a student-run publication that seeks to provide space for voices that are not being heard on our campus. we are grounded by politics that are radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, and anti-transphobic (against all forms of oppression) and that reject the structural neo-liberal paradigm that characterizes middlebury college and its official publications
By Kizzy Joseph and Elizabeth Dunn
We were coming back from a party, one of the last of the semester when it happened. Two black people most people would assume were females, walking alone down a dimly lit street. We both felt perfectly comfortable, if a little tired. As we walked past the Hockey house, a slurred voice called out to us: “Hey. Hey you.” We paused briefly before the voice corrected us, “No, not you,” although we were the only people in the street.
In the dark we identified the source of the voices as two figures stood outside the door to the Hockey house. We could only make out their basic features: white, male, and from the sound of their voices, intoxicated. We started to walk away, and they took a parting shot.
The clapback was immediate: “Fuck you!” We protected ourselves with profanity. The immediate need was to show them they couldn’t just catch us off guard, call out to us, and not expect a response. We made our way back to our dorm, giddy with anger, disbelief, and just a hint of fear.
And we moved on — physically at least. The entire incident was over in less than a minute. We don’t know who they were. We don’t know if they even remembered what they said to us in the morning; we did. We remembered it once we got back to our dorms. We remembered it a few months later when we met up over the summer. We remember it now, as we pen this piece. And no doubt we will remember it for the rest of our lives.
The incident rubbed salt in the wound that is our constant awareness of being Black women/female-presenting people in a space both implicitly and explicitly dedicated to whiteness, or to pull back a bit on the jargon: we’re Black women, and Middlebury never lets us forget that.
Normally, the reminders are more subtle: off color comments in class, white people casually dropping the N-word when singing along to a song, being the only Black person in class (or in the dorms or at a party). As Black women, we’re used to hypersexualization, inappropriate comments, and a pervasive feeling of overexposure and unsafety.
This was that same reminder, that same sentiment of misogynoir (a term coined by Moya Bailey that refers to the specific sexist and racial oppression Black women face). This was those microaggressions, stripped of the veil of political correctness. The sentiment was the same as ever; as Black women, we are seen as inherently inferior others who, because our existence threatens systems of white supremacy and sexism, among others, must be put in our place.
Just to tidy up a few things before we proceed any further: what we were wearing is irrelevant. Whether or not they were really “good guys” is irrelevant. Whether or not we should have responded differently, should have been out so late, or should have done any myriad of other things is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it happened. What is relevant is the effect it had on us. What is relevant is that we feel even less safe on this campus than we did before.
Now some of you may view this situation and think to yourselves, “Street harassment can happen to any female-presenting person, regardless of race. Why does race even matter?” This “colorblindness” ideology, the new liberal-leaning form of racism, erases the differing experiences of people of color and ignores the significance of race in America — all in which are counterproductive to ending racial oppression. As Black women, it is impossible to rely on a colorblind ideology when everyday we are burdened by the physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually draining task of always being hyper-aware of our blackness, both in Middlebury and in general.
In context, two Black female-presenting folks were forcibly labelled as “sluts” by white men. This dynamic between Black women and white men is rooted in a historical power imbalance — one of enslavement, exotification and verbal, physical, and sexual assault, to say the least. The legacy of Saartjie Baartman, for instance, is an abhorrent reminder of how the female black body has always been (and still is) objectified, hyper-sexualized and abused. Baartman, a Khoisan woman from South Africa born in 1789, was persuaded by British Army physician Alexander Dunlop and free black showman Hendrik Caesars to travel to London in order to escape Dutch colonialism and become a paid domestic servant and human exhibit. While she agreed, hoping to earn enough money and return home, unfortunately, this did not become the case. Baartman was showcased in freak shows and museum exhibits across England and France, becoming a sensation and being dubbed “Hottentot Venus.” She attracted thousands of people whom disgustingly fetishized her large breasts, buttocks, and genitalia. Baartman was sexually assaulted on a daily basis, from having her buttocks constantly grabbed to being raped numerous times by white males. She died at the age of 26, from unknown causes.
The tragic life of Saartjie Baartman highlights the intersection of race and gender and the exploitation stemming from that. She was reduced to an object, the “Hottentot Venus.” “Hottentot” is an ethnic slur that stereotypically depicts Khoisan people as “primitive” and “dim-witted” while “Venus,” is derived from the Roman goddess of love, bearing sexual connotations. And there we have it: a racial and sexual slur, degrading Baartman to a “sexual savage,” just as how we were degraded to “sluts” that night.
This was not the lifestyle Saartjie Baartman expected in Europe, nor consented to. To this very day Black women cannot peacefully exist in, unfortunately, the very same country where powerful, wealthy white men gathered to debate over how much we were worth, reducing us to a fraction and a dollar sign. We, as well as our bodies and sexualities, continue to be degraded, disrespected, exploited, abused, murdered and misrepresented in society. We cannot and will not disregard this truth. Not when our sexualities are stereotyped as “Jezebels” and “Sapphires.” Not when 16-year old Jada is drugged and sexually assaulted at a house party and pictures of the incident are plastered all over social media. Not when 23-year old Charnesia Corley is forcibly stripped down in public and the hand of a police officer is inserted into her vagina to search for marijuana possession. Not when 25-year old India Clarke is shot to death in a park and misgendered by police and local media. And not when we are called sluts at Middlebury College.