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June 6, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

To not be silent

CW: Discussion of sexual harassment


Our evening transitioned seamlessly from bobbing to the slow paced, gentle voice of Frankie Cosmos into a slow trek up in the crisp night air back home. We headed towards the glowing traffic lights that marked the sharp turn onto our road. Far down the length of the street, two distant figures slowly approached as we walked. Our peaceful night was met with the uncomfortable intimacy that often occurs when two parties walk directly towards each other on the same footpath. Slowly and painfully, we moved closer and closer, encroaching on each other’s space.

I talked to a friend about this feeling and it struck a chord with him. He described an intense feeling of self-consciousness when walking past other men late at night, how they would give him a quick glance up and down; that glance dangerous, with its potential to escalate into violence. There is an imminent sense of danger, a visceral awareness that one wrong look, one accidental drunk leer, might mean a punch in the face. Maybe he sees something in my friend that he doesn’t like — maybe too much masculinity, or too little. I’ve never experienced that kind of danger before, so I can’t relate. There is a different flavour of deep discomfort that occurs when I sometimes pass men on the street.

As we walked towards those men that night, I kept my gaze on the ground, trying to avoid any eye contact. I felt hyper-aware of myself and my body, like I was experiencing it through their gaze. You could call it an out-of-body experience, but less profound and more dirty. This exchange is so microscopic, it’s hard to articulate and hard to share. Saying it aloud only seems to further intensify its intangibility. It’s easy to wonder if there was ever an exchange, and whether it’s a product of a hyper-active feminist imagination. They hadn’t said anything or done anything but I could feel it coming.

Previous experience has fostered something akin to a sixth sense where I can predict when strangers are going to verbally assault me. Everyday life in New Zealand is riddled with casual racism and sexism: at school, on the street, in the supermarket, it’s children pulling slanty eyes and “ching chong” rhymes, in front of their teachers or parents. When you hit puberty, you qualify for a whole new kind of discrimination — a melting pot of both racism and sexism. It’s “me so horny”, it’s “love you long time”, or a flirtatious “ni hao/konichiwa”. It’s young and old men in all kinds of locations — on the street, driving past in cars, inside shops, at parties, in clubs. But most often, it’s said in front of other people who choose to stay silent.

Really, they don’t have to say anything for me to know these two men see me as an amalgamation of stereotypes. My sense of identity is temporarily subsumed by their idea of what I am. Suddenly I feel foreign and other. And then they say something anyway. “Pound her real hard tonight.”

These words float awkwardly, out of place in the quiet night air. They’re so ridiculous, it’s almost comic if you don’t dwell on them for too long. But I was dwelling and I was troubled by the ability of those words to disempower. They hadn’t even bothered to say it to me. They had directed them towards someone else, and in doing so, I had been deleted from the interaction. They were said in solidarity to my partner, a fellow white brother of the patriarchy. They’re powerful words and by voicing them, they make him unwillingly complicit in my degradation. These five quick words stripped me of my personhood. I had been downgraded from a person to a vagina, and you don’t speak to genitals.

All I could do was yell obscenities at them for a weak sense of empowerment. I gained a tiny bit of satisfaction knowing that I was at least resisting the myth of the model minority, and the treatment of women as demure sex objects. But I still felt powerless.

These seemingly small and insignificant interactions perpetuate our patriarchy. Men exercise their power, and remind women that they’re never safe. These small interactions are constant reminders of women’s status as sexual objects to be pounded and penetrated. Through their objectification, women are positioned as less than men. It’s a reminder that patriarchy is inescapable. Wherever they go, in all communities, there will always be a risk of sexual violence and misogyny. Women are made to live their lives in constant danger.

What was also glaringly apparent during the exchange, was the silence from my partner. Any resistance I had enacted felt undercut by the absence of his defence. I don’t need a white knight in shining armour, but I do need those who benefit from the patriarchy to speak out for those who bear the burden of its oppression, to stand up and speak out — not on behalf of, but in support of and alongside those oppressed. Anything I could say to those men, and anyone who has heckled, ridiculed, and harassed me for being a Chinese woman living in New Zealand, is ultimately undermined by the friends, partners, and strangers, who stand by and say nothing.

I am disempowered by the smothering weight of your silence reminding me that I stand alone. This silence is harmful because it upholds the sexist and racist ideas that rob me of my right to walk down the street safely. In staying silent, we allow violent behaviours to go unmarked and unchallenged, reinforcing a culture where street harassment is commonplace and normalised. The act of speaking out is powerful because it allows us to talk resistance into being. When we question, challenge, and defend, we are breathing life into an alternative discourse, an alternative culture, where gendered violence is wrong. When we speak out, we are saying, we are screaming, that violence is not okay.

Patriarchy is violent. It harms all people and the act of resisting patriarchy and misogyny can have dangerous consequences. It’s not easy to speak out. This violence is so deeply intertwined with toxic masculinity that for cis-gendered, straight white men, the threat of physical harm is very real. Especially when a glance can be the catalyst for a fight.

Yet there are limits to my sympathy when there are groups of people who live their lives in constant danger of sexual violence because their identities threaten patriarchy and dominant masculinity. Patriarchy keeps us in a double bind. We are not safe living with it, we are not safe challenging it, but if we want to make a change, then something has to give. Those who silently witness and benefit from the subjugation of others need to be brave — it takes strength to willingly enter a dangerous place. But remember, this place constitutes the reality of me and many others and we cannot leave (yet).


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