There’s a clip from an episode of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show, Master of None, that I like to use when I’m teaching. It depicts his character at a party with friends and co-workers. A random guy approaches one of the party, a black woman, and tries to buy her drink. She politely declines. Afterwards, while she’s walking home, the guy aggressively, persistently trails her, yelling about what a ‘nice guy’ he is, and how much he ‘deserves’ a shot with her. The scene ends with her on the other side of her locked apartment door, wearily calling 911, while the ‘nice guy’ continues to harass her from outside.
Strangely, it’s not that clip that I’ve had on my mind since the story about Ansari’s questionable (at best) behaviour on a date with a much younger woman. The episode I’ve been replaying over and over is the second one from their first season. In this episode, Aziz’s character and his friend realise the sacrifices their immigrant parents made so their children could live out American dreams. It is a truly moving episode, that speaks truths universal to those of us who have watched our parents fight to build lives and homes and families in places wholly unfamiliar and unforgiving. It’s an extraordinary half hour of TV. I am yet to see anything else that says so much about the immigrant experience, so succinctly and brilliantly.
The story told by ‘Grace’, Ansari’s date, is also familiar to me, as I’m sure it is to many women. In the days since Grace’s story was published, I have struggled to hold these two truths together in my head. That these two familiar but vastly different narratives could be associated with one man. In one story, he is a proxy for me and other third culture kids, blasting our story from the margins onto mainstream television. In another, he is a stand-in for all of those men who, when the chips were down, have treated me and other women as objects, drawn in simple strokes in the minds of pornography purveyors, and animated for the sole purpose of fulfilling men’s one-dimensional fantasies. I have struggled so much to reconcile the Aziz of Master of None‘s episode on immigrant dreams with the Aziz of Grace’s nightmares.
But then I remember the ‘nice guy’ episode. One of the things that makes that sequence in which the woman is followed home so affecting is that her frantic, terrified walk home is inter-spliced with scenes of Aziz’s character’s carefree walk home. At one point, he suggests to his buddy, “Hey, should we cut through the park?” Every woman who has ever walked anywhere alone knows that cutting through the park is never a matter of convenience. The calculus is complicated. What time of day is it? How dark is it? How secluded is the park? What am I wearing and will they blame me for it should anything happen to me?
Even though Ansari more than likely had a hand in crafting the narrative of this episode, it should not be forgotten that his lived experience is still far closer to that of his carefree character than to the black female character. He can cut through the park without performing the calculations that all women must.
And he can ask out a woman eleven years younger, and a lot less famous and powerful, buy her dinner, and – on the first date – assume that she is a position to give enthusiastic consent, without him explicitly asking for it.
The lesson in this whole mess of a story is this: His immigrant and third culture kid experiences do not cancel out his male positionality and vice versa. More than anything, it is a lesson that I hope those cisgender male allies in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements will heed. As enlightened as you are about life on the margins, as a cisgender man, you still occupy a privileged space.
Privilege functions by assuming and enacting superiority, with varying degrees of violence. Male privilege works best when the men we believe to be on our side forget that they are still men, and they must always be vigilant, in the same way that women are always vigilant, looking out for the entitled monsters lurking amongst us, grabbing and taking from us at will.
If these movements are to mean anything, if we are really to ensure that time really is up on misogyny, we all have to live as though there’s no shortcut through ‘the park’ away from patriarchy for any of us.