May 23, 2019 | essay

Harassment Culture: You’re Soaking in It

Edited by Julia Rios

Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:

Content Note:

This essay discusses misogynism and sexual harassment.

As we talk about harassment in society in general and at fan conventions specifically, I can’t help but think about my first foray into sci-fi. WisCon was my first science fiction convention. If you Google, you can still find a picture of a now infamous harasser staring at my breasts while we are being introduced to each other in 2009. It’s not a great moment, but what stuck out to me later was how many people were willing to downplay it. Not just other men, but other women. Specifically, white women who A) thought it was no big deal, B) that what I was wearing invited attention, or C) fell into the trap of assuming I wasn’t due the same care and concern as white victims because I was a Strong Black Woman™.

One of the most telling dynamics to me was the way another known harasser’s aggressive bullying behavior in emails was excused by white women on the board because his primary targets were women of color. I was assured repeatedly that he was really very much a feminist by the white women he was never rude to, despite the clear evidence in writing from a mounting number of former volunteers that he knew how to choose his targets. “You’re strong, you just have to ignore him!” was said over and over by so-called feminist women.

It wasn’t just an excuse extended to men though. When a white woman continuously referred to me as a “girl” and I responded negatively, it was, “Oh she didn’t mean any harm.” Like the history of racism, specifically expressed in Jim Crow America that relied on calling grown Black adults things like “boy” or “girl” instead of by name or any socially acceptable honorific, suddenly ceased to exist. When another well-known white woman writer turned a simple panel discussion at Readercon into a bizarrely nitpicky referendum on who is allowed to participate and how via thinly veiled insults? The fallback response afterward was, “Well, Mikki’s strong, and I know no harm was meant.” Harm doesn’t have to be the intent for it to be the impact. It’s true I handled it with relative aplomb, but then I was on a stage and didn’t have any other option that wouldn’t be damaging to my career.

Racism is a hell of a drug, and often partakers don’t realize that they frame “real” racism as the men who burned torches and hanged people, and not the folks who tacitly supported the systems that benefit bigotry. From experience online and off, I know that someone is going to read this essay and call it divisive because it positions white women not as perpetual victims, but as people with agency and the power to do harm. Some of you are going to feel that knee-jerk impulse to talk about what “all women” face. But we don’t all face the same things. While misogyny and misogynoir intersect, they aren’t the same thing.

Misogynoir is a term coined by Professor Moya Bailey and popularized in large part by Twitter user @thetrudz. It names the specific way race impacts how Black women and femmes are treated because of the intersections of race and gender, and impacts Black bodies specifically because of the intersection of race and gender. Yet there is a tendency to insist we’re all the same as long as no one mentions race or the impact of racism on how some victims are treated.

Mind you, misogyny and misogynoir aren’t just biases that live inside of masculine bodies. They can be internalized by anyone regardless of gender. Although women are most likely to be targets of sexual harassment by men, the truth is anyone can be a target of harassment and anyone can be a harasser.

When we talk about missing stairs in this community, by and large we are referring to cisgender men who have been creeps or attackers. That’s a huge issue and should never be ignored. But we need to expand the conversation to the people who enable those harassers, and to the people who get away with boundary crossing borderline behavior because they don’t look the way we expect harassers to look.

At that same WisCon back in 2009, I was accosted by a white woman who wanted me to be her personal teacher about race and racism. She grabbed my arm and cheerfully demanded I explain something to her, and then seemed thoroughly confused by the idea that I didn’t exist to fill her needs. I didn’t have the language then to explain why this was so upsetting. And of course, that lack of language only contributes to how much more difficult it is to get anyone to take the problem seriously. Fortunately, nine years (and lots of similar interactions) later, I can find the words to talk about the expectation that women of color (most often Black, Asian, and Latina) work to educate, console, care for or be available to white women and men in ways that presume boundaries are for white people. It is so common that I can shorthand it with hashtags like #NotYourMule, about the tendency to expect Black people’s labor to be in service of everyone else’s needs, and have them go viral precisely because they resonate as a widely-shared experience across the diaspora. As someone who has had to fend off everything from “accidental” hair touching to outright demands that I drop what I’m doing and act as an emotional sinkhole for white people who want absolution for not doing anything about racism? I’m fed up.

Harassment isn’t always sexual; it isn’t always about gender. Sometimes it’s the province of people who are great to their white friends and pure, unadulterated trash to people who are not white. It doesn’t only manifest as nasty letters, threats, or outright slurs. It can be almost coy: an insistence on confessing the details of witnessed but not confronted racism, or the assumption that someone’s presence is an indication of their willingness to serve as a sidekick or worse. Those on the receiving end of such behaviors often have to contend not only with their own trauma, but with the overarching social biases that can position an aggressor as innocent because of their gender and race. The power of white women’s tears can ruin careers, can end access to resources, can kill not only a future but a person.

“But Mikki, we’re talking about #MeToo, about sexual harassment in the workplace and in the genre. “Great, let’s talk about why you think of Rose McGowan or Alyssa Milano and not Tarana Burke when you see that phrase. Why have white women become the face of something started by a Black woman? Why didn’t many see the problem until it had a white face? The same unexamined racism that I’ve been discussing is the answer. Let’s talk about the complicated reality that someone can be a victim in one situation and the villain in another. We know that harassment knows no bounds, that it can happen anywhere, that sometimes victims feel that they can’t speak up for reasons that have nothing to do with cowardice and everything to do with social pressures. It’s time to shift the conversation to be more inclusive, to recognize that we need to broaden the scope not only of how we respond to sexual harassment, but how we see harassment in general.

Our conduct codes might need to revert to the ones used in kindergartens all over the world.

Keep your hands to yourself.

Put your listening ears on.

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

“I want” is not a license for bad behavior.

Does that sound ridiculous to you? Do you assume that adults should know better and do better? Great. Then this piece isn’t about you. It’s about your “quirky” friend who doesn’t understand social cues, who you keep making excuses for because, after all, she’s harmless. It’s about the people who get to act up and act out because they choose their targets carefully and, despite knowing that they’d be banned already if they were a guy, you find yourself at a loss for how to get them to understand, much less to stop.

Harassment doesn’t need to be sexual, doesn’t need to be familiar or understandable. Harassment just needs to be stopped. Harassers just need to be stopped. By their friends or by their community.

© 2019 Mikki Kendall

About the author

Mikki Kendall

Mikki Kendall has written for The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Time, Ebony, Essence, and other online and print markets. She has been published in several anthologies, both fiction and nonfiction. She edited the Locus Award-nominated anthology Hidden Youth with Chesya Burke, and was part of the Hugo-nominated team of editors at Fireside Magazine. Born and raised in Chicago, her books Hood Feminism and Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight For their Rights will be published by Penguin Random House in 2019.