The Defanged and Deadly Appeal of #breakthebias
The sooner we recognize that sexism is a form of violence, the sooner there might be actual change
CW: gendered harassment, gendered assault, sexism, affiliated bullshit
Two different friends texted me on the morning of International Women’s Day this week, specifically on the topic of International Women’s Day. This was noteworthy in that neither of them, nor I, had been aware of it being International Women’s Day until technology told us all so.
Texts from Friend 1
My dad sent me this:
I was swishing a mouthful of Listerine around as I opened my WhatsApp to read this message, completely unprepared for its contents. The fact that I managed not to spit said Listerine everywhere is an achievement worth noting. I told my friend as such, followed by “NAVIGATOR OF LIFEBOAT!!!” followed by “wait, is it women’s day?” She didn’t know, but pointed out that in her father’s group chat it clearly was. I googled quickly and reported back: “well shit. the group chat is correct.”
Few of the people I keep close company with are particular devotees of IWD (which is so close to the Intrauterine Device acronym, I really cannot stand it). So I bopped along through the rest of my Tuesday morning without giving it additional thought, instead preoccupied by capitalism-induced anxiety, war, and it being my favorite BTS member’s birthday. It wasn't until another friend texted about that-which-is-not-IUD-day that IWD reentered my conscious.
Text from Friend 2
Have you seen the breakthebias campaign that’s been floating around for international women's day?
I haven’t. Do I want to?
It brings me cringe.
Depends on whether you’re into that one or not.
Oh this looks very stupid. No thanks.
It’s all over my LinkedIn, SOS
I learned a lot this year on International Women’s Day, guys. Including the fact that IWD has its own organization and website. I found said website, and learned, in turn, that this #breakthebias campaign was the brainchild of the IWD organization, launched specifically for IWD 2022. The website’s blurb for the campaign reads as follows:
The idea was for people to take photos holding up their arms, crossed in an “X” shape, to show their commitment to breaking gender bias. A lot of workplaces apparently really got behind this, and were posting photos of staff members (particularly women and femme staff members) posing with their “X” arms. Basically, an insulting rip-off of the Wakandan salute.
My second friend, the one who had told me about this whole thing to begin with, reported that his employer was going particularly HAM with photos and the campaign’s hashtag. “Why couldn’t they just screenshot a list of employee salaries, and show that everyone's getting paid equally within positional categories?” I asked him. “Listen,” he answered, “that’s what I said, too.” Of course, this would require pay equity to actually exist. Arranging staff photo shoots is certainly a cheap alternative to overhauling one’s company’s whole pay structure. So, in sum: by noon on International Women’s Day, we had established that women navigate life boats, and that folks need to #breakthebias. Okay, cool.
Except, not cool.
I kept thinking, “where the hell are the teeth in all this?”
Backtrack a few weeks with me, to an unexpected second dinner with a friend at 10pm on a Thursday night this past January.
My companion was admiring the track pants I was wearing. I love those track pants— they’re tapered at the ankles with zippers extending halfway up the calf, they have double pockets on one side, and are warm. My friend expressed “those are GOOD” sentiments. I, delirious with exhaustion after a very long day, said, “yeah, thanks, I stole them from a boss of mine in 2015. I wore a skirt to work one day, my staff had never seen me in a skirt, some of them kept playing around like they were trying to look up it while I worked, so I demanded that my boss open his gym bag up and give me some sweatpants, and never returned them.”
My friend’s eyes went from skittle to marble to saucer in record time. “What… The fuck?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. Then, I kept talking.
I still don’t know why— could’ve been the fact that I had a bit of a crush on the friend, and felt vulnerable. Or that I was very tired. Or that this faucet that I keep fairly tightly closed had been unexpectedly twisted open. But suddenly, I was just listing other workplace transgressions I’d experienced as someone in a female body:
… The morning my manager found me alone in the staff room and said, “hey, you do yoga, right? We should a staff drawing class sometime. Have you pose naked with an apple in your mouth.”
… The day my coworkers were discussing what they wanted to get for lunch, someone suggested chicken, and one of the guys reached towards me (the only white person at the table) and ran his hand all through my hair, saying, “yeah, I could go for some white meat.”
… The time one of my students’ guardians sent me anonymous flowers at work, and when I panicked, my director said, “Abby, when you look the way you do, you have to get used to attention from men like this.”
… The time my director noticed I hadn’t shaved my under arms recently, and when I went to pull a sweater over my head he stuck a finger into one armpit, poked the stubble, and said, “you gotta shave! Look at you!"
… The afternoon I was getting restock supplies for the coffee bar I was working at in a restaurant and one of the line cooks startled me, and then responded to my startle by snapping, “damn, chill. If I was going to rape you, I would've already.” (I have written about this one at length in another essay, about cancellation, found here)
… The night I was working at a restaurant and one of the drunk male patrons harassed me so aggressively my boss had to help me sneak out before the end of my shift and run for the subway.
… The male regulars at another coffee shop job who were told by my manager to stop talking to me because they were being inappropriate, and thus decided to come in and yell at me about being a sensitive bitch when they saw that my manager was absent.
… The coworker from another department asking me point blank one day at the office, “so what’s with your whole not shaving regularly thing?”
… The senior editor for whom I was doing a project slapping me in the head because he thought I was being sarcastic.
… The IT guy who loudly proclaimed to our officemates how he’d like to get me naked, such that said officemates would come up to me laughing, saying, “Peter’s being really gross about you, you know?”
… The exit interview at the above job, when I told HR that Peter’s behavior was unacceptable, and the HR rep said, “I know. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
… The manager who told me I needed to make my wardrobe more feminine.
… Ad infinitum ad nauseam
This list leaves out the inventory of other violations that I have witnessed or been told about, in work settings as well as personal lives. But listen— memories like these are still surfacing for me, all the time. They wriggle back to life as I age away from when the event actually happened, or something happens in the present that triggers the past. And I'm a white woman— straight, cis, the whole bit. So while my personal baggage carousel may be littered with this shit, it’s rather small potatoes. Women of color, women who are queer, people who are femme-identifying but attacked for it? Their baggage carousels can overflow with an accumulation of harm. Because while this society may target all women, it aggressively seeks to violate women who are not white, cis, and heterosexual, with a specific bloodlust that runs unchecked.
No, this is not an invitation for We The Whites to go text Our Black Female Friend and ask if they have Ever Felt Unsafe At Work. This is ESPECIALLY not an invitation for white people in positions of power to email women of color on their teams and ask them if They Have Ever Felt Targeted While Working For You. This is an invitation for us/you to go to the internet and ask it about racialized sexism in the workplace, healthcare inequity for women of color, and rates of violence and homicide for women of color (particularly trans women of color). This is your invitation, if you are a white woman, to really pull up a chair to the fact that the experience of being inside a white female body versus a female body of color can be defined by denial to human rights. If you’re anyone white at all, this is an invitation to start exploring what change looks like, and how you and your whiteness can help support that change (see this previous piece on utilizing white privilege instead of succumbing to guilt, see this previous piece on the importance of not getting stuck in the past but instead focusing on a new and different future).
Really, this is your invitation to stop doing crap like #breakthebias or wearing pink hats once a year or staying that women are hard workers who Navigate the Life Boats but not actually saying, “woah this is bad. It has to stop. I will help it stop.”
Incredibly, the night before this piece was scheduled to publish, I got harassed a few blocks from my home. I was waiting for a friend to meet me for a walk, leaning against a wall and listening to music. A trio of teenage boys strolled past— or at least, two of them strolled past. The third stopped in front of me, stuck out his hand, commenced playing rock-paper-scissors with the air between us. I took a hard look at him, and saw that his pupils were huge, gaze unfocused, movements slow. He was stoned out of his damn mind. So I figured yeah, sure, I’d go with it. I cut my music off and extended a fist. “You play shoot or not?” I asked.
“Shoot, shoot’s good.”
We shook our fists, released them on “shoot,” and his scissors beat my paper. He reached out and “cut” my hand with his winning scissors before I could register it. I retracted my hand from his touch.
“Hey!” he said. “Hey, we gotta do another round!”
“No, we don’t,” I said, backing up.
“Yeah we do! You lost!”
“I can live with losing, my guy,” I said, trying to laugh him off.
He changed tacks. “Hey, gimme a hug.”
“Gimme a hug. You gotta gimme a hug.” He pressed close to me, trapping me between the wall and his body.
“No I don’t. Touching is NOT my bag, man.”
“My dad died today. I lost my Papa. You gotta hug me.”
“I’m sorry about that,” I told him, edging along the wall.
“Hey, man,” one of his friends suddenly spoke up from behind me. “Man, cut it out.”
“Nah, she’s gotta hug me. My papa died.”
“Man, that is not even a THING,” his friend said. “C’mon—,”
Then the guy lurched forwards as though to fall against me, reaching. I shuffled sideways as he came, shoving behind a street sign, and his friend finally registered the reality of what was going on. The friend swung an arm out and clotheslined the guy coming for me, snapping, “stop. STOP IT. I’m sorry, miss. STOP IT.” I thanked him, trying to duck away, but the first guy kept dancing around trying to get at me. It took seemingly forever before the friends finally hauled him away.
This was the second time in two weeks that I had been violated in some way because of my gender. The first had been during a medical procedure ten days prior, and I was still trying to metabolize that episode when this happened. The irony of it occurring while I was developing this essay is not lost on me. I am furious that the dismantling of violence against women is not taken seriously; that my female students, peers, friends, and loved ones have to live with an eye open and an ear cocked for harm. I am also furious that I have to carry the trauma that I do, accrued over a lifetime spent being in a female body. That we all have to live like we do. I am furious that this a state of existence is and has been acceptable for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Harassment is the infliction of trauma. Women are harassed— traumatized— repeatedly, in exchange for being alive. Each experience of gendered harassment is a violence, telling an individual that she is not only unsafe, but unworthy of safety. That she is an object of variable worth, dependent upon the whims of the male society surrounding her. That she should be grateful that she isn’t in more pain more than she is already. Sexism is a wolf’s jaw, hung with fangs, and projects like the #breakthebias campaign are insultingly toothless. West Indian psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon argued that the violence of colonization could only be undone through equal and opposite violence, confronting the energy of the harm with the energy of change in equal measure. As far as I’m concerned, the same thinking applies, here. After all, gendered prejudices are foundational to the colonial apparatus, going back centuries. White people invented power hierarchies and gender disenfranchisement and deployed them as a means of crushing hundreds of thousands of people. You do the math.
What #breakthebias suggests will not do a damn thing to address gender bias in the workplace or beyond. Holding up one’s arms, crossing them, even saying “no.” None of that works. None.
We should know. We’ve tried.