E. Winter Tashlin

The Privilege of Our Faces [Picture Tells A Story]

Filed By E. Winter Tashlin | April 18, 2015 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: disability, faces, masks, people of color, perception, privilege, PTAS, safety, transgender identity


There is an element of performance in how we move through the world. The face we present to the people we encounter is often a carefully crafted one, and it is the rare intimate relationship - parents, siblings, lovers, old friends - who truly see our un-curated selves.

What the faces we show the world look like depends a great deal on the people we are interacting with, and where we are. The "right" perception can help land a choice job, smooth over a routine transaction, or even keep us safe. That can be as simple as clothing choice, or so intricate that one is more acting than anything else.

This should not be read as criticism. The ability to present ourselves in a manner appropriate for an environment, audience, and situation, is central to being able to engage fully in society. For instance, a friend of mine is both a well respected scientist working with the US government and a legendary sadist in the pansexual kink community. While neither life is secret from the other, who he is in each is obviously going to reflect the standards and mores of the respective cultures.

But of course, for many of us there is a limit to how far we can influence how others perceive us, which in turn leads many to expend a great deal of energy on the areas that we can control.

In the world of LGBT activism, this is especially evident in the assimilationist model for LGBT equality, which strives to present us as the same as our hetero and cis counterparts in everything except what we do in the bedroom or our medical histories. Faced with a society that finds LGBT people different and frightening, this line of thought rejects the people and culture that don't conform with that of the white and affluent people who hold the power to deny us freedom and equal rights.

For me personally, how I interact with people in the world is shaped more than anything by my disability. When my symptoms are particularly bad, as they have been of late, I have little control over how people will perceive me. So I work incredibly hard to shape my presentation in a way that attempts to ameliorate the impact of how people see me as someone with Tourette Syndrome.

My vocal tics are almost always read by people around me as an attempt to be aggressively, or even violently disruptive, though why someone would seek that out baffles the mind. Thus, I am unfailingly polite, as well as somewhat soft-spoken, and tend to keep my eyes down when alone, or singularly focused on the person/people I am with when out with others in public. The hope is that the politeness and nonthreatening manner, combined with ignoring, rather than searching out people's responses, gives people a moment's pause, and sometimes causes them to rethink their initial assumptions about why I do what I do.

It is shameful to me that it was only recently that I, as a white person, became aware of how prevalent and critical this topic is to people of color in America, particularly for young Black men. There are some excellent pieces on the web where parents address how they have worked to instill specific behaviors in their children to keep them safer in a society that sees them as inherently more dangerous than their Caucasian counterparts.

Similarly, friends of mine who are trans, particularly those with limited passing privilege, talk about making concerted, even uncharacteristic clothing choices, or moderating their manner, all in the name of telegraphing their gender identity. Or on the flip side, making the difficult decision not to present their true gender at all in the interest of one form of safety or another.

So while we all wear masks, and work to shape how we are seen in society, how much say you do or don't have over those masks may be a pretty gauge for just what kind of privilege we each carry as we move through the world.

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