Last week, NPR aired a ten-minute piece about an Iranian-American female comedian named Zahra Noorbakhsh. She was reading an essay on the impact that increased xenophobia, particularly increased Islamophobic violence, has had on her career. She doesn’t do as many live performances anymore, she said, and has had to increase security when she does. The piece saddened but did not surprise me: The normalization of racist views even in the highest levels of government is sickening, pervasive, and obvious.
Something did surprise me, though, when Noorbakhsh described how her routine had changed:
“It was already risky. Working late nights as a woman in comedy, hopping clubs to squeeze in five-minute routines, keeping an eye on my drink. Flirting back with this booker, or letting that MC give me a standard gross feely hug. Now I’m always wondering who’s in the crowd when I announce that I’m Muslim and Iranian-American. Will this heckler be the same guy I spot near my car, on the subway or at my bus stop?”
She said that so casually; the possibility of being drugged, the certainty of being assaulted. That was just part of her existence. And now she is justified in fearing for her life. These are things that I intellectually knew women had to deal with — but it had never occurred to me that they were routine.
I’m a straight white male in my late 20s. I grew up upper middle class (almost certainly upper class, by some definitions, but no one wants to call themselves that). My parents emphasized the importance of work and careful spending, but I never wanted for any of the essentials, or even the not-so-essentials — new clothes, private education, and pricey vacations were all ordinary to me. I am educated and gainfully employed, and I have worked damn hard to get where I am… but I haven’t had to work as hard as others would have. And every day, my life is easier in thousands of little ways because of the luck of the draw; because of who I happen to be.
I give almost no brain power to watching my drink at a bar or party; instead, I just get to have fun. I’ve never had to compromise my bodily autonomy to make my work life less complicated. People have no hang ups when looking at my name on a job application — I’m positive I have even benefited from being a perceived “minority” as a man in my profession (which is 50% female and rising; 80% of new grads are women), even though there’s a disproportionately small number of women in leadership roles. My inherent sexuality is not considered an abomination, and my marriage would be uncontroversially legal. And the personal and professional strain of starting a family is much greater for women than it is for men.
Most of all, I have never experienced someone wanting to kill me without knowing anything about me.
Straight white men have every advantage in this country. And we need to be willing to share those advantages so that other brilliant, hardworking people can have their voices heard and get their fair piece of what this world has to offer. I’m lucky, but there is nothing that justifies trying to keep that luck all to myself.