THE CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS
by Fofi Littlepants
VI. SOCIETY II ~ IDENTITY
What a person sees and experiences in a particular lifetime is invariably affected by a complex interplay of internal and external factors. One views the world through one’s own eyes and mental constructs, and engages in it through personal choices and actions. But the internal interacts with, and is inevitably influenced by, the external: Angela Davis talked about the “intensely social character of [our] interior lives.” What you see of the surrounding society depends on your internal orientation, as well as your external characteristics and your role within the society as they are societally determined; the options for action available to you, and how the society reacts to the choices you have made, are similarly circumscribed.
In our journey across the country, it became clear to Joey and I that certain aspects of identity ~ whether personally chosen or externally attributed ~ continue to be important defining factors in American life. These included class, race, gender, national origin, and immigration status. I’m sure this isn’t big news for anyone ~ the United States was founded on a framework laid to protect the privilege of white, propertied men while excluding others, and much of the history of activism in the country has had to (and continues to) be targeted toward remedying this.
During this trip, one way we experienced the world was in our incarnation as hitchhikers. (I won’t try to speak about how a trainhopper experiences life, because I never really became one.) At the same time, we were locked into certain gender, racial and other categorizations ~ Joey and I were both female; Joey would normally be classified as “white” and I as “Asian-American”. What class designation we should be ascribed was a bit confusing because we were living on a low income and engaged in some “poor” behaviors like squatting, but in reality we had middle class backgrounds and resources. We were both U.S. citizens, and while we both had foreign roots, we probably “seemed American” in that we spoke fluent English with a standard American accent (but for me, simply being Asian American probably was considered a mark of foreign-ness anyway.)
It is impossible to understand our journeys without these factoids.
Hitchhikers are generally assumed by the mainstream to be poor and fringe, and that’s how many people perceived Joey and me (at least initially, until they found out we had degrees and jobs). Their reactions to us revealed some insights into their attitudes about poverty and marginality.
As I said before, the reactions we got when we were trying to get rides or when we walked or sat around with our backpacks varied: some people scowled, others ignored; others laughed and some stopped to proffer rides or help. In addition, quite a few people offered to give us money, and some people just tried to give us moral support.
I do have the impression that the most kindness we received was from working class people ~ that’s who tended to give us rides, offer us money and friendship. We noticed that the people in nicer cars seemed to be the ones that expertly avoided eye contact, and the coldest direct responses we got were usually from people operating in a business context.
For instance, at an internet café we went to in a conservative town, we were obviously not very welcome ~ the people served us the bagels and tea that we ordered, but avoided our eyes and conversation and didn’t respond to our cheerful “hi!”s and “bye!”s. This was so even though it was supposed to be “alternative”, and we went back there for four days in a row. It seemed that they were either afraid of us, or were pointedly being cold so we would not come back.
We got kicked out of gas stations and truck stops, and even the sidewalks in front of them, by the people that owned the establishments or worked there. They presumably threw us out in order to protect private property interests ~ perhaps to prevent us from panhandling or soliciting customers, or lowering property value by simply being an eyesore. It may be that if we had met some of those people in another context (especially those that just worked at those places rather than owned them), perhaps they would have been nice enough, but clearly within the corporate capitalist business zones, straggly (presumably poor) hitchhikers were not allowed. These people were more interested in persecuting us than the cops.
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in an Op-Ed published in the New York Times in August 2009 about the increasing criminalization of the poor in the United States. She commented that “if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life ~ like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering.” She identifies a whole range of laws and policies that are increasingly targeting poor people, such as vagrancy and trespassing laws which subject homeless people to arrest. She recounts heartbreaking and perverse stories on the impact of these laws ~ for instance, she tells of a homeless man that got dragged out a shelter and put in jail because he had an outstanding warrant for “criminal trespassing” because he had gotten arrested before for sleeping on the street; this made him lose his spot at the shelter, so now he is sleeping on the streets again (and is vulnerable to more arrests.) Ehrenreich argues that it is essentially becoming a crime in many parts of the U.S. to be poor ~ activities that poor people engage in or benefit from are outlawed so that poor people are criminalized. (FN 1)
Within this context, it was striking to Joey and I that we didn’t get subjected to more persecution and harassment than we did. We were engaged in the biological necessities of life like sitting, sleeping, and loitering in a very low-income way: we sat around on the sidewalk and at truck stops, camped clandestinely under bridges and parks, and tried to get rides on the side of freeways. But amazingly, we never got arrested. And we came face to face with cops and railroad security at least eight times. But instead of arresting us, cops positively helped us. Twice we were given rides in police cars. In the times that we were questioned by police for hitchhiking because it was illegal, we were told ~ almost apologetically ~ that hitchhiking was prohibited and that we should get out of sight.
So was Ehrenreich wrong? Are cops actually nice and nurturing to the poor?
I don’t think all cops are abusive, but I don’t think they’re all nice to poor people either. What I believe, based on the totality of our experience, was that we didn’t get arrested because of a combination of the fact that we were not actually poor, and, we were not perceived to be permanently poor.
Poverty is a multi-faceted marsh that is mixed from a whole host of deprivations, inequality and stigma. A good practical indicator of poverty is not your income but the extent to which your life choices are restricted ~ people are poor if they don’t have the option of meeting their basic needs, getting a higher paying job or one with dignity or fulfilment, sending their kids to safe schools, going to see the doctor when they need to, going on vacation every year (or ever), etc.
For myself, though I was working for a pathetic part-time non-profit income, I had already sucked up quite a lot of societal resources in education, and had a very high earning potential if I wanted to be a corporate hack. I didn’t want to be a corporate hack, but I had the choice not to be ~ even with my paltry salary I could buy enough food to eat, had health insurance, and was traipsing around the country for fun. So even though I slept by a dumpster one night in Dallas, it would be an insult to poor people to call myself poor.
When we ran into cops, we didn’t have the strikes that many poor people already have against them that mires them on a road to criminalization. All the cops that stopped us asked for our IDs and did a background check on us. We didn’t have prior criminal records ~ I bet if we had, we would have been much, much more likely to get arrested for trespassing, hitchhiking, loitering, soliciting, or whatever. And having prior criminal records, even for children, is of course correlated with being poor. Ehrenreich talks about how in New York, if a child visits a friend or relative in a public housing project without an ID, he or she could get arrested for trespassing; in Los Angeles, many poor teenagers get arrested for truancy, but 80% of the “truants” are merely late to school because of a crappy bus system.
Class privilege and disadvantage run deep, one indication being that wealthy and middle class people can even engage in the same behaviors for which poor people get criminalized, but not suffer the same consequences. In stark contrast to high numbers of arrests and criminal convictions of poor kids for things as innocent as being late to school, I remember that when I was growing up, lots of my ritzy private school friends were stopped by cops ~ for skipping school, drunk driving, drugs, stealing bikes, etc. ~ but none that I recall were ever convicted of any crimes because the cops many times didn’t even arrest them, and if they did, their parents got a lawyer who got the charges dropped.
Similarly, Joey and I could engage in poor behaviors without sufffering poor consequences because we were actually not poor. We were also able to glide through our encounters with the police, because we had the self-assurance that comes from being “empowered” and “middle class” ~ we weren’t afraid of law enforcement authorities because we had knowledge enough of our rights and how to defend them; we also had friends (lawyers and otherwise) who we could call if we needed help or bail money. (We also probably didn’t get arrested because there was probably quite a bit of male paternalism involved, more on this later.)
In addition, while many people thought we were poor, I don’t think they thought we were absolutely, irreparably, down-and-out poor. I have the sense that this was important. I’ve noticed before that when someone looks really dirt poor and hopeless (or angry) and asks for money, they tend to get less offers for assistance than do persons who seem cleaner and more enterprising (or better versed on how to cajole middle class sympathies). It might be because middle class people can be positively afraid of someone that looks really poor, and/or, I think some middle class people don’t like to help out people that seem permanently poor. They’re willing to help people a bit, with a small problem, but they don’t like the idea that wealthier people have a permanent obligation to the poor, and, they especially don’t like that idea that poor people should be angry about getting the short end of the stick. This is after all the U.S. of A., and we must all pull ourselves up by own bootstraps. I find this rather paradoxical, because this means that the poorest of the poor, who are often hemmed in most tightly by structural inequality, would be left to drown.
It was clear that some people stopped to offer us help because they thought we were temporarily poor ~ some people asked us if our cars had broken down, but most of the time people thought we were quite young and/or students. (By the way, I’m far from being that young, but people seemed to think I was.) So it could be that many of the people thought it was okay and worthwhile to help us out, since someday we would surely become grown-up, contributing members of society. Whereas if people thought we were really, permanently poor, they might have just told us to go out and get a job. Once we got picked up in the park by a group of pastors who trolled the city streets looking for troubled youths, and got to stay at one of their houses for two days on condition that we go to church on Sunday. (Kids can be reformed.) (But those specific pastors also help adults too; though I think they wouldn’t have let us stay at one of their houses if they didn’t think we were so young.)
Further, we probably got extra help because when we had contact with “middle class” people, we knew how to talk and interact with them. Interestingly, with the pastor that let us stay at his house, we were initially told that we would have to stay out in the trailer out back, but when we got to the house and met the family, the wife ushered us into an extra bedroom within the beautiful house ~ I think it’s because we seemed “okay” (i.e. non-threatening), which may essentially have been because we had middle class mannerisms. (I’m not saying that these people were mean to poor people ~ clearly they were very noble spirits that had dedicated their lives to helping others (with a special focus on youths). But I know from experience that most (probably all) “middle class” people, no matter how much they (we) believe ideologically that “poor people” have inherent dignity or equal rights, have a hard time really treating people that are in poverty without some level of discrimination. I don’t pretend I can be exempted from this category.)
Another reason that we didn’t get targeted or criminalized alot is probably because we weren’t of the “wrong color” that is stereotyped as being poor and marginal, which puts people at higher risk of arbitrary arrest. Ehrenreich writes that “By far the most reliable way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong-color skin”: for people with the “suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor”, criminalization and harassment by the police is rampant. And if you have the “wrong-color skin”, you don’t even have to be poor to be criminalized ~ the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in July 2009 when entering his own home was just one or many examples.
During this trip, we got plenty of evidence that race matters.
If anyone thought that the election of Obama signaled the end to discriminatory attitudes against black people in the United States, they are lamentably mistaken. Racism is alive and well, and a number of people said openly racist remarks about African Americans in our presence that we found quite shocking. I don’t think those people would have been saying that if we had been black. Or they probably would just not have picked us up.
It’s quite possible that we survived this entire trip unscathed because we were not the “wrong colour” (though most of this was probably riding on Joey’s whiteness.) At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we read about how on June 5, 1966, James Meredith, outraged by the fact that blacks could travel abroad but not feel safe in the South, started a solitary March Against Fear (the March was also to encourage blacks to vote.) He set out to walk the 220 miles from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi in order to show that it should, and could be done. He was shot and wounded on the second day. (The march was continued in Meredith’s name by civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael. On June 16, Carmichael was arrested; in Canton, Mississippi, the march was attacked and tear-gassed by police. But on June 26, the march finally entered Jackson, with 15,000 people and with Meredith, who had rejoined the March on June 25.)
Have things changed that much since then? The African Americans friends I have seem to be much more cautious about traveling than I am. A friend in California would tell me that she didn’t want to meet up at night, not because she was afraid of crime, but because she was afraid of cops. (She would travel quite a bit abroad though ~ she was mostly paranoid about being in the United States as a black person, which was James Meredith’s point.) The African African friends I visited during this trip, whether in the North, South, or the East, all seemed very worried and inquired about our safety; some shared some scary stories about racial encounters they had had in the South. One was on the verge of driving us all the way from Chicago to Texas.
Not that there isn’t racism in other places, but we did notice that the South was on a different scale altogether. I visited an African American friend in Little Rock, Arkansas, who was from there but had moved away a long time go, and was only back briefly to visit her family. She hated the South, she said, because people see things only in terms of black and white, and if you’re black you’re locked into a box, which in the South is not very big. Racial discrimination and segregation were still widespread; she told us a story about how some schools in the South still have two proms ~ the white kids have one, and the black kids have one. This was allowed because they were privately organized. She said that she had read that Morgan Freeman had offered to pay for such a school to have an integrated prom, but the offer was refused.
The tension in the South between local racial attitudes and federal mandates for equal treatment was obvious. In Little Rock, Arkansas, Central High School, where federal troops landed to enforce the desegregation orders issued in Brown v. Board of Education, has been designated a national historic site and has a beautiful, extensively researched and documented exhibit on the desegregation decisions as well as the history of broader efforts to expand Constitutional rights to those beyond white, propertied men. But we noticed that the Memorial was not listed on most local tourist maps.
The National Civil Rights Museum, built on the site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, provides an extensive (and sometimes overwhelming) amount of information on the civil rights struggle. Meanwhile, a memorial looks out over the Mississippi River a few miles away, commemorating the Confederate naval defeat in 1862 that led to the “U.S. invasion” and “occupation” of Tennessee. The plaque, erected by groups including the West Tennessee Historical Society and the “Sons of Confederate Veterans”, is dated April 2008.
And of course, federal authorities can’t paint themselves as always acting as the defenders of civil and human rights either ~ the entire history of the civil rights struggle shows this. And both federal and local law enforcement, as the arm that implements societal attitudes, has reflected a lot of racism in a racist society. One interesting exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum provides data from three separate inquiries into the MLK assassination (the 1997 House Select Committee on Assassinations, the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Commission of 2000 appointed by Reno, and the civil suit filed by the King family with William Pepper against Loyd Jowers), examining evidence that the FBI, CIA, Memphis Police and others were involved.
Within this extraordinary context, one of the most surreal demonstrations in our trip of how much race mattered was when a cop pulled over where Joey was sitting with her backpack on the side of a gas station outside of Chicago. I was by the pumps asking for rides, and when I saw the police car, I ran over because I was afraid she was getting arrested. But astoundingly, the cop was not questioning her on suspicions of loitering, vagrancy or criminal intent, but instead was asking her if she was lost! “This is a dangerous neighborhood”, he said: i.e., it was poor and predominantly black, and she was white. Surely the situation would have played out differently if she had been a black youth sitting with a backpack at a gas station in a predominantly white neighborhood. He offered us a ride, and actually dropped us off at the right freeway entrance.
Racism of course is not limited to African Americans. A Mexican truck driver, “Lorenzo”, told us that he used to get stopped incessantly by the police. Trucks have to go through scales that check that the cargo is not overweight, and he said he would always get tickets. Sometimes the cops didn’t even try to hide that they were out to harass him. An officer in Wyoming once pulled him over; when he asked what was wrong, the officer told him, “Well, I’m going to find out.” Another Central American man that did business in several Plains states also confirmed the same ~ he was constantly getting pulled over by cops. (Though of course, there is a color hierarchy for Latin Americans, with the darker-skinned people being treated worse than the lighter-skinned people, sometimes even by other Latinos/as.)
Lorenzo also told us that he would hear racist comments by truckers over the CB radio (we had also heard a number of such comments during the course of various rides.) He said he used to get enraged at this type of thing and shout things back into the CB, but now he lets it go. He has learned to laugh at it, and sometimes he uses it to his advantage. When the swine flu broke out, it was originally referred to as “Mexican flu” because it was first identified in Mexico. When word of the scare hit the press, he felt it before hearing about it on the news: he walked into a truck stop restaurant, and six white truckers sitting in the corner looked at him, then walked out. Now, when he gets pulled over, he hands over the paperwork and asks “What’s the problem, officer?”, and then proceeds to descend innocently into an uncontrollable coughing fit. The officers invariably throw the paperwork back at him hurriedly and wave him away, he said.
We were also witness to overt racism against American Indians, which I discussed partially (but not fully) in Section V. I don’t want to repeat all the things we heard and saw here ~ they made us very sad.
How “wrong” of a color I was as an Asian American person is unclear. Mari Matsuda spoke a long time ago about how Asian Americans, in a racial hierarchy that places white at the top and dark at the bottom, are somewhere in the middle. (FN2) How they are treated can be schizophrenic ~ they are subject to discrimination (like glass ceilings and discrimination based on language or national origin), but have also been held up by whites as a “model minority” (coined by Reagan, to claim that other “minorities” like blacks and latinos/as had only themselves to blame for high incidences of poverty (never mind things like slavery, institutional racism, and discriminatory immigration laws.) Some advocates allege this was a tactic to put wedges between communities of color.)
At the moment, things are definitely tougher for South and Southeast Asians, who are often darker than East Asians, and are more associated with Islam. South Asians in particular been targeted for severe discrimination and violence since September 11th supposedly because they were Muslim and so must of course automatically have some mysterious genetic affinity to terrorism (even though not all South Asians are Muslim, and of course Islam ≠ terrorism.)
I didn’t personally witness a lot of overt racism against Asian Americans during this journey, I think both because people didn’t say all that they thought in my presence (I could tell that one biker was about to go off on “those Chinese that are ruining the U.S.” but then stopped himself because I was there), and also probably because the people with strong anti-Asian sentiments just didn’t pick us up.
Also, maybe the mildly racist people (and cops) thought that I was “okay” because I was hanging out with a white girl. It was probably also important that I spoke English, without an accent ~ Asian people are subject to the same type of accent and national origin discrimination as Latinos/as and Arabs (and other foreigners). Our Korean trucker friends seemed to undergo a lot of discrimination because of their accented English. It was kind of sad because they kept apologizing to us for their “bad English”, and seemed so happy that we were talking to them at all ~ we could only guess that it was an indication of how mean other people they meet on the road must be to them, and perhaps of how little contact they had with “Americanized” people. (They showed us a bunch of photos of all their friends, and they all seemed to be immigrants.) We also met other immigrant and refugee truckers, who we could tell didn’t get treated too well in the traditional tattoed white trucker circuit.
It may be that Joey’s whiteness alone saved us (or maybe just me) from arbitrary arrest and the KKK. If I, as an Asian American person, had been traveling with one of my African American friend in the South, we might be rotting in jail right now or worse. In areas that were predominantly white, it might also be that Joey’s whiteness helped us get rides. We actually got picked up by someone that we eventually thought might be a former or current member of the KKK ~ I remember he stopped for Joey, and I just hopped in afterwards. (He didn’t drive us into the woods and kill us though; while demonstrating a jarring amount of aggression and profanity, he was actually kind of nice to us in his own way (more on this in Part VII).) And my non-whiteness probably dragged down our possibility of getting rides in some places ~ as I mentioned in Part V, some people thought I was American Indian, and this might be the reason that many white people in South Dakota, where there is a lot of racism against Native Americans, were not very nice to us.
It’s also possible that if I had been traveling with a Latina or Asian friend, we might be in immigration detention on our way to getting deported, or being hunted down by the Minute Men.
For immigrants and foreigners, in particular for Latinas/os, Arabs and Asians (particularly for South Asians), national origin (and race) is a basis by which individuals (and entire communities) are increasingly targeted and criminalized, and subject to abuses and human rights violations including racial profiling, arbitrary detention, physical abuse, raids, religious discrimination, hate crimes, and violations of due process. (FN3) This is true whether or not they are “documented”, but of course people who don’t have the right papers are designated “Illegal” i.e. subhuman, and at even higher risk of human rights violations.
One man that gave us a ride said he was undocumented, and that he lived in constant fear. A friend of Joey’s wanted to join us for a few days in New York, but in the end was afraid to try to get on a plane and face airport security, because he was an asylee and his papers showing his legal residence were taking so long to process (a common problem for immigrants, asylees and refugees.)
That Joey and I were wandering around without the burden of this kind of fear was another form of privilege we had inherited. We both had U.S. citizenship, though we both have significant foreign roots ~ both of our mothers are foreign nationals; in addition, for me my father was a son of immigrants, and I was actually born outside of the U.S. This amount of “foreign-ness” (and less) would have been enough to subject us to extreme harassment had we been of the severely targeted nationalities, but we weren’t ~ Joey’s mom was white European, and my parents were both East Asian. We also spoke fluent, “accentless” English, so were not subjected to accent discrimination as many immigrants (even those who are U.S. citizens) are.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the cops, when they called in to check our IDs, were trying to identify whether or not we were U.S. citizens, at least for me. I’m not sure if police databases were able to confirm this kind of information. And, I would bet that if they couldn’t, and we seemed more “foreign” than we were, we would have been detained for immigration checks. Or maybe if I wasn’t with Joey, I would have been detained anyways regardless of how foreign or non-foreign I appeared, by the police or some wacko vigilante group.
Another salient feature of our identity that had an untold effect on our journeys, of course, was that of gender. We invariably got comments about how surprising it was that two women were traveling in this manner, and constant admonitions to be careful. Many people additionally treated us like we needed to be chastised and/or rescued. A few people asked us if our boyfriends knew we were traveling about in this manner (i.e., whether we had their permission.)
While we found this kind of gender myopia annoying, we also recognized that we were benefitting from it ~ we were able to hitchhike so easily because nobody was afraid of us and because many thought it was okay to help us because we were women (women after all must be the same as children ~ they need to be taken care of. If we had been men, there probably would have been more judgmentalism ~ I bet some of the people that picked us up would have told male hitchhikers to go get a job and a car.)
It was telling that most of the rides that we got were from men (though a handful of women did pick us up). And I’m pretty sure that when we put our hair down, we got rides easier (with our hair up we looked liked boys from a distance). Some people explicitly told us that they never pick up men, whether it’s one man or a man traveling with a woman, and never, ever multiple men.
And the cops and railroad security we ran into were all men. They probably didn’t arrest us both because they probably thought we were too female and little to actually be dangerous (a number of men, including a former probation officer, told us they were worried about us because we were “small”), and, because gender relations provide that men in manly professions such as police officering should protect helpless/hapless women. (Indeed, in our confrontations with the police, we found we didn’t have to brandish our “empowered” knowledge of the law or our civil rights much of the time, because an easier (and probably more effective) alternative was the more subtle and subversive “female” defensive weapon ~ Acting Stupid (“Oh really, this is illegal?? We had no idea, sorry officer!”) (Though admittedly this might have been a bit unethical because it both manipulates and reinforces gender inequality…)
Some guys expressed some flattering respect for our courage, although, that might have been because just because they thought women don’t normally exhibit a lot of courage in the first place. A number of men told us, “You’ve got balls!” which I’m sure was well-meaning but reminded me of what Simone de Beauvoir wrote sixty years ago, that “[M]an is defined as a human being and a woman as a female ~ whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
I have to say that many of the most uptight, scared looking people that ignored us were women (they tended to be slightly older, white, and driving nice cars.) I chalk this up to socialization, in which women are led to believe that they should be afraid of many things. But we were happy that we had some women pick us up ~ they included a sculptor, a traveling nurse, a co-dependent mom in recovery from various addictions, a prison guard, and a former hitchhiker with lupus. The prison guard seemed especially enthused to have us ~ we can only guess that it was because she was happy to see fellow women out there doing things that the world thought was too rough and dirty for “girls”. But a female truck driver, another woman in a “man’s profession”, took the other route to equality ~ in response to repeated pleas broadcast by a chivalrous trucker over his CB radio to trucks miles around in search of someone who would “help out some girls that need a ride”, she eventually shouted back crankily over the airwaves, “Tell them to buy a bus ticket!” (I guess she didn’t see any need for paternalistic babying of women.)
Age is another factor of identity that probably significantly affected our experience. I think that had people been aware of how old I was, our experience would have been different. Joey is in her twenties but I’m well in my thirties ~ an age at which responsible adults should have bought a house, a car, gotten married, pumped out 2.5 kids, built up a sizable 401(k), and gotten life insurance. I don’t personally think I look that young, but the people we ran into seemed to ~ as I mentioned, most thought we were college students, but some people asked us if we were teenagers (!) ~ I can only guess that they were blinded by the backpack and the ratty clothes. (Actually, I confess that I ended up yanking out some of the gray hairs that were starting at my temples, because I thought it would be easier for us to get rides, so I guess I encouraged this.) The fact that people thought we were young, especially combined with the fact that we were women, put us in a category to be fetted and protected (and driven around.)
I’m not gay so I can’t speak on how open homosexuality would have affected our trip, but I’m sure it would have ~ along with open racist remarks, we heard a bunch of homophobic comments. I did also find it notable that very few people even asked whether me and Joey were a gay couple, despite the fact that we were traveling together non-stop for months, including sleeping together in the same pup tent; this is surely a clear indicator of heterosexism.
I also can’t speak on religious discrimination because I had no visible religion that is subjected to persecution; but I bet that if we had had some obvious heretical non-Christian religious feature like a headscarf indicating Muslim-ness, we would have been subjected to religious (and probably racial) discrimination and maybe violence. And discrimination based on Jewish and Catholic identity also continues of course; one twisted example we heard of was a story that one of the truckers told us, about how someone from the KKK was recruiting him relentlessly, but suddenly stopped talking to him; he found out later that it was because the KKK guy found out he was Catholic.
But we did also perceive signs of change of old discriminatory attitudes. For example, my friend from Arkansas that had told us about the segregated proms, said that Morgan Freeman’s offer to fund an integrated prom had been refused, but the opposition had come primarily from the parents. The young people were not against it. And I was happy to hear a trucker, who might have been that old-school type of parent, tell us (proudly) about how he and his friends were shamed a few years ago by his teenage son, who stepped out of his baseball game to stand up to them publicly and tell them to stop making racist comments about the opposing team. The man admitted that he had held racist beliefs for most of his life, but that times were changing.
And of course, even the mere fact that Joey and I were not arrested, kidnapped, accused of witchcraft, hanged, stoned, or committed to an insane asylum as females on the loose without men is an indication that women have more freedom now than not too long ago. We also heard about other intrepid female travelers, and met and hung out with women who were engaged in activities that would have been considered unimaginable before ~ female truckers, bikers, a prison guard, a computer programmer, business owners, a union leader, a university professor, professional artists, etc.
And of course the other question is, aside from what society attributes onto me as identifying characteristics, how do I self-identity? I don’t think I’ve completely figured that out. I’m personally proud and happy to be a woman, Asian American, and an immigrant, and think those identities don’t have to be bounded by any particular limitations. But I also have a vague notion, which I can’t yet articulate or even grasp fully, that the essence of every human being and spirit may constitute a supremely complex and unknowably unique universe that stretches over multiple dimensions. And the nature of a person and reality go vastly beyond these small labels and categories that people tend to be so good at pegging each other with.
But, getting back to our discussion on the limited material dimension in which this journey took place, I wish I could say that Joey and I showed ourselves to be free, independent, courageous women. We are, kind of, but not as much as some people thought ~ in examining everything within its social context, I don’t think we can make very grand claims ~ I can appear brave because I wasn’t facing all the dangers that other people with higher-risk characteristics would have. Travel is a luxury and it was clear we could afford it based on the reservoir of privileges that inhered to us.
HOWEVER, I don’t want to paint a picture that would discourage persons with characteristics different from ours from traveling. I’m just explaining what I think are some societal circumstances that affected our trip in order to give a contextualized vision of it.
For every individual, he or she will have characteristics that are advantageous in some ways and “higher-risk” in other ways. Even for a particular characteristic that in a certain historical moment may put a person at higher risk with certain sectors (such as being a “person of color” in a conservative white town), that same characteristic will at the same time bring other advantages (and has inherent value in any case regardless of whatever advantage/disadvantage). For instance, all ethnic and racial communities have their own unique networks and resources, and often help each other; members of those groups have access to the richness of those resources that outsiders don’t have. (And, it should be noted that all ethnic and racial groups also engage in some form of stereotyping and discrimination against non-members (and probably against members too…))
While we did get rides from Latino/a, African American, South Asian, and Southeast Asian people, as well as Native Americans and Muslims (those groups that I identified as being at higher risk of harassment), I imagine that if we had been members of those communities, we probably would have gotten even more rides and more support. We saw a demonstration of this in Virginia, where we waited around hours and hours for a ride. In the middle of this waiting around, a man approached us, asking us in Spanish for help to get a ride (to Chicago!) He looked like perhaps he had just crossed over the border ~ he was scratched up all over his body, and was carrying just a small bundle in a plastic bag. We tried to help him out but we weren’t really sure it would be possible ~ we were having a hard time ourselves, and we couldn’t fathom how he was going to get a ride, being a man, looking all scratched up, and speaking no English. In the end, our advice to him was (quite ironically) to catch a bus (!), but, to our amazement, he found a ride quicker than we did, from a Latino man with a car full of kids (who hadn’t offered to pick us up). So I felt stupid for having been a naysayer based only on my limited understanding. It was a reminder that every individual engages with the world in a unique way, and you can never tell anyone that something is impossible.
I also don’t want to succumb anemically to talking about identity as being defined solely by the societal attributions linked to the “-isms”. James Baldwin said, “I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.” I agree, and it’s only because of limitations in time and space that I don’t talk about the many other aspects of identity that I think exist.
I do want to mention one potential characterization that might be added to my various layers of identity. I don’t think I’m in the classic hippie or dharma bum style, so I toyed with some other words: one is “huppie” ~ meaning some kind of combination of hippie and yuppie ~ a lefty tree hugger without the blazing tie-dye or ingestion of shrooms, and urban and professional (i.e. armed with a laptop and Blackberry) but without the self-serving political views and addiction to suburban shopping. Though really what I probably liked most about the word is that it reminds me of the puppy that Harry Cat, the friend of Tucker Mouse in The Cricket in Times Square, brings home in the sequel. The Cat and Mouse name him “Huppy” (for “Harry Cat’s Pet Puppy”), and care for it together until the little puppy eats so much that his butt gets too big to squeeze into the drainpipe that they all live in.
Marisa Monte sings, “Sou pequenina e também gigante” (I am very little and also gigantic). And perhaps like her and Huppy, Joey and I were too, as we all must be, each in our own way.
1 – Barbara Ehrenreich, “Is It Now A Crime to be Poor?” (Op-Ed), New York Times, August 8, 2009.
2 – Mari Matsuda, “We Will Not Be Used”, Where is Your Body? And Other Essays on Race, Gender and Law, at 149.
3 – See for instance, the Hurricane Project reports by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which documents hundreds of human rights violations against immigrants, www.nnirr.org.
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CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS