I’ve come to accept that whenever we discuss societal problems in America, we’re inevitably going to talk about individuals. As much as I enjoy discussing the socio-economic and political roots of racism, sexism and other systemic inequalities, I understand not everyone gets the same thrill out of discussing, say, how farm subsidies contribute to increased rates of medical problems in low-income children. For most people, it’s easier to understand these complex problems when we personalize them — like when we break them down into stories about a mother’s struggle to feed her children with food stamps or a black man’s difficulties with a white supremacist at his suburban neighborhood pool.
But see, so often I don’t hear stories about that struggling mother or disillusioned man. Instead of hearing about the Latina woman who waited eight hours to vote, I hear “Racism’s dead; even my 80-year-old grandparents know not to call black people the n-word.” Instead of hearing about the woman who was denied a promotion because she refused to sleep with her boss, I hear yet another lamentation of the friend zone. It’s Chief Justice Roberts’ logic from the recent Voting Rights Act decision — we’re no longer racists, so let’s ignore these structures of inequality and all the evidence Congress had documenting them — applied to everyday life, all around in me. It’s in political debates with my extended family, in the conversations I overhear on the metro, in the media coverage of the Zimmerman trial, in the soundbites politicians toss away during press conferences.
So, fine. You want to talk about the individual? Let’s talk about the individual. But this time, for once, instead of talking about the supposedly non-existent racist, misogynist or elitist — the one perpetuating these systems of inequality — let’s talk about the one suffering from it.
You think sexism in America is dead, because women can vote and act as the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American families or whatever? You and your friends don’t hate women, so there’s no more sexism in the world?
Sexism is me being so conditioned to consider catcalls and street harassment compliments that when I’m walking to my car after a night out dancing, I think nothing of the man who stops his SUV in the middle of the street to ask if I want a ride. Sexism is only beginning to find the encounter abnormal once he pulls an illegal U-turn in the middle of the road to come drive next to me after I politely said “No thank you, have a good night.” It is him scoffing as I joke that “my mother warned me to never get in the car with strangers.” It is recognizing that my joke was a preemptive attempt at diffusing the situation, because even though I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, god forbid he’s the one in twenty that I need to avoid.
Sexism is the quiet hum of an SUV engine and gentle hiss of slowly rolling tires as his car creeps along with me down the block. Sexism is repeating “No, thank you, have a good night” six more times before I turn down a one-way street he can’t follow me onto. It is me telling myself I overreacted as I now power-walk to my car — because even the embarrassment of overreacting is better than the alternative, better than the thought that he is actually as creepy and threatening as he seemed.
Sexism is the sudden blow to my teenage-like sense of invincibility as I turn a corner and see his black SUV waiting for me. It is the sickening realization that to get here, he had to turn down two more one-way streets, each taking him further away from his original direction. It is the streetlight I stare at unwaveringly as I pass by the car, as if pretending I don’t recognize him will kill his interest. It is the breath I finally release as I get beyond his car, the quiet relief tempered by the 80-odd yards to my own.
Sexism is the involuntary fear when I hear the sound of his car door opening behind me, and I immediately begin mentally calculating the remaining distance to my car and whether I could run there faster than he could run to me. It’s the string of frantic curse words running through my head as I realize I’d never be able to outrun him in these shoes. It’s the wobble in my ankle as my heel gets caught in a sidewalk crack and I wonder if this half-second pause will be the difference between waking up in my bed tomorrow and waking up in a hospital to a nurse taking a rape kit.
Sexism is the pointless anger I feel as I get safely to my car but am forced to sit for five minutes before he finally drives off — because no matter how much the three hours of dancing are dragging down my limbs and making me long for my bed, I don’t want to drive past his still-parked car and have him follow me home. It’s the hatred for him, for situations like this, that strip away the sense of autonomy and control I’ve slowly built up with boxing classes and feminist literature. It’s the less-satisfactory anger that creeps over me as I finally start my car and begin driving home, questioning myself: Did I overreact? What if he really just wanted to give me a ride to my car? Should I call the police? What would I even say; it’s not like he committed any crime. What if I had been drunk? Will he do this to another woman walking home?
It is me wondering on the drive home — despite being a self-proclaimed feminist and knowing harassment and assault happen regardless of the victim’s appearance or wardrobe — would this have happened if I wasn’t wearing heels?
Sexism is carrying a purse large enough to fit my running shoes the next time I go out — not because I legitimately entertained the idea that the heels were to blame, but because next time I have to calculate how long it would take me to run to my car, I want to be able to truly sprint.
Sexism is knowing there will be a next time.