Jenessa at nine years old and as an adult woman.
I recently promised that a fellow contributor, Jenessa Lynn Sanders-Williams, would be writing about the Onion’s Tweet on the night of the Academy Awards and the general sexism found that night. Here is Jenessa’s writing, and it is about much more than sexism in Hollywood.
In the past few years, I haven’t been very interested in watching anything on TV at all, but, every time something happens on TV, I get a good run down of it via my Facebook newsfeed (my regular job takes place online). This definitely includes awards shows like the one this past Sunday. I was not surprised or interested in much that appeared about it until I heard that The Onion had tweeted about a 9 year old girl being a cunt. This elicited an eyebrow raise, and, upon further investigation, turned out multiple opinions on a Hollywood awards ceremony that was rife with sexist humor. That the awards ceremony was rife with sexism goes without saying. For me, at least, it doesn’t take more than the fact that the red carpet constitutes pageantry for women, but not men, to set my sexism radar buzzing. It is, after all, Hollywood, and Hollywood is a huge mouth piece for patriarchal, capitalistic, racist, et al. propaganda: It is the media. What also didn’t surprise me was that someone involved in comedy would resort to shock value or sexists jokes for laughs. That is common. What did surprise me was hearing that it went so far as to target a 9 year old girl and, in particular, a little black girl. Knowing what I do about being a little black girl, I felt truly sad that that moment for her had to come under public scrutiny.
To give you an idea of what can await a young black girl, I’ll share a conversation that I recently had with my 18 year-old niece, Ashley, who is out of the house for the first time. She had a pretty sheltered, albeit not easy, childhood in which most of the boys and men she came into contact with were relatives, teachers, or friends her age. It’s only been about a month since she left home. In those few short weeks, she has dealt with ongoing street harassment and assault and was witness to a domestic dispute in which the female victim of abuse was jailed for defending her brother against her abuser. That’s a lot of reality to come into so quickly. Here’s a bit of the chat we had via text message:
Me: His uncle tried to touch you? sounds like its not safe around his family.
Ashley: what? How does everybody know about this?
Ashley: how does she know?
Me: she tells me this stuff & I tell mom because im not someplace I can do anything. But I think if your bein out of the house means youre gonna have fucked up stuff happen, you’re maybe safer stayin home a lil longer.
Me: no idea. I got a text. Are you ok?
Ashley: I’m okay. That happens to me almost everyday, whether I’m at the library or walking around. I suddenly begin to feel as though nobody loves me for who I am. They’re not anywhere near interested in that. All people seem to want is sex.
Me: also it’s a good idea to start thinking about what kind of life do u want to live. Because there are certain lifestyles that are fun in the moment but lead to a lot of pain & struggle. You can choose to be around positivity. You can choose to have direction because being lost is hard when you live at home but is damn unbearable when you’re not
Ashley: And that makes me feel like I’m nothing.
Me: who are all these people you’re looking for love from & why aren’t you loving yourself 1st? take care of yourself. Figure out what you wanna do & take steps toward it. Idle hands really really do lead to trouble whether its w/other people or within yourself. You have gotta have something yr doing. Something concrete
Ashley: It’s not that I’m looking for love, It’s more like I’m minding my own business and along comes a pig trying to get in my pants. And you tell them you’re not interested, but they act like they don’t hear it.
Me: how much time r u spending “on the street”? do u have some place to go during the day? What’re you doin?
Ashley: I’m not on the street.
Me: ive had my ass grabbed on 3 different continents. I’ve had a stranger try to shove his tongue down my throat & another put something in my drink. Ive been LUCKY it hasn’t been worse. The world is unfortunately like that & unfortunately because you’re a woman you have to take precautions for your safety because if somethin happens everyone is going to hold you responsible anyway.
Ashley: Yeah, one of my friends was raped a few days ago.
Me: the questions will all be the same “where were you” “who were you with” “what were you wearing” “why were you by yourself” “were you drunk/fucked up”
Me: 1 in 6 girls. Few reported. Almost none prosecuted. Rape kits sit in police departments untested. I wish it weren’t true but we live in a rape culture & a patriarchal & misogynistic culture & you have to learn to be really really smart. Especially if you wanna travel & be free & independent.
Me: im not going to advise u to be scared. I walk alone at night. I travel. I venture out on my own & ill be goddamned if im gonna be afraid, but im also vigilant & prepared to fight
Ashley: I hate having to feel guilty for being female.
Me: you don’t have to feel guilty. You need to shame them.
Me: most sexual assault is from someone you know & trust like a family member, friend, or acquaintance. You gotta be careful but also be pissed instead of afraid.
One thing I note looking back on this was that I made some very common mistakes. I asked her what had she been doing before I asked her how was she doing. I took emphasis away from the experience she was sharing with me and turned it to a lecture on how to be more careful/responsible, thereby shifting the incident into something she was responsible for avoiding (because it is part of male privilege that when they behave unethically towards a woman, it is the woman’s fault for whatever reason). There were other things. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I needed to give it to her raw, and then when I realized it might sound like I was teaching her to fear, I tried to correct that. But the biggest mistake I made was thinking of it too much in terms of me. There’s a reason for that. What I didn’t tell her, and what I’m now I guess revealing on a larger scale, is that I’ve actually been (date) raped more than once, and, if you count statutory rape, more than twice. It’s not important how many times or by who. Suffice it to say none of these men were strangers to me, and I had to confront them more than once. One laughed and said I wanted it the first time I confronted him (when I still trusted him), and then he cried on his knees for forgiveness the second time. The other woefully asked “What did I do?” the first time I mentioned it, but then told me to get over myself the second time, and that he didn’t care (after I had grown to trust him). That there was a serious breach in trust to begin with was, thus, on both occasions backed up by an even bigger breach of trust in the form of dismissal. But, if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that, like gratuitously problematic jokes from comedians, dismissing the feelings of women is common for men.
The others I never confronted directly, even to this day, and I probably never will because it’s hard to convince a man who was in his 20s that sleeping with a teenage girl and then ditching her was not only unkind but was also unethical…or maybe they know better now that they might have teenage girls of their own. It’s hard to say. When I started thinking about the jokes being made at the expense of the female actresses at this awards show, I realized that however hard our society makes it to be a female, having it done publically and in front of millions must be devastating, even if women in the public eye don’t admit it. And there really are strong impetuses on not admitting you’re hurt, getting over it, and/or paying it no mind.
But, the thing about “sucking it up” or “getting over it,” coming back to the average gal, is that it’s more easily said than done, especially when what you’re supposed to “get over” is trauma. The Sidran Institute defines a “traumatic event or situation” as one that “creates psychological trauma when it overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope” that leads to an individual feeling “emotionally, cognitively, and physically overwhelmed” (Giller, 1999). They list some potential circumstances that result in trauma as the “abuse of power, betrayal of trust, entrapment, helplessness, pain, confusion, and/or loss” (ibid.). I can get over it enough to remember not to bring it up in front of you again because I know it’s a buzz kill, and you’re trying to party. But, I can’t get over it enough not to have situations (like the one I’m having with you) and words (like the one’s your saying to me) trigger it again. Your dismissal of these feelings brought about by my experiences is part of the trigger. It is further betrayal of trust. And these experiences aren’t limited to rape. They include daily street harassment. They include being not more than ten and having your body scrutinized, touched, and made into a sexual object by boys and men of all ages. They include having to scream at men in cars because they’re creeping behind you while you’re on your run. They include having to finally get so disgusted at the gym with the obvious ogling and the way that man put his hands on your sister’s hip that you have to finally report them…when really you want to raise uncouth hell. They include having a man yell at you, call you “bitch,” and tell you “you ain’t all that” when you refuse his come-ons and tell him to leave you alone. Or when you’ve just told him you love him. They include the way you’ve learned to be wary of the implications of eye contact and to consistently feel a little unsafe every time it’s night. All of these things build trauma, and even the mildest forms of trauma are not easy to get over when you continue to experience little bits or reminders of them almost every day.
However, in the long run getting over something doesn’t have to mean forgetting about it, as is often insinuated in our society when people with certain kinds of privilege would like to silence those without. Getting over it and over yourself should be a process of reconciliation, personal growth, self-care, and love. It should be learning that your past does not define you, and that you have lived through these events and now just have the task of pushing through the mental and emotional blockades they have constructed in your thinking and behaviors. In the course of these tumultuous experiences I have been taught the importance of humility and that judgment is not mine to give. I’ve been blessed to be around incredible people who have suffered tremendously but persevered through love, laughter, and tenacity. Struggle helps develop humility and strength, and those who daily struggle, often silently, within a society wherein their oppression is built into the institutions, the ideologies, and even the language are likely to be the strongest of all, regardless of what those with power and privilege wish us to believe about ourselves. When we can get over being hurt and begin to be constructive in our anger, we can start the process of dismantling our oppression through love, community, and creation.
Thanks to Ash, Keiko, and Amariah for helping me put some of this together. Also, thanks to someone repeatedly unmentioned through out: because we separate, it ripples out reflections. One love.
Jenessa Lynn Sanders-Williams is a Memphis native transplanted to Atlanta, Georgia, where she continues to light up the South with her great wit and strong heart. We are honored to have her writing for Lady Parts Magazine, and we hope to have her working with us again in the future.