I met some friends this morning at a breakfast restaurant in Berkeley I had been to once before. It’s a delightful little place with high quality dishes and what appears to be a somewhat high-end clientele, normally a place I really enjoy patronizing, as I’m a bit of a foodie.
The first time I noticed the owner’s odd habit of not looking me in the eye while somewhat evasively and curtly speaking to me, though I was directly asking him a question. I let it go, but filed it for future exploration. This time it was unmistakable: while greeting and seating personally other customers—once again—he seemed unable to directly look at me when I said hello to him.
This is a phenomenon I am not unfamiliar with, owing to the obvious color, class and sexual preference that I more or less wear on my skin and represent through the way I dress. I’m a kinda used to being the recipient of THE LOOK upon walking into certain establishments.
What do I mean by THE LOOK? Any working-class person, LGBTQ or person of color has probably been the uncomfortable recipient of THE LOOK. The one that asks “are you sure you are in the right place?” A question which hostesses or salespeople sometimes actually use their outside voices to pose, though it’s rarely clearly uttered. What is spoken is nearly always a euphemistic greeting that is not meant to be welcoming. It’s a dog whistle, a secret coded message for the ears of people who are not the clientele that is encouraged in this establishment. The phrase is usually innocuous, hence inaudible or meaningless to the people who would normally be welcome in said establishments.
I witnessed THE LOOK in so many instances: After drinks in the lobby of the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood, a group of us (all white, except for yours truly) decided we wanted to stay for dinner. I volunteered to check it out. After getting ignored for some time, while the hostess greeted other walk-ins who were inquiring about dinner with no reservations, giving them an approximate wait time and a seat at the bar with menus, I finally asked her the same question. She immediately responded that they were fully booked and suggested I try somewhere else in the area. I came back to the lounge and decided to try an experiment, asking one of the other women if they would mind repeating my question to the hostess, only doing it while WHITE. Sure enough, she was treated the same way as the other guests—she was given a menu and wait time.
This isn’t just an American phenomenon: The (white, older male) head of WEA in New Zealand raved about a particular restaurant on one of my tours of the island. As we both approached the door, the person behind it slowly turned the OPEN sign around to read CLOSED, never taking his eyes off us.
I have tried in vain to convey this experience to friends of mine who argue with me, “I’m sure that’s not what that meant.” But those of us who routinely are excluded in ways that aren’t obvious to the naked eye of those who aren’t routinely excluded, hear the clearly conveyed message: Your kind is not whom we want here.
I have had various reactions to this situation, the unspoken exclusion, the invisible division during my over 50 years of being on the receiving end of it. The way I deal with it largely today is overtly: today I speak it’s name:. This. is. racism. This. is. homophobia. This. is. classism. and I vote with my pocketbook. Though I really enjoy this restaurant, I won’t be going back. If the owner is uncomfortable, for whatever reason, with my presence in his restaurant, I really don’t need to keep giving him my business.
I do not wish to petition for entrance any more in my lifetime. Fortunately for me today, I can find others of my ilk to communicate and process with, to gain strength, hope, love and courage from. We have built these networks over the years to pool our resources, share our knowledge and create safe spaces to encourage each others individual growth.
This, perhaps not obviously, but there you have how my brain works, brings me to thoughts about the controversy over the womyn-born-womyn policy at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
As a person who on a daily basis perceives and endures sexism, racism, homophobia, and outright class-based snobbery, I really do understand what it feels like to be standing on the outside of the place where power resides.
Women born and raised as women in America have been inculcated in thousands of ways to believe they are not powerful. It’s no surprise that women stand outside of the center of power in this country. Women grow up in this culture with an experience that at best is suffocating, condescending, intimidating, patronizing, demeaning, advantage-taking and dream-crushing and at it’s worst terrifying, abusive, physically and sexually violent. The desire to create space that is safe, protected, nurturing and encouraging, drove the women in 1976 to create the one week once a year celebration that is Michfest. Now in it’s 37th year, it has literally raised generations of young women to adulthood, with the knowledge and support that the traditional and ubiquitous sexism that attempts every day to stifle their aspirations and hope is not true and will not win.
What is obvious is the ongoing need for a space for us as women-born-and-raised women. Our particular experience is valid and the desire to keep that time and space exclusive does not, by it’s existence, imply that other equally valid struggles are less important or don’t deserve a space of their own.
This year has seen much discussion, quarreling and some acrimony regarding the festival policy asking MTF transwomen not to attend the festival, equating this to discrimination. I reject that assertion as false equivalence, in the same way that women of color creating an exclusive space inside the festival as the People of Color Tent does not “discriminate” against white people.
There has always been controversy over attendance at the festival. In years past, the issue of straight women, male children and male allies have been lightening rods for divisiveness, name-calling, bad feelings all around. Somehow, eventually those issues were resolved in ways that the majority of the festival goers felt relatively comfortable with.
Trans women and men simply have a different experience and struggle, no less valid and equally important to gather together in solidarity to build, grow, encourage and celebrate. Like WBW, they stand outside the center of power in this country and I fervently hope we can learn to support and love each other and work together in this ongoing fight. As inclusionary as Michfest is, I do not believe that it can be all things to all people. I strongly support the festival’s mission and hope that we can all, eventually, come to the understanding that when we give each other the space and encouragement to commune, we will be stronger allies in the ultimate struggle for human rights and dignity.
Vicki Randle – vocalist, percussionist, guitarist and songwriter has been a ubiquitous presence in the American musical landscape for over 30 years, whether Rock, Jazz, Pop, R&B or Americana. 18 years lead singer and percussionist of the acclaimed Tonight Show Band led first by Branford Marsalis, then Kevin Eubanks. It’s a good bet you own a CD that she is credited on, have seen a video or concert she was featured in, seen a film, TV show or commercial that features her voice (California Raisins, for example.) The list of credits is impressive: She has performed with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Al Green, Angelique Kidjo and Vince Gill. Recordings include lead vocals for Herbie Hancock and a duet with George Benson, background vocals with Aretha Franklin and Todd Rundgren. Touring (lead and background vocals and variously percussion, guitar, bass, keyboards and harmonica,) with Kenny Loggins, Lionel Ritchie, Dr. John, Wayne Shorter, Laura Nyro. Her CD “Sleep City” was released in 2007 and she wrapped up a tour with Mavis Staples in concert with Bonnie Raitt this past summer.