Monday, September 28, 2015

My Story: Why We Need to Stop Teaching Women to Apologize



I’m too apologetic.

I’ve known this for a while. I basically apologize for existing. Yet the realization has become clearer recently where I’ve begun to notice that it goes beyond constantly saying “I’m sorry.” It actually manifests itself in my hesitance to defend myself, in my ambivalence in making decisions, in my anxiety, in my posture, even in my writing.

And I’m so damn tired of it. I’m tired de andar encojiendome like I’m supposed to make space for other folks. Like only I get to determine whether an interaction goes well.

This year has been a year of realizing this more and more.

Taken at the Movimiento Afro-Cultural, in Buenos Aires, Argentina


I recently went to Buenos Aires on a work trip. During the day, I would work on a project, and at night I would try to get to know the city, and go home and write. The entire trip was actually a challenge. You see, I often feel invisible, and not enough of anything. Not pretty enough. Not tall enough. Too black to be Latina. Too Latina to call myself Black. Traveling alone felt like a way of sitting with that invisibility. I barely spoke with anyone on nights or weekend. Yet the invisibility wasn’t always there. There were few interactions that initially felt like human connections based on interests and storytelling. Pero these fun and innocent encounters with men who were usually vendors and maybe double my age, always somehow ended by them either hugging me for too long at the end, or trying to make a move.

It honestly hurt. It hurt that I couldn’t connect with anyone outside of my work projects beyond the scope of being seen as a sex object. Sometimes it was obvious, “Las mulatas son las mejores para hacer el amor.” Other times it’s sneaky and subtle, “oh, ya te vas linda?”

I ran away from these encounters, without confronting them or asking why they felt the right to sexualize me.

Recently while speaking at a large event, the man who was helping me get mic’ed up touched me inappropriately.

I was wearing a long dress with my cleavage showing. As he mic’ed me up, he put his hand under my top, and his finger tip caressed my nipple. I cringe just by thinking about it. When it happened, I knew his finger lingered too long, I knew that his hand didn’t even have a reason to be there, under my bra. But I was paralyzed and couldn’t say anything right away.

Later I tried to address it, “Usted como que se aprovecho,” I said. I said this slowly, softly, fearfully, with embarrassment. I was being apologetic. He acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about. I let it go, though I didn’t want to. I knew that I was angry, but this was a big night. A huge night! I wasn’t going to let this minor thing get in the way.

There are so many moments like this in my life. But I wasn’t always this way.

I remember as a kid, I used to stand up to people. I used to tell people things to their face. Sin pelos en la lengua.

I was nine, living in this big house that my mom owned for a while in Santiago, Dominican Republic. It was in a secluded neighborhood that was just starting to become an urbanización. Our house was one of the first to be built. Right next to us, there was this gigantic hole in the ground with trees and all types of creatures that would end up in our backyard. And I mean, maybe 1 or 2 miles in diameter. It was un arroyo, with a giant pipe that cut across and reached la UAPA- Universidad Abierta Para Adultos.

When I was left alone in the mornings, since I had school in the afternoons (before you freak out about neglect or whatever, this is not uncommon in the Dominican Republic), I would go play near the giant hole with two kids from a close by neighborhood. The boys were going to public school in a barrio close to ours. My mother struggled to put me through private school. But that barely mattered to us kids, though part of me knew my mother would disapprove.

One day they tried to grab me and I ran off. I ran towards the house as they chased me and instead of locking the door — which was clearly the smart thing to do — I went in the kitchen and grabbed a knife. I then ran back outside, ready to fight them, knife in hand. When I realized that they didn’t bulge, I went for the door... That’s when they grabbed a broomstick and put it in the between the doorframe and the door, right before I was about to close it. At that moment, I started crying while using the knife to try to cut the stick as they pushed. One of them started yelling “Te vamo a violar, te vamo a violar.” “We’re going to rape you,” he said. The other noticed that I was crying, and after several minutes — or maybe long seconds — he gave me a glance and pulled the stick from the door.

I called the neighbors and my mom, I was crying hysterically. I lied and said that I was just going outside to get the newspaper when some stranger tried to get in.

I never played with those boys again.

When I was fifteen, we were at my aunt’s house saying goodbye before we came to the U.S. She was the matriarch in the family, especially since my grandmother was already here. As we spoke about our move to the U.S., she told us that I had to be careful because I liked to tell people to truth to their faces. She said that I didn’t hold back. Hearing this from someone that I looked up to affected me, deeply.

She was right to an extent. I didn’t always speak so loosely to people, but I also never thought before saying something. And speaking so loosely could get me in trouble with strangers. Women are often taught to take stabbings, and never fight back. As time progressed, I lost my backbone and have been fighting to get it back ever since.

Two years ago, after Christmas, a man in my family started harassing me via texts and phone calls. At first, I wasn’t sure about what to do. I went to the women in my family for guidance. Two of them laughed it off, one told me that I had to get used to it, as a woman. I never confronted him, and not that I think that I should have. But how good would it have been to pick up and tell him to fuck off. It was a difficult situation because that could’ve also set him off, made him want revenge. Made him get the attention he sickened for. The anxiety from the entire situation led me to stay at my sister’s place for several nights. I would walk home afraid to find someone had broken into my studio. Afraid that I was being followed.

I solved the problem by changing my number, and filing a police report.

After that incident, and others with strangers in my building, I also decided to stop living alone.

As women, the process of shrinking, or rather being shrunk, happens gradually.

I remember exactly why I first started saying “I’m sorry” a lot then told that that wasn’t enough. It was during interactions with my sister. She was the oldest daughter, the difficult one. La malcriada. The one who wasn’t apologetic. Whenever I did something wrong, she’d yell at me. This started happening very often. Maybe I ate all the candy. Maybe I dropped something. Maybe I was watching TV too loudly.

Recently, I finally spoke to her about the pain that her always “correcting” me caused me as a child. She said she was co-parenting which made so much sense. My mother was a single mother, and my sister was the first one. The experiment. The one who she couldn’t always protect. Recently I came to understand that I had two mothers, one who was too young and the other too alone. One who I could yell back at (my mom), the other who frightened me to the core (my sis).

I wonder where did the old Amanda go. The one ready to fight back with a knife, the one who would tell people exactly what she thought. The one who wasn’t apologetic and who didn’t shrink. Did she realize her strength was nothing in comparison to that of boys? Was she silenced by the family matriarch? As we send women messages that they need to protect themselves and take a step back, we must simultaneously teach them, us, to speak up and fight back. Though I wasn’t in the best neighborhoods or schools, I did manage to stay away from trouble while growing up in working class spaces in Santiago, to avoid confrontation at all cost, to never pick up cues by people who threw shade at me. My mother made sure to not treat me or my sister as she was treated — though I have only confirmed these stories via my aunt.

It probably was good that I never fought anyone, that I never let other’s energy get to me. Except that it did. I internalized a lot of what was said about me, and often ended up feeling hurt by silly jokes, lo cojía muy personal. At the other end of this is the story of women, girls, who grew up surrounded by violence and unable to escape it. Raquel Cepeda and Vanessa Martir write about this. Cepeda shares the stories of violence and confrontation in her book, Bird of Paradise, while Martir writes about it in her text, “Violence you cannot unwear“. That shit can make you or break you. And in the end, whether we are confrontational or not, we must undo what is taught to us about how much space we can occupy, about what needs an apology and what doesn’t, and we must learn how to demand respect. Above all, because no matter how much we fight we can never really escape the violence inflicted on us until the system is dismantled, we must learn that what happens to us doesn’t define us.

I know where that confrontational, fearless Amanda is. I found her in my willingness to go out in Buenos Aires despite my anxiety over being in a new place and feeling completely overlooked. Sometimes she surges when fighting for justice. Sometimes she resists when she’s being overwhelmed at work though these moments usually result in the apologetic-self that I identified before. “Maybe I was being too mean, maybe no one will speak to me because I’m somehow not enough. Maybe I should write an email apologizing for — basically — standing up for myself.”

A few days before leaving Buenos Aires, I decided to go out for dinner alone at night. People in BA have dinner really late. I went, and sat at a table in a bar at 9:00 p.m., then asked for the menu. No one served me once the menu was placed in front of me. I almost wanted to cry because I felt that I had crossed some sort of threshold. You waited too much by this point, they clearly think you’re waiting for someone. You can either leave, or demand to be served.

I walked up to the bar, basically swallowing my tears, and placed my order. The waitress looked at me embarrassed. I ate, then went home.

It was dark and quiet, so I decided to take a cab. Once I got to my building, I remembered that there were several bars very close by. Despite my instinct telling me to take care of myself, and go home, I went. As I turned the corner, a fair-skinned woman, with short blond hair and no jacket, though it was cold, approached me and asked me for change. “No tenés unos pesos?” “No disculpa, lo acabo de gastar.” “Es para el colectivo,” she insisted, frustrated by me. I told her that I didn’t have any money.

Then, I felt a sudden strong instinct to go back home. Not going back in the first place had been clearly a bad idea. I took out my phone to pretend I was waiting for someone. The woman spoke with a guy who was with her, then started walking towards me while formulating a question, “oye, no sabés donde queda...?” before she finished, I knew she was trouble. I could feel it in my bones. She approached me, got too close, and grabbed my phone though I didn’t let go. The scuffle for the phone probably lasted minutes, or very long seconds. She started saying, with hate on her voice, “Te voy a robar el celular, te voy a robar el celular”. Her eyes were piercing, she got really close. And she did try to take my phone, as she gripped it really hard. But I was gripping harder. I snatched it and started running, and screaming.

I turned the corner, and got to a bus stop with some people. I started crying, hysterically. I went inside a bar right across the bus stop. I was so scared, I thought they would follow me. The bartenders, both women, looked at me with a side eye. They must’ve thought I was here to cause trouble. I wonder if they would’ve helped me had I been white. I wondered. But at that moment, I didn’t have time for that.

I left the bar and asked a man who was walking in the same direction that I was supposed to be going to walk me home. He did, he was nice. Until he started asking a lot of questions. I ignored most of them, I reached the doorstep and said goodbye.

In retrospect, I wonder if there was any racial tension between the white woman who tried to mug me and her reasoning for choosing me. I know it was probably the phone. I know I probably looked lost. Yet, had she gotten the phone, would she had bragged about taking it from a morocha? A morena?

That night I finally felt like a badass after a while of feeling like I was letting others push me around.

And I’m not saying we must stand up to every man on the street who catcalls us. I’m not saying that it is our jobs as women to confront those who oppress us or try to hurt us. What I’m saying is that this has affected me personally in other environments. This has shown up in relationships with loved ones, friends, colleagues and my relationship with self.

Pero ya.

I’m tired of that. I’m tired of validating the world’s negation of my existence as a woman of color with this thing called internalized oppression. I am so fucking done.

I know that I am present, and worthy of the space that I occupy, whether others will see me or not. And I’m learning to not be so apologetic or fearful. The day after the incident in Buenos Aires, I was patient with myself. I walked to some places, but took a cab to many other spots out of fear and probably some minor PTSD. While on my way home before nighttime, a band of young rock artists was playing in front of La Casa Rosada- Argentina’s White House. They were setting up to protest against police brutality, while singing about other issues like violations by Monsanto. I approached them for an interview and ended up making an incredible connection with them based on our interests, politics, and transnational solidarity. That night, Buenos Aires started feeling like home. I was somehow safe again.

Did you know that I am made of human flesh?

Did you know that my existence is golden?

Fuck the world for not seeing me.

I see me.

This story was previously titled "I see me: Un-learning to be apologetic. Title was changed on March, 2017. 

1 comments :

Juliana B said...

I appreciate this article. Being invisible and apologizing for our existence is something all women struggle with--or, at least, all women socialized in our society. I recently saw a piece of installation art all about women saying sorry, with note paper for women to post their experiences on the walls of the installation. Your words would have been a fitting centerpiece for that piece of artwork! You still have in you the same badass woman who says what she thinks and defends herself courageously!

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