When I was seventeen and preparing to leave for university, my mother’s only brother saw fit to give me some advice.
“Just don’t be an idiot, kid,” he told me, “and don’t ever forget that boys and girls can never just be friends.”
I laughed and answered, “I’m not too worried. And I don’t really think all guys are like that.”
When I was eighteen and the third annual advent of the common cold was rolling through residence like a pestilent fog, a friend texted me asking if there was anything he could do to help.
I told him that if he could bring me up some vitamin water that would be great, if it wasn’t too much trouble.
That semester I learned that human skin cells replace themselves every three to five weeks. I hoped that in a month, maybe I’d stop feeling the echoes of his touch; maybe my new skin would feel cleaner.
It didn’t. But I stood by what I said. Not all guys are like that.
When I was nineteen and my roommate decided the only way to celebrate the end of midterms was to get wasted at a club, I humoured her.
Four drinks, countless leers and five hands up my skirt later, I informed her I was ready to leave.
“I get why you’re upset,” she told me on the walk home, “but you have to tolerate that sort of thing if you want to have any fun. And really, not all guys are like that.”
(Age nineteen also saw me propositioned for casual sex by no fewer than three different male friends, and while I still believe that guys and girls can indeed be just friends, I was beginning to see my uncle’s point.)
When I was twenty and a stranger that started chatting to me in my usual cafe asked if he could walk with me (since we were going the same way and all), I accepted.
Before we’d even made it three blocks he was pulling me into an alleyway and trying to put his hands up my shirt. “You were staring,” he laughed when I asked what the fuck he was doing (I wasn’t), “I’m just taking pity.”
But not all guys are like that.
I am twenty one and a few days ago a friend and I were walking down the street. A car drove by with the windows down, and a young man stuck his head out and whistled as they passed. I ignored it, carrying on with the conversation.
My friend did not. “Did you know those people?” He asked.
“Not at all,” I answered.
Later when we sat down to eat he got this thoughtful look on his face. When I asked what was wrong he said, “You know not all guys do that kind of thing, right? We’re not all like that.”
As if he were imparting some great profound truth I’d never realized before. My entire life has been turned around, because now I’ve been enlightened: not all guys are like that.
No. Not all guys are. But enough are. Enough that I am uncomfortable when a man sits next to me on the bus. Enough that I will cross to the other side of the street if I see a pack of guys coming my way. Enough that even fleeting eye contact with a male stranger makes my insides crawl with unease. Enough that I cannot feel safe alone in a room with some of my male friends, even ones I’ve known for years. Enough that when I go out past dark for chips or milk or toilet paper, I carry a knife, I wear a coat that obscures my figure, I mimic a man’s gait. Enough that three years later I keep the story of that day to myself, when the only thing that saved me from being raped was a right hook to the jaw and a threat to scream in a crowded dorm, because I know what the response will be.
I live my life with the everburning anxiety that someone is going to put their hands on me regardless of my feelings on the matter, and I’m not going to be able to stop them. I live with the knowledge that statistically one in three women have experienced a sexual assault, but even a number like that can’t be trusted when we are harassed into silence. I live with the learned instinct, the ingrained compulsion to keep my mouth shut to jeers and catcalls, to swallow my anger at lewd suggestions and crude gestures, to put up my walls against insults and threats. I live in an environment that necessitates armouring myself against it just to get through a day peacefully, and I now view that as normal. I have adapted to extreme circumstances and am told to treat it as baseline. I carry this fear close to my heart, rooted into my bones, and I do so to keep myself unharmed.
So you can tell me that not all guys are like that, and you’d even be right, but that isn’t the issue anymore. My problem is not that I’m unaware of the fact that some guys are perfectly civil, decent, kind—my problem is simply this:
In a world where this cynical overcaution is the only thing that ensures my safety, I’m no longer willing to take the risk.
- me: I love you so much.
- boo: *burps*
I’ve had about enough with this country and its white people and non-black poc who are complicit in perpetuating systematic oppression in all of the ways. What the fuck is wrong with you people?
Black kids are getting arrested and killed and having guns pointed at them for no reason whatsoever. Seriously, they are just playing in their own home’s backyard and police pull the gun on them. Anything black people do is suspicious; they get arrested for just walking down the street and it’s no secret that their clothing alone somehow constitutes reasonable doubt and thus subject them to random searches. It’s like they don’t even deserve the basic right of having their own safety guaranteed. Let’s not even talk about equal or fair opportunity, or healthcare, or education or employment opportunity or housing, let’s just focus on basic, simple personal safety and even there the state and its political majorities (i.e. the population that receive the most political representation) fail miserably. Black people have all this bullshit being thrown at them constantly and somehow they still need to defend their anger again and again because people just don’t fucking get it? They are not supposed to raise their fist and demand change because white people are too afraid of them and see them as too much of a threat, so they are just supposed to take in all this hate and crime that is constantly committed against them? What the fuck?
And why exactly do people think they are entitled to use the n-word? And don’t give me that context bullshit, because the only context that matters is the historical one, the connotation and the dehumanization aspect that the word will always carry with it. And somehow when white people say these words they need black people to fucking educate them on why it’s not okay?! What fucking year is it?! And don’t give me that “blacks aren’t the only ones enslaved” piece of shit either. What, black people are supposed to be grateful that they are not the only ones? They are supposed to be grateful to you white people for all these things you have so generously given them? Who the fuck do you think you are? And don’t come to me with your “I don’t owe black people anything” because you owe them everything, this fucking country and all of its people owe them everything until the matters of everyday life for a black person is no longer about survival, but about how to thrive as a person, as a human being.
…Let us be clear. Universities keep huge endowments, money on reserve, because they are supposed to keep money. They will always tell you they cannot afford you. They will not spend their money to save the life of a Black feminist. Poet Laureate though she may be. Let us be clear. The universities that we mistakenly label as our bright quirky only refuge for Black brilliance have worked our geniuses to death, and have denied us help when we asked for it. The universities that employed June Jordan, Audre Lorde and so many others, watched cancer eat away at our geniuses, as they simultaneously ate away at black women’s labor. An institution knows how to preserve itself and it knows that Black feminists are a trouble more useful as dead invocation than as live troublemakers, raising concerns in faculty meetings. And those institutions continue to make money and garner prestige off of their once affiliated now dead faculty members.
The university was not created to save my life. The university is not about the preservation of a bright brown body. The university will use me alive and use me dead. The university does not intend to love me. The university does not know how to love me. The university in fact, does not love me. But the universe does….
~Alexis Pauline Gumbs, The Shape of My Impact, (Part One of a Three Part Meditation on Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years by Dagmaar Schultz), The Feminist Wire