Stirring the Pot

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For a while I was going to a Portland coffeehouse called The Fresh Pot, not to drink coffee, nor to obtain pot — I think the “pot” in the name actually refers to what the coffee comes in (although it actually comes out of a large machine) — but to eat muffins and drink hot chocolate and make with the clickety-clack on my laptop. I got to know several of the other regulars by sight, and there was one I wound up talking to who was so unusual I wrote a column about him. The column you are now reading is that very column.

We’ll call him James. We got to talking one afternoon when he said he thought he had seen me the night before at a movie theater (he had), which led to a discussion of the movie, which led to other little conversations on subsequent days. I learned he was a Pacific Islander (from Saipan, specifically), and a hyper-liberal activist P.C. equal rights crusader — but a friendly one, and an endless source of amusement for me.

I knew right away that he was going to be interesting when he asked what book I was reading. I showed him, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” and said it was very funny.

“Want to know what I’m reading?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

He held up a book that had the word “oppression” in the title, a collection of essays about, um, oppression. I assumed it was a textbook, but he said he was reading it just out of interest.

“I’m anti-oppression,” he explained.

I wasn’t sure how to reply to that. It seemed like he was expecting me to indicate my stance on oppression, but is that the kind of position that actually needs to be stated? Isn’t being anti-oppression sort of like being anti-cancer?

“Well, I don’t think anyone is PRO-oppression,” I said carefully.

He disagreed with that and cited some multi-national corporations that take advantage of workers and so forth, so I clarified. “I’m not currently oppressing anyone, at least not that I know of. And to answer your next question, I haven’t been to Wal-Mart in months.” He laughed, but I’m pretty sure that WAS his next question.

James is majoring in Women’s Studies at Portland State University, and while you might be tempted to call him “gay,” what with his being attracted to men and all, he says he’s not. He’s “queer.” The difference? “Queer” is a political position, too. He doesn’t like being called “male” or “female,” either, but “genderqueer,” meaning somewhere along the spectrum, at least emotionally or mentally or whatever, though physically he’s apparently a guy.

Confused by the idea of his being interested in men yet not being “gay,” I said, “Are you bisexual?”

He said, “It depends on what you mean by that.”

I said, “Are you attracted to women, too?”

He said, “How do you define a ‘woman’?”

So I named a specific organ whose presence on a person’s body would, in my mind, render that person a woman. He said no, he’d never been with anyone who possessed such an organ.

“But I’ve been with genderqueer people who consider themselves more toward the female end of the spectrum,” he said.

“But they had male parts.”

“Yes.”

“But you hesitate to call them ‘men.'”

“Right.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I long for the days when a person with a dingle was a man and a person with a hoo-ha was a woman. Occasionally you’d have someone born with both parts (a hermaphrodite) or neither part (Clay Aiken), but aside from those abnormalities, you had two categories and those pretty much covered everyone.

But now there are all these new genders, being added as rapidly and haphazardly as new marshmallows to Lucky Charms. James told me that genderqueer theory allows for limitless permutations of genders, and that they’re hard at work coming up with pronouns to match them. He showed me a class assignment he had written, in which rather than saying “him/her,” he had written, “him/her/hir,” with “hir” referring to people who consider themselves between “him” and “her.” (Those are object pronouns, of course. The equivalent subject pronoun for “hir” is “sie”: he, she, sie.)

The problem with these new pronouns is that they represent an attempt to FORCE the English language to evolve, which seldom works. Things have to occur naturally, the result of actual everyday usage, not because a coalition of androgynes and Berkeley students willed it. Every time I have tried to introduce new vocabulary, like calling a deaf nephew a “dephnew” or a pigeon a “sky rat,” the attempt has failed. You can’t force the language.

In fact, the subject of language is what led to another peculiar exchange between James and me. One day we were discussing slang, and I was explaining the difference between “mmm,” “hmm” and “um” in conversation. Fascinated by my dissertation on the minutiae of the English languge, James said, “You should study semiotics.”

Feeling playful and clever, I rejoined: “Your mom should study semiotics.”

His face fell as he replied, “Oh, Eric, let’s not go there. No jokes about family.”

I thought it was interesting that not only did he consider “your mom should study semiotics” an actual JOKE, but he also thought it referred to his actual, specific mother, whom he had never mentioned and whom I knew nothing about. But I took down a mental note: Make more jokes about James’ family.

We continued to chat when we ran into each other at the coffeeshop, which was once or twice a week, but over time I came to view James not as a regular person, but as a curiosity. I was talking to him only because of the hilarious stories the conversations produced, like the time a woman turned the corner too fast and almost rolled her car up onto the sidewalk outside the cafe, and I said, “That’s why they shouldn’t let women drive,” and James looked at me like he was going to have a stroke. That’s no reason to hang out with someone. It should be because you like him or her, or even hir. And I didn’t actually LIKE James. I thought he was absurdly P.C. and overly serious, more like a parody of an activist college student than an actual person.

Not surprisingly, our friendship didn’t last. A few weeks after we first chatted, we were again talking in the coffeeshop when he mentioned (I don’t recall the exact context) that all white people are racist.

Now, I had not hidden my race from James. He was well aware that I was of white origin. Yet still he felt comfortable casually mentioning, as though it were a fact accepted by all reasonable people, that every single white person is racist.

That’s when the argument began. This was the tipping point, the precise moment that I switched from being amused by his overeager political correctness to being annoyed by it.

“Don’t even start with me on that,” I said.

“Well, it’s true.”

“I’m not racist. Do you think I’m racist?”

“If you’re not working to eradicate racism, you’re helping it.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t talk anymore, then. I don’t want to be friends with someone who thinks I’m racist. Besides, isn’t ‘all white people are racist’ a racist statement itself? If I started a sentence with ‘all black people are…’ you’d be all over me.”

So he explained how white people are racist. Basically, we live in a racist society with a racist system. Who runs the country? Mostly middle-aged white guys. Hence, everything is set up to help white people and not help other people. The very neighborhood we were in, he said, used to be mostly African-American but has been gentrified, so even our patronage of the coffeeshop was a racist act.

“That’s bullcrap,” I said tactfully. “That’s too many steps. Something I do or say could be racist. But if I do this, which leads to this, which leads to this, which leads to this, which leads to minorities being oppressed — that’s too indirect for it to make me a racist. It’s too many degrees of separation.”

He wouldn’t budge on his stance of all white people being racist, and after a few minutes of heated discussion he had to leave to get to a class or a rally or an effigy-burning or something, and our argument went unresolved.

I stopped going to that coffeeshop soon thereafter, mostly because I found a better one, but partly because I didn’t want to talk to James anymore. He had stopped being the fun kind of crackpot and had become the tiresome kind. “All white people are racist”? Please. Pacific Islanders are always saying crazy stuff like that.

When I first met James, I thought: How cosmopolitan I am, chatting with strangers in a cafe! The fact that his kind is somewhat common in Portland but entirely unheard of in my old stomping grounds of Utah made him all the more interesting.

The conversations quoted here are all verbatim, at least to the best of my recollection. In most cases, I jotted them down almost immediately after they happened so I could be sure I was getting an accurate account. Somehow I knew the character of James would wind up in a column someday.

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