Sunday, November 28, 2010

TSA, Sexual Assault, and Opting Out

Like a lot of people, I anticipate flying over the next couple of months, and so I have been following the TSA debates closely. I am planning to opt out because several folks have come forward recently to warn that the focused radiation on the skin that these new scanners use are likely to cause skin cancer in certain populations, including cancer survivors, people at risk for breast cancer, and children. That's two-thirds of our traveling group.

So, we are expecting the intrusive pat downs. And I'm frankly concerned about how this is going to be experienced by my 8-year-old child. I'm hoping that, if we explain everything ahead of time, and if the TSA agent also explains everything ahead of time (they are supposed to do so, but they don't necessarily do so), that he will take it in stride. I'm also concerned about just how intimate and invasive this touching will be. Despite the description the TSA agent gave to John Tyner, they really don't seem to be telling people exactly what they are going to do (check out the links below for examples). We are aware that they will be touching our genitals with their palms rather than the backs of their hands - but how many people expect this (note especially the discussion at the end re. the two levels of pat down - one standard pat down and one as punishment)? Or this? Or this? And how many people expect the TSA agent to put their hands inside the traveler's underpants?

Further, the TSA has now regrouped and is ready for the next John Tyners, arresting and threatening to fine anyone refusing to go through either the scan or the "pat-down" (scroll down to the bottom).

So we are faced with the "choice" of showing our naked bodies, including other intimate information that the scanners can see such as whether or not we are menstruating, whether or not we wear prostheses, etc., to people we don't want to show this to, OR we can submit to invasive touching that many people are calling akin to sexual assault. I find it interesting that those refuting this last statement on various blogs are responding by saying that the TSA agents don't enjoy this and don't intend it to be sexual assault. But, as with racism, intent is not really the issue. Legally, rape and sexual assault can occur regardless of whether or not the perpetrator thinks that that is what he's doing. There are many cases in which men have raped women and not thought that what they did was rape.

What is important is whether or not the person experiencing this experiences it as unwanted touching - which many clearly do, and it has serious ramifications, particularly for those who are survivors of past assault. This is not about Americans' prudish ways, and it is not about how comfortable individuals are with nudity. It is about simply being able to choose to whom and under what conditions we will share the intimate details of our bodies.

I am aware of my privilege operating here, as someone who has never been pulled aside for any additional screening beyond checking through my carry-on. I am aware that lots of people have been dealing with these situations for the last decade, at least. And so I feel uncomfortable at my own sudden outrage at this situation in which I must choose between two situations that I feel are violating. I should have been more outraged long ago.


If the recent news that Opt Out Day fizzled has left you feeling intimidated about opting out, you should read these two statements.

If you do fly and you experience anything you feel is inappropriate, here is one way to report abuse. And here is another resource.

(Just a last comment: As I have suspected, getting rid of TSA screenings in favor of private companies is not going to change a damn thing.)

Saturday, November 06, 2010

How Privilege Works.

I am not proud of these events, but they offer such a clear illustration of what it means to have privilege that I feel that I should share them with you.

The other day, I took Bean's hockey helmet to be fixed at a shop recommended to me by a friend. I am not an athlete, and when I go into sports stores, I always feel like a Grade A dork. I don't know the right lingo, I sometimes trip over things because I am flustered, and I generally feel out of place and anxious to leave. I also don't run into very many women in these stores, so that just adds to my feeling of not fitting in. But when I walked in the door, I was greeted very warmly by three friendly, male staff, who immediately got me what I needed and set to work adjusting the helmet. I relaxed and felt at home almost at once.

While I was waiting, a guy in the back mentioned Dunkin' Donuts coffee. As a transplant from the northeast, I was excited to hear mention of Dunkin' Donuts, which don't exist around here, as far as I can tell (well, except for one store, which you will hear about directly). This, with my new-found comfort, gave me the confidence to jump right into the conversation. Everything was going along well, and we were laughing and joking, until the young man in the back said, "there is one Dunkin' Donuts store downtown, and it's owned by this dirty little Asian man!"

This is the moment where I often find myself, when someone says something like this and expects me to laugh or to go along with the conversation. And this is the part that's hard for me because we had been, moments before, enjoying a moment of friendly chat, and now we were about to stop being friendly.

Keith Edwards of Men Ending Rape says that a well-placed, "Dude - not cool," can go a long way. That actually would have been perfect, except that I remembered it when I was back in the car.

As I stood there, looking at the ground and no longer participating in the conversation, I tried to figure out how to address the comment. Obviously, it was not a comment this white man would have made to me if I were Asian. Quite possibly, he would not have made it to me if I were a person of color but not Asian. It was one of those situations in which white skin signals common ground, and so people feel free to say things they otherwise wouldn't say. Also obviously (to me), he didn't mean anything by it. It was not unlike the way that people say "that shirt is so gay" while thinking they are not homophobic.

As I contemplated my options, I realized that what I have been teaching my students this semester about privilege is not quite accurate. I have been teaching them that privilege is not having to hear comments like that made about you and people like you. Certainly, that is part of privilege. However, what makes it so difficult for people with privilege to give it up is this next part: I realized that if I said anything, the nice exchange we were having was going to change. I was going to say something that would sit there like a turd on the floor, and they were going to stop joking with me, and I was going to then feel anxious and uncomfortable, just as I had worried I might before I entered the store. So my privilege in this situation was that, because I am white, I could walk into a store and have helpful, friendly staff see me as like them and treat me accordingly, and I could then choose whether or not to give up that genial relationship or whether to keep it.

I was not fully conscious of all of these feelings, including the fact that sports stores make me anxious, until I examined them in that moment of standing there and wondering what to do. So part of the privilege was also that lack of awareness of my own motivations and my competing desires (wanting them to continue being friendly to me; wanting to address the racist comment), and part of it was having the luxury of choosing whether or not to challenge the comment that was made at someone else's expense.

I am not proud to say that I did not challenge the comment in that moment. However, I did send an email to the store shortly afterward. Better late than never.