“No means no.”
I’ve spent my entire life struggling to stand up for myself. I’ve always been sensitive, and thoughtful towards people’s opinions and feelings. To some extent I think I care a little too much about what others think; I’m too thoughtful towards people who don’t matter. I backbend to appease strangers, and second guess the way I word messages to people who probably won’t remember them. I think I grew up to become a “People Pleaser.” Not a “Yes man,” I’m not scared of having opinions, but I care too much about how those opinions impact people. So much so that I compromise myself so others won’t feel bad.
I don’t consider this a noble thing, in fact in ways I think it can be more cowardly than anything. Ghosting slowly after first dates, replying to messages, entertaining hope even though I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. Which leads me to my second problem, I think I’ve internalized that I may not know what’s best for me. I have issues trusting my own intuition, even though it’s right more often than not. I end up dating the worst people, and being in the worst situations because I assume the little voice in my head is just me being “too sensitive.”
I won’t blame everything on race and gender, I think it’s important to take the onus of our personality traits (or at least try to). At 11-years-old I recall being in Winn-Dixie with my mother. My little black hands grasped on to the cool metal of the grocery store cart. I don’t remember what my mother was talking about exactly, not that it probably mattered. What I do remember was the feeling I had when she mentioned “White people.” I felt like all ears and eyes would be on us if she said it any louder, I was fearful of the conflict that could occur if someone was offended. At 11-years-old I was trying to preserve the comfort of all the White faces in the store that day, as well as feeling a strong desire to ensure my mother’s safety.
As the years passed I grew to understand my mother’s frustration, and would eventually inherit it with age. Isn’t it funny what we inherit? Frustration, rage, sadness. I have Brown skin, I assume my ancestors were forced to appease White people. Forced to whisper words about them, forced to wear masks so as to see another day. I won’t pretend to know exactly what that feels like, I’m oppressed but not the same type of oppressed as they were. The oppression I face is more social suicide, meets “accidental murder.” If I lash out, talk too loud, and my lips fall short of a smile, I’ll receive a label.
“Mad Black Woman,” because any woman with a working mouth must be mad. “Overly sensitive and over-analytical,” because my existence takes too long to digest. I think became a people pleaser for a lot of reasons, survival being one of the top ones. Women who scream too loud get silenced, and Black folks get killed. It’s the worst type of humbling, the type that pushes you into a “sunken place.” The type of Sunken place Black men don’t write about, because they aren’t in it. The type of sunken place that our momma warn us about “don’t be wearing that, you’ll attract the wrong type of attention.” The type of sunken place that we don’t talk about, that we can’t talk about.
I think if I were a Cis Straight White Man I would speak a lot louder, express my opinions even if they were unasked for. Spread my legs on the subway, and drive fast on the freeway. But I’m not, I’m not a Cis-Het White Man, I’m a Trans-Pan-Black Woman (gender fluid). I know nothing other than my black face, and thick lips. I am still teaching myself to say “No,” at risk of being deemed a “Mad Black Woman.” If only I were that privileged. This piece isn’t a call to action, I have no intention of stirring up a protest. This piece has no answers because the question itself is difficult to comprehend. This piece does challenge you all to really consider what sunken place you may live in, maybe your sunken place is about poverty, or physical ability, or even sexuality. Think about how often you’ve reached into the air to grasp onto words that fell on deaf ears; think about how you would describe the color and the taste of an orange to someone who’s never seen one. They might think you mad, wouldn’t they?
I think a lot of America’s problem with social issues (Race, gender, sexuality, etc) isn’t that we aren’t talking about it (in most cases), but that we aren’t understanding it. We don’t challenge ourselves to go out of our own world. We are too fixated on things that bother us, and we refuse to have empathy for other people. To actually touch on the title of this piece, I believe that the very moment that I was born as a woman I have been expected to be comfortable with my sunken place. Older men would stare at my undeveloped body, drunken men would figure they could take a grab if they wanted to. If I spoke up, I’d be a prude. My first boyfriend told me he felt like it’s a wife’s duty to make sure her husband is sexually satisfied, my grandmother taught me I need to make sure I look good for my man. When I am with men, I am expected to be the referee. “Stop, no, I said no, fuck man I said no!” Are words I’m never bold enough to express because when I am with men I’m expected to also be “polite.” Bitch is such an ugly word, and my grandma made me feel like I as a woman am supposed to be pretty. Bitch is such an ugly word, and what would if I scream too loud? What happens when a woman screams too loud, or a black person, or a Black woman even?
To be fair, on the flip side I feel like young men are conditioned to be rapists. Not only by society but because of individual interactions as well. “What the fuck? You don’t want to fuck me? You must be gay.” I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a man, that’s just not how I identify. But I have observed the irony in unpacking rape culture. I have observed in theory we encourage quotes like “No means No” and “Ask first.” But what happens when someone does want to ask about everything, are they then considered un-sexy? What of the men who find no particular interest in being sexual aggressors, are they then deemed submissive and undesirable? As a little girl, I recall being fed this idea that the man I want would be like Beast from Beauty and the Beast. That I was supposed to deal with all the horrible ways he presented himself, and it was my job to teach him how to treat me. I think we are all bounded by expectations, by roles we are told we are supposed to fulfill. I don’t think this is an issue with men or women, I think this is an issue with society. How do we deviate from society if we are still holding onto our tribalistic nature? As individuals, I think the answer is going out of our comfort zone. But as a society, maybe the answer can reveal itself with a little more understanding.