The novel Passing, by Nella Larsen, sparked within me a fascination with dual identities. I imagined someone who could assimilate into different communities as being like a ghost who can float through walls. After meeting a woman with curlicue hair and light skin and hearing that she identified as black, I was eager to learn if she ever found herself in the company of racist white people, what would happen when her blackness went undetected: the things they would say and her reactions and feelings. I wondered, Do the scenes from the 1929 novel Passing still play out today? Answer: Yes. Unfortunately.
On a lesser scale, I met a Scottish nationalist with an assimilated English accent and my first question was if he ever found himself in the company of English people making disparaging remarks about Scottish people. I have been in plenty of these situations myself, but maybe because I’m only part Scottish, I merely dismiss these people as . . . well, English and their remarks as plain rude. Then I try to find more important matters to get worked up about.
A few months ago, I went out with a black friend here in Istanbul and felt a wave of hostility from others like I’ve never felt before. At a restaurant, a woman made faces at us and then clapped her hands when we got up to leave. At a perfume store, the clerk yelled, “Don’t smell anything! Don’t touch anything!” We laughed that he was the worst perfume salesman ever, even though we were both deeply shaken. Later, when we returned to our quiet neighborhood, a man yelled at us to get out of his way, although we were not blocking his path. When I told him he had plenty of room to walk by, he violently wagged his finger in our faces and snarled, “You’re just like Americans! Just like all Americans!” I knew since I’d gone out with Americans before and had never experienced such hostility that our nationality had nothing to do with the way we had been treated. The only reason we were mistreated was that my friend was black. Being able to snoop out racism did not feel like some exciting way to gather writing material. It didn’t feel like a super power. It felt like a massive weight bearing down on me and I wanted to cry.
Occasionally, I mingle with sexist men or I stand on the sidelines of crude conversations. I’ve sometimes wondered, “Do they notice there’s a woman here?” They probably do, but they just feel unashamed of their views and entitled to speak and act however they please.
I’m reflecting on prejudice and discrimination tonight and feeling more solemn than usual. Stories I found funny one year ago don’t seem funny anymore, maybe because laughing isn’t the right coping mechanism for me now. When I lived in Qatar, my identity as a feminist ignited a rumor that I was gay. I was told by a well-meaning co-worker that there was a cure and that I could go to Egypt and get my hormones reversed. At the time, I thought that was so funny. Over the weekend, I was mistaken for being gay again, but this time, I didn’t find the confrontation funny at all. A woman I’d recently met told me she couldn’t be my friend because, unlike me, she was not gay. Well, it worked out for the best because I do not want narrow-minded or bigoted people as my friends.
I’m concerned because hatred and bigotry are storms raging through America right now. They are threatening to overshadow love and culture and progress. Our history seems to have been forgotten by many, or just warped into lies that benefit the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Donald Trump said our most genocidal president, Andrew Jackson, “had a great history.” I don’t want a bigot as a friend, and I certainly do not want one as a president. Can we please say no to Trump? While we’re at it, we can say no to ignorance, racism, and hatred, all qualities that have allowed a bigoted bully to get this far.