I was at a Starbucks, working on my research and studying for an exam in the fall, when I noticed an acquaintance of mine from McGill University. Since we’re both no longer in Montreal, the chance meeting was something of a pleasant surprise to both of us. He was dressed in a suit, looking quite sharp, and was just about to order coffee. I noticed him as I walked up to the line. “Nice suit,” I grinned.
“Ah, you know – makes you stand up taller” he said.
“Sure those shoes aren’t giving you a boost?!” I teased. He’d always been tall but it was something of a running joke that I was always surprised at his height. We started chatting about this and that; he’d just finished his first year of law school, and I mentioned I was at Queen’s. I saw his posture change slightly and realized he was with someone else – an older man, slightly balding with white hair, also in a suit. David*explained the man was his boss – and we’re just going to call him Saul Tigh* (from Battlestar Galactica) because that’s who he vaguely reminded me of. Saul shook my hand, asking me my name, and then the quizzing began.
“What do you do here – you a student?”
“yes, I’m a master’s student in health studies.”
“How long is the program?”
“Do you have to do a thesis?”
“yes, I –“”
“Don’t you hate that? What’s the point of a thesis anyways – I did my master’s and never show my thesis to anyone. Master’s theses are so useless” I caught a look at David’s laughter, and couldn’t decide if it was from the sheer awkwardness over the line this man was taking or whether he was reveling in some sort of pseudo-takedown of me by his boss. I managed a slightly sardonic smile and hoped Saul caught the sneer. Meanwhile David had started explaining that he was interning with this man, who was of course, a friend of his father’s. In my experience with friends in medicine and law, so much of what we do is all about the connections we have and those we make.
“I want to talk to her about her research!” Saul said, in a tone of voice that made me pretty sure that he was not at all interested in talking to me about my research. David’s face made it clear we’d entered the twilight zone at this point. The surreal quality was a little much.
“Sure!” I said, motioning to my tiny corner of the café. I moved my gym clothes off the chair opposite my tiny table, and sat down comfortably at my end. There were no other chairs in the area, and so poor David had to perch on a high chair near the windows, long legs bent awkwardly, neck craning over the shoulder of his boss who obviously had no interest in including him in the conversation. Considering it was my work we were supposedly discussing, Saul barely had an interest in including me in the conversation, never mind poor David. They had brought over their coffees in little paper cups, and Saul Tigh started “drilling” me about my thesis.
“To be honest, I’m still working it out,” I said truthfully “but I’m looking at health care access for sex workers, social networks between and within organisations closely involved with sex workers. I’ll be looking at how social capital is distributed.”
“Well – do sex workers have needs that the rest of the population don’t have?” He asked. I think the question was meant to be rhetorical, he seemed to be going for the whole“we’re all people” etc etc – but I immediately answered that due to intersections of various privileges and oppressions, sex workers are often marginalized from institutions of health in a variety of ways – one such way is due to the intense scrutiny on their sexual health while other facets such as mental/physical health are ignored. He moved the conversation to poverty, and while it could have been worthwhile, he immediately insinuated that Canada was “soft”, while other places were much harder to live in. “Why are you doing this here?” He asked. “You know, my wife’s an immigrant too, and she just loves it here! Why not study in oh… India? I mean if things are bad here, they must be ten times worse there.” I could feel my eyebrows raise and my mouth tighten ever so slightly. David, I think was apologising with his eyes or at least trying not to actively burst out laughing. He’s seen some of my posts on facebook and knows exactly where I stand on these kinds of issues. This was shaping up to be quite the perfect storm of conflicting ideologies. I sent David a deliberate glance, saying, it’s basically for your benefit that I’m not saying anything else here. You can thank me later.
Because I mean really, really, I must be an immigrant, right? After all, in addition to giving me a green card, didn’t they tattoo “FOB” or “immgirant status: approved” onto my forehead? And oh, right, you had to mention your wife was an immigrant because…. what. street cred? With me? Because now you, Sir Pomposity, can speak for all immigrant experiences. Not to mention: being faced with white savior complex in a coffee shop – the unexpected edition, because really, we don’t have enough of that. I knew I was itching for some white savior bullshit in my life since Kony 2012! Because really, just because of how I look, I must connect with all Indians – especially Indian women who grew up in India and are sex workers there. It wouldn’t be threatening at all to have an international student try and ‘research’ “them” – nope. No power dynamics at all going on there! And of course all sex workers in Canada are white, or well off, or always better off than those in India because hello! India! It’s a shitty place! Or something! Anyway brown people! And you’re brown! Go be brown with brown people and be all browny!
I managed my best steely look and said “well actually, that’s entirely dependent on socioeconomic status.” This is why it will never matter how good my accent is, or how articulately I speak – some lawyer I’ve never met before feels fully justified in making assumptions about me, my interests, my background not from actually engaging with me – but by looking at my face. And suddenly, the conversation was about India even though my research will be based in Montreal and/or Kingston. I wonder if he’d have had the audacity to do that to a white student he just met. I wonder how differently I was treated just then.
I would have continued to explain that India has entire communities run by and for sex workers, that such communities are well known internationally by researchers, and that Canada too has sex-trafficking difficulties. But of course, who was I kidding? This wasn’t actually going to be a conversation about my research, haha! Silly me!
“Oh, David, do you mind getting a second lid – tall please.” It wasn’t a request; Saul Tigh was summoning his errand boy. David’s eyes met mine and our lips twitched. I empathise with the crap he’s going through but it must be done for anyone starting out in a business or company or firm of some kind. Licking boots and kissing asses. And fetching lids. “It’s to keep the coffee warm for my sister.” Good lord, and this man is teaching me about poverty in “the third world”. I wonder if I should have taught him about consumption in “the first world” and if I should have pointed out that consumption here is linked to poverty there.
“Look, I don’t want to destroy your thesis, but there are obviously multiple ways of looking at these issues – socially and through healthcare. And there have been studies like this already – experiments.” Except, you don’t actually know what my thesis is because I don’t even know what it is yet… and I don’t think you’ve destroyed anything but your own credibility…. but again, Saul Tigh was steamrolling on, asking me if I’d heard about ways in which other people had targeted poverty. I responded I had and offered a few examples, both of which he’d never heard of and was immediately dismissive of.
“Well you know, I have my own proposals to write and I’ll be working in Columbia.” Good for you. Sucks for them, though. I’m sure what Columbia needs is another white man coming to save them. And of course, you have a Columbian wife so I’m sure that’s your “in with the locals” amirite?!
“How’s that going?” I asked casually. He seemed taken aback. What, I can get quizzed about my work, but me asking him how his proposal was going without any intention of groveling to learn more was threatening?
“Well I’ll have to read and write it in Spanish – better learn to speak Spanish too.”
“You might want to do that last one first!” My tone was light, but there was definitely some frost in my gaze. I was also amused that out of everything he could have shared about his proposal, the language was the first thing he wanted to tell me.
“Oh well, you know – I mean I speak it fluently – I was just joking.” I felt like fist pumping. A tiny victory. He felt the need to assert his credibility in some way. Despite the suit and tie and the constant talking over me – there was some need here to let me, the “other immigrant” know that yes yes, he could speak Spanish.
More words about his Columbian wife and how he cares about other parts of the world that are “in need” – I had to wonder if she also acts as ‘cred’ on his proposals, but couldn’t bring myself to interrupt. And here’s the awful part – there were ways in which I could defend myself, but I was honestly just so thrown off by the utter audacity on his part to “learn me my lessons”. I got barely two words out about my research before he was off and talking about crap in his own life. It was, quite possibly, the single-most obnoxious encounter I’ve had in a long while – and certainly the only one I’ve had with someone so much older than me. The racism and paternalism aside, I had to wonder: What was he getting out of this? I mean, it was clear I was unthreatened and willing to engage. Did he feel the need to share his experience with a total stranger? Did he think he was doing me a favour? He left soon after, David in tow.
“What a jerk!” The words burst out from a woman sitting beside me. I burst out laughing, realizing that I hadn’t been the only one to notice his obnoxiously offensive attitude. We shared a good laugh over the utterly brazen way this man had behaved. “He didn’t even let you speak!” She said. “Ah men – well. Some men you know… just so patronising. Anyway, you handled it really well. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing so I just shot him a look and I think that’s why he left!” I couldn’t have been more grateful.
“Yeah – it happens. Men do this. Many men in positions of power and authority of some kind feel they have the right to do this – it’s disgusting but occasionally, with the right audience – it’s also sort of hilarious.” And we shook our heads, amazed at the sheer level of obtuseness we’d just encountered.
But this is the thing: paternalism exists. Women are told every day that the work we do does not matter, or that it can be done in a different or better way by older men who have precisely 0 experience in our fields of interest. I suppose if I’m incredulous, I should really realize that it’s a miracle I haven’t experienced such attitudes until now. They are, of course, everywhere. I’m grateful it wasn’t more antagonistic to have rattled me – as it happens, pomposity is hilarious in measured doses. Next time, I’ll sure to serve up some solid snarky rebuttals.
*Names have been changed to protect one (1) incredibly racist/paternalistic lawyer and one (1) intern whose employment, I hope, will involve more than fetching coffee lids of appropriate size.