Last fall, I had the opportunity to contribute to the first issue of Catcall, a new quarterly feminist zine. Writing this essay was very cathartic for me, so I asked if I could share it here, and it’s reprinted below. A warning: in the essay, I talk about my first experiences of sexual harassment, so you may want to skip reading this post.
“I don’t really get along with girls.”
When I was in high school, the coolest thing you could be was “one of the boys.”
“I don’t really get along with girls,” girls would brag nonchalantly.
I never knew how to respond to that. I would have been crushed if I mentioned that I was a girl and they admitted that they didn’t like me, so I stayed quiet. Sometimes I’d smile and nod like, “Yeah, boys are so much cooler” even though it wasn’t true in my life. All of my role models were women. I liked hanging out with my boy cousins, but apart from that, all my friends were girls. In my family, it was my grandmother and the aunts who took care of us and kept the family together.
I love my uncles, but it’s always been clear that, if not for my aunts, I might never see them. Their role at family events is primarily to show up, and I’ve never even thought of calling them in an emergency. My mom and my aunts on the other hand have nurtured my dreams and helped me in every facet of my life. I have cried with them my whole life, but I have never cried with my uncles.
“What’s wrong with girls?,” I wondered.
“Girls love drama” was another popular proverb at my high school. “Drama” could be anything from gossiping about friends, stealing boyfriends (whose agency seemed nonexistent in these scenarios), or crying because you didn’t get invited to your best friend’s birthday party.
It appeared the worst thing you could do was to express emotions in a feminine way; the opposite of that was being a boy, and if you couldn’t be that, the next best thing was to be “chill,” cool and unfazed.
I tried to be chill, and here is how it usually played out. I saw or experienced something upsetting, and instead of speaking out, I smiled and went along with it.
Example: a boy in my Speech class, says to my table, “Yo! Did you know they have boobs on Xanga?” Instead of protesting the situation or walking away, I sit and fake-laugh as they pull up a webpage on our class laptop and proceed to rank photos of disembodied breasts.
Another example: I’m waiting for my ride in the winter of ninth grade when a group of boys starts talking to me. One of them says I have big lips and probably “give good blowjobs.” I don’t know what that means, but I try to laugh like a good sport before shaking my head slightly. Even that slight refusal is met with derision. “I don’t want a blowjob from you, anyway,” he says. “Your lips are too chapped.”
Again I laugh with the boys.
When my ride arrives, an older couple who are family friends, they tease me about “flirting” with that boy and say that they waited a little bit to drive up because they didn’t want to interrupt.
I have so many questions. “Is flirting supposed to make you feel humiliated? What’s a blowjob? Why was any of that funny?,” but instead I blush silently.
Looking back, I realize that “chill” has been a silencing mechanism in my life. The opposite of being chill is caring, about anything—but especially things that challenge the status quo.
After all, the boys in my school also had “drama.” Messy break-ups, broken friendships, even fights that culminated in physical violence, but none of that seemed like a big deal. They were allowed to express their emotions in stereotypically masculine ways, and nobody expected them to be nice all the time.
As a person of color with tremendous White privilege, I’ve experienced racism from both ends. When people don’t realize I’m Mexican, they make jokes that are straight-up racist. When someone dares to speak up, the response is some variant of “Relax. Can’t you take a joke?” On the other hand, when people who know my identity want to tell a racist joke, they’ll wink in my direction as if to say, “You’re not a killjoy, are you? You’re cool like us.”
I don’t like being a killjoy, but being cool hurts.
Today, at its most basic, my feminism means doing gender and surviving a racist, capitalist society in a way that doesn’t hurt, and for me, that means not being chill. I don’t laugh at jokes that aren’t funny. I speak out against injustice when I have the strength and words to do so. I escape situations that make me feel unsafe.
When I first visited my college, a boy laughed at me when I asked if he’d been involved in any protests. “We don’t do that here,” he said smugly.
Four years later, I led a Take Back the Night march, the first in decades at my small liberal arts school. It hurt to walk past the cool boys laughing at us and smoking cigarettes outside the campus coffee shop. But it would have hurt more to stand with them.