[Content Notice for Paragraph 5: Victim-Blaming for Sexual Assault]
I can vaguely recall having ranted about the Eurocentrism of my high school history classes, but the moment that the discomfort of othering really hit me was a few years ago, when I was in the middle of reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.
Others have enumerated the unease many women feel when we read the words of men waxing nostalgic for the non-existent (and pre-feminist) good ol’ days. My discomfort had less to do with my feminism and more to do with my reality. As I delved into the book, my sense of disconnect with the content clicked sharply into place.
He spoke of a grandmother of mine who lived on a farm somewhere in the Midwestern region of the United States — or so I guessed, based on the description. This mythical ancestress of mine ate foods that my actual grandmothers had either only heard of in well into adulthood, when they moved to North America, or of which they remain unaware to this day. He described a lifestyle that would be unfamiliar to anyone in my family, past or present. He concluded by admonishing me to eat in the fashion of this grandmother, a person who is less than a ghost to me, since ghosts are supposed to be at least tangentially related to the actual lives of the dead.
Pollan was going on and on about a person who had never existed: my imaginary white grandmother. This best-selling foodie was waxing nostalgic for something that had absolutely nothing to do with me yet that he called mine.
Feminist critics and nostalgia for a non-existent past are not the only things that Michael Pollan has in common with slut-shamers. Whenever I am able, I go to bat against those who would blame rape on clothing choices rather than on rapists. One of my favorite rhetorical strategies is to simply ask them to define their terms. When they advise that women dress more “modestly”, I inquire specifically into what might constitute, in their view, an appropriately rape-proof outfit. Rarely have I received anything by way of an answer that is specific enough to be meaningful, but I have, more than once, been told to dress in a way that would merit my grandmother’s approval.
Besides the obvious lack of consideration for the children of immigrants in that statement, I have to ask which grandmother they mean. My paternal grandmother, more invested in culture than religion, was not a fan of my headscarf. When I wore earrings, necklaces, and make-up to attend all-women’s parties, she would heap praise upon me. Almost no one was happier when I unveiled than she. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, was the kind of person would scold at me on school mornings as I ran to class from the sliding door of the family van. Running made my larger body jiggle indecently and exposed my ankles to boot. How indecent. How shameful.
Hearing things about my parents’ respective mothers that my dearest grandmothers would not recognize is a reminder that others do not consider my filial history worthy of consideration. In one of the many intersections between my chosen college major (philosophy) and my geeky interest (sci-fi) lies the Grandfather Paradox. That particular notion grapples with the notion of what is possible. The Grandmother Paradox, on the other hand, feels like an indication of the impossibility of my being considered a full human being in a society that can be rather unthinkingly Euro- and American-centric.