“So long as men can harass women without consequences, they will continue to do so.”
She was also required on occasion to erase the presence of other women, women of color in particular. Once, after she began reporting for a newspaper’s Society section, she’d covered the wedding of an African American couple. (“They were so happy to talk to me when I said I was from the paper!” my mother remembered.) She’d written up the account of the bridal gown, the wedding party, the fancy reception. But when the photographer sent the wedding picture to the paper, her editor was furious to discover the couple was Black. (“Don’t you ever do that again!” she said he yelled. And she didn’t. She needed to keep her job.)
My mother had no advice on how to handle this situation in my life. She was white and I am not. My father is Chinese, and although I am mixed-race, to most people, I pass for completely Asian, even if they can’t quite figure out where in Asia I might be from. People in America and in China have guessed China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines. No one ever guessed California, where I was in fact born.
There were other things that my mother didn’t say: that men should be expected to change their behavior or that women should be bosses.
“I prefer to have a male boss,” I heard her telling a group of women, her friends, once. “I don’t mind getting coffee. I want coffee myself.”
I don’t know what female boss my mother ever had. She never mentioned her, so I’m not sure what the drawback was in her mind. Perhaps it was the familiarity of men, how to survive, all the strategies she’d developed, that made them seem more desirable. Maybe it was jealousy—she didn’t want another woman in a higher position than herself. Misogyny runs so deep in our culture, perhaps she subconsciously absorbed its values as well.
I began working at fourteen, full time at sixteen. In college, I worked throughout the school year and during every break. I had internships. I had paid jobs. I worked for newspapers and news organizations and nonprofits.
While on the job, I was touched by men: on the wrist, on the shoulder, on the neck, while I was standing, while I was sitting, while I was reading, while I was listening to a speaker. Additionally, at every workplace for the first fifteen or twenty years of my working life, my citizenship was questioned, my ability to speak and write in English, my name, my face, where I was from, where my family was from, where my ancestors were from, even my right to be in this country.
Then I decided to go into academia to teach full time. A white male colleague once chased me down a hallway with his fist raised because I’d dared to turn my back on him while he was talking. I said, “I have work to do,” and walked away. He cut me off at the T-section of the hallway to my office and blocked my path until he’d finished his say, complaining at the top of his lungs about the women in the department. Only when he was finished shouting did he let me return to my office to complete my work.
I’ve had a male boss refer to me as an “it.” During a department meeting, he referred to me as “the diversity hire” and then said, “It was working out well.” I was the only person of color in the department. I was shocked. I said to my colleagues, “This is demeaning. I am a person, not an ‘it.’” The female faculty came to my office, one by one, to apologize privately. The men said nothing. Eventually, the man was voted out as chair, but he remained a full professor with a lighter teaching load than most of the women, including me.
And this doesn’t even cover the way I’ve been harassed off the job, in my private life, since I was fourteen years old and white American veterans first started telling me stories about the Asian prostitutes they’d had sex with overseas; by a male cousin in China who was supposed to be giving me a tour of Beijing and instead wanted me to have sex with him in a hotel; by a white cousin who was hitting on me via gross emails; by an older white woman who felt the need to grab my body from behind; by strange men on buses in every country that I’ve lived in; by Chinese male villagers who once tried to grab me and assault me in a state park; by dates; by men known and unknown to me; by family friends and acquaintances; and on and on. The list could go on for pages, days, years.
I’ve shouted, I’ve filed grievances, I’ve changed jobs, I’ve run as fast as I could, I’ve stood my ground, I’ve screamed, I’ve tried silence, I’ve told friends, relatives, supervisors, authorities, lawyers, I’ve tried ignoring, confronting, and complaining about the person and going about my work, day, business, and life.
What I realize is that I have been reacting to sexual and gender harassment with the tropes of respectability politics—the idea that if only people of color behaved impeccably, dressed impeccably, worked harder, developed thicker skin, etc., then they would not suffer from racism.
In terms of harassment against women, so-called respectability politics will not save us either. It’s not about how we’re dressed or how we speak or how we wear our hair. It’s not about how quickly or slowly we deflect unwanted male attention. The harassment and violence against women do not occur because of something women are doing or not doing. The harassment occurs because our society is inherently misogynistic in every aspect. In our legal system, in our culture, arts communities, education system, religious institutions, medical system, women are second-class citizens.
There need to be consequences for treating women as less than men, for touching our bodies, in the workplace or in public or in private, without our permission, for calling us by demeaning names, for threatening us physically and professionally when we do not obey men’s wishes just because they are men.
At the university where I was physically threatened by the white male colleague who chased me down the hall, I filed a complaint with HR and the Title IX office. I took it seriously when a man raised his fist to me.
My grandmother was a battered wife for all fifty years of her marriage. When she went to the police or the sheriff or the clergy or the neighbors or her own relatives, they did nothing to help her. They said it was her responsibility to help her husband. When my grandfather got into bar fights with other men, however, the police picked him up and brought him in their squad car to my grandmother’s door. “You need to keep a better eye on your husband, Ma’am,” she told me they said, and then she had to deal with my drunken grandfather’s anger herself.
My maternal grandfather raised his fists to his children as well. When my mother was nine, he punched her in the face because she’d made a cake in the oven fall by opening the door to check on it. When she was seventeen, he knocked a tooth out of her mouth because she’d refused to eat the dinner he’d prepared—her younger siblings’ pet rabbits, plucked from their cages and roasted on a platter.
I knew from my grandmother’s and my mother’s stories to take a fist seriously. This was why I was supposed to work and earn my own living—so that I would never have to endure a man’s fists.
A forty-plus-day investigation at the university ensued, and my male colleague was eventually found guilty of having “behaved unprofessionally” towards me. However, I didn’t get so much as an apology, and my colleague went on to get tenure. To protect myself, I left that workplace, taking a job in a safer school where I felt my body would not be violated on a daily basis. I took a cut in pay and delayed my own tenure process by years to do so.
It is this inequity in consequences for harassment of women that must end. So long as men can harass women without consequences, they will continue to do so. For too long, only women have been punished when men choose to harass us. We get paid less, we get promoted less, our ideas are devalued. Complain and we are punished. We get called names. We take the pay cut. We leave the job to protect our bodies. The men move up the chain. Until then, every piece of advice that every mother passed down to her daughter to survive the workplace will just be labeled another old wives’ tale, balm for wounds, useful for removing stains, but inconsequential, like butter on a burn.
May-lee Chai is the author of ten books, including the short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, which won a 2019 American Book Award; memoir Hapa Girl, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book; the novel Tiger Girl, which won an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature; and her original translation from Chinese to English of the 1934 Autobiography of Ba Jin. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University.