What an American looks like

A park bordering the crown of Queen Anne (“like the style of architecture, not the queen of England”) Hill provides breath-taking vistas of the Sound, all of downtown Seattle, and, on a clear day, Mount Rainier looms in the far distance behind the cityscape. I do not need to provide an image, as you know it already. It is the picture-perfect postcard view of Seattle, the one that has tourists mistakenly assuming that the Space Needle is located in the heart of downtown. It is not. It is an optical illusion, having to do with the interrelations of height, proximity, and depth perception.

The sidewalk that broadens into a narrow strip of lawn decorated at its center with a modernist sculpture is a natural attraction for tourists, children on bicycles, homeless sleeping on benches, and photographers, both amateur and professional alike, a backdrop popular with local wedding parties, all these variegated layers of society converging at the same location, while remaining relatively invisible to one another.

So far, I have learned that a skillful wedding photographer knows more about the postures of love than do the bride and groom.

Something to keep in mind.

For the wedding night.

One evening, as I pause to enjoy the street theatre aspect of post-nuptial photography, an elderly woman plops down on the park bench beside me, not a wedding guest, just another bystander enjoying the scenery. Her fuzz of white hair, thinning to baldness, radiates like an aureole above her face, made up with commercial product about four shades darker than the liver spots on her natural skin. The line of demarcation at her neck and hairline and around her eyes has the effect of making her look startled, as if she had haphazardly donned a surprise mask in a darkened closet before leaving her home. Beet-red lipstick applied with a de Kooning brush feathers out in vertical lines somewhat proximate to her natural mouth.

In the course of our conversation – the sort of conversation that one makes with strangers on park benches – she observes, in a tone of relief or vague approval that manages to convey, also, the memory of disapproval, “It’s a very American wedding party here this evening.”

“Oh? How can you tell?” Other than, because Seattle is in America and people usually do not travel to other countries for their after-wedding photo sessions, reserving that pleasure for the honeymoon.

“Well, by their voices. They don’t sound foreign.”

“What does ‘American’ sound like?”

“Well. They don’t have accents.”

[…]

“We get lots of foreigners up here,” followed by a disapproving sniff that had been waiting in the wings all along, then a glance around. “Looks like mostly an American crowd tonight.”

“What does ‘American’ look like?”

“Well. Like they’re from around here, not from other places.”

Hoping to encourage some self-reflection about her northern European ancestry and their struggles with immigration, I ask, “Where are you from?”

“Right here. I’m from here. I live right upstairs,” she gestures to a nearby condominium tower that, perched at the edge of the precipice, must have nauseating views of the Puget Sound for someone like me, who suffers a bit of vertigo.

By now, the street theatre has lost its appeal for me, the wedding photographer is wrapping up the show, and I decide to bid my leave. I struggle between following Maya Angelou’s wisdom, that racism is not okay in my house, and, like a turtle, I carry my house with me on my back, everywhere that I go, and the sagacity that there is no point in arguing with a fool, and wish the elderly white lady in dark beige clown mask a good evening.

“Look, please don’t misunderstand me,” she says to my departing back, “It’s just nice to see Americans up here.”

No, pretty much no way to misunderstand racism.

What I dislike most about being white is other white folks assuming that I share their bigotry, basing their judgments on nothing more than the color of my skin.

I would scratch at it if I could, to remove its color, to get to some basal level of humanity, something beneath race and sex and national border, and sometimes do, tearing at my skin until I bleed. Sometimes I bleed spontaneously from both palms at the same time. Christians have a word for it: stigmata. I have two: feral cat.

Stigmata, as philosopher Hélène Cixous writes, is a trace, evidence of the gap between two. Stigma stings, sticks, points, pricks, wounds, and stigma is gendered masculine in the French, she points out, but stigma, in botany, is also the part of the pistil that receives, regenerates, blossoms. Do my words penetrate, or envelope? Prick? Or engulf? Is the world really so black and white? Do I emigrate? Or am I an immigrant? Am I sacred? Or profane? Am I a heretic, from the Greek, able to choose, a witch with her familiar, or does it take a true believer to blaspheme? To transgress, to transpose, to translate? What is the familiar, and when does the familial become strange?

I reach deep into my recesses, pulling forth compassion for the old lady who worked so hard to make herself beautiful, only to offend, recognizing that one day before too much longer I may be the old lady on the park bench whose opinions offend.

I may be halfway there already.

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2 thoughts on “What an American looks like

  1. mascnz

    Thank you for the post. It is sometimes so much harder to walk away when someone says something offensive. I wonder how the woman would have responded if asked about people from other parts of the States… surely they have accents? Ergo, not American?
    And do Canadians look different? How different are people from Vancouver and people from Seattle?

    Reply
    1. journal6other Post author

      Thank you for encouraging my writing. Most of the time I feel like I am howling into the wilderness. For me, it is usually harder to speak up, but I also figure once I have spoken three times, that is enough. For me, understanding that the structure of racism and the structure of sexism are the same – structurally speaking – helped me better understand both. I expect I will write quite a bit more on both, and especially where these two forms of oppression intersect. And yes, there are many different accents throughout north America! Some folks prefer to forget that ours is a nation founded on genocide.

      Reply

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