Saturday, January 22, 2011

Race/Sex/Gender Traitor: A Tool for Workplace Feminist Direct Action

I work in a masculine workplace environment; the meat department of a super market. All the butchers/Meat Cutters are middle aged/elderly men. Most of the traying/clean-up, and support staff are young men, and the counters wrappers/counters/frozen foods and Deli are women.

Working with meat, it can often lead to terrible sexual innuendos and "laddish" humor. "What kind of sausage do you like". Most time, it can roll off your back, sometimes not. Complaints to management don't end up anywhere, only "we'll talk to him, but this is a meat department, it is how it is".

One elderly (76) can take the jokes to far and often goes into harassment. What were once "laddish" jokes become attacks on gays, women, and other minorities. And unfortunately, for a time they were directed at me (with implications of how I was gay and how it was wrong or a problem to the workplace).

So, I took the question to our IWW branch: what to do when you're under attack? A FW brought up the idea he read in the magazine Race Traitor: deny your whiteness, be a traitor to your straightness.

The next time he tried to make jokes about gayness at my expense, I told him "But I am gay, whats the problem?" His face was went red, "but... you have a wife?!" I said "doesn't not make me gay".

He shut up. Hasn't made those awful jokes since. I know he hasn't changed his mind, and I don't expect him to (a co-worker once told me how he warned her that if gay marriage is accepted, "gays will break into your home and steal" her new-born son.) Still, within the workplace it allowed the worst excesses of a common masculinist workplace culture to be tempered.

As I see it, it was an important, individual direct action, an attempt to deny my own privilege as a white-straight-male and declare my solidarity with the struggles for equality. But such individual actions will never change the dominate paradigm in our workplaces. Only though true organization (not UFCW business unionism), solidarity on the ground and radical eduction/culture, can such changes have a real and lasting effect.


JRB said...

Awesome. This is really useful to me.

Ethan said...

Interesting strategy, one that never would have occurred to me, and I am queer. It's particularly interesting in the way it takes advantage of the relative "invisibility" of queerness--you can't always tell whether someone's queer unless they tell you, and even then you can't be sure, as this example shows.

I'd be interested to see how denying other more marked characteristics--whiteness, maleness--would work. Of course these characteristics aren't always visible (my partner is pretty much a woman, most of the time, though most people think she's a man, and the variability of definitions of whiteness leads to a lot of people who can be considered white in some contexts and non-white in others, not to mention "passing" both in race and gender).

I can see that some queer people would have objections to this strategy--that you're appropriating their struggle in a way that only the privileged can, that you can drop it at will. And in a lot of cases that kind of behavior wouldn't be acceptable to me, either. But in this case, you're using it as a "weapon" of a kind, and I like it a lot!

Only other thing I have to say (sorry to leave such a damn long comment) is just to be careful where and when you use this strategy. In your example it's probably not an issue, but I could see this being physically dangerous in some other cases.

Transcona Slim said...

Hey Ethan,
thanks for the words. In fact, while I was writing this piece, I was thinking exactly what you where talking about when it comes to queer peoples objections. One of the worries that I had in sharing this would be that gay folks would feel that it would be an appropriation of there identity. That wasn't my goal.

My goal was to make the harassing bigot in my workplace aware that there are people who are/could be gay folks he is working with and such comments aren't welcome (just like white folks wouldn't make racist jokes if there in mixed race company kinda thing), embarrass him for being ignorant for assuming that everyone in the dept accepts (even passively) such reactionary drivel.

I think this tactic is only useful when the dominate assumption is of whiteness/straightness. One can't go to a Black Panther meeting and proclaim "I am a black man", or a gay bar and declare "I am gay" but not actually be gay.

More importantly, this is simply a stop gap situation, and to stop real harassment, collective action, not individual action, is needed.

Ethan said...

I'm with ya!