Her shirt was light-colored, maybe white, but a button-down with a collar for sure. Long sleeves. She wore slacks, a blazer that might’ve been a lightweight leather, a bit strange, in hindsight. Her hair was pulled back tightly into a thin ponytail; it grabbed at the nape of her neck. A dark-colored cap was pulled onto her head. Her frame was thin, but her finger was forceful when she punched the air. I heard and felt her more than I saw her, and I didn’t learn her name until later, but The Disruptor works.
A college invited me to present at a conference about resisting rape culture. In preparation, Reagan, my research assistant, armed me with plenty of resources from which to draw information. I was more prepared than I usually am. Forty minutes to do with whatever I wanted — two activities and lengthy closing remarks, including bullet points. I was ready.
This is about the time I saw firsthand how even being seen as a victim and survivor of sexual assault are indulgences for black girls and women.
“You’re teaching these kids to be hypocrites,” The Disruptor screamed.
The schedule had been rearranged a few times and two presenters were the last to workshop before me when The Disruptor made remarks. When she started speaking, I could tell she was black, without turning around. Many of the thoughts she shared initially were agreeable, until she offered she didn’t think it was right for girls to be told they could wear whatever they wanted because men are sociologically weaker and can’t handle themselves when tempted. This is the essence of rape culture — the thing we’d gathered to resist in theory — and an opportunity to dismantle it in praxis had landed at our feet, gravity holding it there.
Cavalier and impotent responses to inexcusable behavior, talk and attitudes are the things dangerous societies for girls and women are made of. (Think a then-candidate Donald Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” that yielded a “that was just locker room talk” apology to ease tensions.) Subsequently, women, most often, have been silent or found ways to gain power by negotiating their way to safety with the way they dressed and how they responded to jokes at their expense and their bodies’, for example. Plotting courses through such troubled waters has gone on for centuries. I was going to contextualize a part of my talk with an example of just that. Tamar, the daughter of biblically-famous David, was raped in a plan orchestrated by her brother’s friend. The response to this was an isolated, brokenhearted Tamar who was asked not to discuss what had happened to her with anyone, as it was a family matter.
Our collective discussion about sexual violence against women aren’t family matters, though. There is no reason to keep quiet, no reason to leave unhealthy thoughts unchallenged.
Facilitator #1, a woman, redirected The Disruptor’s comments, instead of fully engaging her, and carried on for a while, until The Disruptor, persistent, spoke again. This time, she sounded more agitated, like something had snapped. Or clicked. Her speech was pressured, louder. I imagined veins rippling down her neck, like roots of a tree turning over themselves searching for water beneath the earth’s surface. The woman facilitator responded with the same aggression. Her screaming, amplified by the cordless microphone she clung tightly in the ring-less fingers of her fisted right hand.
“You can’t wear whatever you want to and not expect — “
“I could be lying in the middle of this floor naked, and no one has the right to — “
“No, you can’t!”
“This is about bodily autonomy!”
“You’re trying to silence me! …
“We’re going to move on — ”
“This has been done to me consistently at this school — “
Both of their words, as they cut each other off, were tinged with anger and resentment. One, at the world, perhaps; the other, maybe at the inconvenience of her presentation being interrupted by a dissenting opinion. The presenter screamed about what could be, while The Disruptor screamed about what she saw as the reality of women needing to protect and hide themselves and their bodies. This is often the way white Americans talk about race — the way things should be, to the absolute neglect of how they are.
Presenter #2, a man, went over and began whispering, presumably asking #1 to lower her voice and escape the tit-for-tat vortex. She nodded and escaped. Presenter #2 said words I can’t recall then offered the microphone to an audience member who was sitting behind me. When I turned to see, the woman had taken the microphone and turned toward The Disruptor and began speaking quietly into the mic.
I turned around because I wanted to see the black woman who had been talking. I didn’t all-out study her the way I tend to do people. Studying her seemed inappropriate because it was obvious by the gasps and groans from the audience, people filing out of the auditorium and facilitator who’d reciprocated the agitation, that decisions had already been about her. Even if subtly, I didn’t want to add to the chaos.
“This is a safe space for survivors of sexual assault …”
“This school isn’t a safe place!” She’d said it again; it is significant to her.
Soft-Spoken continued, “Some of the things you’re saying are hurtful.”
“I’m a survivor of rape! … I’ve been raped five times in my life,” another revelation from The Disruptor comes.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said genuinely, it seemed. Soft-Spoken had started to hear The Disruptor, not make attempts at calming her down. I wondered if calm was ever present for The Disruptor, even when she was quiet.
During the unbalanced exchange, those of us who remained learned The Disruptor had been forced to leave home at 13, was a non-traditional student at the college and felt ostracized and unsupported there. A few more conference attendees trickled out of the room. Her emotional pain was palatable.
“Get campus police in here,” Presenter #1 — the aggressive one — said annoyed, motioning to someone at the back of the room.
My body tensed. Worst idea ever.
The police had been present all day, uniforms starched, shoulders squared, hands near their weapons just about every time I noticed them. The only time they smiled, their faces belying their presence, was when they got up to talk about self-defense classes they offered the college and community. “They’re going to teach me to protect myself?!” I asked no one as they talked, rolling my eyes at the thought.
Ironically, the presenters had just finished comparing bystanders and upstanders.
“Don’t touch me!” The Disruptor screamed, my reflections were interrupted.
I turned back and prayed she wasn’t screaming at one of the starches with the buzz cuts. Solicitation granted. No cops in sight.
A black woman approached — an administrator I’d met earlier — and began whispering to The Disruptor. She still talked loudly, but her voice began to calm, speech slowed, but it was clear that she would not be silenced. I turned back around to face forward and heard the door thud close unless it was the sound of my heart beating in my ears.
“I’m really sorry about that distraction,” Presenter #1 said with a bizarre mix of exasperation and glee. She said more words and then, “I don’t really think there’s any point in going on with this part, so we’ll bring up Natalie.”
And that was it. It was my go, my time to shine and be brilliant, while the room was thick with dismay, triggers sparking, breath held. Introductions are awkward for me. Distillations of career highlights and titles that don’t get to the essence of who you are. This time, though, an intro would have offered a brief reprieve from what had just happened and what was supposed to happen next. The surges I feel when I know I need to do something rushed through my body, and I wondered if race was on anyone else’s mind. I sat for a second too long and someone in my periphery tried to get my attention to let me know it was my go.
I walked up to the podium, stared at it and then the crowd.
“Breathe deeply,” I said to myself.
“Are you breathing?” I asked the small crowd who remained. The group had shrunk from 50 or so to maybe 25. There were a few shallow breaths, a couple giggles.
“No, seriously. Are you breathing? Deep breaths?”
People breathed. I allowed space and time to fill the air.
Breathe again, I urged. More people obliged. Again, I instructed. New energy, life tentatively come into the room.
It was important to honor the discomfort, pain or whatever feelings arose for people who had to leave, even in their absence, and everyone agreed. People were triggered. We talk a lot about triggers these days.
The words that came from my mouth were slow, intentional; my voice, steady, soft. Probably more so than usual.
“It’s just as important, likewise, that we honor the pain that woman must’ve been feeling. … What you heard only as a disruption, I heard as hurt.”
People sat, many confused, but I pressed on, talking about how vital it must have been for her to be heard and the courage it took to offer a dissenting opinion to the entire group. Some softened.
My laptop screen glowed at me. On it, were the remarks I’d written and two activities I’d planned. I felt inadequate to be standing there, still a little jarred myself, my mind racing trying to process what I’d witnessed and what it meant for that woman as a student, for us as black women individually and navigating non-black spaces.
“I had some things planned, but they seem trite now.” I paused, took a couple silent, deep breaths. A few people in the audience called out sentiments like “No, go ahead!” But that felt disrespectful.
“I’m just going to share some of the comments I prepared,” and I bounced around on the screen throughout the comments I’d diligently typed out.
I told the story of Tamar, as I think it’s critical we remember this battle, like so many, is a long-fought one. Women’s studies departments in the academy and vocabulary for reproductive justice are a few decades old but the toxic culture is several centuries old. From there, I touched on the reasons we victim blame. Chiefly, because it keeps us safe in the worlds we create and control. But when I reached a point about race and bystanders I’d written, I knew I had to read it.
“Psychology of Women Quarterly published a study that found white women in college are less likely to intervene when they see a black woman at risk of or being sexually assaulted than a white counterpart in danger, even if they were aware of the imminent danger. One of the researchers, Jennifer Katz said, “We found that although white students correctly perceived that black women were at risk in a pre-assault situation, they tended not to feel as personally involved in the situation. … [B]ystanders need to psychologically identify with the potential victim to feel they have an obligation to become involved and racial/ethnic differences impede this. This is the case even though women of color — not just black women — are more at risk for sexual violence.
I didn’t need a study to tell me this. Maybe you did. Now that you know, what about you, even if you aren’t a white woman? If you see or saw a person who didn’t look like you in danger, what do you do? Do you carry with you unspoken biases about people of color that paint them as hypersexualized creatures who are wont to perform sexual acts whenever it is demanded of them? Do you think black women deserve it?”
Energy in the room shifted again, and I’d seen, of course, just minutes before how quickly people’s biases can arise.
After I was done and the conference adjourned, a small group of conference facilitators and hosts chatted about the day and, inevitably, The Disruptor. She was rude, wrong and loud. The reframe I offered: She was trying to insert herself where she didn’t think she belonged and there’s no polite way to do that; she talked about her experiences, and experience has no value, it just is; she was trying to be heard. There wasn’t much pushback. We went to dinner.
Dinner conversation was pleasant and non-confrontational until The Disruptor, unbeknownst to her, writhed back into the conversation.
There were “how could she say that”s dipped in “she was just so impolite”s with a side of “how do we keep that from happening again”s all served just after I’d finished my last bite. Most everything Soft-Spoken (who is not black but had a pretty dramatic past, sharp analysis and sound politics, I discovered, as we rode together to dinner) and I offered Presenter #1 was met with “Yeah, but I also want to add …”
“Whether you meant to or not, you escalated the situation and represented the institution, as you went back and forth with her. Behind the microphone, no less!” I said.
“Yeah, but I also want to add …”
“I missed what you said to her. What did you say?”
Soft-Spoken responded, giving an abbreviated version of her attempt at connecting with The Disruptor.
“And how did she respond? Positively?”
“There isn’t a positive or negative response to something like that. Just a response.”
“Yeah, but I also want to add …”
Every. single. time. Even when I said, “You all keep removing race from this conversation, and it can’t be removed. Period.” Presenter #1 turned my “period” into a comma when she offered, “Yeah, but I also want to add …”
There was one exception. I asked, “Did you hear her say she was raped too? Five times?” There was an awkward silence, nothing to add.
The silence wasn’t awkward because a revelation was hanging. It was awkward because I saw it: Some of the folks sitting at the dinner table had, indeed, heard some of The Disruptor’s painful realities but didn’t care. She was an interruption, not a woman with unresolved feelings. She didn’t present her truths the way victims and survivors are supposed to. They were wrapped up in a leather blazer, even though the weather was warm. There were no tears, mostly venom. And she’d found the way, she thought, to protect herself from future attacks and was warning the presenters they were leading others astray. She was trying to help but seen as someone who was belligerent and couldn’t be taught. What would it have meant to acknowledge the woman’s pain from the microphone? Say, “That is exactly what we’re talking about, in fact. Let’s explore it” when she offered girls should be mindful of their tight, short and low-cut fashions.
Being a victim, a survivor, I learned at that table overlooking the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, requires the same identity politics as voting, ascending to positions of leadership and developing strategies. This means it’s reserved for those who know the lay of the land, have knapsacks, emergency kits, and unspoken rules before journeying. What do we, black women and girls, too often do? Push forward through quaking terrain, with unhealed wounds festering, lying to ourselves that everything is fine, our truths oozing beyond the Band-Aids.
Places for healing, hope, and promise are pertinent. We must create them. They must understand that for black girls and women, depression and sadness is sometimes initially expressed as rage and obstinacy. The spaces must not label us lazy when utter despair puts us to bed and must not mistake self-care for irresponsibility. The space doesn’t require fighting stereotypes galore and recognizes how risky being vulnerable is. These things are luxuries and spaces that offer it are sacred. They shouldn’t be, but the folks at dinner reminded me they are.
I fought for The Disruptor’s right to a space like that (mine too), though she didn’t know it. Back at the hotel, I sat on the bed, staring at the wall, which I do when I don’t know what to do, and thought about how I’d just tried to convince people who want to resist rape culture that, by her own testimony, a black woman was a survivor of rape and that was just as significant as the fact that they disagreed with what she had to say. It seemed to never sink in for me there wasn’t a place for disruptions of any kind.