An Essay about How Things Look and How Things Are and Passive Prejudice and When Assumption is Okay
I know. Weird title. I’m a weirdo, what can I say?
Despite the weird title and the duck photo, this is a long, probably heavy post too, so if you aren’t in for a long haul this morning…maybe come back another day. Hopefully after talking about books and ducks and even Weezer and some more basketball metaphor, maybe my weirdness might make sense. Anyway, here we go.
A few weeks ago a news event hit my immediate area. It wasn’t the kind of thing you want as a news event in your immediate area (like your local sports team winning a championship or your neighbor (or yourself) winning the biggest lottery ever or some local scientist discovering a non-invasive, cost-free cure for some terrible degenerative disease). It drove me out of my house (that’s a pretty rare thing, particularly these days, to be honest). I made a plan with an old friend to do something about this news event, but circumstances being what they are, and the main contributors to the news event squashing most if not all action taken, what we ended up doing was having a long lunch together which I’m claiming at this point was a mental health necessity for at least me, and I’m thinking also her. We should probably do that again in the near future.
Anyway, during this stress-induced but not stress-inducing lunch, she mentioned that her husband, while he is a kind, loving man who holds many feminist ideals (otherwise he likely wouldn’t be her husband), tended to focus on certain women’s presentation when deciding whether or not to respect them, or deem them worthy to voice certain opinions. Like…how loud their voices were, or the wording style they used to speak, or their wardrobe and beauty treatment choices or their career paths. This saddened me.
One of the specific anecdotes about this my friend shared was how her husband critiqued a celebrity blogger’s plea to please not automatically think it’s alright to caption her nude photographs with words that imply sex when she herself didn’t. My brain connects things up automatically, so after our lunch, I thought about when Amber Rose was on that show with Rev Run from Run DMC and Tyrese, and she had to argue with them that how she dressed didn’t mean she was ‘DTF’ (which I had to look up at the time, because I’m super cool…it means ‘down to fuck’), or that she wanted to be groped, or was ‘asking’ to be groped by people who felt entitled to her body because she was showing it. This blogger and Amber Rose feeling the need to argue about it makes me sad, and me reiterating this argument and putting it in different terms here makes me sad, but here I am, doing it anyway, because apparently, even progressive people still regularly and proudly practice respectability politics based on presentation. And that then led me to think about how these assumptions based on a woman’s appearance were used to assign them false narratives and take away their agency, but there was a double standard afoot, wherein, we are supposed to never assume anything about a man based on his appearance. There’s that old adage, ‘The clothes don’t make the man.’ We’re supposed to accept that about men (particularly white men), but not about women (or people of color). Women and people of color are constantly unfairly judged by subjective interpretations of their presentations, but it seems like if any assumption is made about a white man, even when he is literally wearing a sign, it’s considered a bad assumption…an unfair assumption…maybe even an attack.
There are these two seemingly conflicting aphorisms we all try to balance in our lives to be kind, giving, accepting people, yet smart and guarded enough to keep from being taken advantage of, and I’m going to try my best to reconcile them to navigate when assumption based on presentation is okay and when it’s not.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
This is meant to tell us that a plain, modest, unfamiliar, or downright weird cover could contain the most meaningful words and/or the most beautiful images we’ll ever be blessed to read and see and know; words that could touch our very souls; guide and change our lives for the better; awaken us to new exciting possibilities or painful but necessary truths; bring us a whole lot of fun and pleasure or emotional catharsis; or all of that. And also that a flashy, attention-grabbing, comfortable, or otherwise appealing cover could just be a good looking, pacifying cover wrapped around (pardon the French here) a big, steaming pile of shit. It tells us that the substance of things doesn’t always match how they look, both to alert us to wonderful things we could be overlooking because of how we react to the superficial surface, and to warn us that sometimes the only attractive attributes something (or someone) has to offer are on the outside. It doesn’t mean that it’s always a mistake to judge a book by its cover, though. I mean…the book cover contains the title of the book, and some of those don’t leave much room for subjective interpretation. If the book cover says, ‘Calculus,’ it’s a safe bet there’s some math in there. Sometimes a person’s wardrobe choice means SOME assumption based on presentation is okay.
Anyone who wears clothing with a slogan on it IS making a statement about something. For instance, if I wear a Weezer t-shirt, everyone (highly likely correctly) assumes I like Weezer. I like at least MOST of their music, if not all of it. That’s what wearing a Weezer t-shirt means. So if I’m wearing a Weezer t-shirt, and some stranger I’ve never seen or spoken to before, looks at me, and then shouts across a space, ‘You’re a WEEZER FAN! You like loud poppy rock music and maybe also Muppets and baby animals as those were featured in several well played music videos of Weezer’s when they still played music videos on MTV!’
And they’d be right. I mean *maybe* I don’t like ALL the baby animals. *Maybe* I don’t like the Muppets and that particular video I thought was stupid. But I wouldn’t be *surprised* that that stranger made that assumption about me based on my Weezer shirt. Because I mean…it’s a logical assumption to make.
If I wore a University of North Carolina baseball hat to a sports bar in Durham, North Carolina during a basketball tournament game UNC was playing against Duke University, and a group of local Duke fans took offense to my hat, which clearly indicates that I am a UNC fan…the team playing against their team in the moment and who has a long, charged history of animosity with their team…I wouldn’t be *surprised.*
It’s not a new phenomenon that what we wear makes statements. Acting surprised that people make assumptions about you because of something you’ve worn that makes a clear statement about something you like, support and/or believe in is incredibly naive and bordering on delusional. It’s not even a lesson you need to be very experienced or mature to learn. It’s not a lesson that has to be expressly taught to a normal human being. My son knows that when he wears his Ravenclaw t-shirt to school, the other children and adult staff members will assume 1. he likes Harry Potter and 2. he’s in Ravenclaw house and proud of it…he took that Sorting Hat test.
When what you wear LITERALLY says something? It’s reasonable to judge that particular book by its cover.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…”
This one means, when you’re seeing things with your own eyes and hearing things with your own ears, you should objectively evaluate the evidence before you and trust your own senses to know what that evidence means. It means recognizing patterns of behavior. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…it’s very nearly certain that it’s a duck. This phrasing means to identify things as what they are, based on your knowledge and experience, and to not disregard your own knowledge and experience. I mean, maybe it’s not a duck; it’s a man in a duck suit. Maybe it’s some other variety of flight-capable water fowl. But it’s probably a duck, or at least it’s closely related to a duck, or it wants you to believe it’s a duck. In any case…it’s not a penguin or a horse or a tiger because that’s what you’d rather be looking at. It’s still a duck (or very duck-like). This is how we teach children to identify nouns in infancy and toddlerhood.
It seems like these two cliches are giving us competing objectives; that both of them can’t be adhered to in unison. But that’s not true, really. When taken together, they mean, essentially, ‘Learn things from life and about people, and then use what you know.’
We can’t learn things…about topics that are important or interesting to us…about the world around us…about the people in our lives…without opening the covers and reading the words and looking at the images inside the books. So in the vast majority of cases, we have to open the covers. We don’t have to finish books that make us afraid or sad or bore us, but we don’t really KNOW most books are going to do that without cracking the spine. However, there are always some obvious exceptions. The cover of Stephen King’s IT, showing the evil eyes of Pennywise is enough to know, ‘This book is nightmare fodder.’ The cover of most Jane Austen novels give clear implications that we’re going to get a slow burn, intellectual period romance. But if we’d never opened up Barbara Kingsolver’s or Alice Walker’s or Toni Morrison’s work, or anything by John Green or JD Salinger or Amy Tan or Augusten Burroughs or Marjane Satrapi or Khaled Hosseni…how would we know we loved those words? We wouldn’t. Not from the covers alone.
And then, when we’ve learned things from opening some books, or on those occasions when the title says what the book contains, we have to use what we know. So when we see emotional abuse in that novel we read…when we learn signs of narcissism or depression or passive racism or whatever from the online article we read last week, we need to recognize those things when we see them in our own lives…both our behavior and that of the people we know and see.
Too many people use ‘…quacks like a duck…’ to make snap decisions about people *they don’t know* from the surface who are not clearly identifying themselves, whose presentations are up to subjective interpretation…without opening the book.
This is particularly harmful when we apply it to groups.
“All loud women…”
“All homeless people…”
“All trans youth…”
“All black men in hoodies…”
Do we know all of them? Of course not. We don’t even know most of them. And those people aren’t making a statement by simply existing in their current form. Their titles don’t state their contents.
Even though I AM a cisgender, heterosexual/romantic, monogamous, politically progressive, intersectional feminist, introverted, shorter than average, white woman who writes love stories and is a married mother, that doesn’t mean I can speak for all (I’m not typing all that stuff again)’s. It doesn’t mean I know them all even though I am one myself.
And it’s still harmful applying ‘…quacks like a duck…’ individually to people we don’t really know…UNLESS they’re wearing a sign (see Weezer and UNC hat above…).
“She has a lot of guy friends…she’s dressed so provocatively…she swears a lot…she’s probably gay…promiscuous…uneducated…”
Or she could just dig sports and video games and get hot easily and like the versatility of the word ‘fuck.’
It can even harmful when the generalization works in the person’s favor.
“He’s wearing that fine tailored suit…he’s eloquent…he’s entertaining…he’s so polite…he’s white…he must be intelligent…he must be excellent at what he does…he must be an ethical man of integrity…we should give him the benefit of the doubt…”
He could be an incompetent, selfish asshat who knows how to dress sharply, and has a smooth speaking voice that tells people what they want to hear, though. And if he’s wearing a sign that says he is at least tacitly supportive of something ugly if not a proud believer in it? Well…it doesn’t matter what else his cover looks like. We know the title. It summarized the contents.
People should use ‘don’t judge a book…’ with people THEY DON’T KNOW. Unless, like we said…their title states their contents. If the book cover says, ‘George Washington Carver: A Biography,’ it’s fair to assume that book is going to have some information about peanuts inside.
We don’t know anything about people who aren’t wearing signs until we open their book. Before we judge, positively or negatively, PLEASE OPEN THE BOOK. At least read the jacket cover and the first couple pages.
And too many people use ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ to excuse the shitty behavior of people *they DO know.* Or even people they just perceive to be LIKE people they do know.
“My cousin’s a cop, and HE’S not a racist, so therefore, there are no racist cops.” Nope. Maybe your cousin is a great guy. He probably is. But a blanket statement can’t be made based on opening ONE book, especially when there’s been a repeated, obvious pattern of behavior to the contrary in many other documented examples. It’s exactly like saying, “I read Joyland, and it wasn’t that scary, so no Stephen King books are scary…” BAD ASSUMPTION. Trust me on that one.
This time the closer we are to the person…the more we’ve read in their book, the more connection we feel to them, the more we need, ‘…quacks like a duck…’
Because we want to believe the people we love…the people who belong to similar groups as us…that look like us…have no flaws, don’t we? At least no serious ones. It makes US look bad when we see ourselves or someone we care about associated with that bad behavior, or when we overlooked the red flags inside the pages because we fell in love with the cover, so we rationalize the obvious quacking we hear.
“Oh, well, it LOOKS like she’s using him for her own convenience, but I must be missing something…”
“Oh, well, it LOOKS like he’s a narcissist, but that could all just be an act to impress people/something he does because he’s anxious/it’s because of his tragic past…”
“I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by…”
“He’s just a kid, he didn’t know what he was saying/doing…” (this is an excuse we only normally afford white boys…not girls or non-white boys, by the way)
“Just give them a chance…another chance…another chance…”
But almost always…when we see that pattern…it’s a duck. Even on the rare exception when it’s not…if it’s walking like a duck and quacking like a duck, we should at least step back and check to SEE if maybe it’s a duck. It could be a platypus or a swan. I get it. Maybe we’re alright with a platypus or a swan, as long as it’s not a duck. But we need to check. Because if we can’t live with a duck…if ducks hurt us…if we’re allergic to ducks…well…we have to make sure it’s not a duck and it’s really a platypus or a swan. We can’t just overlook our own gathered knowledge and senses because this duck is close to us…familiar…reminds us of ourselves or someone we love…and we want to believe it’s really one of those other things…it’s still a duck.
How things appear isn’t always how things are. Of course I know this. We have to open the books and read a little…or a lot…to find the reality of things (and especially people). But we should trust our own senses (including…maybe *especially*…our intuition) when we’ve opened the book, or with those books whose content is stated on the cover. That’s when, like Joey Tribbiani on Friends with Little Women AND The Shining, we want to put it in the freezer. We’re all qualified to call that book sad or scary once we’ve opened it and read some, or when the cover actually SAYS, ‘This book is sad/scary.’ And we’re allowed to say we don’t like it, and don’t want to reread or finish it. When we’ve read enough of that book (which sometimes DO have informative titles on the cover), we’re allowed to call it a duck.