July 3rd, 2008

summer reading

Singin' Do Wah Diddy Diddy Dum Diddy Do

A week or two ago I was walking down the street. As I came to a curb and waited for the light to change, a couple of 20-something black guys came to the curb on the other side of the street (I mention race for a reason, which I'll get back to in a minute). The light changed and we both started to cross the street. Then one of them gave me that look. You know the kind. It's the kind that usually made me completely self-conscious when I was younger, not to mention annoyed me a lot of the time because the look was accompanied by some guy doing that "hey, baby" thing guys do to propagate the species. I always found it hard to imagine any girl ever actually went for it and proved guys right in thinking the "hey, baby" method was good for anything besides making a girl want to slap them in the face, but I suppose it must work for some guys some times or they wouldn't keep doing it. (Right?) Anyway, this particular look was pretty thorough. He gave me the close perusal from the front, from the side, and as we passed one another and kept walking. I couldn't help but laugh. I mean, either this person didn't realize I was old enough to be his --- well, maybe not his mother, but certainly his aunt --- or he didn't care. Either way, I found it funny.

A little later on I realized something else about it. Like I said, when I was younger that kind of thing usually made me self-conscious and/or annoyed me. Sometimes it also completely freaked me out. I mean, seriously scared me to death. One time when I was in high school, a friend and I were browsing at a store. She was over there and I was over here, mostly tuned out to the rest of the world. Suddenly I looked up and there was this man standing really close to me, looking me up and down. It was panic city. I know I must've looked it because my friend saw my face and came motoring back over to me pretty quickly. Sometimes it's hard to say whether that fight or flight response is appropriate for the situation or if you've just had a startle reaction to something perfectly harmless. In this case, I still can't say for sure. He was clearly older than me which I can't help but think of as creepy and tends to put me in the mind of thinking my panic response was appropriate. The other thing I questioned myself about later was whether my response had at least a part of its foundation in racism. You see, this guy was black. I didn't really think my panic was based in racism, but when I analyzed the situation later I knew there was *something* beyond the fact that he was older which had set my back up so instantaneously. I knew there was *something* about it, but I wasn't sure what it was.

It took me some years, but I figured out the mystery ingredient of my fright: It was how close the guy was standing next to me. Over the years I've come to understand that in different cultures, we have different personal space comfort bubbles. For the white American, the comfort bubble is about an arm's length (sometimes it's more like 2 arms) - though of course we adjust our expectations for situations like standing on a crowded bus. For everyday conversation with most anyone in an average situation, it's at least the arm's length. From my experience, in the black American culture, the comfort bubble allows other people closer to one's body. Maybe half and arm's length. It seems to be about the same in Latino culture at the half arm's length. From the few people of Middle Eastern extraction I've met, that comfort bubble is closer still - seemingly about the distance the average white American would consider acceptable only for kissing. One time in a bank line it seemed like a Middle Eastern man practically chased me across the lobby. He advancing to carry on an innocuous conversation while we waited our respective turns, me retreating because about the only person I felt comfortable speaking to at that distance for that long was my husband.

It's kind of interesting, this unspoken rule of personal comfort. Because for the person who feels encroached upon, it feels intimidating and distinctly uncomfortable. For the person experiencing someone backing away, it feels hurtful and insulting - it's taken as a rejection of them as a person, when it's really an unconscious need for the other party to get physically comfortable again. It was weird to me that it took so long for me to grasp this bubble thing. I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood and think I probably spent more quality time with my neighbor's parents (black father, Spanish mother) than my own - and yet it seems only recently that I came to understand this. I think I didn't notice the cultural differences earlier because the people of other races I spoke to in childhood were people I spent a lot of time with; they were allowed into my bubble by virtue of the fact that I knew them and felt close to them.

So the thing I realized about my recent experience is that even though this guy was really big (at least from my point of view: he was a good six inches taller than me and big all over) and even though he passed me at a distance that a piece of paper could barely slip through and thus definitely violated my bubble, I didn't have a panic response. Admittedly, part of it was that this guy didn't go to the "hey, baby" place so he got points for that, but in my younger days, a large man I didn't know looking me over that thoroughly and purposefully getting that close to me would have freaked me out and had me mentally reviewing options for self-defense. I was happily surprised at my lack of panic and decided to accept it as a benefit of getting older and gaining experience.

(Then because this is what I do, I also started wondering at what age I'd feel old enough that a stranger's scrutiny would again make me feel scared because the senior years bring with them that feeling of physical vulnerability. Hopefully, that time's a long way off. Hopefully, I'll have figured out some strategies that will allow me to be physically comfortable in the walking-down-the-street scenario by the time that age arrives.)

I think there's also something instructive in the experience about differing cultural perceptions of what's considered attractive (because I couldn't help but notice it wasn't a white guy doing the look thing), but that topic feels too huge a subject for me to tackle with my current brain-on-empty situation so I'm leaving that alone. At least for today.