Today my (white and blonde) friend and I went to a library to do some observations. We’re in library school, preparing to be youth services librarians, you know, so we were sitting in the teen section of said library and critiquing it. We were being pretty quiet and respectful, or at least she was – I kept saying things like “This blows” and “This is the most badly designed space ever.” We were in a back corner of the library, far away from most other humans there except for two teenagers who looked pretty annoyed that we were there and talking shit (sorry, it’s a beautiful building for a house, but the space was deeply uncomfortable and way too quiet). We both believe that teen spaces in libraries are for teenagers and that adults only have business in those areas if they are quickly browsing and then leaving or if they are the librarian. Obviously we are not technically either of those things, but clearly we had a legitimate, non-creepy reason for being there, and if a librarian had come up to us to ask why we were there, we could have explained that we are graduate students studying library science and that also we are pretty young, as far as adults go.
Anyway. We’ve been sitting for awhile, and all of a sudden I hear, “Hi, beautiful.” HORRIBLE, I know, but I looked up the way you do when you hear your name. GROSS. A telling reaction, I think you’ll see. Anyway. It’s this man who is maybe in his 50s and dressed kind of strangely and layered (but in a way distinct from the average homeless library patron – he was clearly the quirky kind of person, not the down on his luck kind of guy), and he comes over and says, “So, you must be either Hispanic or Ethiopian.”
Hello to you, too. STRANGER. WITH WHOM I HAVE IN NO WAY ENGAGED OR MADE EYE CONTACT AND THEREFORE DO NOT HAVE ANY SORT OF RELATIONSHIP WITH.
I, like, halfway smile. “Neither.”
“Well, then, you must be Cape Verdean.”
“No.” And then I was nice enough (! big mistake) to give him something even though he just accosted and interrogated me when I’m clearly typing things on my computer and minding my own damn business, as it were. “I’m just mixed, so I look like I could be lots of things.”
“What are you?”
“Just half black and half white.” WHY ARE YOU SPEAKING, HANNAH? Ignore, ignore!
“Oh, that’s why your features are so exotic.” Actually, he might have just said “distinct” or “beautiful.” I don’t really know or care, because whatever word he spoke, he meant “exotic,” and it always means “exotic.”
“Where are you from?” And on and on. What do I do. What school do I do it at.
Then he leaves for like half a second and turns on his heels. “So you’re getting your bachelor’s degree, then.”
FORCED GRACIOUS SMILE THAT HE DOES NOT DESERVE. “No, master’s.” Not even going to explain that I am getting two.
“Wow! And you look so young.”
I don’t, actually. I’m quite certain I look like I’m 24. That is not traditionally an age to still be an undergraduate. Also, if one more person tries to tell me that being told you look young before you are in your mid-thirties is a compliment I’m going to start kicking people in the boobs or balls. When you say that to someone in their twenties, especially when it comes in the context of their just having told you that they are a professional human with a job, what you are saying with that “compliment” is, “Wow! You don’t actually look mature, professional, or trustworthy at all. My mistake. Good for you that apparently you might be!”
He leaves. Oh, no, he changes his mind.
“What’s your name?”
SWEET SMILE WITH THE ANGER OF A THOUSAND SUNS BEHIND IT. “Jennifer.” (That’s always my name for creepers or awkward social situations.)
I think he tells me his name. I don’t really remember, because my brain was broken, obviously. Otherwise I would not have been having this conversation. Also, because why the fuck would I care? He also said something about welcome to Massachusetts when I said I had lived here a year and a half (remember the whole brain broken, kept talking thing?).
Like a split second later. “Jennifer, since you’re older and you’re a librarian, maybe you’ll appreciate this joke. Did you hear the one about the pregnant typewriter?”
I might squeak out a no. I don’t remember.
“It missed a period.”
I don’t think he even waits for a reaction. Maybe I just don’t see it because I look down.
WHY do people feel the need to speak to me when I am doing everything, in the most polite way, to indicate that I do not want to be spoken to unless you are telling me that the room is on fire or I dropped something out of my purse? (How often on the bus or train do I wear sunglasses, listen to music, and read, and STILL have people trying to fucking talk to me?)
WHY do people feel the need to tell me weirdly gross and inappropriate jokes in public settings? (In sixth grade, a male student teacher signed my bathroom pass and said, “Did everything come out okay?”)
WHY, as my friend noted, did he not ask her any questions? “He should have asked me if I was German!” she said. He also should have asked if she was also a library student. But of course he didn’t, because she’s not “exotic,” and also, it’s inappropriate to ask human people such questions, especially when you are clearly not in a social situation. I’m not human. I’m a woman of color. TOTES DIFFERENT, friends. (This guy did get like five points for not saying “Where are you from?” and following the “Arizona” answer with “No, where are you really from?”) As such, I am expected to be available to answer any and all questions about myself.
WHY did this man then go on to sit in the teen section when adults are not invited there? And would he have said similar things to the Asian teen girl who was there had I not been?
WHY is the teen section in the part of the library where this entire exchange was not visible to any of the library staff? When there is a rather open floor plan at this particular branch?
And WHY WHY WHY is it that every time something like this happens, I am somehow unable to do all of the things I’ve practiced in my head, like ignore, like explain calmly why such a line of questioning is inappropriate and rude, and why it reeks of white privilege and male privilege, and why it is threatening when I am a smaller, seated, less powerful individual at the mercy of this older white man questioning me? WHY is it that even though I know that I am uncomfortable being gracious in a situation that does not actually warrant giving the other person an ounce of respect, I default to a timid person who lets this happen all over again?
See, it’s because I grew up thinking I was safe and respectable. Set the burglar alarm, look both ways before you cross the street, use a condom, sure. But I have always felt safe to be myself. Actually, not felt. Assumed. I have always assumed I am safe, and that is why I have had countless social experiences that have caused me to react poorly or awkwardly (ranging from the awkward and cruel moments in middle and high school that everyone has to these situations where there are clear issues of race and gender and power at play). I am never ready for them. And I should be. I keep having faith, and it keeps getting shattered. I am so used to situations like these that I can laugh about them, tweet about them, brush them off, and yet I get home and I feel frozen, and finally I realize it is because I was treated like I was less than human.
Creeper in the teen section. Creeper interrogating me on my ethnic background. Library is like Edward Cullen’s house. #notokay
— (Sarah) Hannah Gomez (@shgmclicious) February 26, 2013
This is why I am sitting at home, with a cluster headache that would go away if I were being active, sitting on my bed, feeling kind of sick, definitely hungry, and too uncomfortable to go buy the groceries I really need to buy, too uncomfortable to go to the gym that I wanted to go to tonight (because I have been followed – first physically for a few yards, and then verbally for quite a few minutes – home when I left the gym once), too ill at ease to do my homework. This is why I am blankly staring at my computer (or was until I began writing this) and alternately watching television shows without paying attention or singing along to the same album over and over again without the joy that I usually get from singing.
This is why I have spent most of my post-high school life “going out” and having social experiences as little as possible. This is why I tell people I’m going to go hang out with them at a place and then cancel or make up a fake excuse at last minute. (All the time. To everyone, whether I really want to hang out with them or not. And I don’t feel bad, because I already feel bad and queasy about leaving my apartment.) This is why I don’t find people to date and am not going to go to a bar to hit on them there. This is why my weekends consist mostly of Netflix and Hulu and not of exploring the many actually great things Boston might have to offer me. This is why I talk shit about this city and say I hate it here, and this is probably why I will talk shit about whatever city I happen to move to. This is why I order delivery on the Internet and run quickly to the convenience store for something to binge eat instead of being an adult who can handle having a glass of wine at a bar by herself if her friends are busy. This is why I straightened my hair last year so that I could look less different, less “exotic,” and more like every other straight haired person that takes my train. This is why I am starting to regret going into library science and I haven’t even had a real job yet.
Because libraries and all of those other places are public spaces. I believe in them, in their importance in a society as unequal as ours, but they don’t believe in me. Public spaces think that I don’t have the right to use them in the same way as other people. Public spaces think that I should be questioned about my validity – not necessarily to be there, in the way that police might assume a Mexican kid is loitering or something, but to exist as a person who is American and in every other way the same as everyone else in that park or on that train or in that library. Public spaces think that I am on display instead of a user of that space. Public spaces tell me that I am not physically, emotionally, or socially safe. Public spaces tell me that if I am present in them, I should expect to be appraised, and I should accept that the only reason I am in that public space is to get the results of that appraisal in the form of a cat call, a “you look so young,” or a guess of the sexual acts I’m best at.
I have no doubt that this man meant well and was really just curious. But I am not a curiosity, I’m a person. And there is a deep, deep problem with our society if going out of your way to interrogate someone because you need to figure them out is okay; if it is your right as a man to repeatedly tell women you find them attractive or interesting when they’ve not asked you for your assessment of them; if you as an older and stronger person find it reasonable to approach a person in an area marked for minors when you say you thought that person was possibly a minor; if you think it is the job of people of color to tell a really good story about themselves for your white entertainment or edification.
I’m staying in tonight. Probably tomorrow, too. Definitely probably this weekend.