A few months ago, I had, as the title of this little essay implies, a very Special Evening.
I sat next to a young, seemingly sane, New York intellectual at a dinner table. For about an hour and a half, I listened to him as he talked about the fact that “‘Ukrainian women are basically subhuman sluts who don’t know what’s good for them. Oh, and you should all die.”
Of course, he didn’t say it quite that way. No, he took the elaborate route – throwing in words like “hegemony” and “dissasociation.” Yet the conclusion he arrived to was pretty much in tune with the subhuman slut argument, because, at the end of our Special Evening, he turned to me and said that:
“When all of you Slavs die out, there’ll be more room for my people.”
Such pathos. Although I’m not really sure what he meant by that. Who are these mythical “my people”? Academics? New Yorkers? Jews? (He said he was Jewish) – I certainly hope he didn’t mean Jews, because all those visions of Lebensraum create a painful cognitive dissonance.
Either way, the message was clear.
Now, this Special Gentleman’s problem with Ukrainian women (the problem that frustrated him so much that he’s ready to see an entire ethnicity die out) was simple – they dress too sexy. This is something I can partially agree with – women in Ukraine are pressured to doll themselves up for virtually any occasion, even if it’s just walking to the pharmacy for some tampons (I know I do it). There are many women who examine this practice, and many more who don’t. However, not all women who examine it arrive at the same conclusions. Some, like me, have some pretty strong cultural identifications with make-up and heels alongside the notion that conformity scores you points (it does).
But that doesn’t matter. We’re just sluts. Sluts who, according to the Special Gentlemen “get jobs based on the way they look.” Especially the one slut whom he met in an office earlier that morning, the one who was “so incompetent that she was clearly hired for her looks.” Because after spending five minutes with her, he surely understood every nuance of her situation.
There was another woman, sitting a few seats at our table, and when she got up for a cigarette, Special Gentleman said, with a Jerry Falwell-like fake grin, that “she’s certainly not afraid to show how good-looking she is.” The woman was wearing a black dress, rather conservatively cut on top, but short. Oh and some heels. Nothing that, say, a woman from New York wouldn’t wear to an informal social gathering at a trendy restaurant. As a Ukrainian, however, the woman in question did not get a free pass.
I’m always quick to defend Western criticism of Ukrainian culture and society. I believe that most people mean well. I like to think that they see the real issues that people here struggle with everyday, and sincerely want to lend a hand. I also like to think that down the road, Ukrainian women won’t be judged on their appearance period – no matter how they wish to dress (my scary, black, liquidy eyeliner – my choice, that’s the road I’ll probably take), and looking stereotypically “hot” won’t be a requirement in a number of office jobs (Although let’s go on an educational tanget: most serious businessmen and businesswomen I know would not hire a female secretary or an assistant simply for her looks. Being young and attractive can work against you in trying to land that job, even in Evil Ukraine. Young and attractive will often translate as “distracting to clients,” or “not old enough to take on the responsibility,” and so on. Most offices I regularly visit prefer to hire matronly older women, or snappily-dressed young men, for this sort of job.).
And so it breaks my heart to be confronted with blatant hate. It hurts especially because people like Special Gentleman – and I wish he was the only one who had said similar things to me – are not at all awkward about conveying these views to me. After all, I’m “in the club.” I, of all people on this good earth, surely must understand where they’re coming from. I was educated in the United States, I’m “safe,” I’m “OK,” I’m not “one of them.” It’s OK to invite me to watch as my home, and the people I love, are getting shat on from the lofty heights of racism masquerading as academic critique.
I always end up feeling particularly ashamed of these situations, because I just don’t know how to respond. I don’t want to appear to emotionally invested, I try to laugh it off, when all I really want to do is throw my drink at this person’s smug face, letting it stain his nice, modest, oh-so-understated-and-tasteful little pullover, and storm out. Or slap the smug face, and storm out. Or overturn a couple of chairs, and storm out.
Neither can I argue with Special Gentlemen really well. Deep down inside, I just don’t believe that they’re saying what they’re actually saying. Only after I grab a taxi for home, and ride back with a vague, queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach do I begin to realize that oh my God, this actually happened.
When it is happening, I smile a lot. I play with my rings. I try to offer civilized, convoluted, apologetic, pathetic rebuttals. I keep grinning like an idiot, as if I’m afraid to break some spell. I don’t want to get angry, because angry would signal that I care, and how could I possibly let someone know that I care? He’ll call me defensive. He’ll call me an apologist. He’ll fly home with pride and sense of entitlement intact.
I’ll be left with my impotent rage. I’ll be left with that strange, sick feeling. The slimy feeling. Like stepping into spit with a bare foot that trusts in the integrity of the ground below it.
(GOD. Would working on my right-hook in preparation for another Special Evening – they do seem to repeat themselves – be hugely hypocritical in relation to my commitment to non-violence, or just a little bit so?)