I bit my fingers as I approached my uncle’s house and knocked on his door. “I’m sorry I got my cousin drunk,” I forced out, refusing to meet his burning gaze. He nodded and replied, “None of you should have drank. Good girls don’t do that kind of stuff.” My face reddened as my jaw clenched. I could not stand hearing his sexist lecture, but I kept myself from calling him out and said, “It won’t happen again.”
I knew that if I were a guy, my dad and uncle wouldn’t be as disappointed — boys were expected to act out. But because girls were supposed to be well-behaved, I was judged for drinking. I wasn’t expected to question the men in my family even though they enforced rules that were sexist and unfair.
Throughout my life, my family expected me to be compliant to their sexist ideologies. For instance, they would restrict my body language. Whenever I sat with my legs uncrossed at family dinners, my mom would scornfully say, “Women don’t spread their legs, only men do.” Frustrated, I’d cross my legs to appease her and uncross them when she wasn’t looking.
Aside from my family, other authority figures also enforced sexist ideals on me. While living in Mexico and attending Catholic school, I was constantly told to act like a “señorita” — meaning I had to adhere to the gender binary that presupposes women as submissive and polite. When I played sports, the nuns would sternly chastise me: “Stop playing! You’re wearing a skirt! You should be ashamed of showing too much skin.”
But as a college student, I started realizing that I didn’t have to conform to these outdated and restrictive ideas of gender. When I got to community college, I saw women challenging the patriarchy in ways as subtle as speaking with a low-pitched voice instead of in an innocent, high pitched voice.
While attending my first class, I heard my female professor talk with a deep and stern voice. I was confused because I was used to women having bubbly, high-pitched voices.
After class, I turned to my friend and said “Women in the U.S. are so rude and serious.”
She nodded in agreement. As international students, we both were surprised to hear women speak with a low-pitched voice.
When I came to UC Berkeley, I truly started to unlearn the toxic expectations society placed on me as a woman.
During my first days at UC Berkeley, I decided to attend a conference about women empowerment to learn more about resisting the patriarchy. One of the speaker’s statements struck me —“We need to raise our voices and not let them be silenced!”
Hearing such a strong and empowering statement made me question the expectations my community and family had for me all my life. I had always been expected to smile and be accomodationg to the people around me. But I never questioned those attitudes. On the contrary, I thought they were good qualities to have.
But as I walked out of the conference, I couldn’t help but think about the consequences of my compliance to gender expectations. This attitude led people to dismiss me for my tone, body language or mannerisms. Meanwhile, my males counterparts were not subject to any sort of expectations.
The conference led me to question the other habits I had developed in order to seem more “ladylike.” For example, saying “sorry” to white guys when they bumped into me. All my life, I thought it was polite to move when someone was walking toward me, even if I was on that side of the street first. I decided to perform an experiment, wondering what would happen if the next time I was walking, I didn’t move if a man got in my way. Would they move first?
I decided to test my theory out as I was walking to school one day and saw two guys walking toward me. Both of them were taking up too much of the sidewalk space. As they approached, I suppressed my instinct to move and thought, “This is it.” The guy that was walking toward me didn’t even notice me and stumbled before he was about to bump into me. “OH!” he exclaimed. I ignored him and kept walking feeling annoyed by his entitlement.
This experiment made me realize that I had been playing into the white patriarchy. Every time I moved so a white male could pass, I was being subordinated. I realized that I needed to be more assertive in both my actions and my speech, even if women who appeared confident were criticized for appearing “too aggressive.” Especially women of color, who are not only subjects of sexism, but also racism.
I now put conscious effort into decolonizing myself by challenging gender binary expectations. Even though I sometimes catch myself saying sorry when I shouldn’t, speaking too softly, or moving to the side to let men pass, I am self-conscious of those actions. I’m not afraid to defy expectations of women anymore and to carry myself in any way I choose.
Lupita Lua writes the Friday blog on unlearning white supremacy and decolonizing aspects of her life. Contact her at [email protected].