white privilege

Kizomba is a dance of the world. Until it’s not.

As the child of immigrants, I’ve often laughed at the culture clashes and distinctive behavioural patterns – My Big Fat Greek Wedding is almost an autobiography, apart from the small detail of the wrong country (Russia), and how I am still unmarried. I live in a world where race, culture, nationality are visible, identifiable, noticeable. I am not color-blind when it comes to skin: I celebrate the entire rainbow. However, North American society is not tolerant towards minorities, prejudice and bias run deep,​ systemic discrimination and white privilege are real, not debatable. Previous musings include:

The more I’ve tried to educate myself to avoid unconscious biases about minorities, the more I’ve learned about the commonly held perceptions about whites, and I’m uncomfortably aware of the weight of my white privilege and just how impossible it is for others to be color-blind when they see my skin color. #lossofinnocence #poorlittlewhitegirl


My eclectic tastes draw me equally to ballet as to African dances like kuduro/semba/kizomba. Unfortunately, not only do I have negative sensuality, but it is a well known fact: white people can’t dance. I mean, if Dave Chapelle says so, it must be true? Still, I can’t help it. The music makes me feel alive.

After one too many comments about how I can’t shake my hips like the other girls in the class, GT pulled me aside at a party and told me I should stop making such disparaging skin-based comments: it made the others uncomfortable. It was a silly stereotype, it wasn’t true, I was part of the team, not all black people can dance, just drop it Vanilla, ok? It’s in bad taste. Because I was too wrapped up in my insecurities, I didn’t listen to him. A few weeks later, following a constructive criticism during practice from Teacher, my response of “yes, well I CAN’T pop my hips any more, I’m white, I’m missing a few joints to have that kind of mobility” produced a tirade from Teacher.

I’m sick of this “white” business. There is no white, there is no black, there is just dance. You are not a white dancer. You are A dancer. Your job is to move to the music. Music doesn’t care what color your skin is. We all hear the same music, we all dance to the same music. Yes, kizomba is from Angola, but every country dances kizomba. One of the biggest kizomba festivals in the world is in Moscow. And in Sweden. And in the Netherlands. Are you going to tell me all those people can’t dance? Kizomba is a dance of the world. Stop with this stupid bullshit and get to work. I told you to pop your hips. Pop them.

Ok then.


Back when Beaut introduced me to Kizomba: “The music is so good! Except for the French Kizomba music, that stuff is crap. And there is so much of it! The French love to believe they invented Kizomba. They think it’s theirs now, they have quite the history of claiming whatever they like from other cultures.”

Walking home from dance class last week, I ran into a guy I used to kickbox with many years ago. Beautiful black guy from Europe, he always was a looker. We chatted a few minutes, catching up on each other’s life. When he found out I’d quit boxing for dancing, he was intrigued. “What kind of dancing?” Kuduro/Semba/Kizomba, with the odd moment of Salsa. “Lol, taking us over, are you? Hey, relax, I was joking. It’s cool, you have good taste at least.”

Kizomba is a dance of the world… a world in which whites have a long, violent history of cultural appropriation.


I love my school. I love how much enjoyment we derive from watching each other grow as dancers. We are all on the same journey together, regardless of our individual levels of competency. When I am with my team, I do start to believe that dancing is dancing, and kizomba/semba/kuduro is a dance of the world.

At the end of yesterday’s kuduro class we had a boys vs girls showdown. The cheering in these videos makes me so happy. (Same choreography as in this post.)

​​

Just like my boxing gym was a perfect example of what could be if tolerance, respect and acceptance were the norm instead of the exception, my dance school gives me hope that occasionally, as a species, we can set aside our differences long enough to listen to the music and enjoy a quick dance. Fun fact: my boxing gym and my dance school are in the same building. So maybe, this has nothing to do with Coach and Teacher’s leadership skills and values, and everything to do with the specific GPS coordinates of the location. The chemical mix of the cement used in the building – undetectable fumes produce abnormally peaceful & loving human behaviour?! Must be it.

That’s Africa – have you heard of it?

Dance class. We rotate partners every 2nd/3rd 8 counts, as we practice the class’s steps, bc kizomba is a social dance, which means being social with everybody, not selectively. It’s great, bc it allows me to meet all kinds of people, and if a dude flubs up his steps spectacularly – or worse, if I do – NEXT!

As I was waiting for Teacher to start the music, I stood in an ADD haze next to my partner GT, short for Google Translate – same guy as in this story: he remains my go-to guy for immediate translations of kizomba songs during practice. As is wont to happen in an ADD moment, I locked in on a random detail: the pendant of GT’s necklace. It was a small gold pendant of Africa. I’ve seen the same style necklace in painted wood, in larger proportions, but never this delicate version.

The wooden pendant I am used to:

A similar version of the delicate pendant worn by GT – except this image is not to scale. GT’s pendant is less than 1 inch long:

As I peered closer, nose almost glued to his chest (totally acceptable behaviour with an almost-stranger in the middle of a dance floor, obvi), trying to make out the words engraved on his pendant, GT sighed patiently, and explained,

Yeah, ummm, so that’s Africa. You might have heard of it?

Boy, what?! Yes. Yes, I have heard of one of 7 continents of the planet, and can spot it on a map. Fun fact, there are countries that can be found in that continent too! Yes, really! I can name most of them, too! I KNOW! How crazy is that?! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING, BOY?! I was trying to read the engraving on your necklace. Sheesh!

Oh, well, ummm, you see, ummm, you are blond… and white.

How many times has a white girl stared at his necklace, unaware of the existence of that prominent landmass?

2-3 times. Per year. Yes, Canadians too. Not just Americans.

Hard to be offended when dude has been traumatized by pervasive ignorance. Still, forevermore, when I greet GT, I always ask “Hey! Africa! Have you heard of it?”

P.S. GT admitted to me last week that even with a magnifying glass, he cannot read the engraving on his own pendant. That makes me smirk.

P.P.S. In case y’all are imagining a redneck à la Kid Rock, no. GT is from Angola. That’s in Africa – you might have heard of it?

 

The Dynamo trip: white girls are slutty, obvi

As soon as we landed in Beirut, at 3am yesterday morning, I noticed the men blatantly check out and comment on women’s appearances. Male drivers frequently hit the breaks in the middle of a busy street, roll down their car window and do the cheesy move of lowering their sunglasses so as to better stare at the women walking by on the sidewalk. Apparently that is normal behavior. I understood why Dynamo and his brother are so strict with their younger sister’s appearance. They don’t want her to ever give off the impression that she is anything but a respectable Arab girl. I’ve always found them quaint – most of it seemed like common sense and good taste: too tight clothing or too much skin (something all young girls get wrong from time to time) looks trashy, regardless of the culture. Why must they always bring it back to the concept of Arab respectability?

Well. To my surprise, I found myself covering up when walking around town yesterday. Not so that my respectability wouldn’t be doubted, but just to give the men less cause to stare at me. It seemed easier to modify my behavior, to avoid dealing with the irritation of their rude cavemen behavior, than to perpetually be frustrated and uncomfortable in my surroundings. In case y’all were wondering what I was wearing that required me to cover up, it was a lined, black maxi sun-dress – the kind that looks like a tent, or as Dynamo kindly phrases it, a maternity dress.

Today, I wandered through downtown Beirut with my friends. They needed to run an errand in one of the nearby offices, so I told them I’d wait for them on a park bench, facing a Roman archeological site, a Maronite church undergoing a facelift, and a military checkpoint near the parliamentary buildings. Like a cat, I wanted to soak up the warm sun rays. I craved a few minutes of silence, after 3 intense days of socializing. One of the girls, whose family lives in a Beirut suburb, sought to reassure me, “Don’t worry Vanilla, you won’t get raped here, it is a safe area and a high traffic street. I’m not worried for you, you could probably handle any boy who gave you trouble.” I laughed, finding her rather dramatic – obviously, I could handle myself, but in civilized downtown Beirut, I was not at risk of getting raped in broad daylight!

10 minutes into my pleasant daydream, a young Arab dude walked up to my bench and asked me if he could sit. Sensing a blog story about to unfold, I nodded.

“Nice day isn’t it? Nice view here (pointing to the Roman ruins).” Yes.

“Are you British? Oh Canadian! It has always been my dream to live in Canada.” Makes sense, Canada is a cool place.

“How you like Beirut? Not as nice as Canada, right?” It is very nice. “Are you here alone, tourist? How long are you here for? Ah, one week? Your best friend’s wedding?! Very nice, is she Lebanese? But where is she now? You are alone today?” The she is a he, bro, and no, I am not alone, my friends are across the street.

“Are you married?” No. “How old are you?” (Wow. Rude. Bro, you have no social skills.) 31. “How old do you think I am?” (Emotionally? 12) 25. “Exactly right, you are so smart.” (Silence, look the other way.)

“Do you have a Lebanese phone number? No? Only Canadian? Oh, that makes me sad. I wanted to ask you to go for a drink with me.” No, thanks, I am really busy with all the wedding festivities this week.

“Do you want to have sex with me?” WHAT? “Do you you want to have sex with me?” No, lol.

“Why? It would be a good time.” I highly doubt that.

“Do you have a boyfriend? Is that why you won’t have sex with me?” (Part of me considered lying, just to get rid of him, but then it occurred to me that the truth would be more insulting). No. “So why won’t you have sex with me?” Because I don’t sleep around, and I definitely don’t sleep with strangers. “Should I leave now?” I’ll let you figure that one out on your own. “Should I?” (Imma sit here in silence and watch you work through each of your alternative plans of action.)

Luckily, at that moment, Dynamo’s sister was walking down the street, and I reached for her as a drowning person reaches for a life jacket. My suitor asked me again,“Should I leave now?” Yes. Definitely you should leave now.

I told my friends when they joined me soon after. They all laughed, amazed at how I seem to attract these stories. They also confirmed that he only asked me that because I was white – he’d have known that an Arab girl would have ripped him a new one. But then again, no Arab girl would ever have found herself sitting alone on a park bench – that would have been a tacit indication that she was open to such a proposition.

So there you go.

White girls are perceived as sluts.

I was offended, humiliated and ashamed – poor little white girl suffering from ignorant prejudice for the first time in her life. I thought of all my non-white friends, and finally began to understand what they must go through ALL THE TIME.

#poorlittlewhitegirl

#whitegirlsareperceivedasslutsyouknow


Recap of all previous posts related to this trip:

On race and racism – Vanilla’s perspective

Perhaps because #OscarsSoWhite;

Perhaps because it is Black History Month;

Perhaps because Beyoncé turned black, and Kendrick Lamar owned the Grammys;

Perhaps because of the relentless stream of hatred spewing from our neighbor below’s Republican presidential candidates directed at anyone who isn’t a middle-class WASP;

My social media has been awash in all kind’s of posts related to racism, and specifically racism against blacks, or as Americans call them, African-Americans.


Perhaps because when Jimmy Kimmel shared this skit, I sent it to my friends, and most of my white friends sheepishly admitted they didn’t have any black friends;

Perhaps because one of my friends once told me that it wasn’t her fault she was unaware of racial issues in Montréal since she didn’t hang out with black people, the way I do – she didn’t belong to a boxing gym;

Perhaps because at the accounting firm I worked at for 5 years, which employed close to 2,000 people, I only ever saw 3 black people;

Perhaps because in my graduate accounting program at a university renown for its ethnic diversity, out of a class of 160 students, 4 were black;

Perhaps because in my first year of mechanical engineering at one of Canada’s best universities, in a class of 125 students, 2 were black;

Many of my white friends have told me that racism isn’t an issue here in Canada (*), or at least, “it isn’t as bad as the States”.


Perhaps because my friends assumed my parents would have a problem when my first serious boyfriend was half black;

Perhaps because my ex-boyfriend grew up living in Alberta, where he and his brothers were the only black kids in high-school. One day after school, on his walk home, my ex was ambushed by the “cool” kids in his grade, who held him down, and sucker-punched him in the nose and broke it, because they didn’t like his “punk-ass black attitude”;

Perhaps because my ex’s mother (white, anglo-saxon Canadian) confided in me her doubts about successfully raising mixed children in a white environment;

Perhaps because I remember the day when my ex and his roomie walked into the appartment, and his roomie, a Canadian Persian, was shaking with pent up outrage, while my ex looked blank. Walking in downtown Montréal, my ex’s roomie had been blatantly smoking a joint, while my ex walked beside him with his bike. My ex wore long dreadlocks; his roomie was clean shaven. The cops pulled up beside them, and searched my ex for pot, even after the roomie, outraged by the obvious racial profiling, yelled at them that he had all the pot on him. The cops ignored the roomie, and told my ex not to have so much attitude.

Perhaps because one time a (black) bouncer was rude to me. My ex started to speak up, and the bouncer looked at him with scorn, “what, you think you black? with your white girl, and your nice jeans? Shut the fuck up.”

One friend told me she didn’t understand why black people had to make everything about race. Sometimes, it could just be a case of bad manners, you know?


Perhaps because of 3 of my ex’s cousins moved to Montréal from Jamaica, in their early teens, and were taken in by their white cousin – a lovely man, who’d grown up in Barbados, and understood the culture shock of moving to Canada. Quebec’s education system forced them into a french high-school with remedial french lessons, and held them back academically due to their difficulties learning the language. Bored, they started acting out, fell in with a bad crowd made up of other disenfranchised non-white (mainly black) teenagers, and got into serious trouble. Their guardian pleaded with the principal and guidance counsellors to allow the boys to join the regular academic stream and the school athletic teams, so that the boys would be exposed to a wider variety of youth, with less behavioural problems and more ambition. The school replied that due to their poor french skills and bad attitude, it would be inappropriate to reward the boys with those privileges.

Perhaps because one of the boys got recruited by a gang in Montréal, and eventually got shot and killed. Perhaps because the cops shrugged and never bothered investigating. “What do you expect? He should have known better.”

Perhaps because at the boy’s funeral, I showed up in a charcoal suit. I was outraged when close to 50 young black kids showed up wearing hoodies printed with the boy’s face. How dare they show such lack of respect in their attire? I sat next to one of those kids, who cried so hard his body was shaking. He didn’t own a hankerchief, so he’d brought a facecloth, which he soaked through and through. When I tentatively gave him a hug, and patted his back soothingly, he hung on for dear life. I wondered how many of these kids would make it to 18.

Perhaps because a few month’s later, the eldest boy got arrested and sent to juvie, for shoplifting $10 worth of cheese from the local grocery store. The youngest boy started running away from home. Perhaps because I never found out what happened to them.

My friends tell me White Privilege is “not a thing” here in Québec.


I don’t have any answers. I don’t understand why racism is so easy, and why specifically racism against blacks is such a polarizing issue, even here in Canada. I do however know that to deny the problem because it is subtle; to relativise it into meaninglessness; to blame the victims for being oversensitive is not the solution. To listen, even when the arguments are awkwardly phrased; to acknowledge the hurt and rage coming from the people with the courage to speak up; to keep an open mind as to the causes and the solutions; to be kind – THAT is part of the solution.

I leave you with this article: The Cost

#BlackLivesMatter

 

(*) One of my readers pointed out that Blacks make up only 2% of Canada’s population, and the stats I gave about my workplace and schooling are consistent with that %. True. However, in Montréal, Blacks make up 9.1% of the city’s population. In which case… my point that blacks are significantly under-represented in Professional settings/university degrees still stands. (stats taken fron the 2011 Canadian census).

Nice and oppressive

In response to my post about achieving assertiveness as a woman in business, I got  the following tweet from a male reader:

@jsvetlo But are your results objective? I get those reactions too. Could you be subconsciously over aggressing from perceived m/f hierarchy.

So many things.

No, my reactions are not objective – by definition they are subjective. Obviously. Yes, I might be over aggressing, that doesn’t invalidate my experiences or my conclusions thereof. NO, THERE ISN’T A “PERCEIVED” M/F HIERARCHY. IT IS A DOCUMENTED PHENOMENON, I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS EVEN UP FOR DEBATE. 

It’s like the (white) people who don’t believe white privilege exists. Or those that don’t feel racism is a problem (in Canada). How is it possible that these otherwise rational individuals can hold such unbalanced opinions? I’ve often wondered. 

May this be the only time I ever quote Dr. Phil

 

In this brilliant OpEd on gender and race inequality, author Katherine Fritz hits the nail right on the head:

I’ve noticed this thing that happens when I have these kinds of conversations with some white men in my life, men I admire and respect and love.

They become frustrated during these conversations because they feel attacked. They feel invalidated. They feel like their arguments aren’t considered valid, because they can only speak from their own experiences, and it’s hard to believe that there is a problem when you can’t see that it’s there.

They assume that they must fall into one of two categories, “nice” or “oppressive,” and no one wants to be “oppressive,” but if they argue with anything that I’m saying, they certainly can’t be “nice.” So they shut down. Or become angry. 

And that sucks. Because their voices are necessary, and need to be heard. Join in. We can’t do this without you. 

This. This is true.

I once shared the following article I Don’t Know What To Do With Good White People with one of my (white) girlfriends. She was so insulted. “If someone cuts in front of me when standing in line, I don’t assume it’s a race or gender thing, I assume that person is rude as fuck and an asshole. Maybe the author shouldn’t make everything about race. If I will be judged for being nice, I’ve no patience for that.” I was very taken aback by her reaction: I thought the article was an interesting opinion piece, that illustrates just how complex racial issues are, and how even good intentions can be patronizing or harmful. Turns out, she felt the article presented life as a sum-zero situation where her skin colour automatically made her oppressive to others – an accusation she rejected since she is a nice, polite girl. But a white girl – not her fault! (N.B. I am aware of the irony of her feelings, given the subject at hand!)

Lesson learned. For the dialogue surrounding gender and racial issues, it must be framed such that “nice” and “oppressive” are not mutually exclusive. It kinda blows my mind that that must be explicitly said, before we can talk about the real issues, yet so it is. Everyone is seeking the same thing, to have their reality and their good intentions acknowledged. Who’d have thunk?

So. Now that we’ve acknowledged that not all men are sexist, most don’t intend to subtly belittle their female coworkers, and many are good, kind men, can we get back to the discussion of gender bias in the workplace? Do we really have to argue the logical fallacy that because one hasn’t personally witnessed a phenomenon, it cannot exist? 

P.S. Please please PLEASE read Katherine Fritz’s piece The Invisible LateNight Knapsack. Best thing I have ever read about how to acknowledge and discuss racial and gender bias.