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As A White Woman Living In Africa, I Can’t Talk About Race

Thought Catalog

I can’t talk about race. I can’t question it, can’t refer to it, and can’t acknowledge it. I can barely go so far as to notice it. I’m a white, middle-class, American woman who can’t speak about what it’s like to be a white, middle-class, American woman. Race isn’t on my list of approved talking points.

I don’t underestimate the weight my words would have against the backdrop of Rodney King, Sally Hemings, Jim Crow, and slave ships. I understand how inappropriate and undeserved a soapbox that would be. But if I could in fact talk about race, I would start the conversation here, in Africa, in Ghana, where I have never been so aware of the color of my skin—welcomed and adored because of it, and yet left feeling small and burdened by the historical implications.

Each morning I wake up, I can be sure that at no point…

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I was ‘cat-called’ today… by another man… and I am a man in a ‘macho’ profession

That sounds pretty ridiculous right? Please allow me to explain.

1) I received an unsolicited comment about my appearance, that,
2) while not at a sexual advance, made me feel degraded as a person, and
3) that confrontation would have negative consequences.

Let’s start with some background information, both about me personally and the Air Force at large.
I am a 25 year old, white male, training to be an aircrew member for the United States Air Force. I started growing a mustache in May 2013 when my father accidentally shaved his and has not grown it back. My father and his brothers have had mustaches for as long as I can remember; so this is a family thing, with both external and internal factors.
I left home at 19, flew 2400 miles away to attend the United States Air Force Academy to pursue a life long dream of flying. In the past six years, I have barely been home for the big winter holidays or the summer beach vacations let alone the birthdays and funerals. I have changed so much and have told them so little, it is becoming increasingly difficult to relate. Separated by both time and space and hindered by walls of guilt and resentment, it is the small physical body modifications, I also have a tattoos, one of which commemorates my grandfather’s birthday and my commissioning day, that help me feel connected to my lineage.
If you are at all familiar with military culture, you will recall that a clean shaven is look expected in uniform. There are certain reasons, mostly medical, individuals may be granted shaving waivers for beards but mustaches are allowed by regulation as long as they stay within the lines depicted in regulation, as mine does. The Air Force has a piece culture all its own called Mustache March. If you are unfamiliar, head on over to google and search for it, as well as Robin Olds. Short version, a legendary fighter pilot who wore a ‘bullet-proof’ mustache in the Vietnam theater was required to remove said iconic shield when he returned to the states. To honor this extraordinary heritage, it is, unofficially, only appropriate to grow a mustache in the month of March. The lazy person in all of us may also choose to participate in ‘no-shave’ November just to feel the upper-lip fuzz or see what may be in five months.

Now back to my story from today.
While retrieving my helmet and breathing mask from the equipment room for altitude training, I was asked, by a superior officer, to confirm that “it was a little too early for no-shave November and looking like a creeper.” While I proceeded to ignore him because I have received similar gross comments and childish ridicule over the past year, the equipment tech on duty felt the need to bring my attention to the fact that someone had just addressed me. I replied that I ignore stuff like that because I no longer care that someone in uniform has a problem with my perfectly legal facial hair. However, I continued to be bothered by the exchange on the 5 minute walk to classroom training, and it was not until this evening the realized I could almost classify it as ‘cat-calling’ and harassment.

Here’s why:
The comment was unsolicited, I merely passed by the man;
it was not funny, it relies on a disgusting stereotypes about the physical appearance of adult men that act on a craving for sexual pleasure for prepubescent humans;
and it was uttered make me feel self-conscious, because that’s what pleasant human beings do to each other!