In 1996, my best friend from high school invited me to go on a two-week cross-country trip with her and three of her friends — which turned out to be four for the first six days, when one of them decided to bring an extra person, until we dropped him off in California. I’d never driven across the country, and was excited to give it a try, so I said yes. It was an incredibly fun and also eye-opening experience, not only because it was my first visit to sites like the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and the Corn Palace, but because four of the people in the van — and once we dropped off our California-bound late-addition, everyone except for me — were people of color. How did this matter? Well, for starters, when we’d land in places like a fishing town on the Oregon Coast, and everyone would stare. As a fairly generic-looking white woman of 27, I was used to passing without a second glance in most of the places I’d been to that point (basically the States, Europe and Canada), certainly anywhere I’d been in the U.S. It very quickly became obvious to me that this wasn’t the case if you were were Black or Asian American, like the friends I was traveling with. Turned out there were parts of the country — and a lot more parts than I’d suspected — where you were going to get noticed, and not in a friendly way. But there was also stuff I learned on that trip that wasn’t as obvious. Like what it meant when we went out to lunch in a nice restaurant in Santa Fe and got terrible service. My impulse was to just chalk that up to the fact that we were all in our 20s and didn’t look like we had money — particularly after spending more than a week’s worth of nights either camping, sleeping on friends’ floors, or in Motel 6s (the night we splurged on the $40/night Excalibur in Vegas, it felt like we were staying at the Plaza). Because that was what I’d dealt with before. My friends, however, felt pretty strongly that the way we were being ignored and slighted had something to do with race, because they’d dealt with that before. And so, while it’s not like this had never occurred to me until then, that trip helped drive home in a tangible way that 1) my experience of going through the world was not the same as everyone else’s, and 2) that that body of experience, that history that each of us had, was going to lead us to view the same situations very differently.
These concepts weren’t hard for me to get, not just because I had friends of color, but because of what I’d been experiencing in my own life and career, starting with graduate school. Since moving to New York to become a filmmaker six years earlier, I’d often had this feeling that I was being treated differently, but in ways so hard to prove, even to myself, that I’d mostly just accepted it was all in my head. When guys I’d shot films for as a first year at NYU, who’d been really happy with my work, instead chose the same other guy to shoot for them in second year, I chalked it up to my not being “technical enough,” or not having the confident decisiveness to take charge of the set the way the DP was supposed to — until I realized that no women were shooting films for men at all, unless they were their girlfriends. When I arrived on professional sets, it started sinking in more and more that men really were always telling me to smile, or offering to “help” me with my job when their jobs were unrelated to mine and I hadn’t asked for their help, or treating me as an object of flirtation, even if they were my superiors. I eventually learned to handle all of that by being more tolerant, competent, and professional than they were, but what I had the hardest time with was what I cared about the most: sending out scripts, or soliciting constructive feedback from peers in writing workshops, and receiving constant rejection or rude/patronizing remarks. Okay sure, cruelty is considered par for the course in a business where success is so elusive and so coveted that people are just expected to accept all kinds of abuse — verbal, sexual, physical — in order to get somewhere. But that only makes it more infuriating when there are additional comments or obstacles that other people don’t seem to be dealing with. Like when I wrote a film about a friendship between two teenaged girls, and one of the men in my writing group couldn’t understand the point of the script unless they had a lesbian relationship. Or when I submitted a script to a production company and the coverage I received said that the reader had no interest in the story, which featured two female main characters and one love interest who was a man of color, until the second love interest, a white guy, showed up. Yeah, that’s when things got good, he said. I was starting to see that I was stuck in a system where the white male arbiters of good and bad had all the power not just to decide whether my work was one or the other, but to define what the terms “good” and “bad” even meant. So it was easy for them to claim — and fully believe — that the failure of women to scale their ranks wasn’t due to our gender, it was due to their inability to master “the craft.” All they had to say was, “I couldn’t get into the story,” or, “I didn’t care about the characters,” and those were considered legitimate critiques based on merit, when of course there was way, way, way…basically everything more to it than that.
This is what makes unequal treatment such a hard thing to pinpoint: it has everything to do with who’s distinguishing and quantifying “good” and “bad” in an entrenched system. So it’s only when you look at the big picture over time, quantified in data, and see the work of women and people of color highly underrepresented in nearly every area of the arts — music, painting, sculpture, literature, theater, cinema, etc — that you can see discrimination is happening because the system itself is fucked.
What I was going through wasn’t the same as what my friends from that trip were going through, not at all. Each of us is a different person. But we all knew that we were being treated differently, based on countless experiences we’d had that added up. And we knew, because we’d experienced that too, that the kind of discrimination we were dealing with was so insidious and damaging precisely because people who hadn’t faced it were going to scoff and chalk it up to something entirely innocuous, and say it didn’t even exist.
I was reminded of all this last weekend, when I watched the women’s final of the 2018 U.S. Open. I don’t think most people would say that Serena Williams behaved perfectly when she argued with umpire Carlos Ramos and then later broke her racket when she threw it down in anger. But the question is not whether she did something wrong, it’s whether she was treated differently. Of course you can say that Ramos was just following the rules, that she shouldn’t be getting special treatment because she’s the great Serena Williams, and that plenty of men have been penalized like she was — with articles like this jumping on opportunities to bring all of that up and say “What about…?” But if you dig a little deeper, you find way more examples of white men behaving worse in less important matches, even toward that same umpire, and not having him penalize them so severely as to ruin a tournament final for everyone involved. In other words, yes, there are rules, but if they aren’t applied in the same way across the board, we are back at “He said, she said,” and it’s always the “He said” that comes first. Always.
The Whatabouters always say, “Why does everything have to be about race/sex?” Well, yeah, it’d be great not to have to talk about discrimination, but you can’t when it won’t leave you alone – even when you’re arguably the best athlete in the world. If you’re a woman and/or a person of color, your experience has told you that it nearly always is about that. It just is. Then the Whatabouters say, “Then you’re asking for special treatment when you break the rules.” Well, that’s because the rules, by which I mean all of the laws of this country dating back to the Constitution, were, from the very beginning, designed to treat women and people of color differently – creating a world in which the norm is special treatment for white men. Again, it just is.
And how often have our laws and rules that were not designed to be unfair been applied evenly and fairly? Let’s face it, the U.S. Open’s got nothing on the American justice system. Why do we refuse to recognize that when fallible people who do “bad” have to be punished, and when other fallible humans are doing the judging about how “bad” they are, there’s going to be all sorts of bias and unequal treatment? If the recent news isn’t convincing to you, we’ve now got data to prove that Black people are much more likely to be on the receiving end of police violence; have been far more likely to receive the death penalty in capital cases; that crack users in the 80s, who were more often Black, received far stiffer sentences than white users of powdered cocaine; that Black people were far more likely be searched and arrested for possession of marijuana than white people (two of the reasons, in case you were wondering, why so many more people of color have been incarcerated en mass during the War on Drugs); and that Black schoolchildren are likely to be more severely punished, suspended, or even have the cops called on them than white children for the same transgressive behavior.
And systems by which people are considered “good,” like at their jobs, and promoted? Again, completely dependent on the fallible judgments of those in power, so that only in the aggregate can we see how Black employees receive extra scrutiny from their bosses, Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to be promoted to management positions, women are punished and considered “bad” at their jobs for traits that are considered “good” in men, like ambition, speaking up, or doing too well in school; and how, of course, women of color are the least likely to be supported or promoted for equally good work.
I know what the Whatabouters are saying now: “Yes, people in the past were wrong, but now, moving forward, we’re the ones trying to treat everyone the same.” Um, really? We’re supposed to believe that? We’ve had this whole lifetime of experience that tells us otherwise, and you’re dismissing that, again? You’re claiming that, at long last, in this tennis match, or court of law, or screenwriting competition, or job review, or state senate, when it comes down to questions of “rules” and “fairness” and “objectivity,” we should continue to just trust the white guys? Yeah, right.
If you’ve been wondering why so many women and people of color are running for office this election season, well, here you go: we’re just sick of being treated differently. For a long time, we’ve trusted the white guys who say they’re going to fix things and finally respect our rights the same way they respect their own. Now we’re finally deciding that the only way things are going to change is for us to get in there and make the rules, and apply them ourselves.
Can you blame us?