Author Uses Humor To Shed Light On Feminism, Race, The Internet
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Scaachi Koul's new book of essays begins by talking about anxiety. Koul - she's a culture writer and editor at BuzzFeed - grew up in Canada, the child of Indian immigrants. And she has an irrational fear of dying that comes, she says, from her parents.
SCAACHI KOUL: It starts with death, as all good things should. I promise this book has a lot more lighthearted (laughter) than I'm presenting it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it is a funny book about sex and money and race and class. It's called "One Day We'll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter." Koul's understanding of race was shaped by her life in Canada but also by her trip to India where she felt privileged, whiter somehow.
KOUL: You know, being in North America, I have a very specific understanding of how my race affects me as I move through the world. I am a visibly brown person, and that can sometimes not work in my favor. And then when I went to India, I realized that I had this very specific kind of fair skin privilege. And it was such a strange split. It felt like I was kind of being pulled into two pieces. And how can these two things be true at the same time but just in different places?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did it show you about attitudes towards whiteness in North America?
KOUL: I think whiteness is adored everywhere. I mean, it doesn't matter where you go. It's just about having a sliding scale. So for example, because, you know, I'm darker skinned, in Canada, I am treated sometimes with a lot of derision. There's a lot of anxiety about me when I take flights, for example (laughter). When I went to India, it was sort of interesting to sort of move through the world as inherently privileged. And I had a - it was easy. It was really comfortable.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did it manifest itself in India?
KOUL: People talk to you very differently when you're fair in India. When we went to shops, there was the sort of understanding that we had money, whether or not it was true. My family even speaks to me very differently there. Because I'm fairer, I get a lot of affection from them because - oh, I'm so fair skinned, and they touch my skin a lot. And there's a part in the book where my aunt asks me if she can use my foundation because it'll make her look whiter.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the most resonant sections for me was the chapter called Hunting Season.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where did the idea for that come from? What were you trying to talk about there?
KOUL: Hunting Season came from - I was out drinking with some of my friends. And I had a lot to drink, and I started noticing how men were looking at me versus the people I was with - all of them were men. These guys that I didn't know were sort of looking at me like food. And later the next day when I was hungover and eating a burger and thinking about it...
KOUL: ...I realized that there is this incredible culture around men watching women - and watching women to see if they're drunk enough to take home or to manipulate. And that is so complicated to contend with because alcohol is such a big part of our social lives and such a big part of how we meet new people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you write about how you were drugged twice at bars. That's terrifying.
KOUL: It is terrifying, and it's shockingly mundane. But, I mean, what - I'm always curious about, like, what's the difference between being roofied at a bar - which is obviously awful - or being plied with, like, drink after drink after drink. Like, if you were to ask for a drink and it turns out to be a double, is that the same thing? Like, that still feels to me incredibly manipulative.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're a writer at BuzzFeed, a senior editor. You've had rape threats online. We know that women, specifically women of color, are the targets of just horrific abuse in the social media sphere.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you confront that? How do you - you know, how do you deal with it?
KOUL: I think for a long time what I did was I would try to make a joke about it because it is sort of intrinsically funny 'cause it's so stupid. But there was a period about two years ago when it got much louder than my sense of humor was able to sort of accommodate. And I remember I got a couple of tweets or maybe an email. And it said, you know, I hope you meet a man, and you fall in love. And you get pregnant, and you get so excited for this baby and that then you end up giving birth to a stillborn. And it was this, like (laughter), incredibly detailed, really long-term plan.
And they sent this to me, and I remember thinking, like, I don't find this funny, and I don't want to play. And I think it can be really hard to say to yourself, I don't want to engage with this. It's not funny. It's not cute, and I don't want to play with it in a way that feels public. I had a really hard time saying that to myself because I felt like that was losing. But what was I getting to begin with? I mean, I love the internet. I grew up on it, and I wish it were better to me. But it's just not. And I haven't found a place where the infrastructure cares about me. They just don't.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Infrastructure - you're saying you're not...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Being supported by the infrastructure. What do you mean by that?
KOUL: I think Twitter is a great example of a company that does not care (laughter). I mean, like, it's taken them 10 years to even begin to start talking about what to do about harassment on Twitter. And instead of actually fixing it, they just sort of find these other routes to dealing with it. So you know, one of them was that the anonymous Twitter avatar, the egg, was starting to get associated with harassment a lot. And so instead of just fixing harassment, they're like, let's change that to an outline of a man.
KOUL: Like, in no way does that address anything. It doesn't fix a thing, and it just makes me angrier. And I mean, I can see this in when I report tweets, how they treat it because so many times they come back to me and they're like, this doesn't violate our terms of services because they didn't say that they want you to kill yourself. They just say, if you did, it would be nice. And I - you know, my niece is 6. And she talks to the iPad like it is her sibling, and it scares me because she has no idea how dark things can get there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What advice are you going to give her about moving into this space?
KOUL: I think for me one - a really important thing was to find people who didn't care about the internet because when you go to them with, like - oh, this is happening, and people are saying this about me, and this is how it feels - it's really comforting to have somebody look at you and say, I don't know what you're talking about. But also to learn how to turn it off - like, I'm really bad at this. I take my phone everywhere like a crazy person. The other day, my niece went to the bathroom, and she asked if she could take my phone in with her for company, which was like - that's just terrifying (laughter) to me. Like, learn to be by yourself...
KOUL: ...Without, like, a buzzing object in your pocket.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm curious why you wanted to write this book in this way. It's really funny. It's irreverent. Who are you trying to reach 'cause you talk about how you've never really seen people of color represented in the things that normally get put out into the world. Are you trying to sort of reach those people who might not see themselves reflected...
KOUL: I mean, first of all...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...In day-to-day journalism?
KOUL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, first of all - I'm, like, a huge narcissist, so like, let me get out their basically (laughter). I think more intimately what I wanted was for my niece to have something to look at when she was older that felt representative. And then I think when you come from a place that's personal like that, you end up thinking about a lot of brown girls who don't get that. I wish I had had that when I was younger, so hopefully I can provide it for somebody else.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Scaachi Koul. The book is called "One Day We'll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter."
Thanks so much for being with us.
KOUL: Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.