Context: Jeannie and I met in a U District coffee shop off an alley, which had a funky and chill vibe. The front part of the coffee shop was a bit too busy to be able to sit and record so we ventured to the back where there were open tables and people studying. I was a little concerned at first that she might not feel comfortable talking about these personal things where people could easily overhear her, but when I asked she responded by saying she was happy to have people hear her talk about these important topics and it didn’t make her uncomfortable. If anything, I was the uncomfortable one, being overly concerned that she was OK and would feel like this was a good use of her time. Jeannie is an amazing human being; she is thoughtful, kind, talented, super smart and charming.
She is also a queer cisgender Thai woman, who is currently getting her masters in teaching at the UW. As I cisgender, hetero white woman, I wanted to interview her about her experience as a lesbian and also as a woman of color and see how those two things combined have shaped her experience, especially since she came to the US. Jeannie went to college with my younger sister in Canada and she is the kind of person that makes friends wherever she goes. She grew up in Thailand and came out to her family during her first year of college. Jeannie and I have hung out socially a few times but never one on one. Her experience is unique among queer women and women of color and I was excited to have the opportunity to speak with about how these aspects of her identity have affected her life.
During my last interview I was so concerned about “doing it right” and incorporating the proper skills that it actually distracted me somewhat from being fully present. So for this interview, I reviewed the Nieto handouts before the interview, went over the rubric and then spent a little time just grounding myself before we met. This helped a lot with being present during our time together. Jeannie is an easy person to listen to, she is open with her body language, encouraging of questions, and shares authentically. I was a little awkward at first, not exactly sure how to jump in, but once we got talking the conversation flowed easily. I found myself very naturally asking her “so do you mean…?”
Jeannie’s experience as a queer woman of color is influenced by the fact that she didn’t grow up feeling like either. She came out her first year of college, which was also the first time she had reason to identify as a minority. Since then she has embraced both identities and has not gotten tired of discussing either. While she understands that some people may grow tired of feeling like they have to explain themselves all the time, especially if they came out when they were young grew up having to defend themselves to others, Jeannie herself still likes talking about it.
One thing that was interesting was that Jeannie’s own view of herself was that she was pretty privileged. We talked about the concept of “targets” and “agents” and while Jeannie is aware of her status as a foreign-born minority and a queer woman, she thinks there are particular aspects of her upbringing and personality that have greatly influenced her experience and have likely given her a step up from others who may be similarly “ranked.” First and foremost, in her opinion, is her fluency with the English language – she speaks eloquent, academic English with no accent. She’s also extroverted and is masculine presenting: she has a short haircut and wears gender neutral or masculine clothing. She also noted that Asians are the “least marginalized marginalized group,” and believes that the fact that she presents as masculine gives her more privilege than say a queer man who presents in a feminine way. Jeannie explained, “I could seem underprivileged in so many ways but honestly I am not. I have so much more going for me than if I was say, black, Muslim, effeminate and had an accent.”
That being said, Jeannie often feels like she has something to prove, and is eager to assure others she is not a threat and that she belongs here, she told me “I can see the boarder patrol relax when I speak in perfect English. I crack jokes that put them at ease.” I asked if she found that she did that often in her day to day life — went out of her way to make sure others felt comfortable around her. “I do do that,” she responded, “that’s a good thing to catch actually.” I felt empathy for her in that moment, because even though she is an upbeat, extroverted person, she doesn’t feel like she has the choice not to be.
During this interview I think I did a good job of being present and asking follow up questions that were open ended and allowed Jeannie to answer with what was important for her. I used paraphrasing, and twice summarized her response saying some form of “it sounds like you’re saying you experienced ‘x’, so how do you think that may have affected ‘y.’” Because I was relaxed and genuinely curious about her experience, I felt like I was able to use the techniques we have been talking about without feeling like they were “techniques.” There was one moment where I think I may have been distancing using the holding up gesture, telling her how amazing I thought her outlook was, but I also am not totally sure what the difference between that and genuine admiration is.
One thing I realized more after my conversation with Jeannie is all the things I don’t have to do because I am white and hetero. I don’t think about how people might think of me or interpret me all the time, and I don’t worry if I should hold my partners hand or not when we’re walking down the street on vacation, like Jeannie does. I don’t see it as my job to put people in positions of power, such as government officials, at ease. In fact, I operate under the assumption that they are there to serve me. I am an Agent in every category except for my gender and religion. The assumptions I have about where and how I will be accepted, even if I am dressed sloppily or am not perfectly articulate and respectful in my communication, are products of my privilege. As a white athletic woman in Seattle I feel normal everywhere I go, in fact, I often feel like a PNW poster child. While Jeannie has to work every day to convince people to accept her, and convince herself that she belongs, I take my sense of belonging for granted.
What I learned from this experience, even though it is a bit cliché, is that the adage about needing to walk two moons in someone else’s shoes is totally true. You cannot really know what someone’s experience is like until you talk with them. Even though I had spent time with Jeannie before this interview, I didn’t really know what it was like to be her. I imagined that she felt oppressed in ways that she did not and was surprised by the things that impacted her the most.
One of the things I am most concerned about in my communication style is my tendency to dominate a conversation or interject with something I can relate to. Listening back on the recording, I was pleased to hear that I didn’t do that as much as I thought I did. I will continue to make an effort to avoid the impulse to add parts of my own experience and be ok with just listening and asking questions. I know that this impulse comes from a desire to connect and find common ground with the person I am talking to, but it is unnecessary and it can take away from the Target really feeling like I am interested in their unique experience. Overall this was a very good experience for me, and I believe I learned more about how I can be a deeper listener. I also learned more about the experience of a person who I care about who experiences life differently than me, because of external factors she has no control over. This is something that motivates me to acknowledge and question my privilege and take a stand for those who have not been given the opportunities I have due to systems of oppression that should never have been erected in the first place.