Is there a right way to write about personal experiences that have affected you profoundly in ways that you have trouble verbalizing to even yourself? When self-consciousness settles in, it traps you in a sound-proof room where you can’t hear — or be heard. How does one write with honesty, with respect for one’s feelings and experiences, without sounding patronizing? Hemingway kind of had a point when he told Fitzgerald, “Forget your personal tragedy…be as faithful to it as a scientist — but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.” But, Hemingway was also kind of an ass.
There’s a certain beauty in that particular facet of the human experience. Everyone has his or her own personal story, but there is a universality to it all that connects us, and everyone’s story is valuable. My “personal tragedy” is not worth more than yours — but it isn’t worth less, either. We all have voices that deserve to be heard, and so many of us are silenced on a regular basis. Here, in the technologically democratic world of the internet, I am free to speak, and theoretically, I have an audience. In the real world, I often feel bad when I unintentionally hop on some kind of social justice soapbox, but here, it is easier for you to ignore me should you choose. And so, having taken 235 words of your time beating around the bush, I press forward unapologetically.
I talk (i.e. write) about identity a lot, and how mine is very fluid and murky in color. At times I feel my experiences are invalidated because I am not enough of any one thing to lay reasonable claim to them. Technically I am a person of color, yes, but my experience as part of the Asian minority is much different than that of an African American, Latino, or other race. I am a person of color, but not socioeconomically disadvantaged the way so many others are. But, I am still a person of color. I am still a woman of color. I am still a woman.
I can talk for hours about the instances of the unintentional racism, blatant racism, and racial stereotyping I’ve experienced. Often my white friends (which is to say, most of my friends), even the many good liberal-minded among them, are either deeply uncomfortable with or mildly dismissive of these conversations and feel under attack when I try to explain the inherent sexism and racism that exist in America. They are uncomfortable when I say that I get frustrated when people ask “where are you from?” and are not satisfied with any answer that isn’t “Korea.” They are dismissive when I say that I get frustrated when people ask me if I’m Chinese or Japanese and tell me those people don’t know that they’re being rude or offensive. To stories like those, they say, “that’s stupid, don’t listen to them.” I appreciate the advice, but it doesn’t exactly work like that. I know it’s stupid, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel like I am being categorized as “other” and “less” because of the difference in my appearance.
The males among these same friends are also uncomfortable when I speak of the many instances of street harassment that have infuriated and frightened me. They are uncomfortable when I tell them about the man who approached me on the street at 4 in the morning one Saturday as I was walking home alone from the subway, who asked me for directions then pressed me to get a drink with him, asking repeatedly, though all the bars were closing. I walked three blocks out of the way so he wouldn’t follow me to my apartment building. They are uncomfortable when I talk about the guy who stalked me at work on my college campus, who’d tried to talk to me about being Asian then came back looking for me frequently and occasionally followed me around campus. I’d rather my friends be uncomfortable than dismissive, though. They’re often unintentionally dismissive when I mention how a guy outside a bar drunkenly demanded, “Do a little dance for me, baby!” Dismissive when I say a group of young men cat-called and harassed me on the street as they passed me early one evening, and I immediately regretted my automatic reaction of telling them to fuck off, hoping they wouldn’t turn on me. Dismissive of my story about a man who followed me for 5 blocks making lewd comments from twenty feet behind in broad daylight. They tell me I should carry a knife or pepper spray. They care, but they don’t understand that that isn’t the point.
I sometimes wonder, would they be dismissive if I told them that there are times when I go out purposely wearing conservative clothing or extra layers so no one leers at my body? That I don’t take especially good care of myself physically, I think, because I subconsciously do not want to appear attractive or garner any undue attention? That my general goal in terms of appearance is not to look good, but to not look terrible, because I don’t want to stand out for either reason? That there are days when I don’t want to leave my apartment because I feel like I only exist to others as an object?
Would they be dismissive if I told them I was sexually assaulted last year? That I told an acquaintance repeatedly that I did not want to have sex, yet still found him repeatedly trying to pull my legs apart? That when I told him to get off or I would kick him in the face, he laughed, climbed on my chest, and forced his penis in my mouth? That I never reported it because there would be no physical evidence that he had done this to me and because I didn’t think I’d be taken seriously because I had been drinking earlier? That I had a hard time not blaming myself, even though I understand that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault? That I still see this guy around, and every goddamn time, it feels like someone has shoved my heart into my stomach and wrapped my intestines around my windpipe?
Would they be dismissive if I told them that I am terrified of sexual assault not only because I am scared of being violated and overpowered in such a way, but also because I am terrified of pregnancy? That I have a deep-seated fear of becoming pregnant and not wanting my child, the same way someone didn’t want me? That this makes me feel like I am a bad person, like I am worth even less than the marginalized person I am treated like? I’ve never spoken or written about most of these things, perhaps in fear of being dismissed, but also because 1) I feel like I can’t, and 2) I don’t want to. And yet, I feel like I have to: I shouldn’t feel like I can’t, because I have a voice.
One day when I was ranting to a good friend about some instance of racism or misogyny or another, I apologized for being a Debbie Downer, and my friend said to me seriously, “Corey. Never apologize for being passionate or feeling strongly about something.” I appreciated that. I still appreciate it. I apologize less for my soapboxing these days; my temper is a lot more volatile than it used to be. It’s terribly frustrating to talk to a guy about the Rolling Stone debacle, UVA, Emma and her mattress at Columbia, or any such issue, and barely be able to hold their interest with it when I am clearly emotionally invested in these stories, and I hate having to back up my investment with testimonials of my own experiences. I should not have to out myself as a victim of sexual assault in order to get people to care about victims of sexual assault. I should not have to tell and retell the stories of racist experiences I’ve had in order to get others to understand that all people of color experience what I do — usually much worse than what I do. No one should have to defend herself or apologize for feeling passionately and strongly about ending racism, sexism, and misogyny.
These are my “personal tragedies,” but they also belong to every person of color and every woman in America. They may not be as tragic or traumatic as other people’s experiences, and they may not be important to you, but collectively, our personal tragedies are universal tragedies, and we cannot eliminate them from the narrative until they are important to everyone. This is my story — what’s yours?