Today, I was grabbing a quick lunch to go. I was telling myself that I should work and eat simultaneously, fuelling the all-too-common coronation of busyness. While I was sitting down waiting for my food, a stranger came and sat beside me and began to eat alone, trying very hard to look occupied (shuffling her things around over and over again) while failing miserably to do so, perhaps in subscription to Sartre’s whole “hell is other people” mentality.
Of course, when my food was ready, I decided to drop my work plans and sit down beside her. “Want to eat lunch together?”, I asked. She looked a little taken aback but said sure.
We ate our food and she told me a bit about herself. She studied psychology and used to work at a place where people would perform Cantonese opera. I told her I’d never heard of it and that I’d check it out. She strongly advised against it, her face cringing with dread as it appeared a song that was stuck in her head from back then never really went away.
When I told her about this project I’m working on, she said I could write about her, so long as I kept her anonymous and didn’t mention some things she’d said. She clearly preferred to not be featured on my blog. I took it as a rejection, and thought initially that I would just not write about her at all. But I’m taking it as an opportunity to reflect a little bit on rejection, privilege, trust, and what the last 43 days have taught me about these things.
First of all, this was the very first time a stranger I’d approached had asked to be kept anonymous. It was also the first time someone wasn’t at least somewhat enthusiastically interested in the project. Perhaps it wasn’t an outright rejection, but it sure felt like one. I was taken aback at first, but then quickly came to appreciate how amazing it is that this was the first time it had happened in the last month and a half.
Intentionally facing the prospect of rejection every single day has been an incredible experience. Perhaps it’s a trivial matter: after all, I wouldn’t lose much by these rejections and could easily approach other strangers. But it does still feel vulnerable. Each time I approach someone for this, my heartbeat admittedly quickens as I build up the courage to put myself out there.
The process of not having been rejected during the course of this project until today has taught me a lot about a kind of privilege I’d never seriously acknowledged previously. I’m talking about the privilege of trust that I’ve learned is instilled more readily within women and girls… especially young women. I am certain that if I were a tall old man of colour with a beard, people would have rejected me at least a few more times by now, and probably a lot more. They just wouldn’t be as willing to trust me. Of course, this is just my personal observation and it’s an educated guess. But it strikes a chord of truth to me. I feel like I’m onto something.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a little (and sometimes a lot) pushed aside as a woman in our society. I’ve felt unsafe. I’ve felt objectified. And I’ve felt subordinate in many situations where I know the story would be very different if my gender were, too. Basically, I recognize male privilege as a (not necessarily inflexible) barrier to gender equality. Institutionally, a lot of male privilege goes on behind the scenes as well, in both qualitative and quantitative ways. I’m quick to correct people who say “mankind” to use more inclusive language. I’m adamant about holding doors open for men when I want to. And I don’t want to argue with anyone about whether or not male privilege exists because it absolutely does.
But this project has revealed to me that, in albeit a less institutionally engrained kind of way, woman have societal privilege too. I am so grateful that 42 people have been so willing to share their stories with me, that they see me as trustworthy without knowing anything about me (except, you know, my gender). I feel truly privileged to be the keeper of their trust.