I didn’t want to lie about who I was anymore, but I’d learn people wouldn’t accept a simple one- or two-word answer about who I was, either. Not talking about race isn’t an option any person of color in this country has ever had, in particular if it’s not clear what race you are. If it’s clear what race you are, you just get skipped an interrogation level. It’s always your responsibility to address your race’s stereotypes to ensure whoever’s asking that you aren’t like what they’ve heard. Be assured whatever they’ve heard is bad and you’ll be asked to answer for it. Political correctness? Not in my reality. Political correctness never kept a racist from calling me a racist name. It’s never kept anyone at a bar from dehumanizing me because I’m not their nostalgic ideal of an “American.” It’s never saved me from being reminded I’m an “Other.” Political correctness isn’t about depriving someone of their freedom. It’s about giving someone the same inalienable rights that all “real Americans” have—the right to not be hassled, insulted, or assaulted because someone thinks they’re different. In other words, it’s about protecting an American’s most cherished freedom: the right to be left alone.
Drink more than two beers in a bar and you’ll hear PC sound its bugle retreat: I don’t mean to be racist, but . . .
…If it’s unclear to someone what race I am, I’m treated to a series of interrogative questions, each more invasive, until it’s clear what stereotype best suits them. Every month or so, when I don’t immediately explain my name and reveal my ethnic background—the POC version of name, rank, serial number—I have some version of this conversation. Here’s this month’s latest variation:
“So, where are you from?” he asks.
“I live here in town.”
“No, I mean, where are you from before here?”
“Vermont? No, where are your parents from?”
“I mean, before Los Angeles?”
“They always lived there.”
“Why are you being so difficult? What are you?!?”
This is a blog post made in response to the Daily Post Daily Prompt: Safety First
Before I explore the scary, I just want to tip my hat to Ngobesing Romanus whose blog post Almost burnt to death inspired me to write this.
I don’t often make biographical posts to this blog. If you were expecting a quote or book review, rest assured, more are scheduled for later today. As for this particular posting – everything you are about to read is true.
Avoid The Light
I entered an undergraduate program in 1987 and quickly learned that some people held strong opinions about what kind of students belong in college, and people like me (poor, not-properly-connected, non-military and without a scholarship) were not among them. My high school counselor directly expressed this opinion during my senior year in high school and pointedly refused to help me apply to college (any college). There were other teachers (and adults) who made similar opinions clear…but those are stories will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that during my first semester at University, a few authority figures made it clear they agreed with the you-don’t-belong-here sentiment. This prejudiced resistance led to my continued reliance on a long-standing habit of ‘passing’ as the ‘middle class white girl.’
Fast forward to late in the spring semester of freshman year (1988). The weather was warm and the trees had their leaves. A little after 1:00 AM, I went for a run in the neighborhoods adjacent to the University.
It was late.
It was dark.
I was alone.
I was wearing spandex.
In other words, I was doing everything women are told not to do. It was a risk I’d chosen to (repeatedly) take, despite the dangers, for two reasons: 1) college was a stressful never-ending cycle of very late nights, which made it almost-impossible for me to sleep without an end-of-day run and 2) Oshkosh was the safest place I’d lived in for several years.
I was several blocks away when I spotted them and half a block closer when they spotted me. A group of men were sitting in a car parked beside a playground. Their drunken voices were occasionally interrupted by the sound of empty liquor bottles smashing against the ground. The crash of breaking glass was unmistakable, but the voices were what caught my attention. I couldn’t make out the words, only the sound of drunken men getting excited about something. One of them leaned out a car window and glanced in my direction. We made eye contact and I knew exactly what was coming next.
A potentially fatal moment of hesitation occurred as the street-wise poverty-survivor proceeded to push the ‘proper middle class’ persona into the background. This was not a college classroom or an administrative office, this was a nearly deserted city street and I was faced with an extremely dangerous situation. Predators had spotted me. Action had to be taken, but which action?
Proper middle class female college students choosing to take a risky run, alone, after midnight, all follow the same rules – stick to safe, well lit roads in populated areas. Good girls do not run in shadows.
I was on the appropriate well-lit path…and the drunks in the car were pulling away from the curb.
Proper middle class girls do not leave the lighted path, they keep their eyes on the sidewalk and ‘ignore’ the men until they ‘go away;’ just keep going, trust in the rule of law and it’s ability to protect.
My real self was neither proper nor middle class. I knew better.
Ducking down the first dark side road I came to, I scanned the area for a place to run and felt the first real shock of fear: the houses were built into low but surprisingly steep hills and divided by fences. Being cornered here meant climbing a hill and a fence to get away. Yet, the streetlights were burned out and every house had turned off both interior and exterior lights, making it comfortingly dark – they couldn’t catch what they couldn’t see.
Picking up speed, I made for the end of the street which was equally dark, turned right and felt a moment of relief as the sidewalk leveled out and opened up. This area presented many options for both running and hiding, all of them lit by a small number of street lights. I could make it back to campus, almost entirely in shadows, in a reasonably short period of time. If the drunks found me, I had options for escape.
This realization was interrupted by a second stabbing of fear as the car slowly drove by the side street I’d just left. I’d seen them watching me when I took the turn. One of the drunks was leaning out a window, craning his neck and peering into the shadows. He was looking for something.
Looking for me.
They kept driving. I don’t know how far they went before giving up, but it was many long minutes before I saw the car double back towards the park at a much faster pace, with voices and music returned to full party-mode.
Later, safe in my dorm, I stretched, changed and re-lived the entire experience. Only one fear remained: what if someone saw?
I couldn’t risk being exposed as both lower class and street wise. I do not have a criminal history, my pre-college grades were (despite all odds) good-enough to get in and remained good-enough to graduate. There were no legitimate legal, behavioral or academic reasons for making me leave school. Sadly, these kinds of facts have no power over prejudice.
Standing there, alone in the dorm, I did not review the faces of potential rapists. What I saw were those specific individuals who had already tried to either prevent or end my college education.
Anyone dead-set on eliminating me from the student rosters had only one real option – create the illusion of scandal out of a toxic combination of truth, fiction and virulent gossip. If enough people believed I needed to be removed, then I would be removed. It was that simple. Thus far, those who disapproved had neither the reason nor the material to take up that kind of campaign. A story like this could provide enough ammunition to inspire wicked action.
Call it paranoia, but I had already lived through and witnessed this exact scenario, and all of it’s devastating results, multiple times. It was possible, but was it probable?
Finishing college was my one and only goal. Literally. I had no post-college plans. That meant convincing the powers-that-be that I belonged there…or, at least, wasn’t worth close examination.
Reporting the incident, talking about what happened and how I handled it, admitting to having the skills required to survive that kind of situation as a direct result of surviving it prior to entering college…this was what I feared.
The exhausting act of ‘passing’ had significantly affected my youth. Here in the halls of higher education it continued to infuse every breath and color every thought. My faux ‘proper middle class white girl’ persona slowly crept back into place and asked one stupid question: how did I know how to do that? Of course, I knew the answer; but I also knew the game. The stakes were too high. It was time to keep silent and, if necessary, play dumb.
Predatory Excuse Making
Over the past few decades, I’ve made a few attempts to talk about this experience with a variety of different people. What I find most disturbing about these conversations are the most common responses provided by other women:
- Nothing happened so they probably weren’t really after you.
- If they’d wanted to do something, they would have caught you.
- You’re being so negative, what if they were really nice?
- They were probably just trying to help you.
- You’re looking at it wrong.
- You don’t know they were after you. Maybe they were looking for something else.
- You’re exaggerating.
- You made it up, that didn’t happen; if it had, you’d be dead.
I’ve had similar conversations with men, some of whom were members of various security and protection services (e.g.: police, martial arts, etc.), and the most common reaction was this: you’re lucky to be alive.
I include this information here because I believe it’s an extremely important aspect to rape culture. Not only do we teach our children do not get raped instead of do not rape; we also train women to discount the experiences of others and view potentially deadly situations through a dangerously distorted lens.
This is an example of something I call predatory excuse making. Sometimes people do it will full knowledge and ill-intent (e.g.: accessory to a crime). Sometimes it’s a response to complimentary manipulation (e.g.: I can’t believe that person would do something like that). Sometimes it’s born out of culturally enforced ignorance, naivete or an inability to face facts (see above).
The only people who benefit from predatory excuse making are the predators.
Think about that.