practical intersectionality

In the course of a hellish commute today, I took part of my journey by taxi. My cab driver was from Guinea and we spoke at length about Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Israel and the legacies of colonialism. For a stressful (and expensive) morning, this was pleasant, engaging and interesting. We ranged over other topics too — how much the weather in New York has sucked this winter, his son’s student loans, working in the media, where we had traveled, and why it costs more to fly to Senegal from the US than to Australia, despite the flight to Senegal taking half the time.

And then, somewhere, in the ranging of topics, he says to me that when in Morocco last year he met a man from Saudi Arabia who said he would not travel to the US because “Men marry men there; even the animals do not do that.”

The animals, of course, actually do, do that, even if they are short on wedding planners. But it’s the classic now what? moment, isn’t it? I had no way of knowing whether or not he approved of the Saudi man’s perspective. And I had no way of knowing if he did, whether it was a topic he was open to discussion about. And I had no idea what my obligations were both in assumption and in action — it’s extra tricky in a cab, particularly, because not only am I a guest (albeit a paying one) in someone else’s space, I’m in a car with a stranger, and that’s not necessarily the best time to be outing oneself or fighting for social justice (Seriously, years ago, I demanded a cab pull over and let me out after the cab driver issued a string of slurs about people of Chinese descent after trying to hit a pedestrian crossing the street legally in front of us. The cab driver then locked the doors from his control panel, wouldn’t stop the vehicle for me to get out, and started threatening me until I held up my mobile and said I was calling the cops; the experience was sincerely frightening and I am now very reluctant to try to change anyone’s mind from the backseat of a taxi).

So I said, effectively nothing. I nodded and went Mmmmhmmmm.

The cab driver continued, “I said, yes, they do there, and he said he would not go.”

And then he changed the topic because I clearly had nothing to say.

And I still don’t know if I failed because I didn’t press for an answer and abandon the vehicle due anti-gay sentiment from the driver, or if I failed because I assumed a threat where there was only an ally. I just know that I’m pretty sure that I messed this one up somewhere along the way, and that even the correct choice (which may or may not have event existed) might not have been the wise one.

It’s intersectionality and ambiguity like this that makes my heart hurt. And it’s awful when the only consolation is that this is the sort of stuff that, ultimately, none of us are really that good at. I’d like to be better at it, but I’m not even sure if, in scenarios like this, it’s possible to be.

8 thoughts on “practical intersectionality”

  1. I have no idea what I’d have done in a similar situation, and I’m sure I’d have felt as awkward as you. Maybe, if I’d thought of it fast enough, I’d have brought up the penguins; penguins, I’d think, are sufficiently cute and unthreatening to enlighten (a little) without upsetting. But you never know.

  2. I honestly can’t say how I would react. Your experience informed your reaction and I don’t think anyone would fault you for that. I’d like to think I would have asked him if he agreed and then gauged where the conversation would go from there and maybe even ask him, “What if his son wanted to marry a man?” Even if he still didn’t agree, it might get him thinking about it.

    But again, I may shy away from addressing the issue as well depending on how prepared I was to engage in the conversation at the time. I don’t usually enjoy talking to strangers so I don’t talk much. But sometimes, I’m willing to have a conversation with a stranger. Even so, something like that I might not be prepared to address.

  3. I am now very reluctant to try to change anyone’s mind from the backseat of a taxi.

    For a number of reasons, involving both the complicated power dynamics and the practical risks, that’s an absolutely sensible policy.

    My mom made two fourth grade classes in two days look each other in the face and talk about specific cases of bullying and use of slurs. The work is still getting done. The backseat of a taxi isn’t a place of leverage, though.

  4. I hope somewhere on the vast Internet is a taxi driver blogging about how he carried this really nice fare today, and he made a comment about this homophobic jerk he once met on vacation and everything went quiet, and how he wishes he’d made it clear that he thought the guy was a jerk, but he’d been worried about offending his fare and wonders if he made a mistake.

    Would make a nice Appendix to this story.

  5. That’s a tough situation but I can’t say I blame you for how you reacted. And the practical concerns with physical safety are pretty well-founded, as your experience prior shows.

    Sometimes unfortunately, you do have to pick your battles.

  6. That’s hard. In your shoes, I might have done something similar. I know I did on a Greyhound on the way back from Dragon*Con a couple of years ago sitting next to a really interesting stranger from Detroit who might easily have been cool with me being not-straight or not-cis, but 2 AM on a Greyhound is easily just as bad (maybe worse) than the back of a cab for testing these things.

    The US is still a dangerous place for people who aren’t straight, cis, white, Christian, male, economically advantaged, etc. Even your city has moments of being truly terrifying if the news is to be believed.

    Be out, be vocal, be visible, but sometimes be careful.

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