Back in 1990 or so I was the Social Coordinator for the New Student Orientation at Marquette University. What that means is I had a responsibility to the wide-eyed new freshmen…to entertain them, to show them a good time during their first week on campus. It was also my job to teach them what it meant to be a Marquette Warrior.
One night that week, I found myself backstage at the Varsity Theater, having just introduced the comedian I had booked for the night. He was getting off to a very choppy start. I was hiding behind the folds of the curtains, peering out at him and wishing he’d get funny quick, or it was going to be my butt for booking an unfunny comedian. He didn’t get funnier. He got rude. He started asking everyone where they were from, like comedians do when they’re bombing. From the balcony, someone yelled out, thick with accent, “Puerto Ricco…!!” (We had a lot of exchange students from there.) He responded, “Who let you in here?” Hyuck hyuck.
My stomach dropped. My face got really hot. “What?” I turned to my assistant, “What did he just say?” And then he said it AGAIN! “Who let you in here?” Then I got pissed. And scared. I had to think fast. What do I do? What do I do? I thought I should contact my adviser; I was only 20 years old at the time, I didn’t know my authority. And then I found it. “Cut the mic!” I said to the technician. “CUT THE MIC!”
I walked out onto that spotlit stage, and had to face the bewildered comedian. To this day, I don’t remember his name, nor can I see his face. I remember his shock. I reached for his mic and told him, “I can’t have you speaking to our students that way.”
I’d ripped a contact lens that day and didn’t have my glasses. I had to turn and face the 200+ new students, blind. I was met with silence. I couldn’t see their faces; didn’t know if they were with me or against me. My hands were shaking as I held the mic. I said to them, “This is not the example we want to give to you, this is not what Marquette is about, it’s not what I’m about.”
I was thanked with a standing ovation. They were with me.
This week, I found myself in the center of a story that hit the front page of the Washington Post. I could casually say that yet another white man had done wrong to a person of color. But I won’t, because that’s not what I’m about. What I will say is that I was in the spotlight once again. I’d been handed a mic and it was on.
You can read about what happened, or watch my edited interview on NBC Nightly News or here on CBS This Morning, you can see what I said about what happened. I don’t need to rehash how I was wronged, or how so many other women were wronged by a man with power who said he wanted to help us. What I want to say here is what got edited out of my interviews:
As women, we’re going to find ourselves in situations where behavior, specifically sexual behavior in a professional setting, crosses the fucking line. This is going to happen; you’re going to find yourself bewildered, scared, confused and shocked…and paralyzed. Maybe for a few seconds, a few months or a few years afterwards. But what you’re going to need to know, and what I’ve learned from this experience, is you gotta know HOW and WHEN to say “NO”.
At my core, I’m a people pleaser. I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. I like to play nice when I should probably stab somebody with a fork. I also believe in the best in people and expect them to treat me with the respect I give them, especially when I’m working. Perhaps this makes me easy to manipulate. When I was being casually manipulated, I wasn’t sure what to do, what to say or how to say it.
“I sacrificed my integrity. I sacrificed who I was as a woman in order to produce a show that I believed in,” Chambers said. -CBS This Morning
Last night, I woke up screaming. I was having a nightmare. I don’t have nightmares, friends. I’d been visiting my father, and it was his frightened yet deep Dad-ly voice saying, “Peppur, Peppur!!” that woke me up in the dead of night. In the dream, an invisible force, a spirit, a ghost held me captive. It had me lifted in the air and was carrying me away. I was screaming, but no one could hear me. But I kept screaming because I knew that was the only way I was going to break free.
When something like what happened happens, ladies, you must find your voice. In the moment. You MUST find the courage to say NO. Whatever that looks and sounds like. You must. Start practicing now, if you must. Do drills with your friends. Practice in all sorts of situations from the “least” offensive to the worst, and find a way. You must. So that you are prepared. Because sexual harassment and beyond is not going to stop. Don’t smile your way through it. Don’t swallow your words. Don’t push down your feelings of shame or fear. Don’t ignore or excuse what just happened. Don’t hush your inner questioning, fuck it, DON’T QUESTION! And then tell someone. Immediately.
This is not easy. But, you’re going to have to do it. For yourself, for other women.
I imagine each of the women involved in what happened with our Hollywood individual found themselves in a moment where they desperately needed to say No, uh-uh, not today, not gonna happen, I don’t need this, I don’t deserve this, I am not the one, are you serious, what, get away from me, stop it, screw you, fuck you, thank you very not, don’t touch me, who do you think you’re talking to, we’re done here, I’m out, shut up, leave me alone, goodbye, get out of my way, yeah…I’m good, no thank you. Only, like me, in the moment, they didn’t know how. You will be different.
This week I came from behind the curtains once again. Sat in the spotlight and spoke. I spoke up not only for us, “The WashPo Nine” (as I call us), but I also finally spoke up for myself. This speaking comes with a price. Believe me.
This morning, my dad called me to see how I was doing, especially after hearing about the victory* that was brought about by my actions and that of my fellow on-the-record fighters**, Tamika Lamison, Letha Remington and Washington Post journalist Tracy Jan. He said, “You know, what you did reminds me of what you did back at Marquette years ago. This is in you.” And then he said, “You’re a Chambers. Never forget that.”
This week, my friends have called me a Shero. A Warrior. I didn’t really think I was one. I was just doing what was necessary. I guess I forgot from where I’ve come. I won’t, ever again.
*Fighting comes at a cost. For the record, I have mixed feelings about the victory. I simply wanted to be heard when asked. I also wanted to speak for those who said they endured worse.
**Whether on the record or not, I think the WashPo Nine are all fighters. They found a way to tell their stories and Tracy told them. That is fighting.