Just a few years ago, I was a sophomore in college and working at an on-campus student resource center. To this day it was the best job I’ve ever had. I loved my boss, the laidback environment, and getting to help students who were struggling with academics.
My coworkers seemed pretty cool too. Overall, in the microcosm that was this intimate, tight-knit workplace, I felt I belonged. I felt my coworkers, my boss, and the students I served had my back. After all, we were all striving for the same thing, going through the same grind, and leaning on each other for support and understanding.
In the end, I was wrong, and it took a real threat to my personal safety and security to open my eyes to the evolution that was happening, not just on my campus, but on campuses across the nation — an evolution in the minds of people my own age that meant this personal threat went disregarded by my peers because of an unrelated reason.
Stalked by a Fellow Student
I’ve said these words many times — to my friends, family, and several therapists — but I’ve never written them. While this whole process is meant to be cathartic for me, it still stirs uncertainty around in the pit of my stomach. The fear of being dismissed or ignored. Or not believed.
He was a non-traditional student, meaning he was several years older than the other students in his class. He had a habit of writing extremely profane and sexually suggestive and inappropriate things (I tutored in English, meaning I was reading all of his writing and composition assignments), but I wrote it off half-heartedly as his personal interpretation of whatever text he was prompted to cover.
Things didn’t start to cause me concern until I noticed he was scheduling appointments with me every night in the last possible time slot, even when there were tons of open spots available earlier. He sat next to me and never across the table, so I was boxed in and had to pass him to get up. He started to linger as I cleaned up and closed up for the day. I lived less than half a mile away and would walk immediately home after my shift ended. We walked out of the building together regularly, and I was aware he could see the exact direction I was going in. He came early for our appointments and waited afterward for me to lock up.
The guy came in, demanding to know where I was at that moment and getting increasingly loud and violent.
He asked about my personal life, my family, and my boyfriend. He asked if he could stay after we closed. If I was available every single day. If he could walk me home. He asked if he could have my phone number. I declined as politely as I could, and inconceivably almost, I almost felt bad for saying no.
One day, a coworker texted me. I wasn’t due to start my shift for another few hours, but my coworker said the guy had come in, demanding to know where I was. Demanding to know my class schedule and where I was at that moment. Asking why I wasn’t there. Getting increasingly loud, angry, and violent every time my coworker explained I wasn’t there.
All I remember afterward was wanting to get out of my skin, escape my body in any way I could. My chest felt tight and I couldn’t breathe. I was sobbing uncontrollably, barely breathing, shaking, sweating. It was the first panic attack I had ever had but not the last.
My Coworkers Discounted the Seriousness of the Situation
I called off work for the next week. The student was angry; he emailed me wanting to know why I had canceled on him and where I was. I didn’t respond. I didn’t want anyone to know. I was embarrassed, for whatever reason. I begrudgingly called my parents and, at the risk of making them worry, explained the situation as calmly as I possibly could. They urged me to come home, and I didn’t — I just wanted things to go back to normal, even though there wasn’t a chance of that happening.
I went back and forth obsessively about going to campus police, but I ultimately didn’t end up filing anything. I thought ignoring it would make it go away. I wanted to downplay the entire thing, minimize it as much as possible, and by doing so I harmed myself more in the process.
The week I went back into work, though, there was a tangible shift in the air. Things seemed different, like the rules had changed and no one had bothered to tell me and people who were previously friendly to me no longer had the time. I stopped to thank a coworker who had taken the majority of my shifts the weeks I had been out. We inevitably arrived at why I had been out — it was an open secret by that time — and I commented on the perceived coldness I was receiving from almost everyone, to which she replied calmly, “Yeah. We pretty much just thought you were a racist.”
I was accused of racial profiling because the guy who made me concerned for my safety happened to be black.
More than anything, I was stunned. It was a word I’d obviously heard many times before but never directed towards me. I already thought I was overreacting. Now I was essentially being accused of racial profiling because the guy who made me concerned for my safety happened to be African-American.
To them, the whole incident was an inconvenience. Not only that, one they’d picked up the slack for and all because I’d tricked myself into making more of a bigger deal out of it because the student was black — even though I’d worked with literally hundreds of black students before.
To me, it was stupidly simple. Because I’d had the same thing happen to me before, during my junior year of high school. That guy was white, though I never thought in either instance that race was supposed to play a part in any of it at all.
Race Is Not Part of This Equation
I have to admit that even now, years later, I’m still more confused than anything else. Before the conversation on race in America exploded into what it is now, people were congratulated for supposedly “not seeing race” or being “colorblind.” Now it’s a crime against the progressive social contract to admit such a thing. Failing to acknowledge race and the way it permeates every single facet of modern life is unacceptable. Not having race in our minds at all times and letting it dictate our every decision, as is the essential thesis of Robin DiAngelo’s popular White Fragility narrative, is unacceptable.
Now it’s a crime against the progressive social contract to admit to “not seeing race.”
My coworkers who had arrived at this conclusion about the incident were basically ahead of the curve. They’d adapted these mindsets before they became mainstream. The end result for me was complex. I wasn’t angry or sad. I only started to wish that I had never told anyone at all.
I know there are some people out there who would argue that my coworkers were right. But I never compulsively reminded myself that I was white and he wasn’t when I went on to have panic attacks at Walmart. At the library. In class and in doctors’ offices. When I began to have night terrors and insomnia and my hair started falling out from stress. All I could think about was that everything that had happened to me was my fault, and I still feel that way even now.
Millions of women out there have gone through what I have, and worse. There isn’t any comfort to me in that though, or any sense of closure or finality. I feel I was robbed of that kind of validation the moment I wasn’t taken seriously.
I don’t think I’ll ever understand why I was given that kind of criticism and judgment, which seemed at best simply misguided and at worse intentionally malicious. But what I do know is that now, I would advise any woman not to think they’re grossly misjudging their own natural instincts because of what a perpetrator may look like.
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