“No” was a word I used often in childhood. When there was something I didn’t like or want I would get fussy and wiggle free from my mother’s grasp until I was standing. I would yell “NO” at the top of my lungs and stomp my foot on the ground. It was always easy to say ‘no’; especially to the people I loved. I believed in the power of choice and I never questioned it.
Something changed during adolescence. From the age of fifteen onward, my ‘no’ steadily began to lose its stability and importance. It was disregarded in the hallways at school, passed over in my part-time job, and ignored in nearly every sexual encounter I engaged in. As a rape survivor, most might conclude that the event of sexual assault was the moment I lost my ability to choose. In reality, I had been on the weak end of a losing battle over my body and voice for years. For me, being raped had just marked its ultimate demise.
My brain had been corrupted and my body colonized by the patriarchal idea that I owed men something. I owed them the only thing of value that I had to give—sex. Everything in my world was against me. From television and movies, showcasing women as objects meant solely to fulfill sexual desires, to popular music that divided me from my identity and placed me in such categories as “bitch” “hoe” and “slut”. The culture I grew up in left me nameless, faceless, and dehumanized me to the point where I was nothing but a hole for any and all men to enjoy.
Looking back, what I find most horrifying was my belief that this was normal. I thought sexism was a harmless part of life and sexual coercion was inevitable. The memories of my abuse pale in comparison to the sickening realization of my own inability to see. At eighteen I was blinded and enslaved by a patriarchy that was built to destroy me.
Privilege is blinding—it only allows you to see your own perfectly paved path and the paths of those who rest above you. A privileged lens is clouded, making it hard to focus on the individuals who have less than you do. We can’t see them because in order to move up, we have to stand on their backs. I know this, because I’m white. I was raised to be racially insensitive—it had been ingrained in the mind of my community long ago and was continuing to be passed on. Preconceived notions and stereotypes dictated my thinking for much of my young life in such profound, yet subtle ways that I failed to recognize them.
In the seventh grade, I proudly showcased posters of all my teen idols on my bedroom walls. Ripped from magazines and printed from the internet, I hung them with scotch tape and gave them life. At sleepovers my friends and I would giggle and daydream about the dashing men in those pictures, posing nonchalantly in their Tommy Jeans.
Unfortunately, one poster had to go. My mother saw Usher standing, abs exposed, dark and handsome, and immediately removed him from my door. “Oh honey, don’t start this nonsense. You can have Justin, Leo can stay too, but Usher has to go.” I looked at my mother side-ways and before I could interject she sat down beside me and spoke again, “If you start dating black boys, white men won’t want you anymore. You don’t want to be known as the girl who goes with black guys—protect your reputation.”
I didn’t fight what she said—instead, I internalized it. I learned to fall in line with my peers and look down upon other races. I disengaged and disconnected from minorities until it was simply, ‘us’ and ‘them’. It was easier than trying to fight it. There were 10 black kids who I attended middle school with. They fit the stereotypes that white media had created for them; they existed within these frameworks because they were safe and unchallenged. We knew nothing of their struggles with feeling ostracized—we just “knew” they were good at sports, and the hair from their heads felt funny between our fingers.
I didn’t hate other races, so I never thought of myself as being racist—but wasn’t I? The older, cooler boys constantly threw ‘nigger’ around, they were numb to it—raised with it—accepted it as everyday terminology. These were the same boys who called me slut, or weak, or stupid. I never chimed in, but I laughed along—afraid that if I didn’t they would turn their heckling towards me. It wasn’t safe to stand out. I used my privilege as a shield; I deflected my own marginalized experience by mocking those with less privilege. In their minds, I may have been a slut—but at least I wasn’t a beaner, a kike, or God forbid, a nigger.
Literature saved me. I felt different from the kids around me, but still not unlike them—I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I connected with different cultures, groups, and individuals through their written experiences. Books became my religion—if Sandra Cisneros was my saving grace, then James Baldwin was the son of God. By opening a freshly bound book, I could reach people who lived past the uniform trees and sidewalks that made up my pristine and perfect suburb. I could engage in someone else’s reality and for the first time I was able to see what life was like for those living on the outskirts of power.
Being exposed to racism in this way shaped my idea of who a rapist could be. I was taught by my mother and encouraged by the boys around me—boys I was supposed to be impressing—to be leery of men of color. They were the ones who drove around empty parking lots in dark cars waiting to pull young girls in. Dark men were lurking outside of bars and in alley ways, waiting for their shamelessly drunk victims to stumble by.
My rape didn’t happen in an alley, and I was sober. It wasn’t at the hand of some dark, hooded assailant either, but rather at the hands of a man I trusted with a face that I had lovingly caressed on several occasions. He took me the way he wanted me and disregarded my shaking body and begging. To this day, he fails to recognize it as rape because he was conditioned to believe that he was entitled to my body and I, owed it to him.
I fought hard for my ‘no’. I fought for my body, my voice, and for the futures of my unborn daughters. I took refuge in the sacred feminine and fed from it. I surrounded myself with powerful women who held me up and let me stand even if it was on their shoulders. I made peace with my body and fell in love with myself for the person who I am. I fought an uphill battle against my own shame and insecurities and came to realize that privilege, entitlement, and misogyny had kept me caged. There was nothing wrong with me, and there never was—it was all an illusion inflicted on me by those who are knee deep in power.
Subtle prejudices are usually the hardest to overcome. Mostly, because ways of thinking dubbed as ‘harmless’ are widely accepted. Privileged groups often don’t see their own power in the same context as those who are disconnected from it—when we’re not butt of the joke or the target of the insult, we fail to see how dangerous they can be. I’m telling you this so you can understand that even as a victim of sexual assault and sexism, I too carry privilege and that privilege is directly connected to the oppression of non-white, non-Christian minorities. As a community we must recognize the role that privilege and entitlement play in our lives. We need to take a closer look at the stereotypes we perpetuate and simply ask ourselves, ‘why’. We must educate ourselves and our children that stereotyping and profiling will ultimately snowball into victim blaming, taking the form of racism and sexism—the very two phenomena that hinder human rights and destroy our concept of community.