse to warp my universe until they are at its centre? How dare I – and this is what really underlies it all – say no?
But you see – and I said, didn’t I, that it’s funny how this works – you see, while they might have the right to speak, I have the right not to listen and a mandate handed to me by the good citizens of the Republic of Myself to take advantage of that right whenever I like.
I’m not obliged to listen to your cat-calls. I’m not obliged to make uncomfortable small talk with you at bus stops. Online, I’m not obliged to indulge your desire for a “debate” when you interrupt me mid-story to derail the conversation and re-centre it around your own experiences. I’m not obliged to pander. I’m not obliged to serve you in any way at all. “Republic of Myself” is a bit of a misnomer. My space is not a democracy. I make the rules and enforce them as I wish. And what I’ve decided after years of politely acquiescing to men in positions of authority, after years of submitting to men who knew what was best for me even when they didn’t, after years of being told that men have the right to my personhood is that…well, no, they really, really don’t.
Make your troll accounts; inundate me with abuse and threats; scream until you lose your voice. I will tell you to fuck off in a delightfully colourful fashion and then I will block you or walk away or slam the door in your face because you are not entitled to any more of me than I am willing to give. Not my time, not my energy, not my resources, not my voice, not my personhood, not my anything. Scream into the void, though I think you’ll find the echoes cold comfort and poor company. I’m not obliged to let you scream at me.
Enjoy your freedom of speech. I’m putting my earphones back in.
Fairy tales for privileged kids: “the anti-white racist”
A disclaimer before we begin: what I’m about to talk about here are facts. This means they are not up for debate. There are not multiple sides to this story. You are not owed a “reasonable discussion” about this, nor will I “agree to disagree” with you. I’m talking about things that are abjectly, incontrovertibly true. Okay? Okay.
Let’s start things off with a little mathematical proof:
(A) RACISM = [racial prejudice] * [institutional power]
(B) SUM OF [institutional power] held by black people = 0
sub (B) into (A)
RACISM against white people = [racial prejudice] * 0
therefore RACISM against white people = 0
As you can see, because multiplying by zero will always give you an answer of zero, racism against white people equals zero for any and all values of “racial prejudice”.
See, racism isn’t just about prejudice. Is it possible for non-white people to be prejudiced against white people? Sure. I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I lived in a community where land and house prices were soaring because of gentrification, leading to me having to give up my home, I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the people driving me out onto the street. If I were to be looked over for a promotion because my boss didn’t want a non-white person being a public face of the company, I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the people who made the decision that a non-white spokesperson would seem too threatening to be effective. If my son were, say, shot dead in cold blood by a white man who was then found not guilty of murder because my son was walking home on his own wearing a hoodie, then…yeah, I guess I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the assholes who ensured my son’s killer was never brought to justice.
So yeah, non-white people can be prejudiced against whites.
Can they be racist against whites? Nope.
Racism, like any other -ism, requires not just prejudice, but power. And the fact (see that word, fact? that means this is a thing that’s true and not up for debate) is that in the world in which we currently live, every single institution worth a damn is controlled by white people. Banks? White-controlled. Entertainment and news media? White-controlled. Educational institutions? White-controlled. Legislature? Despite America’s Black President, still majority white-controlled. The judiciary in most countries? White-controlled. Wide scale economics and trade? You guessed it: white-controlled.
So how can non-white people be racist against the people who hold all the cards and the balance of power? They can’t.
Racism isn’t just about slurs and curse words, though when uttered by people who have institutional backing, those things certainly have a great deal of power. Racism is about the systemic and institutional violence that contributes to the continued oppression and dehumanisation of non-white people around the world, even in majority non-white countries (their financial systems are still contingent on white-controlled international trade and their cultures are still heavily influenced by their white colonisers). Racism isn’t an angry, disenfranchised black person calling a white man “cracker” or “whitey”; racism is that white man’s ability to move on from that insult completely unscathed in every single way that matters because the black person who yelled that insult doesn’t have the power to back it up in any meaningful way.
White people control our legal system, our educational and financial institutions and our media. White people decide what is beautiful, what is respectable, what is acceptable. White people set the benchmarks for culture, for progress, for enlightenment. White people control who succeeds in business, who gets into the best schools and who will get off on their minor criminal charges instead of serving out an unnecessarily harsh jail sentence. White people export media that is absorbed into non-white culture until it changes the standards of beauty, respectability and acceptability even within those societies. White people decide what is good and what is bad and which way society’s moral compass points. White people, numeric minority they may be, control the world.
Tell me, what is a black person shouting “cracker” against all of that?
The simple fact (again, FACT) is that it is impossible to be racist against people who hold the balance of power. The n-word has power and weight as a slur because it is a reminder that white-dominated society sees black people as second-class citizens. Words like “exotic” as applied to women with non-white skin have weight and power because they are reminders that non-white women are being held against the white beauty standard and being found different (and therefore wanting). By contrast, the word “cracker” does not contribute to a culture in which, for example, white people are forced to earn less, are underemployed, over-incarcerated, devalued, dehumanised, shunned and oppressed. “Cracker” is just a word. It has no power behind it. It is not indicative of a culture of control and oppression. It is, to quote the Bard, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Here are some facts:
- Even white women earn more than non-white men, despite a pay gap that generally favours men over women
- Non-white men are incarcerated at a rate exponentially greater than white men
- Non-white people are under-represented in federal legislature, in positions of power in the business world, and on the governing bodies of educational institutions
- Despite the ethnic and racial makeup of many “white” countries, it is white beauty standards that remain the benchmark in magazines, on billboards, in movies and on our TV screens
- Non-white women are raped more often than white women, report the crime less often, receive less police support when they do and see their rapists brought to justice less often than white women
- The legal and judicial systems are profoundly skewed against non-white people to the point that both “stop and frisk” and “stand your ground” laws have been empirically shown to favour whites (see: Trayvon Martin, whose murderer is still a free man who attends conferences and signs autographs, vs Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot to scare off an intruder in her home and was originally sentenced to twenty years in prison)
Again, these are not opinions. This is not up for debate. It is demonstrable, incontrovertible, empirical fact that the balance of power is held by white people, and that in every way that counts, non-white people are at a significant systemic and institutional disadvantage.
So tell me again – what is “cracker” against all of that?
[TW: child abuse] Cry of the Tiger Cub
or: I Grew Up with a Tiger Parent and All I Got was This Lousy Psychological Trauma
Have you read Amy Chua’s bestselling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? It’s a must-read if you’re a parent or thinking of having kids, mostly because it quite handily lays out some of the best ways of emotionally and psychologically abusing your child and ensuring they grow up bitter, resentful and crippled by neuroses and insecurity.
I had a Tiger Parent. I don’t think he called himself that (though he’d probably consider the moniker flattering), but all his moves were from the Tiger Parent playbook. Like Ms Chua, my Tiger Parent (let’s call him my abuser from now on, just to save me typing that ridiculous phrase over and over) probably thought he was doing me a favour, what with the unattainable standards he held over my head from the age of four, the constant comparisons to “model” children who were much better than me and for whom he would gladly trade me, and the rigorous schedule of all work and no play to which he held me.
Oh, yes. He was a tiger, all right. And I, his child, was a scratching post for his claws.
In tenth grade, when my academic advisor was helping me plan my senior curriculum, she asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. I answered that I wanted to study medicine. (I wanted to be a writer, but my father had made it very clear that firstly, writing was a rubbish profession for lower-class people, and secondly, if I didn’t study medicine, I would find myself out of a home and without a family in short order.) My teacher, who was not stupid and was also rather fond of me, asked me what I really wanted to do after I graduated. Without so much as a second’s hesitation, I responded, “I want to make my father happy.”
See, growing up, my life was about making my father happy. As a child, I was punished for reading “rubbish” – defined as any book that wasn’t religious, educational or both – and was not allowed to have white friends because their (lax, un-tigerish) parents let them listen to pop music and watch TV and they would therefore surely be a bad influence on me. I was allowed one special treat a week – as a family, we watched National Geographic documentaries together on Saturday nights. When I consistently brought home Cs in handwriting in primary school because as a left-hander, writing lessons didn’t cater to my physical needs, my father bought copies of the handwriting books we used at school, photocopied them (so I wouldn’t sully the originals with my hen-scratch) and made me practise at home for hours, because even a C in handwriting was one C too many.
When I was old enough to begin taking instrumental lessons at school, I wanted to play the saxophone. My father wanted me to play the violin. I played the violin. When I made captain of my school’s trivia team, my father made me study quiz books for hours every day when I got home from school. When I started to cry because I was exhausted, he yelled at me. I kept studying. When I complained, he told me that I was ungrateful, that his father had been really strict, that I didn’t realise how easy I had it. His father used to tie him to a chair in order to make sure he did his maths homework. His father once hit him so hard he had to go to the doctor and lie about how he came about his injuries. By comparison, my dad was lenient and I was just weak.
I remember something he used to say to me after yelling at me, when his rage had subsided and he was holding me in his arms as though I were just a lost lamb he was trying to save from herself. “A father’s anger is never really anger, baita-jee,” he would say, stroking my hair as I sobbed. “When a father gets angry, it’s because he loves you.”
(I sometimes wonder if his father told him the same thing. Animals tend to learn by emulating their parents. I doubt tigers are much different.)
When I received a Distinction in a competition, my father would remind me that at my age, he was achieving High Distinctions in everything. An “A” in Maths or Chemistry or Physics was cause for consternation, not celebration. (He didn’t care about my straight A-pluses in English, because I wasn’t going to be a writer. He especially didn’t care for the four years in a row that I came first in my Music class, because only incredibly low-class people would ever perform music in public.) As the eldest child, I was both first in his attentions and first to feel his wrath if I proved undeserving of them. I was simultaneously held up as an example for my younger siblings (which definitely didn’t lead to them resenting me at all, oh no) and trundled out as a public whipping-girl to keep them in line. My successes were always slightly under par and not worth celebrating. My failures were proof that I was defective. Despite the fact that most of my teachers considered me a very bright and highly capable child – far more so than average, in fact – as years went on and my confidence was slowly worn to tatters, the latter became far more common than the former.
There are many things I love about Asian culture, particularly the South Asian culture in which I was raised. I love the bonds of family and community that we are encouraged to form, and the support and strength we can draw from them. I love our hospitality culture, and I still laugh fondly when my mother (who is most certainly not a parent of the big cat variety, but rather of the fallible-but-all-together-decent human one) won’t let my friends leave without at least staying for one drink. I have fond memories of dinner parties with family friends, of making up games with my siblings because we were encouraged to be each others’ best friends. I remember watching Bollywood movies with my family and sleeping all day on the holidays so that I could stay up late at night to watch Pakistan play in the Cricket World Cup. I still call my mother’s friends “aunty” and “uncle” out of respect.
But I do not love tiger parenting – not the kind Amy Chua espouses in her how-to on emotionally scarring children for life, and certainly not the kind that my emotionally distant, affection-withholding father practiced over the twenty years that I lived at home. It is neither admirable nor worth emulating to hold one’s children to impossible standards and then to make them suffer emotionally and psychologically (or even physically) when they fail to reach the bar. There is nothing brave or bold about forcing one’s sons or daughters into careers they hate, in belittling them for having dreams and ambitions of their own or in making them believe that pleasing their parents is more important than self-fulfilment. “Tiger parenting” is a nice, catchy way of saying “child abuse”, because that’s exactly what it is.
(“Why do you want to please your father so much?” my academic advisor asked me as we pored over the senior curriculum. “Don’t you want to do things that will make you happy?”
“Making my father happy will make me happy,” I replied in a monotone, blinking back tears. I knew it wasn’t true and my academic advisor knew that I knew it wasn’t true, but she also knew that my father wouldn’t sign any form that went home without his choice of subjects marked on it. She sighed and circled his choices. A dozen careers I wanted but could never have flashed before my eyes. I gained a few more scratches to go with the others.)
Hear the cry of the tiger cub: don’t buy into the toxic idea that the abuse promoted by the likes of Ms Chua is ideal parenting, or even good parenting, or even adequate parenting. Don’t buy into the idea that to be an Asian parent means one must be a tiger parent. (My mother, also of Asian descent, manages what I call “human parenting” just fine.) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has made Amy Chua a lot of money and gained her a lot of publicity and helped her paint herself as a model minority for white conservatives who like to moan about how undisciplined their unruly brats are. It has also helped validate the abusive behaviour of people like my father, who already didn’t need much of an excuse.
I stood up to my dad and left medical school in 2011. I still carry the scars of the scratches his claws left and I probably always will. I have my own claws, now – a defence mechanism developed so that I might keep other people seeking to gouge me to pieces at bay. Time heals most wounds, but others, it can only ease slightly. I only hope I’ve gained enough insight that I’ll never use them on my own children.
I do not know if Amy Chua’s children are similarly scratched and scarred. I hope against hope that they are not.
I hope against hope that they know – or come to know – that in reality, tigers, like most parents, are quite gentle with their cubs.
Seek and you shall find, or: fun with search terms
I sometimes share odd search terms that show up in my stats with my Twitter followers. (I still don’t know what the person searching “whores girls” was looking for!) Mostly, I get people searching things like “feminists are crazy” or “I hate women” – fairly routine men’s rights activist kind of stuff. Sometimes, though, I’ll get a real gem. Here are a few of my favourite search terms, pulled from my blog stats dating back to the blog’s creation.
“sex gsm woman fuk gay”
I have no idea what this means. It’s like some kind of strange code. Does this person want to find gay women to fuck? Are they saying, “fuck gay women!” in a really confusing way? Is there an alternate meaning of GSM (gender and sexual minorities) of which I’m unaware that would make this even weirder? Is this person’s ‘c’ key broken?
So many questions that will sadly have to remain unanswered.
“why do white people say paki”
I don’t know, random Google user. I really don’t know. (They ought to stop, though. That shit is racist.)
“fuckable home objects that feels like a girls mouth”
A few things:
1) This guy needs to just shell out for some decent quality sex toys
2) Which of my blog posts came up when he searched this?!
“is queer so nineties”
Things that are nineties: Nirvana, MTV actually showing music, Hey Arnold! being on TV, Doc Martens, feathered bangs.
Things that are probably not nineties: people’s sexual orientations.
“how prevent feminism”
You can’t, random Google user. We’re EVERYWHERE.
I have so many variations on this one, including “feminists crazy”, “feminism needs to stop” and “crazy feminist views”. Maybe I ought to put a link to the Men Going Their Own Way forums in my “about me” to help all these lost souls out.
Or maybe they should get their heads out of their asses and not be bigoted clowns. Either/or.
“i care only about my own opinion”
Is this person confessing? Mocking someone? Looking for advice on shutting up their overbearing boss? Trying, for some reason, to find people who only care about their own opinions? Googling a quote from something? I’ll never know.
“the galz tht they sale they body sex”
I think you’re looking for sex workers, and I don’t think you’ll find them via my blog. I would be happy to give you a few recommendations, though.
“reblog if you want nasty, dirty, perverted questions in your in box”
What the fuck?
“half decent animal sex sites”
Seriously, what the fuck?
“white people’s day”
I’m guessing this was either someone who thinks there needs to be a White History Month, or a frustrated PoC looking to see if there is a White History Month (or day) so that they could shut up a derailer. Either way, there is a White People’s Day! It’s every single day ending in ‘y’.
“patriarchy is the best”
No it isn’t. Did you mean to write “the worst” and get distracted?
“what is tw of the blood”
I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS.
“things that are white”
Hey, Google user, you should check out that “shit white people like” site. I hear it sometimes touches on this topic.
“feminists think men should not want sex”
“left a good girl for a whore”
I hope the whore leaves you, asshole. You don’t deserve her.
“what sexy things to do with male to male”
Wish I could help you, bub, but sex acts not involving women are kind of not my area of expertise.
Readers, what are some of the strangest/best/most mind-boggling search terms you’ve ever received? And will people ever stop Googling “feminists are crazy”?
If my words are worth nothing, why are you stealing them?
A few days ago, I noticed that people were sharing around my blog post “Muslim, queer, feminist: it’s as complicated as it sounds” without including my Twitter username. Not a huge deal – they were linking back to my blog, so I was still getting clicks and page views out of it – but it was a little disconcerting (not bad, just disconcerting) to realise that my work was being shared around by people who didn’t even know me and therefore couldn’t directly credit me as the creator.
People keep telling me this is a consequence of “fame” (I wasn’t even aware that I was famous!) – that people will share your work without letting you know about it. I suppose I can live with that, as long as people aren’t just copy-pasting words of mine without any kind of course or attribution…
…which is exactly what happened to me this morning.
I woke up to find that someone was quoting a tweet of mine on Facebook without any mention of me whatsoever, and that people were quoting that Facebook post on Twitter – again, without any mention of me whatsoever. When a follower of mine brought this to my attention (thank you!), I politely requested that the person quoting me attach my name to my words. I think this is a reasonable request. I have a reach on Twitter of about a million users per week. As a writer who doesn’t have a regular column in a broadsheet or on a large website, I rely on my reach to promote my work, so that reach is important. All I did was politely request that my name be attached to my words. I even provided a link to the source so that I could be directly retweeted rather than being quoted.
Five minutes later, my mentions were full of people telling me I was a rude, entitled bitch who didn’t know her place. Nice way to start one’s day.
In academia, quoting without attribution is called plagiarism, and doing it is against both the written and unwritten rules of any reputable institution. So why do people think that on the internet, those rules don’t apply? Writing, no matter how it may seem to non-writers, is work. I’ve been writing constantly since I was a child. I write online; I write in journals nobody else ever sees; I write for business and for pleasure. I write every single day. Writing, like any other skill, takes practice. Even when it comes naturally, polishing one’s work takes time, effort and dedication.
Even microblogging is work, as much as people love to deride “Twitter feminists” and their output. The reason I get retweeted so much to begin with is that I have worked on my ability to reduce thoughts to 140 characters or less, a skill that not everyone has. It’s not too much to ask that other people don’t profit, monetarily or otherwise, from my skills, my work and the contacts and networks I’ve spent time cultivating.
Quoting me without attribution when you’re just quoting someone else who plagiarised me is an honest mistake. I’m sure it happens to me several times a day and I just don’t see it. In this case, however, I did see it, and I politely requested that the person who did it give me credit for my own words. She responded by mocking me, telling me I needed to learn my place and asking her followers to attack me. Suddenly, her mistake didn’t seem quite so honest after all.
This happens to content creators fairly often, but it happens to women – particularly women of colour and other marginalised women – most of all. When we protest, we’re told that our words are worthless and that we should be grateful people care enough to steal them. But I have to ask – if our words are worthless, why steal them at all? If you don’t consider our words and our thoughts valuable, interesting or insightful, why are you taking them and reframing them as your own?
My friend and heroine @thetrudz has spoken at length on Twitter and at her blog, Gradient Lair, about people who mine the content of WoC for things they can use in order to promote themselves and their own brands at the expense of the women from whom they’re stealing. If these people ever bother to defend themselves, their excuse is, “Well, everyone does it. It’s the internet, why do you care so much?” (Indeed, several people I don’t know made sure to tell me exactly that after stealing from me this morning.) But again – why shouldn’t we care? People consider our work worthy enough to steal. Why shouldn’t we care that something of value is being taken from us?
The fact is that our work – our words – do have value. If they didn’t, nobody would steal them in the first place. If people didn’t value my tweets, they wouldn’t go to great lengths to quote those tweets whilst giving as little credit to me as possible (or not crediting me at all). For WoC without large platforms, our personal brands and the networks we cultivate are the only way we have of making our voices heard. When you steal from us, when you deliberately use us as tools to increase your own worth, you are robbing us of the only platforms we have. Theft isn’t innocent – it’s done deliberately and it shows a lack of consideration at best and malice at worst. It’s done either to silence us or to profit off us or both.
It’s not hard to credit authors. It’s not hard to ask permission to use our words. If you think our words are worthless, don’t use them. If you think they’re worth using, don’t steal. Simple as that.
Further reading: @pixiemania started a great discussion about crediting creators on Twitter here.