Unpicking a silencing thread

Scheherazade is a voice – one used to take back power while I wait to heal enough to use my own.

M Kass 2016 - ScheherazadeImage: © Moustafa El-Kass, 2016

Note: This piece engages with sensitive topics that may be distressing to some readers.

‘Growing up non-white in a largely Western context means consuming and internalising conceptions about yourself before you really know what those conceptions are.’

I was at a talk about internalised white supremacy when this notion was raised for the first time, and I don’t think I’ve seen the world the same way since.  Suddenly, harmless or even non-existent biases became blaringly obvious: the way my grandmother would preference my father’s children because we were the ‘white ones’, how we’d often be told to reach for the aesthetics and mannerisms of white women and how we would revel in attention from white men – how we would vie for it.

I want to be able to say that these biases were largely harmless, that I was able to go away and process them in my own bubble, that unlearning takes time and is a process that affects the energy we put out into the world as opposed to the energy we allow the world to give us.  And I would have, until my white male friend raped me and a part of me thought it appropriate to keep silent about it for six months before realising what had happened.

You’re probably asking how this latest revelation has anything to do with the aforementioned biases.  At first glance, they seem largely disconnected – almost independent.  Surely, the fact that a perpetrator is white doesn’t attribute their criminality to their whiteness, and that might be true; but their whiteness was the exact factor that created a context that not only allowed, but encouraged, both the crime and the self-directed gaslighting that occurred afterwards.

As young women, we were not only told to strive for proximity to whiteness by our elders, we were simultaneously told that it dictated our worth by the rest of the world.  I lose count of the number of films and TV shows that played out a dynamic where the woman of colour was either evil or irrelevant, where a white male protagonist’s attention was the most prized thing in the universe, and where it provided validation of the worth of a white female support character.  Where it seemed almost like, if the woman of colour was able to gain validation from that very protagonist, her worth, too, would be affirmed.  Concurrently, we were and are served a rhetoric in which the gentle, understanding, sensitive, intellectual and ‘altogether-good white man’ is juxtaposed with the often-savage, abusive, ignorant and largely conflicted ‘bad brown/black/oriental/insert other non-white ethnicity man here’.  Together, these narratives didn’t only make me feel like my worth was intertwined with the way white men perceived me, but made me feel like they were safer for me than men from my own community – a sentiment that I can now confidently say was built upon a baseless fallacy.

I met the man who would one day call me his best friend and then violate me at a poetry reading – a safe space that provided a platform for minority groups to tell their stories.  The first time we met up, we talked about understanding privilege and the rise of third-wave feminism.  In the next six weeks, we would grow close; he would make time for me, attempt to win my favour, travel into the heart of country Victoria to visit me and eventually, reject the suggestion of a shift from a platonic dynamic to a romantic one.  He would then move halfway across the globe.  We would keep in touch and, for reasons I still feel it wouldn’t be my place to mention, he would return before our friendship turned one, introduce me to his white girlfriend and emotionally manipulate me in her shadow for the best part of three months before assaulting me.  I would then go on to experience post-traumatic stress for six months before becoming aware of the complexity of the situation at hand and the interplay of factors that had led to it.

Now, perhaps this speaks to the men who coin themselves feminists to gain favour with women, or the narcissist-empath complex that existed between us.  Perhaps this speaks to the abusive tactics that can exist outside of explicitly-romantic relationships, but that is a different piece to the one I am writing here.  This piece is not one about the way his actions are a reflection of his character, but one of how the way I allowed him to treat me and the way I dealt with that treatment are as much a product of my internalised misogyny as they are of my internalised white supremacy.

It has been hard to admit to myself that at the core of my decision to withstand what my mind continuously told me was unacceptable behaviour was my assailant’s whiteness and the internalised idea that his whiteness gave him the power to either validate or invalidate me and my right to exist.  That if this man had been brown or black, or of any other non-white identification I may not have let the situation continue as long as it did; I would not have felt safe enough to give him the opportunity to violate me and I would not have let my insecurity about my lack of power and my need for approval keep me silent for so long after the fact.

The truth of the matter is this: I don’t know how much of this man’s internalised white supremacy caused him to opt for a white woman over a woman of colour (of similar temperament and personality), but I do know that the processing of that fact was not as straightforward as it would have been if we had both been white; that some part of me played back into the dynamic that I have been exposed to my whole life – the white girl gets the white boy protagonist and you, the woman of colour, lurk in the shadows because you are unworthy of his time, attention or love.  I don’t know how much of his mistreatment of me is attributed to his whiteness.  I don’t know how much of his opportunistic nature comes from the power dynamic that has existed between us since birth and saw me on the back foot by default.  I don’t know if it was easier to hurt me or use me or manipulate me or violate my body because I am not held in the same esteem as the ‘precious, delicate white woman’.

What I do know is that I am ashamed of the parts of me that vied for his attention despite repeated remarks from voices both external and internal that he was not of a certain standard; the parts that let him get away with turning me into the other woman – first, emotionally and then physically without my consent – because they thought that that was the best part I would ever be allowed to play in this warped reality; the parts that would have held him to a higher standard if he had not been white; the parts of me that reassured themselves that they were safe with him despite all of this because they had internalised the notion of the gentle, understanding, sensitive, intellectual and altogether-good white man.  And for those parts I say I am sorry.  First, to myself for not allowing myself the space to see myself, then to my sisters whom I have let down by playing into the narrative we are pushing back against and to all the non-white men I held to unreasonable standards; whom I did not let in; whom I told myself I was not safe to be around because I had not yet identified the prejudices I held about myself and my own people.

Finally, I am sorry to the parts of myself that I veiled in denial, the parts that I gaslighted repeatedly because the aforementioned notions and conceptions had been so internalised that I had trouble coming to terms with the fact that the seemingly-intellectual feminist, gentle, white male was in fact the antagonist of the narrative we had come into; that I am and will always be the protagonist of my own story; that the person playing opposite me does not have the power to either validate or invalidate my existence; that I do not validate or invalidate their existences either; that they are not less if they are not white, and neither am I.  I realise that now.  For the forces and resources that led me here, I am grateful.  And of myself for finding the courage to use them, I am proud.

© Scheherazade, 2019