“The people who know me and love me believe me when I tell them about the racism I’ve experienced. But those same people who know me and love me, do not believe me when I tell them about the sexism I’ve experienced.”
— The Nigerian-born novelist, and MacArthur grant recipient, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
This is a startling comment that raises the question: Why? Why isn’t she believed when the issue is sexism? Why isn’t she a credible witness to her own experience? Why the resistance?
I’ve found similar disbelief among “those who know and love me.” My father was a devoted family man — responsible, constant, a good provider. He was raised, along with his brothers, by a working mother, and he supported my mother’s desire to work. He treated my sister and me no differently than he treated my brothers.
Yet he didn’t believe me when I told him about my experience being harassed by strange men.
During my almost 15 years living in New York City, where I moved as a young woman shortly after college, I was followed, grabbed, touched, hollered at, rubbed up against and masturbated to. It didn’t happen every day, but it occurred with enough regularity to keep me on high alert whenever I left my apartment.
On one of my visits home to Baltimore, my father noticed I had recently started to dress down: always pants, hiking boots, and big loose jackets. I explained to him it was my attempt to be invisible, not to attract harassment, and I told him about the challenges I faced simply walking down a street alone. I didn’t want him to worry, so I was careful not to share the most egregious details. I told him the experience was both ordinary and traumatizing and that I changed my behavior in anticipation of its possibility. He shook his head dismissively, not believing me, and told me all these instances couldn’t have happened. I was stunned.
So I told him about a recent incident: I was walking down busy 52nd Street, through a lunchtime crowd, when a man going in the opposite direction abruptly grabbed my thigh. I flinched, pulled away. As my assailant passed, he turned and smirked at me, the kind of sick smile I’d seen many times before from strange men who knew they got away with assault.
My father responded emphatically: “Men don’t do those kinds of things.” I countered, yes they do, and I should know since it happened to me.
I was flabbergasted. Had his experience in the world as a man made it impossible for him to imagine that my experience might be different from his? When I realized there was no convincing him, I was simply hurt.
The most generous interpretation of my father’s disbelief is that he was in denial. He couldn’t bear hearing that his own daughter had been assaulted. He couldn’t bear to accept a reality that left him unable to protect me. So he decided it didn’t happen.
There’s another interpretation: Notwithstanding my father’s bona fides as a decent man, he lives in a world inundated with patriarchal values, where a women’s credibility is questioned, particularly when women accuse men of bad behavior.
I’ve told other men about similar experiences. Some believe me. Some don’t. Many expect me to prove it, implying they are the guardians of objective reality while I am not.
Human rights for women are near impossible to assert without first asserting women's reality.
If you have to argue for what you’ve experienced, if you have to prove it over and over again, if your experience in the world is never a settled issue but up for male adjudication, then how can any woman ever expect full human rights?
Years later, when my father was in his 70s, he took me aside on one visit. He had something important to tell me. He had been spending a lot of time sitting in malls, waiting for his girlfriend as she shopped. During which he observed on a regular basis teenage boys harassing teenage girls. He confessed that he now understood the kind of harassment girls and women deal with. I was touched that he remembered our discussion from years ago and that he wanted to let me know he now believed me. But it was lost on him when I pointed out that he only believed me after he saw harassment with his own eyes and that my testimony alone wasn’t enough.
I asked him “If my own father, who loves and knows me, didn’t believe me, then who will? He didn’t have an answer. And neither did I.
Gay Walch (email@example.com) is the author, most recently, of the play “The End of Sex (Or What’s Wrong With Mom)”.