08 May 2013

What If I Were A Black Trans Woman?

I do not believe that I am boasting or exaggerating when I say that I encounter more black men than most white women of my age and level of (formal) education.

Of course, that is largely a consequence of living in a large urban area in the United States and doing the kinds of work I do.  But I can also say, in all honesty, that I try to be an open-minded person who is a good listener.  I guess some of the black men (and women) I meet sense that, which may be a reason why some of them will tell me, a complete stranger, about their experiences and feeling.

I had one such encounter last week.  I'd ridden my bicycle to the Borough of Manhattan Community College.  I was astounded to find an indoor parking facility in Fitterman Hall that rivals the emenities found in many gyms in the surrounding neighborhood, where Robert De Niro and other celebrities live.

As I was locking my bike to the rack, a black man, whom I guessed to be about ten years younger than me, wheeled in his machine.  We exchanged greetings and small talk about the weather, the changes in the neighborhood and other things.  

"Can I ask you something?"

I was wondering whether, at this late date, he'd "read" me or , perhaps, seen me somewhere before.  In spite of my anxiety, I said, "Sure."

"Did the guard ask you for ID?"


"Well, he stopped me and asked for it.  And I'm a student here--I come here every day."

"Was he a new guard?"

"No, he's seen me before."

"That doesn't sound good."

"Maybe it shouldn't bother me."

"Don't apologize.  If I were in your shoes, I'd probably be upset, too."

"Why do you think he stopped me?"

"And he didn't stop me?  Well, I can think of one thing."

You probably know what that thing is:  He is black and rather young-looking.  On the other hand, I'm a white woman in late middle age.  I told him as much.

"So you feel the same way?," he wondered.

"Listen, I've heard plenty of DWB (Driving While Black) stories.  If even a fraction of them are true, I have reason to be upset, and you have reason to be outraged."

"The worst thing of all," he explained, "is that the guard is black."

"Talk about internalized racism!"

"Yes.  We even get it from our own!"

At that moment, I realized that in some ways I am very fortunate:  I rarely, if ever, am looked at with suspicion.  As I once joked to somebody, "Security people look at me and think, 'Grandma doesn't have a bomb in her bag'."

I didn't mention any of that to the man I encountered in the bike parking room.  He thanked me for listening and "understanding," as he said.  What he probably doesn't know is--as I've mentioned in other posts--some experiences I had during my transition helped me to understand the bigotry and hostility people of color face.

The more likely one is to face prejudice and other forms of hatred, the more likely one is to become a victim of violence or other kinds of crime.  In other posts, I've talked about the dangers trans people face every day:  We are sixteen times as likely as anyone else, and twenty times as likely to experience a violent assault.  We are also far more likely than other people to encounter harassment, and even violence, at the hands of police officers.

So I can only imagine what my life would be like if I were a trans woman of color.  When I think of the times I've been harrassed by police officers--once on the street, the other time in my local precinct station--I imagine how much worse those encounters could have been were I Black, Hispanic or even Asian.

What I didn't tell the black man I met last week at BMCC is that, because I've had the experiences I've described, I was able to give him at least some of the "understanding" for which he thanked me.  I gave him my e-mail address "in case you want to talk," as I told him.  Whether or not I can help him, I can at least sympathize.  I think he knows that, even if he doesn't know why.


Sophie said...

Friendships with black women are especially important to me now, given the way our very different experiences intersect in so many ways. Things like prejudice concerning what we innately are and our mutual exotification at least have their positive aspect in helping enrich the dialogues.
The thought of being a black trans woman is deeply not one I'd care to dwell on, if only from the point of view of limited life expectancy.

Justine Valinotti said...

Sophie--I feel the same way about friendships with black women. Your phrase "mutual exotification" is spot-on: Two black female friends of mine describe being seen as "sexy and exotic", but not as anyone men would introduce to their parents.

And, yes, considering "limited life expectancy" is reason alone to shudder at the thought of being a black trans woman!