Count

For many years when I walked into a room I instantly counted the women. It told me a lot about what to expect from that room. One day, having lost my best friend over racial politics out of my control, I began to count people of color. That too was for safety, for understanding how my views would be taken. That too told me a lot I needed to know about the room. But it also hinted to me about a whole realm of experience I wasn’t having.

The neighborhood where I grew up in LA gentrified unbelievably hard through my childhood. The odd Mormon Filipino family whose son was my BFF for a while eventually sold the shack they lived in, which was badly enough constructed that despite Legrande’s father’s efforts to patch his walls, you could still hear the ocean wind from inside his room. When they moved it was torn down, and the garden (like most of them would be) was filled in with expensive house, in the Socal Hollywood style of all stucco and reaching up past your neighbors for views. The houses got torn down one by one. The neighbor to the right, across the street, eventually my best friend’s, and all replaced with opulent houses. But opulent not so much to be seen as to keep the residents from prying eye — the way you signaled you were important in Los Angeles. As this happened across my neighborhood I stopped knowing my neighbors. The class divide had moved next door. Still, children don’t get this, and when they escaped from grown-up eyes they flocked together. I made a few friends at moments. Going back to their houses, I first heard the phrase “We don’t discuss money.” My mom discussed money, my dad, far away in northern California hardly discussed anything else.

How could you not discuss money? It was like a family that announce they didn’t allow the mention of food. Or hope. It was exactly like a family that didn’t mention food or hope.

I visited Oklahoma one as a teenager to see my paternal grandparents. They lived outside Tulsa in a place you could mistake for rural with a bad littering problem if you’ve never seen desperate poverty, American style. Out there the poor whites told me “We’re colorblind. We don’t even see color.” But there were no people of color to be seen in the area. The closest lived on the Res, and I learned many years later that when my father was a child, he was one of the only whites that stuck across to visit the kids at the BIA schools. He never told me what he saw there, but when I was young he would get very drunk sometimes at night and tell me we should all get back on the fucking boats and go back to Europe. I didn’t know what Europe was.

For a time I decided I couldn’t see color. But then I couldn’t see what happened to people of color. To not see their color, I realized, was to not see its absence, and its absence was everywhere I wanted to be, in every room I aspired to get into. I had made their pain and struggle invisible to me. I argued that this position was not racist, but anti-race altogether. And besides, many of my best friends hadn’t been white. How could I be racist?

In 2010 I went to a prestigious invite only conference in the tech world. I was, at this point, widely welcome in those rooms I’d dreamed of going in. I counted. My heart soared — it really felt like we’d turned a corner. It wasn’t just that there were more women. There were, but also they were talking. It was like pushing on a giant stone for all my life, then one day feeling it finally shift underneath my fingers.

On Saturday night I was sexually assaulted. Specifically, I was groped. I hit my aggressor in the chin and knocked him back. Despite having probably 100lbs on me, he stumbled drunkenly and barely kept his footing. “Touch me again and I’ll break your nose,” I told him. He laughed lightly, still finding his feet, and said “I like this one!” I looked at him, to catch his eye, and replied calmly, matter-of-factly “No. If you touch me again, I will break your nose.” He laughed again, but wandered away from me, looking to grope easier prey.

This is how I’d felt all my life, like my job was to not be easy prey. But this was a professional field, not the fucking Serengeti. I walked a little later with the conference organizer, a woman older then me, and of much stature in tech. I told her I was so happy to finally see women in my field. “But,” I said, “I think these incidents will be more common for a while. These guys don’t know how to behave around women.” To myself, I added bitterly, or other human beings at all.

In part, the tech community had allowed in women, but in part it had also only failed to keep them out.

It was always the ones that said they didn’t see gender or color who did the most damage. “They’re just words,” they would say, “Why do you let them hurt you?” And with that, my pain was made as invisible as me. “They’re just words.” Indeed, just the verbal incantations of power, like law and code and everything else that made the world. I decided to leave tech for words.

But now I’m all shouty. Now people are angry at me because I have a stage, and they can’t make me invisible and ignore me, because the truth is you can’t ignore words, and I have the words. So now they really hate me. The others, the majority, sit uncomfortably with the conflict. No one is quite sure what to do, they want things to be abstractly better, but they don’t want anyone to be loudly upset, either. One side is considerably louder than all the others.

This is what I ask: when you walk into a room, count. Count the women. Count the people of color. Count by race. Look for who isn’t there. Look for class signs: the crooked teeth of childhoods without braces, worn-out shoes, someone else who is counting. Look for the queers, the older people, the overweight. Note them, see them, see yourself looking, see yourself reacting.

This is how we begin.

13 thoughts on “Count

  1. eee_eff

    Seems to me this attitude invites very divisive thinking. Have you read Amartya Sen’s book Identity & Violence? Sen provides a more interesting and more community-centric outlook. Rather than “count” I would say “listen.”

  2. quinn Post author

    And who, pray tell, do you listen to? Because disproportionately it is the privileged that speak. You can’t listen to those who aren’t given social permission to talk, and you definitely can’t listen to those who aren’t even allowed or encouraged to be in the room.

  3. lilmsgs

    First: High praise for the quality of writing. Crisp, concise, cogent (lookit that; 3 c’s). Well done.

    I’m often amazed by one-dimensional, categorical analysis. Counting and listening are not mutually exclusive. Importantly, in this context, counting is listening.

    As for “divisive thinking” – that is all too often a descriptor for those who instinctively and/or overtly guard the status quo.

  4. 5er

    Seems to me to be defensive thinking. Recognising those who one can be comfortable with, and those who could be threatening.
    I’m a heavily tattooed lady.I regularly feel threatened/ostracised/objectified, finding those who might feel similarly is a way to find safety. A way to find people that I can talk to, will listen, and relate.
    Thank you, Quinn. It is always nice to have someone more eloquent than I relate the divisiveness inherent in our culture.

  5. thoughtcube

    I could count the members of the group I consider myself to be a part of, but then I would almost always count 0. So I don’t.

    What I do now is constantly be grateful that the ‘others’ – which practically everyone is from my perspective – are actually willing to accept me in society.

    I’m not one of them, but oddly enough they allow me there and interact with me like I’m a real person. Not sure how long it’ll last, every day is bonus points for me.

  6. eee_eff

    First, I would listen to whomever is speaking, whoever it is. If they are a man or a women or black, white or brown, it is the quality of the statement the counts, not the discernable background of the speaker that counts. This is, essentially just an argument against pre-judging. The probability is that you have much in common with whoever is in theroom that cannot easily be discerned by your counting effort. It also seems to set up a “we” and a “them” based only on superficialities, and that is why I see it as unfortunately divisive, and even to a certain extent beligirent.

    I would even more strongly reccommend Sen’s book mentioned above, and should be clear that this outlook works against status quo much more effectively then drawing lines around human beings before you’ve listened to them.

    Sorry for short reply, I am limited by texting through my phone.

  7. quinn Post author

    Yeah. And this is how we always listen to the loud white boys, and this is how they throw everyone else out, again, again, again. Look at who’s talking, and you’ll see common patterns. Your avoidance of “divisiveness” perpetuates racism, sexism, and bigotry, because those things don’t let other people talk. All I said is count, and that was too much, wasn’t it?

    I refer the gentleman to Manarchist Ryan Gosling, and am done talking about this.

  8. lilmsgs

    Okay, now I’m way too curious re: Ryan Gosling reference. I would request a hint… or maybe I could buy a vowel. Does it have anything to do with Manfred Mann?

    Meanwhile, I have to take issue with conflating excessive tattooing with gender/color bias as described in Quinn’s treatise.

    The former is an affect; a conscience choice of being, where negative social ramifications are easily known and therefore to be anticipated – and possibly justifiable.

    Color and gender are not choices. And while social mores reflecting white male dominance are predictable, they are in no way justifiable – precisely because there is neither inferiority nor choice of being.

  9. Sara Winge

    Thanks, Quinn. I, for one, am grateful that you have the words. Keep using them, and inspiring the rest of us to pay attention, speak up, and feel the uncomfortableness that inequality creates.

  10. quinn Post author

    lilmsgs: I’m not sure it’s ok to say someone deserves to be ostracized for expressing themselves, because they had the option not too. Tattoos don’t make you a bad person, and they certainly don’t make you bad at tech.

    Also the implication I suspect you don’t realize you’re making is that if black people had a choice, they’d choose to be white, etc.

  11. jessamyn

    This is Manarchist Ryan Gosling.

    http://manarchistryangosling.tumblr.com/

    The joke is that the same problems that activists are claiming they want to dispell are the same tired tropes that they get caught up in if they’re not actively trying to combat them. It’s too easy to walk the predigested path and just do things the way you’ve always done them; if you’re someone in a position of power who also wants to combat inequalities this is exactly what you should NOT be doing.

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