Sugartits – Addressing harassment

“There you go, love.”

“Thanks, sugartits.”

It’s becoming a regular exchange but none of the men that R has called ‘Sugartits’ has even appeared to notice her campaign against being called ‘love’ or ‘darling’. Each time I hold my breath, but nothing happens.

I asked her why she had to go all the way to sugartits. Love and darling aren’t really on the same scale. She said that if she went with anything more gentle, they’d think it was a come-on. I saw her point.

I also see her point about love and darling. The terms that men use for other men bestow either equal or greater status; ‘boss’ or ‘mate’ or ‘bro’. The terms they use for women place us in an intimate, sexual or at least affectionate relationship; it is a verbal bonding to a complete stranger.

R also has strong views on people who harass or make comments to her. “They are just bullies, they want you to feel uncomfortable or afraid and they rely on the fact that you won’t say anything. So I just say the worst thing I can think of.” I won’t tell you the things she says. She can think of some pretty horrible stuff. When she starts she doesn’t stop until she has won. She calls it the ‘shock and awe approach’.

The strange thing is that when there are other people around, they seem to accept whatever the man has said, no matter how sexist or racist it might have been. At least, nobody bats an eye nor do they step in. What makes them stare is R’s response. It appears that harassing a Black woman is standard, generally accepted behaviour but a Black woman standing up for herself is just plain shocking.

“There was this one guy who clearly spent his whole life in the gym. He had something to say about me being fat so I said that just because he’d been a fat kid and nobody loved him didn’t give him the right to fuck with me. He looked like he was going to cry.”

The exchange highlights the abuse of the initial comment. R has been asked why she is being so mean, she says “Well, you were mean to me first and I have nothing to do with you. Why were you talking to me?”

What R is doing is increasing the risk for men who think that women are just going to accept their harassment. For many men, the silence of the women they harass and the men who witness their behaviour is approval. R makes them feel what she feels; abused and attacked. What she does is risky and brave and I love her for it.

So while I won’t be using the term ‘sugartits’ myself, I am going to stop pretending to be selectively deaf when men make comments. It’s not just for me; it’s for all of us.

Postscript

This course of action might not be for everybody. Men with dented egos are nasty and unpredictable, I wouldn’t grudge anyone who decided to opt out of the encounter.

If you are a man and you happen to overhear a woman being harassed, you stepping in is much more powerful and much safer for you than her standing up for herself. Two simple questions “Do you know her? Then why are you talking to her?” can be very effective. It’s crap, but that is the way power works. When you stay silent, you tell everyone that you agree with what is happening.

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Sugartits – Addressing harassment

Curioser and Curioser

The toddler was staring at R, mouth open and eyes wide. When his mother wheeled the shopping trolley round, his head swivelled round like an owl’s. R smiled at him and said hello. The child hid his face in his mother’s coat.

“Uh, uh,” she said, moving the coat. “You got caught being nosy and now you’ll have to be nice. Say hello to the lady.”

It was a perfect response. Children, especially white ones, are fascinated by R. Our niece even got caught licking her arm (we think she thought R might really be made of chocolate). They stare and stare. She always responds to them and waves and says hello.

Quite often, though, the white parents are horrified that their children have been staring. They tell their babies off, some give R an apologetic smile, but some don’t even engage with R as they hustle their family away. I know it is because they are embarrassed, but it isn’t helpful.

Difference is strange and interesting; it excites curiosity, even investigation. I never mind answering questions about being a lesbian, R never minds curious regard. But when parents are embarrassed by their kids’ curiosity, it teaches them that there is something wrong or shameful about R, and that is a problem.

The other issue is that people often think that R can’t tell the difference between curiosity and hostility. The facial expressions involved are quite different; try it in a mirror and you’ll see what I mean. If you can tell the difference, so can she.

That white mother in the supermarket had the right response to her child’s nosiness. She acknowledged the curiosity, but she also made it clear that R was a person and needed to be treated with courtesy. I am really glad that at least one little boy will be able to embrace difference and recognise shared humanity at the same time.

Curioser and Curioser

When good people say bad things

Saying something racist or homophobic is a bit like taking your eyes off the road for a second when you are driving and clipping a pedestrian.

When you are driving there are no free passes. If you hurt someone, it doesn’t matter how careful you have always been or how slowly you usually drive. Nothing in the past changes the fact that right now, here, you have made a mistake. You didn’t mean to do it, but the damage is done. You can’t claim that you are in a relationship with a pedestrian so you know what hurts them and what doesn’t or that the pedestrian that you ran over last week didn’t mind.

Lots of drivers get angry at the pedestrians they hurt. They get angry that the pedestrian is in their way, or blame pedestrians for being so squishy. Some pedestrians pretend they haven’t been hurt just to avoid this kind of response. It’s even been known for drivers to run over a pedestrian they have clipped because they are so angry. Sometimes I think it is because anger is a much more comfortable emotion than shame. It is easier to blame the pedestrian for getting hurt than to admit that you did something wrong and you are horrified at yourself.

Fortunately, metaphorical car accidents are much more easily solved than real ones. If you can get over the shame and not let it move into anger, you can apologise. You can resolve to do better. You can think about the underlying attitudes that prompted the mistake and start laying down new thought processes.

Having to watch out for pedestrians and cyclists and motorbike riders is annoying when you are driving a nice sports car, but remember you are having a much more comfortable ride. Cars are great, you just have to be careful with them.

When good people say bad things

Who is being served in Indiana?

There’s a picture of the signing of the latest legislation in Indiana, the governor and a group of priests, religious leaders and nuns. They are all smiling beatifically, radiating holy satisfaction. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the governor had just signed a law that would make sure that no-one in the state would have to suffer loneliness, sickness or poverty. Actually, Governor Pence had just signed a law that makes it okay to hate people so much that you refuse to serve them. And the church is just delighted.

Governor Pence of Indiana claims that the legislation simply limits the power of the state to force people to act against their religious principles. In practice, it seems designed to protect companies from being sued should they choose to refuse service on the grounds of religious belief.

I worked for a principal in North Carolina who was so motivated by religious belief that she used to shout at me in front of my students every single morning. When I tried to leave her school, she phoned every single school in five counties to out me as a lesbian. It is sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between religious belief and hate, especially when you are on the sharp end.

There are quite a few of us on the potential sharp end of this act; the LGBT community, breast feeding mothers, Muslims, heavy metal artists and fans, possibly even Black Americans. All of us could be refused on the grounds that a service provider’s religious beliefs don’t include us. Being turned away and preached against feels a lot more like hate than like the expression of religious freedom.

And here is my question. Jesus says that His followers will be known by their love. In exercising religious freedom like this, who is the Church really following?

Who is being served in Indiana?

Excusing Racism – It’s Not Just Chelsea Supporters

Earlier this week a group of football thugs pushed a black man off a train in Paris and chanted “We’re racist. We’re racist and that’s the way we like it.” The Guardian newspaper tracked down one of the men on the carriage. His response was classic. He said that the incident wasn’t racist; the black man had been pushed off the train because the carriage was full, the man was rude and they could tell that he was a supporter of the opposite team. He also claimed that the song was about John Terry getting banned, it had nothing to do with the man.

Clearly this is all bullshit. I don’t even need to ridicule the powers of perception which enabled the group to discern that the man was a PSG supporter when he was dressed for work and carrying a briefcase, or go into the possible benefits for trains in Britain if we adopted the policy of pushing every rude person out of our carriages.

What makes the response classic for me is the way that the British will go to any lengths to deny that an incident is racist. “Maybe he didn’t see you”, “Perhaps he thought you were being rude”, “She probably didn’t understand your accent”, or “She probably thought you were a teenager”. These are all things which have been said to R when she has experienced yet another example of racist behaviour. It’s all bullshit. People treat R badly because they are racist, not because they are having bad days.

I’ve recently read a thread on a chat site where a white mother asked if she should get upset because a barber refused to cut her mixed son’s hair. She wanted to know if people thought the incident was racist. The barber told her that he didn’t cut children’s hair on the weekend when she first went. So she came back during the week, when he told her that he couldn’t cut her son’s hair because of its texture. The general response from other posters was that the woman didn’t need to get upset because the man wasn’t racist, the barber probably had that policy and black hair can be intimidating if you haven’t cut it before. The mother agreed with the general interpretation. Yes, she had been too sensitive; no, it probably wasn’t anything to worry about.

I have never heard of any barber saying that he didn’t cut kids’ hair on the weekend, and texture has nothing to do with running a pair of clippers over a kid’s head. It’s bullshit. The man didn’t want to cut this woman’s son’s hair because he (the barber) is racist. I am left wondering how this woman’s child will make sense of the world around him, when he is taught not to recognise the hostility of racist people.

The witness on the train in Paris was trying to excuse an overtly aggressive act of racism, but most of the incidents of racism People of Colour experience in England are passive aggressive. They are hostile, but if challenged, racist intent can be denied. What is both typical and worrying is the general move to support that plausible deniability, to collude in the denial of racist actions.

Attempts to excuse passive aggressive racism have a devastating effect on the victim. If the victim accepts the excuses for the behaviour, then they are the ones at fault; the child’s hair is the wrong texture for a haircut, R is too short and too American for good service, the man on the Paris subway shouldn’t attempt to get on crowded trains on the way to work. If they name the behaviour as racism (as R generally does), they are the still the ones at fault, this time because they are reading too much into an action. They are simultaneously too sensitive and too aggressive. The solution isn’t to look to the victim at all, but to look back at the perpetrator and call bullshit.

The Paris attack:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgbYBmW1wGY

The Guardian article: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2015/feb/18/chelsea-football-club-calls-fans-help-find-racists-paris-metro-footage

Excusing Racism – It’s Not Just Chelsea Supporters

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians

Just as DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act – the one which prevented any US federal body from recognising same sex unions and the legislation that meant that R and I couldn’t stay in the US) was in the process of being repealed, the New York Times published a lifestyle piece about a lesbian couple. For the life of me, I can’t find it – if you have any better luck can you pass it on as I would love to link to it! Anyway, this article was a well meaning attempt to ‘humanise’ same sex partnerships by showing that gays and lesbians are just regular folks. Obviously at the time (2012), the notion that queers have to put out the garbage was considered newsworthy.

As I’ve said, the article was well intentioned, but in its attempt to normalise us, it called on a whole slew of gender stereotypes. It really did talk about having to put out the rubbish and arguing over who got rid of the spiders. I suppose the point was to highlight that lesbians are just ordinary women. I’m sure that the writer didn’t mean to suggest that ordinary women needed a man to deal with their spiders.

There is a joke that is really old now; ‘Asking a lesbian couple which one is the man is like asking chopsticks which one is the fork’. It’s true. We can deal with our own spiders (R gently ushers them outside, I squash them). We know enough about ‘man stuff’ to have renovated our own house and have bought a used car without consulting either of our fathers. We are both strong enough to lift anything that needs shifting. This isn’t because we have special lesbian powers, it’s because gender stereotypes are rubbish.

What neither of us can do, however, is occupy a man’s status in society. The other weekend, there was a huge row at a house party we had been invited to. One of the other guests, a large white male, was angry that R (who is Black) had said that English people could be racist (see Racism in the UK on this blog). Then he went off on one about immigration. R refused to say what he wanted her to – why would she? What she was saying was true and what he was saying was racist. He kept arguing and arguing. I took him outside to try to talk to him. He wouldn’t listen and he still wouldn’t stop. Finally another guest, a white male, the same age, but shorter and less physically intimidating, said to him “Enough now, time to stop”. The man shut up instantly.

R and I can defend ourselves physically, but in situations like this, where the aggression is verbal, neither of us have the power to shut down an angry white male. We just don’t have the status. That is one of the few times when I really wish one of us had the power of a fork.

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians