Chapter Five: Negotiating Borders
The Dynamics of Difference.
At the end of her essay in this chapter, "On Not Being a Victim," Mary Gaitskill tells about an encounter she had with a friend on a date:
A few years ago I invited to dinner at my home a man I’d known casually for two years. We’d had dinner and comradely drinks a few times. I didn’t have any intention of becoming sexual with him, but after dinner we slowly got drunk and were soon floundering on the couch. I was ambivalent not only because I was drunk but because I realized that although part of me was up for it, the rest of me was not. So I began to say no. He parried each "no" with charming banter and became more aggressive. I went along with it for a time because I was amused and even somewhat seduced by the sweet, junior-high spirit of his manner. But at some point I began to be alarmed, and then he did and said some things that turned my alarm into fright. I don’t remember the exact sequence of words or events, but I do remember taking one of his hands in both of mine, looking him in the eyes, and saying, "If this comes to a fight you would win, but it would be very ugly for both of us. Is that really what you want?"
     His expression changed and he dropped his eyes; shortly afterward he left.
In the context of her essay, this is a profound and culminating moment for Gaitskill because, as she says, her words came from both her sense of "delicacy" and her "capacity for aggression." And, she adds, they were words of respect for her friend because they addressed "both sides of his nature." The incident signals for Gaitskill, who had been raped earlier in her life, a way of dealing with being at a disadvantage in terms of physical power from something other than a victim’s perspective. To do that meant going against a lifetime of receiving certain messages about rules, behavior, and expectations of how a woman acts.
The story and her conclusions about it serve as an apt opening for the concerns of this chapter, which build upon the previous chapter’s exploration of otherness and difference. In the previous chapter we looked at how we construct differences. In this chapter we will be looking at how we communicate and interact across those differences. As Gaitskill’s near date rape illustrates, every time we engage in meaningful interaction across significant differences, we do so within a matrix of rules and conventions, responsibilities and complexities that draw on our sense of identity to appeal to someone else’s sense of himself or herself.
Obviously, the topic of negotiating across differences is a large and complex one. In this chapter we will begin to consider some of the possibilities and look at a small range of contexts. On the other hand, one does not need a large range of contexts because there are not that many different ways that people engage each other across differences, even if the combinations of circumstances and contingencies are infinite. That is, you can either regard someone else as an equal or not. You can deal with other people through a sense of connection and interdependency or through estrangement and distance. You can have respect or disdain, love or hate for another person. You can be drawn to someone through curiosity and attraction or bound to another through circumstance. When you deal with someone different from yourself, you can either see that person as an individual or see him or her through any one of a number of filters, including the perception of the person as a member of a group or an icon of a category.
All of these possibilities play out in complicated ways each day in our culture. We can analyze them by building meaningfully on the concepts that the book has developed thus far: the influences that shape identity, a sense of belonging and alienation, a sense of community, and a sense of otherness. The writings in this chapter present a range of means and contexts for negotiating differences: communication through fear and withdrawal, strategies of persuasion and appeals to shared values, the construction of sympathy or mutual self-interests. They also examine the negotiation of differences that arise from fundamentally opposite ways of seeing the world, such as the contradictory ways that men and women might consider a relationship or sexual interaction, or the ways that different groups view the idea of race.
One way that this chapter addresses negotiating differences is through confronting problems and devising strategies of communication. How do people find ways to reach across their differences through writing and other forms of communication? What are some styles for bridging differences? When and how do people communicate as if differences matter? How do writers from a marginalized social position write to a culture’s apparent center? What kinds of ideas, fears, anxieties, and ideals are projected from the mainstream to the margins? How are these a part of communication across cultures? Across genders? Across classes?
One of this chapter’s most famous examples of writing across social differences is Martin Luther King Jr.’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." The letteror essayis an excellent example of a writer’s use of a wide variety of strategies to bridge differences and to defend unpopular actions. In the "Letter" King defends his civil rights protest actions to his critics (mostly white and moderate) by citing a combination of shared values about religion and social justice, on the one hand, and by raising the specter of violence and mounting social tension, on the other. Accused of "creating social tension" through his nonviolent demonstrations, King responds by recasting the situation as one in which the social tension already exists. As he says, "Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out into the open, where it can be seen and dealt with." This rhetorical move is an important part of King’s overall strategy to take every possible objection to his actions that his liberal but cautious critics have raised and portray them from the perspective of those without power. From this position of marginal power, the "Letter" strives to create a rhetorical "common ground" based on difference. King’s comment "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities" raises the specter of tension as much as an image of harmony.
Part of the impact of the "Letter" is its ability to use reason to make what at first appears reasonable (the objections of his critics) look unreasonable from a different perspective. This is a key feature of communicating across differences: the acknowledgment that two sides may simply have fundamentally different ways of perceiving a situation. Perceptions are rooted in social position. It is reasonable to assume that people with power, for example, will perceive things very differently from the ways that people who are marginalized from power do.
Language is also dependent on perception. Often one of the challenges of even talking about differences is understanding that certain words or concepts might have conflicting meanings for people in different positions. This is Bob Blauner’s point in his essay, "Talking Past Each Other: Black and White Languages of Race." Blauner argues that "blacks and whites differ on their interpretations of social change from the 1960s through the 1990s because their languages define the central terms, especially ‘racism,’ differently." In part this difference in definition comes from a fundamental disparity in the perception of the centrality of race to American society. In general, Blauner argues, whites see race and racial issues as being "aberrations," whereas blacks see race as central to the fabric of life in America. Consequently, when "whites talk about race," Blauner claims, they tend to focus on specific acts of discrimination, whereas blacks focus on a broader definition of race and racism. Their definition relates to the whole "social system" that is based on those with power and those without it. Understanding this difference is important, he maintains, because when whites and blacks (and indeed, all other groups) engage in conversations about social and racial justice, they often agree on the immorality of racism but otherwise appear to be talking "past each other" and miscommunicating.
Another situation where two people are miscommunicating due to their fundamentally different perceptions appears in the short story by Tobias Wolff. In that story a man and a woman are having a conversation while doing the dishes after dinner. The husband argues that "blacks and whites should not intermarry," and the wife challenges him. With their disagreement comes an awareness that their differences have more to do with their perspectives (perhaps based on gender) than with their views on race itself. At one point the wife asks her husband if he thinks he would have fallen in love with her if she were black. She says, "Let’s say I am black and unattached and we meet and fall in love."
He glanced over at her. She was watching him and her eyes were bright. "Look," he said, taking a reasonable tone, "this is stupid. If you were black you wouldn’t be you." As he said this he realized it was absolutely true. There was no possible way of arguing with the fact that she would not be herself if she were black. So he said it again: "If you were black you wouldn’t be you."
     "I know," she said, "but let’s just say."
     He took a deep breath. He had won the argument but he still felt cornered. "Say what?" he asked.
     "That I’m black, but still me, and we fall in love. Will you marry me?"
     He thought about it.
     "Well?" she said, and stepped close to him. Her eyes were even brighter. "Will you marry me?"
     "I’m thinking," he said.
     "You won’t, I can tell. You’re going to say no."
The story portrays a tension between the wife’s apparent need for acknowledgment of something (like love) that transcends racial identity and the husband’s insistence that it is impossible to separate one’s total identity from the way that one’s "race" would partially construct that identity. What is key in the story is not its theory of social and racial identity but rather the subtle way it portrays a situation in which two people are clearly miscommunicating. Although it seems that they are talking about the same topic, they are speaking with fundamentally different perceptions and perspectives.
The issues Wolff’s story raises about the extent to which one’s "race" or social position determines one’s identity relate to another set of critical issues in this chapter. One of the important questions behind negotiating the dynamics of difference involves individuals speaking from categorical positions (i.e., from a group position) or, similarly, being perceived as speaking as a representative of a group. This question builds particularly on the questions of Chapter 4, which dealt with the construction of difference. Constructions of "otherness" were defined there as the erasure of individuality and its replacement by stereotypes. The readings and questions in this chapter go beyond that initial problem by asking what kind of responsibility we should take for institutional/structural attitudes that are usually the source of that erasure and of those stereotypes. How are we as individuals shaped by institutional and group identities? What is our relationship as individuals to institutionally constructed senses of difference?
All of these questions relate to the kind of exchange that takes place when diverse people interact. Many of this chapter’s essays imply that in order for communication and understanding to take place across differences, we have to become more conscious of the nature of those differences that define the social sphere in which we live. That is, we can only speak across differences if we speak with a consciousness of differences. One useful way to think about the nature of social differences is offered in Mary Louise Pratt’s challenging essay, "Arts of the Contact Zone." "Contact zones," according to Pratt, are "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today." Part of Pratt’s interest in contact zones is to focus our attention on some of the strategies of communication that evolve from such contexts, especially when speakers from less powerful groups speak to the dominating community. One of these strategies"transculturation" (an anthropological term that Pratt employs)is a process in which "members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant culture." It is interesting, for example, to consider Martin Luther King’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" as an expression of transculturation since King selectively and strategically uses the reasoning, values, and intellectual sources of his mainstream critics to argue against their objections to his "marginal" tactics.
Pratt’s concept of a contact zone has become a popular and effective image for people to use when thinking about all kinds of situations. For example, in what ways is an urban area a contact zone? Or the Southwest borderlands? Or a workplace? Or even a classroom? Not every situation could be considered a contact zone, but the concept is useful in a wide variety of contexts. The idea of a contact zone is functional because it implies that in contexts where diverse groups come together, there is often inequality, or asymmetry, of power and resources. To a large extent, that asymmetry determines the kinds of communication that occur there. Furthermore, in a contact zone, communication is always "heterogeneous"a complex mixing of the language, vocabulary, genres, and strategies of one group with another’s. As was implied in the excerpts by Blauner and Wolff, the concept of the contact zone begins with the premise that difference is a given and an important determinant of the dynamics of interaction.
The final set of questions that this chapter raises concerns juxtaposing this notion of a contact zone with the ideas about "community" and "belonging" that emerged from the readings in Chapters 2, 3, and 4. Can a contact zone be a community? Can you have a community despite or because of differences? What does it take to feel a sense of safety, connection, or belonging in the midst of people who differ from each other? What would it take to have a community of differences? In many ways and from various angles, the readings in this chapter raise questions about what people both need and fear from each other regarding their differences.
All kinds of things happen in contact zones. People who differ from each other become involved and connected in complex and intricate ways. One kind of psychological interdependence is featured in the short story "Safe." Here the narrator describes her brother, a "flame diver" at Worlds of Water, U.S.A.: "My brother tells me what a rush it is to be a sponge for everyone’s fears." However, her brother’s dangerous feats are contrasted with the fear of nearly everything else that his and the narrator’s parents, Chinese Americans living in San Francisco, have. The story speculates about the interconnection of safety and dangerhow we are often attracted to things that are unfamiliar, exotic, even dangerous.
In a different way, Luis Alberto Urrea expresses a similar pull toward the uncomfortable and unsafe when describing his own and his coworkers’ complex and varied reactions to their work among the impoverished along the Mexican border. At the end of every day, each worker responded differently to the difficult conditions. Urrea recalls, "Our faith sustained usif not in God or ‘good,’ then in our work. Others of us had no room for or interest in such drama, and came away unscathedand unmoved. Some of us sank into the mindless joy of fundamentalism, some of us drank, some of us married impoverished Mexicans. Most of us took it personally."
Urrea’s stories of working among the poor move us from issues of communication across differences back to questions of identity, adaptation, and survival. How can one move among different worlds, crossing boundaries successfully while maintaining a sense of self, and at the same time have one’s sense of identity changed and shaped by these crossings? This process is also part of the dynamics of difference.
The final reading in this chapter, an essay by Sherry Turkle, extends the focus of these very questions into "virtual realities" and cyberspace. In particular, Turkle describes contexts of "virtual cross-dressing" in which men and women pose as different genders with different constructed identities. The implications that we interact through constructed identities rather than through fixed, natural, or "essential" ones not only relate to the nature of cyberspace but also echo back through the whole chapter to address communication and interaction in any "contact zone." The questions Turkle raises at the end of her essay about online and virtual communities resonate for all the readings and for the combinations of issues related to the dynamics of difference. Once we take "virtuality" seriously as a way of life, we need a new language for talking about the simplest things. Each individual must ask: What is the nature of my relationships? What are the limits of my responsibility? And he or she must consider even more basic questions: Who and what am I? What is the connection between my physical and virtual bodies? And is my body different in different cyberspaces? These questions as framed in Turkle’s essay apply to individuals; but with minor modifications, they are equally critical for thinking about communities. What is the nature of our social ties? What kind of accountability do we have for our actions in real life and in cyberspace? What kind of society or societies are we creating, both on and off the computer screen?