Monday, August 24, 2015

Harassed

My bike got a flat tire last week, so on Friday, I rode the trolley home from work. It happened to be UVA move-in weekend, so the traffic was worse than usual.  The trolley, when it arrived, was crowded so I stood in the aisle and held onto one of the poles.  There were a few seats here and there, but I didn't want to go pushing through the crowd to get to them.  One man patted the empty seat next to him and leered at me.  I ignored him, but this caught the attention of another man who was sitting on one of the benches in the front.  He told me I could sit next to him.  I politely said that I preferred to stand.  The man appeared to be drunk (possibly) or otherwise unstable and the other man on the bench reeked of cigarette smoke. I didn't want to squeeze in between them.  I'm sure I'm not the only woman who assesses empty bus seats for harassment and groping potential before sitting down.

The man said, "Oh, I see.  You're a racist." He got out of his seat and moved across the aisle, making an elaborate show, for the benefit of the other passengers, of vacating his seat for the racist woman.  I continued to stand.  The man started pointing me out to the other people on the bus.  "See her?  She's a racist. She won't sit next to me."  He kept up muttering for most of the interminable ride through the congested move-in traffic.  We eventually reached downtown and I fled the trolley and walked home.

Here's the thing: you don't owe strangers anything. There is an expectation in civil society that an unwanted offer is responded to with a simple "no thank you."  That's common courtesy, but no one should ever be under any obligation to engage with strangers.  You don't have to smile just because some asshole tells you to.  You don't have to give someone your name just because they ask.  You don't have to converse with someone just because they want to converse with you and you don't have to sit with someone who makes you uncomfortable.

In polite society, there are tacit rules about boundaries between strangers: don't make eye contact on the subway, etc.  When someone crosses those boundaries and you refuse to engage, you're not a bitch and you're not racist.  The person crossing the boundary is imposing on you and you do not have to appease someone who is imposing on you.

I don't mean to sound like a victim blamer here, but I think sometimes women end up in uncomfortable or dangerous situations because they are fearful of being perceived as rude or racist.  I was publicly accused of racism and as deeply unpleasant as that was,  I'm glad I didn't sit next to that man. It would have spared me the racism  accusation, but at what cost?  Would the obnoxious questions have started?  What's your name?  Do you live around here?  Where do you work? And sure, you can give a fake name and say you're in town for the day from Duluth, but the more you lie, the more flustered you get and the more power he has.  Don't engage with a bully because you've been trained since birth to be "nice."  You do not have to be nice.

5 comments:

  1. "....sometimes women end up in uncomfortable or dangerous situations because they are fearful of being perceived as rude or racist." YES. YES. YES.

    We once had a horrible experience on the trolley and haven't used it since. What is it about Charlottesville and awful public transportation experiences?

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  2. I can't believe that moron played the race card and expected anyone to agree with him. I'm glad you went with your instincts and didn't back down. Every time I've ridden the trolley it's full of weird people but I've finally reached the age and mass that they leave me alone.

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  3. Wow, I have never had such an unpleasant experience on public transportation! How awful.

    I don't really have the opportunity to use public transportation where I currently live, but when I was in Ann Arbor I used the city buses all the time. The problems were normally with mentally ill riders, but everyone knew none of that was intentional, so you just ignored it. But I wholeheartedly agree with you --women need to learn that they don't have to engage. I'd much rather have been called a racist than sat next to that man!

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  4. AMEN! This post is spot on, we do not owe a stranger anything but polite. Shame on that man for making such a fuss over your exercise of YOUR rights.

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  5. I haven't had that happen to me on the bus/trolley yet. If it ever does happen, hopefully I'll remember that I don't owe anyone anything, least of all a man playing the race card.

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