This is the start of my twelfth month in the city and I’m still writing about what happened in the first month after my arrival. Look, we have reached the last day of that first month. Things will be speeding up quite a bit from now on. I hope.
Do you remember Bob at the bank, 2 March? In the chronicle “on dogs and fags”? Do you also remember he advised me to read the book “Dude, you’re a fag”?
It turns out his advice wasn’t an outright insult aimed at hints of femininity in my gestures, tone of voice or intellectual depth so distinctive of Western Europeans. No, it actually is a book. In the book, author Cheri Pascoe analyses masculinity in American high schools. Through ethnographic work, she finds out boys and girls are pushed by a societal norm to emphasize their masculinity. This masculinity is defined by dominance and control. Heteronormativity galore.
Let me take you a bit further, it’s fascinating.
“Faggot” originally meant “bundle of sticks”. It was used as an insult to women – referring to the fact this women was as useless and burdensome as a heavy bundle of sticks. Nowadays it means “male homosexual” and it is one of the most widely used words on American high schools.
Now boys in high school actually do not mean it when they call each other fag. No, it is a joke, a term of endearment that is being used to bond and cement their relationships. It is also used to soothe their sexual anxiety. The term secures the gender order – everything which does not fit into the classic gender roles is experienced as threatening to this gender order. The epithet is used each time one of the boys shows signs of incompetence, emotion, caring about appearances, dancing or expressing interest in other guys. The boy who shows any of these inclinations, is immediately ridiculed and corrected. The boys “remind themselves that at any moment they could become fags if they aren’t sufficiently masculine.”
Interestingly, the gender order is reinforced by teachers. In the classroom they often make jokes about masculinity aimed at male students as a means to keep them engaged. Teachers and staff often overlook sexual harassment and discrimination in the classroom. Homophobia is quite okay. In the kids’ minds, rape is often excused by blaming the victim.
One last thing: masculinity is pretty racialized – it is defined differently for whites and people of colour. To fight off stereotypes about being poor and “ghetto”, black students pay quite some attention to clothing style and cleanliness – behavioral traits that white students consider to be fag. Dancing in hip-hop culture is not considered queer, rather the contrary, so black kids dance to show off masculinity. Black kids also don’t use the word “fag” as much as white students. They’d much rather accuse each other of acting “white”. When confronted with a gay dancer they react humorously and with admiration whereas white students show violent reactions. If black boys dance too provocatively at school assemblies, they are threatened with expulsion by administrators. If white boys are seen dancing in an equally provocative manner, they aren’t. In the minds of the administrators, the black male is hypersexual. The white male is not.
So let’s go back to 31 March.
An aquarelle teary sky is the first sign of spring. This is morning, the air is soft and the world awakens. I am walking down Wyckoff Avenue, from the Bushwick loft in the factory building to the high school at the end of the avenue. I am teaching two classes on “how to have a career in journalism” today, at a last-chance school for drop-outs.
I am a bit nervous.
Wyckoff is a divided avenue. The side closest to East Williamsburg is being taken over by rugged young white men in woodcutter shirts with beards, hats and skinny jeans. White girls with too much make-up, wool hats and tattoos, running wooden bars that sell vegan bowls at the backdrop of deafening rock music. Behind an invisible line starts the Latino marketplace, smoking grandfathers with moustaches having heated discussions in Spanish while overweight mothers walk around with grocery bags waving roots and vegetables. The border between the two worlds is moving up, to the disbenefit of Latino New York.
Wellington picks me up from the subway station at the end of the avenue and guides me to the high school. It’s an orange cube. First floor windows are covered by a close-grained steel maze. The fence around the basket ball court is draped with barbed wire. I am body-searched by a female black police officer, gun in her back pocket, colourful braids and large disco mirror sunglasses before being let in. An arrow sporting a flashy advertisement for breakfast with donuts, chocolate and waffles with maple syrup in the hallway points the way to the refectory.
“I know, but I gotta do this. Do these tests and sort out my life. You know, I got with the wrong friends and then I took a lotta bad decisions.” She’s maybe eighteen, Mexican-looking and she talks with some hope, more shame. We’re in an empty classroom, counting the minutes before the next session starts.
The bell rings and we walk through the barren hallway up to my class. From outside, I can already hear a teacher shouting on top of the clamour. Nobody pays any attention to Wellington and me coming in. On a whiteboard, under the printed title “concepts”, a teacher has written down in red pencil “Machismo: a definition of manliness that emphasizes agressiveness and dominance.” I pull out my phone and take a picture. Wellington and I stay against this wall, unnoticed between flying paper balls, pens and shrieking desks.
“Everyone, please!”, the teacher is young, white, tall and slim with a small beard. “Please show some respect for someone who’s come all the way from…from…”
“Belgium!”, I help.
“Yes. So please, maybe think about how fortunate you are to have someone from…Europe coming here to teach you. So take your forms and fill out your names. Take your forms. Jose, Ricardo, Colin, sit down and take your forms. Sabrina, sit down. Sabrina. Sit down. Sit. Down. Sit down now.” I am not ready for this. “Guys shut up will you? I’m not gonna repeat this. Ricardo, if you don’t stop doing that and if you don’t show any respect for our guest I’m gonna have to let you fail for this class and you know what that means for your future!”
“But that’s unfair!”, Ricardo protests, the smile suddenly gone from his face.
“It’s also unfair to let our guest from France…”
“Belgium”, I interrupt.
“…wait until you guys figure out how to behave.”
The class calms down, everyone is seated.
These are the kind of kids that will listen to you with their shoulders up high and their hands glued inside their pockets. Two girls in the back are facing the opposite wall. Ricardo, a black kid, is sitting down in his airspace down jacket. He doesn’t seem intent on taking it off, nor his backpack. Jose, a Puerto Rican kid with a black hat, baggy trousers and large golden earrings, leans back in his chair, chewing gum with a hypnotized gaze. A black thin tall girl in front, long braids in pigtails has a look in her eyes that might mean despair, intense wonder or both. There isn’t a white kid in the room.
To be continued…