Things White Men Say to Me at the Museum: Annotated Vignettes from the Contingent Cultural Economy

To what extend should I be offended by microaggressions? My little brother–a brilliant mind–argues that when people of relative privilege feel victimized by quotidian interactions, their offense distracts from bigger injustices at hand. He’s not wrong: I live a life of extreme privilege, especially as far as race and class are concerned. What this privilege has especially afforded me was the opportunity to study at elite institutions amongst progressive peers, colleagues, and professors, as well as a relative insularity from that infamous species, the White Man. Unfortunately, I’ve taken leave from my post as a professional student, and currently find myself working in Visitor Services, where I am FORCED, not only to speak to Him, but to do so charmingly (it’s true, I am required to waste my precious charm on Him) and all the while bear a smile. In any case, two months has been sufficient for me to collect a number of vignettes, that are exemplary of what I and other women of color contend with daily; important not because we are victims, but because certain bodies are inundated with racism, nativism, and misogyny in SMALL and QUOTIDIAN ways that often appear to be benign, flirtatious, friendly, and charming, but are implicitly loaded with authority and privilege. FOR EXAMPLE: 

ONE

Anar: Hi welcome to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

Man (wearing a fanny pack): We’d like two tickets to see the museum

Anar: Okay great, tickets are eight dollars, right now we have a special exhibit…

Man notices my book (“Lonestar Muslims: Transnational Lives and the South Asian Experience in Texas” while I am speaking, cuts me off…

Man: I’m more interested in Muslims in Texas, are there a lot of them there?

Anar: Yes, Houston has the fourth largest community of Pakistanis in America…

Man: Are you Paki?

Anar: No, my family is from India…

***What may seem like an encounter spurred by curiosity, this man not only takes the liberty to make assumptions about my ethnicity, he also uses employs a racial slur freely. Indeed, we might argue that the man was speaking casually, unaware of the xenophobia that undergirds colloquial ethnic descriptors. But what is imminently clear to me is that by forgiving people for what they do not know, we continue to excuse and even sanction their refusal to take responsibility for systemic inequality.


TWO

Anar: Hi welcome to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art…

Man: Where are you from?

Anar: Charlotte

Man: Charlotte, India? (If it’s no apparent in the text, the man was trying to make a cutesy joke here about the fact that I obviously look like a person who is from India).

Anar: Well, I was born in Charlotte, but my family is from India…

Man: Yeah, India, that’s what I meant

Anar: (blank stare)

Man: I’ve been to your country before.

Anar (silently): you mean, America?


THREE

On a recent Sunday afternoon a older man walked into the museum while a coworker (also a young woman in her 20s) were sitting at desk. From the moment he entered the museum, he began making jokes: pretending that he had picked up a wallet outside the museum and had used the found credit card to pay for admissions, kidding about strategizing on how to steal pieces from the museum. I did not have to interact with him until the end of his visit, but as he was returning his admissions pin, he looked at me and said “you have something on your nose, can I take it off for you?”

***Of course, he was referring to the small diamond nose ring I have worn every day since I was eighteen. While his tone was jocular and flirtatious, it was impossible not to feel that as if he was making a remark on my bodily comportment, as if what constitutes professionalism and propriety in his small corner of the world must be applicable to all those in his path.


FOUR

Man: what business brought the Bechtler’s to Charlotte?

Anar: briefly having forgotten this detail in the institution’s history, and caught off guard, I mumble an answer, ending with a disclaimer that he shouldn’t hold me to this because I am not certain.

He nods his head and heads up to the museum galleries, where he spends some time. When he returns, I am eating my lunch and he stops to comment…

Man: Andreas Bechtler came to Charlotte with an air filtration system that cleaned out vents in the cotton mills. You should know that.

***Despite the fact that I did not possess a piece of information I was clearly expected to have, the tone and expectation with which the man approached me WHILE I WAS CLEARLY EATING MY LUNCH warrants consideration as to whether or no he would have taken the same liberty had I been a male. He did not approach me in the spirit of conversation about the family or the musuem’s history, but rather with opprobrium, and with the intent to reprimand me for my lack of knowledge.  

—-
To be clear, it is not only [white] men, also women–usually, though not always white–who make these kinds of assumptions. Just last week a women made the calculation that I “wasn’t from the area because I didn’t have a southern accent” and even when I told her I was born in Charlotte she continued to insist, as if it was impossible to believe. Importantly, these interactions do not constitute enough to claim harassment at my workplace, or likely any other workplace. These guests probably don’t even think they are harassing me or causing me discomfort in anyway, nor do they usually intend to. More likely, they are taking advantage of a privilege they have been granted from birth, and have never been told that this kind of behavior is assuming and insensitive, much less charged with race, class, gender, and sexuality politics. But it is difficult, nay impossible, to ignore that these interactions are raced, classes, and gendered. What is even more tragic is that “customer service” in its various forms, whether it be in retail, food service, or even in the relatively elite cultural economy in which I work, is a field predicated on subservience as it aims to please individuals and institutions who hand over money with the expectation of goods and services in return. From what I have observed, this is field in its non-professional, semi-professional, and professional iterations that is increasingly being populated by women, and that too by women of color, who are expected to attend to the needs and demands of customers, guests, and patrons. What compliance is a requisite for livelihood? When acts of resistance are explicitly prohibited by the contract?

Extra Reading: Roxane Gay’s I have feared white men and I have loved them in New Statesman last October. 

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