Just listen (#blacklivesmatter)

Nearly 15 years ago I was sexually assaulted in the parking lot of my favorite restaurant by someone I once loved and in a weird way, for a little while anyway, trusted. To have these safe things — a place and a person I loved once upon a time — taken away or used against me shattered me into the splinteriest of shards. Those shards ended up slivers of glass that pierced the skin of everyone near me, shrapnel that came from every direction, and pushed me away from them as the tried help but ultimately minimized my experiences.

That night gave me what I am sure is a PTSD, the effects of which I still feel at 33. I am hypervigilant. I don’t like being in the middle of large crowds where people can touch me and where I cannot see everyone. I don’t like hugs or most kinds of physical contact with people who haven’t earned the closeness of my skin. Loud noises make my startle far too easily. I wake up with my heart pounding if I hear a noise — I do not sleep heavily. Falling asleep is hard. Every once in a while a certain smell or sound or some sends me back to a very trying time.

Although I have healed so much, that experience has really shaped the rest of my life from that moment on. I was thinking about that tonight driving home. I was struggling to explain to someone earlier how I see value in the #blacklivesmatter movement, a movement some will call divisive. As I was trying to sort through my own experiences as a white woman to find something in my own narrative that could help me show why that movement is so important, it hit me: when I think about how own rape and its aftermath, I can understand this movement so much better.

– – – – – – – – – –

I haven’t always been so open to trying to understand the other side. In college, I hated the idea of white privilege — not because I had it, but because I didn’t really buy into its existence. I was, after all, really not that privileged because I was white. I grew up very, very poor. I grew up under the critical and judgmental eye of the public school system. I don’t think anyone really ever expected much from me. I couldn’t see my own privilege in my 20s but it’s so clear to me now the things I wasn’t able to see then: that people around me looked like me, that people on tv and in books looked like me, that my teachers looked like me… I wasn’t really so different after all.

Yet it wasn’t until my 30s that these things became visible to me. My last semester of my undergrad, when I was 25 years old, I wrote an editorial for the school paper. I called my article “Wasn’t Last Month Black History Month?” (I am cringing and embarrassed at the thought of this being published.) I wrote these words:

I stared at my computer with all of this information in front of me, trying to process what I was feeling, because it wasn’t a happy, peppy feeling. It was depressing and pessimistic, and then I realized what I’ve felt for a very long time about these “history months”: they’re kind of stupid and despite their best intentions, they actually serve to further divide people rather than unite them…

Let’s look at it this way: as a society, we say that we want all people to be equal. African Americans and Asian Americans and Hispanics are all the same as Caucasian Americans, right? Wrong. When we divide people up and force them to pick which group they “belong” to, we aren’t creating or even attempting to promote equality. Instead, by creating these sorts of divisions, these different groups, all we’re doing is highlighting how people are fundamentally different. These groups, and consequently, these [history] months, send that the message that African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and women are so different that they don’t deserve to have their history incorporated within a “normal” setting – they’re so different that they don’t deserve to be “integrated” – they have to have their own special month, just like they had their own special seats on buses and their own special camps and their own special schools.

I am actually ashamed to have written these words because I so totally missed the mark. In every history class and literature class in high school, I mostly learned about men and women who looked like me — white, Protestant men and women. I could barely tell you who those people so different-yet-equal to me where because I had no clue.

Something clicked inside of me when I was in those first few months of my 30s and suddenly I began to see that my world was made up of people who looking shockingly just like me. And not only do people look a lot like me but there are not a lot of people in Ventura County who are black. Info from the Census indicates that in Ventura County, the population of African Americans is 2.3% (source). This shocks me but it honestly shouldn’t, given how few black people I went to high school and college with. It shouldn’t, given that while I spent an hour at Target yesterday, I purposely looked at the races of those around me and saw exactly one black person.

I began to realize that my world was very, very full of white privilege as my 30s began.

– – – – – – – – – –

In the days after my rape, my body was like a rainbow of colors. I had intense bruises on my shoulders (from being slammed against a grainy brick wall), both my wrists (from having my hands gripped tightly by a man hell-bent on stripping me of my power, dignity, and agency of body), and one tiny one right in the small of my back (from where my house key dug into me as I was pushed against the wall). Blood, bright red and then brown when it dried and scabbed, covered my feet, hips, and thighs. Eventually the blood rinsed away and the bruises bloomed from bright purple to a sickly yellow and finally to nothing at all. All that color left my body and it seemed to take with it even more than the colors imparted on me in violence that night — it seemed to take with it everything that had once made me feel vibrant and joyful. The fading of the bruises and the rinsing of the blood made me feel like I was no longer alive.

I didn’t have any kind of words to explain this to anyone. I just had rage. I snapped at everyone. I felt constantly exhausted. I was afraid all of the time. No one felt safe — I only could ever relax at home, but even then it was hard because tv shows show rape. The news shows rape. Songs talk about rape. I couldn’t protect myself from rape no matter how hard I tried. Even if it was hearing or seeing a rape on tv, all I could feel were the bruises and blood that lingered in my body and radiated down to my bones, like a phantom limb itching and aching. Nothing was there, but the pain lingered.

Hearing others’ comments about how they would fight if that happened to them, or how they would rather die, or this or that made me feel like I would throw up. How dare they say those things?! How dare they even try to understand what it was like to be pinned up against a brick wall, barely breathing as a man’s hands wrapped around your own so tightly you felt your fingers go numb? How dare they say they’d scream when they had never had someone’s arm shoved so hard against their mouths that it felt like their teeth would shatter from the pressure? These comments made me so sad and so scared that I could either remain silent or act out in explosive rage. Rage is what won because the silence felt like it would kill me — or even worse, allow me to be killed.

– – – – – – – – – –

I cannot for a single second pretend to know what it’s like to be a black person living in “post racial” (in quotes for a reason) America. I have never been racially profiled. I have never been followed around a store by security guards. I was actually thinking about this yesterday because you know what happened to me once? About a year and a half ago, I was so terrified that my car wouldn’t pass smog, and that I wouldn’t be able to afford to fix it and renew its registration as a result, that I drove around for five months with expired tags.

If your tags are six months expired in California, your car can be impounded if you’re pulled over.

During month five, I was on my way to work one Sunday morning. I work seven minutes (five on a Sunday) from my house and about a minute away from the office, I saw blue and red lights flashing in my rearview mirror. My heart sunk and then it began beating faster. I pulled over into a parking lot just outside of work and put my hands on my steering wheel where they were visible, just as my dad, who works for the same department as the deputy pulling me over, had taught me.

The deputy asked for my license and registration, which I handed over. I explained my fears about my car failing smog and he saw my dad’s card in my wallet. A second car pulled up behind him — backup — and the first deputy waved the second car off. Then he gave me back my license and insurance and gave me a stern warning to get my car smogged because he didn’t want to see me again in town without current tags. He drove away and I drove to work, relieved that I didn’t get even a fix it ticket.

I was thinking about this today because I wondered: what if I had been a black man? I don’t know if I would have gotten away with a warning if the deputy hadn’t seen my dad’s business card. That is its own kind of privilege right there and that’s for a different time and place. And I don’t know that I didn’t get in trouble because I was respectful to the deputy — after all, I admitted that it was my fault and honestly it was. I couldn’t be mad that I got pulled over for a problem I created. But even if those exact circumstances applied to a black man, would it have all unfolded the same way?

I don’t know and that is what bothers me.

– – – – – – – – – –

My junior year in college, I attended some one-act plays one night, one of them written by a professor who has turned into a friend. In her play, her female protagonist admits she is raped. That night is the first time I was able to ever tell anyone “Me, too.” It was the first night I began to share the things that were burdening my heart, that were draining me of color. I wrote my professor a long email and she wrote back and said “I’m so sorry.” She listened to me talk about my experience. She read the words I wrote about it. She helped me process it and she helped me begin the healing. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so full of rage. Suddenly, it felt like instead of being drained of color, I was simply just washed out, that there was still something there, some kind of light waiting to burn brightly again inside of me.

A few months later, I participated in my first Take Back the Night event on my college campus. The following year, I helped coordinate and lead the Take Back the Night event. A year after that, I helped with parts of a Take Back the Night event at the university where I was interning for grad school. I also helped coordinate a Jeans for Justice/Denim Day campaign. I interned with a Rape Prevention Education Program at a university. I heard more and more people who helped legitimize my own experiences as a rape survivor. I heard others’ experiences, some vastly different than my own. Their own paths to healing looked nothing like mine.

Finally, there were people who validated all that I had been through.

– – – – – – – – –

This is why I believe there is such value in the #blacklivesmatter movement. My own narrative with rape is so short compared to their narratives of living black lives and with the history that comes with being black in America. I won’t try to argue that the two things come even close to each other. I am simply saying my own experiences with being victimized, and of ultimately finding myself and becoming a survivor, have helped me to understand what it must feel like to be constantly:

  • minimized
  • marginalized
  • criticized
  • invalidated
  • mocked
  • judged
  • shamed
  • and so much more

When I see rape portrayed on tv now, I remember. When I see rapists like Brock Turner receive a slap-on-the-wrist sentence, I feel like it’s happening to me all over again because it’s like no one even cares about the girls and women being raped. When I hear people say Josh Duggar doesn’t deserve more punishment because too much time has passed I feel like the color it took so long to get back could be sucked from my bones so easily if I allowed it to.

Instead I try to listen to the peacemarkers. Last week I went swimming at a friend’s house and her two kids, who are 10 and 12, a girl and a boy, were swimming with us in their pool. The kids were messing around and suddenly the game that had been fun for my friend’s daughter was no longer fun. She told her brother to stop and he didn’t, because 30 seconds before his sister was laughing at him. Her mom called them over to where we sat and told her son, “Even if she liked it a minute ago, as soon as she says stop, you stop. That’s important for everyone but especially for you as a boy.” I almost cried while were swimming because those words were like the most beautiful arrow piercing my heart — healing it, not hurting it.

I listen to those who tell me, “Me, too,” when they hear my story. I listen to the ones who sit besides those who been raped and are in the hospital, advocating for the ones who feel silenced. I listen to the ones who grew up and spoke out instead of being hushed.

I listen.

– – – – – – – – – –

I want to go back in time and speak some tender words to the 25-year-old Krista who typed these words in anger on her computer: “When we divide people up and force them to pick which group they ‘belong’ to, we aren’t creating or even attempting to promote equality. Instead, by creating these sorts of divisions, these different groups, all we’re doing is highlighting how people are fundamentally different. ”

Dear Krista, I would say. A day is coming where you will see yourself as different. You will understand that your rape separates you on a real level from others who haven’t been raped. You will know that they don’t understand, but so many will eventually seek to hear your wordsm to read your story, and they will celebrate the things you have done and the woman you have become because of that thing that makes you so different. You are fundamentally different, and sister, it’s okay to let it be so.

– – – – – – – – – –

I have utmost respect for law enforcement officers. My dad is one. He is fair and honest and kind and I am proud of the work that he does. A few months ago, just down the road from where I work, one of his fellow peacemakers had to shoot a man who was advancing at him with a knife at an incredibly close distance. Someone, stuck with countless other cars in the traffic created by the incident, filmed the whole thing on their cell phone and the video was posted on a local news station’s facebook page. It was heartbreaking to see it happen. But it had to happen. Sometimes the police have to to these things as they keep the peace. No one wakes up in the morning hoping they get to kill someone — that would make that person a lunatic.

But it happens. As when it does, I listen to the why. I seek to understand. And I feel so thankful for the men and women who put on a uniform every day and protect me. What courage and bravery that takes, never knowing what your day will look like, or how it might end. This isn’t a bash against the police, the vast majority of whom are also fair and honest and kind like my dad, who I love so much.

This is a cry to stop what you’re doing and simply listen.

When you don’t understand: listen.

When you feel like the other side is wrong: listen.

When you cannot see how your skin has given you a VIP pass in life: listen.

Just listen.

If we would simply listen black people when they say they’re hurting, maybe the rage they feel would be tempered because we would stop attempting to invalidate them and their experiences.

– – – – – – – – – –

You cannot tell me the sorrow and grief I felt when the future Krista died the night of her rape wasn’t real.
You cannot tell me sorrow and grief they feel when their brothers and sisters are dying isn’t real.

You cannot tell me it didn’t happen.
You cannot tell them it isn’t happening.

You cannot tell me it wasn’t rape.
You cannot tell them it isn’t death.

You cannot tell me it didn’t impact everyone around me somehow.
You cannot tell them it isn’t impacting everyone around them in countless ways.

These things are real and I get to feel them and share them.
These things are real and they get to feel them and share them.

– – – – – – – – – –

Even if it is the only thing you can do:

Just listen.

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2 thoughts on “Just listen (#blacklivesmatter)

  1. Shannon Brentin says:

    I don’t have enough words to adequately describe how poignant and beautiful this is. So well said, my friend.

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