Tuesday, April 16, 2013

His and Hers

I drive with my windows open. Even when I stop at the traffic lights. The middle-class among you will know what this means. This means that when someone comes to ask for money, for food, for anything, that I look at them and that I see them. If I'm going to say no, I need to say no, not just shake my head and stare forward. Poverty doesn't go away when you ignore it, it just goes ignored. So, I keep my windows open. These are people on the streets around me, people with parents, people with dreams. People who I try not to undermine by ignoring their personhood.

But what is my point? Yesterday, as I was making my way to a friend's house, I stopped at the lights at Stanhope and Main and a man came to my window.
"Two for five rand," he said, and rattled a pair of wooden maracas through the window.
"No thanks," I told him.
"It's for my daughter," he replied.
"I'm sorry," I answered, "but no." The man's breath smelt bitter and alcoholic. So I made a judgment call. And yes, on the seat next to me was a bottle of birthday bubbly for my friend. But while the rich are allowed their frivolous purchases, the poor must be responsible (and the rich must be paternalistic). It's not as though their impoverished lives limit their freedom in so many other ways, no-no, no-no. No drink for you.
So that's what I told him, "No."
He kept shaking the maracas, kept asking, kept begging. I sat there on my throne and alternated between "no" and "I'm sorry." Sorry for so many things, but that's for another time. And then, then he tries a different line: "If you don't give me money, then give me sex."
I looked at him for a moment. At the brown cheeks, at the narrow patch of lighter brown scar tissue under his right eye, at the blue plastic bag out of which he waved his maracas. I looked.

A few days ago, walking back from the little shop where I buy my pipe tobacco on Lower Main, a man came up to me and asked for some spare change. With tobacco in pocket (Oh, but I have private medical aid so the state won't have to pay for my ill health, yadda yadda yadda, I can afford my bad decisions), yes, with tobacco in pocket, I told him, "no."
He replied: "I want the money for sex."
He continued: "I want to buy condoms to cover my penis."
I knew where this conversation was going, so I walked on without replying.
"Don't you want to cover my penis?" He asked.
I stepped between the bins outside Cha Chi, under the unruly branches poking out of the hedge on the corner of Norfolk, and willed myself not to hit a homeless man.

So when this man yesterday in the traffic asked me for sex, I just looked at him. With all my wealth, my whiteness, my education, my able-bodied life, you would think the balance of power would be in my favour when interacting with a poor, black, (presumably) undereducated, limping, drunk person. You would expect that I could dictate the terms of our engagement. You might say, "Jen, look at your middle-class comfort, look at the history of your experiences, look at the everything that you have and the nothing that he has. Don't be a fool, you are the privileged one."
But then you would be forgetting one small detail. Something as accidental as our skin colour really, perhaps as random as our birth: he is a man, and I am a woman. And so I sit with my double x chromosomes as he reduces every other pocket of power ascribed to my body to a paper castle he can knock over with his hisness.

But not quite see. Because I can drive away. I can take those other pieces of privilege and escape. Not so the imagined woman who limps and looks like him. No, not her...

1 comment:

  1. This dynamic has always fascinated me. And it does bring home the fact that patriarchy doesn't make every man a winner, but it makes every woman a loser.

    But I don't think this is unique to gender, actually. There are many axes of inequality, and within the same position on any one axis, the others still operate. The only difference is that this axis is so deeply internalised, so ubiquitously active, and so unusually fraught with threat.