There was an incident that happened a few months ago on Halloween night that lead to other discussions well after the incident. The topic of conversations centered on the female body and the many times that I have questioned my right to speak up or question written/physical gestures that involve the invasion of my space. What might be more challenging for individuals to understand is how race, stereotypes and perceptions comingle with my moments of muteness.
The incident involved someone biting my leg as I sat perched upon the back of one of the bar benches. This stranger in question sat in close proximity. We were engaged in conversation (if you could all it that) that included drunk venting on his end while I listened keeping an eye on my friends who were in close distance. As things seemed to quiet down, I was entranced by the 80’s music that was currently playing while hoping that the party was going to continue. My random thoughts were interrupted by the sudden bite with my instantaneous reaction of “Ouch!” Loud enough to alert a couple of gazes in our direction yet low enough to not attract the attention of others. I explained this incident and my reaction to a small group of friends recently and in doing so intersections of race and gender reared its ugly head. I explained my lack of reaction by stating my reality (a) I know that I am a black woman in a mostly white state and (b) I am very conscious of the fact that people might expect me to perform like the stereotype they envision—the reactive angry black woman especially if they were not aware of the full context of my reaction. I then took note of how I further explained the incident to a male friend taking responsibility for things that ranged from sexy Halloween attire to the fact that I allowed myself to engage way to long with an intoxicated person. Finally, during a conversation about the female body with someone else, the person stopped me and pointed out the fallacy of my justification of the leg bite—“Shanta I don’t care what you were wearing or where you were sitting, it should not have happened.” She was right.
Now this is not to say that the behavior (the bitten leg) would not have warranted a smack or even an angry outburst. But I tried to explain that I spent more time in my head considering my reactions to many things in the world for reasons that also involved the consideration of race and social perception. If I doled out a well-placed smack for example, does it just uphold the stereotype of violence that is expected from a brown person? Did he, this white male stranger, think that his actions were warranted because of my attire, gender, and the color of my skin (or perhaps just a couple of those variables)? I raised the question because I noticed that he seemed to be more respectful (though intoxicated) of other non-black women that he approached throughout the night though he may have annoyed them just as much.
Within this moment and in thinking about this incident I thought about how I too have become guilty at explaining away someone’s inappropriate actions especially as it related to my body. I was guilty of doing this many times before but the invasion of space was further complicated by other intersections especially the incidents that involved my interaction with white men. This is not to say that I have not experienced sexual harassment or boundary crossing from men of color or from women. However, I notice that my reactions or the dynamic is inevitably different when I think about some of the interactions I have had. Not only do I make linkages to the Hottentot Venus but I start to question how some of these white strangers may be thinking they could explore the stereotype of the hyper sexualized black woman by approaching me in certain ways.
In addition to this intersection of race and gender, talking and thinking about this incident triggered memories of how I have been guilty of explaining away someone’s inappropriate actions in relationship to my body. I remember many other conversations I have had with other women that involved them handing over and giving unspoken access to their personal space or bodies that started well before adulthood: The encouragement to hug an Aunt, Uncle, or family friend despite feeling uncomfortable; The befuddlement and confusion that erupted as teenagers over how to handle being summoned by a cat-calling boy across the street or some guy passing by in his vehicle. Of course, many of my experiences of negotiating my budding body and identity as a woman was further complicated by my strict upbringing. The daily communication that I received that my body –from my hair to my toe nails-was that it was not my own. Anything from hairstyles to physical chastising reminded me that my parents, mostly my mother, had more access to my body than I did.
This dialogue of women’s bodies and public space is nothing new and has continued in different iterations. This incident in my personal life in addition to the reactions from my retelling of it was a glaring reminder of how I have contributed to various problematic justifications of certain behaviors in relationship to the female body. It also forces me to question the depth and strength of the “angry black woman” caricature. The image and media reinforcement is so strong that it is one of the factors that has contributed to how I reacted to personal relationships, professional situations, or public interactions here in Vermont and other places that involved racial dynamics. Yet, there are moments in which I found voice enough to speak up as an individual as opposed to being a representation of my gender and/or racial group.
Even as I wrap up this piece with this last addition, I have come to the realization that this is a moment in which I remained voicefully muted because this was a piece that was written right when the incident took place back in late October. I struggled over whether or not to blog it, publish it in The Reformer, or just leave it hidden within a folder on my computer. I asked myself about how it would make me appear given the fact that I condoned his behavior—could I really be upset? In fact, one friend pointed out that an incident like this might not have taken place during any other time outside of that moment of Halloween. Perhaps she was right. Yet, at the same time I chose the side of speaking my experience because in the end it all came down to asking myself this: Who would I be and what type of statement would I be making if I continued to contribute to these social quandaries and problems with continued silence?
What story are you telling? How and why do you tell it? Are you the hero, the wounded, adventurer/discoverer, magician, shaman, or the rescued?Is there a narrator or other co-creators in your story? What role are they playing? If you don’t know your story or if you don’t become conscious in the telling of it–it might be very well written/told/re-told without your voice. So whether you are a conscious or unconscious collaborator in telling your own story is really up to you.
Over the weekend I was engaged in a conversation about wildness. During the course of this conversation, someone stated, “You become tamer as you get older.” As I listened to this person speaking I asked both mentally and out loud “I see your point, but is that a good thing?” This brief conversation inspired this post and my overall thinking around this whole idea of our wild natures and taming it. Why is it good to cure or tame our wildness? What is it about it that puts us in so much fear of our wild?
Was it the wildness that caused us to burn down many bridges?
Was it the wild that whispered into your ear to be reckless without thought?
Was it wildness that surrounded you with things like drugs, sex, alcohol (or any other thing you call a vice)?
Perhaps our wild natures are the demons that we wish to disown and say that it is not ours. “Oh I was wild” we often like to say of our youth as if that was a phase best explained by that four letter dirty word. Nods and groans of agreement usually follow after such a statement like obedient children. And so this storytelling continues. In other words, like trained animals, I notice that this is how most of us talk about our memories of youth or other moments. Somewhere in the story, it is mentioned that one became tame, calmed down, and adapted to being less….wild. Usually in the eyes and tone of voice of these storytellers I can sense something of a broken or wounded spirit. Much like a beautiful wild horse that believes it is happy in its limited fenced environ while the truth of its freedom of running across landscapes has been long forgotten.
At first glance, it makes sense. Think about how we treat the concept of wildness or so-called untamed/wild things in our society. They are that which we tranquilize, contain, cage, control, and/or medicate. We don’t like anyone or anyone who could potentially be too out of control or unchecked just being. Think of children and house pets. We want to do everything that includes a training or socialization to ensure that they are contained in a way that keeps us safe. Thus, the wild, or what we would call wildness is our demon in the dark.
What if I proposed that we don’t become tame as we get older? What if I were to say that we should let our wild transform? Instead of it being our demon, that which caused all of the mischief of our youth, perhaps it becomes that which maintains our fire/passion/spirit/soul. I was long praised for being well behaved while growing up but I have done the most living when I allowed my wild to lead me across the unchartered territory. My wild nature is here to stay well into ripe old age as it goes through many transformations. What about you? Will you let your wild free enough to teach you how to truly be in the world?
Solid. Rock. Foundation. Security. These are words that we use with and about each other in regards to friendships, loveships, marriages, etc. We rarely talk about our relationships with others in regards to softness. We don’t say “I want to build something that is so soft with you that it will form around me or us and hug our bodies or souls.” We don’t talk about all of the ways that we want to bend with or into another person due to our ability to be pliable. The closest we come to describing any softness we is compromise. Yet, even with compromise, it still sounds like something begrudgingly shape shifting to mold to a situation.
Now if you read any of my present or past posts and/or articles, you might have an idea that some of this thinking was sparked by a casual conversation. Harmlessly yet touchingly someone commented about the possibility of both of us becoming each other’s rock. Within the full context of the conversation, it made sense. As an avid over thinker, I mentally erupted in to deconstruction of semantics, clichés and idioms.
In fact the possibility even the mention of such a concept was something I’ve wanted for quite some time. Someone with whom I could be solid, to know I was there. But I immediately started thinking about a previous situation in which someone shared that they felt secure in the world knowing I was there. However, what I later realized was that the thereness of security allowed so much ignoring and undetected hardening that just added to another wall.
So now I sit here wondering what we mean by wanting the solidness, security or the rock in our lives. If we are solid among and between our human relationships what does that mean? If you are my rock and I am yours, do we miss each other’s softness? In other words, somewhere in the wanting or needing the thereness of another in our ways of being solid, rocks or foundations, where do we ever just fall into softness or vulnerability with each other?