Never Not Be Afraid

My kids and I were watching “The Croods” movie for the millionth time together recently and the line “Never not be afraid” struck me as sadly appropriate for our era. We made jokes about how being in lockdown wasn’t too far off from pretending to be the Croods. How leaving our “cave” equals risking harm. Not wearing a mask is BAD. Going anywhere indoors is BAD. Not using hand sanitizer is BAD.

I rolled the words around in my head after we finished giggling. Never not be afraid. Isn’t that what the headlines are teaching us lately?

Never not be afraid of COVID. Never not be afraid of our planet’s future. Never not be afraid of being of color. Never not be afraid of being a woman.

That ever present fear of violence that most of us women, especially women of color, have come to know as part of our world. It’s in our own homes which made the idea of lockdown a death sentence for some women like Amy-Leanne Stringfellow and the others that never will make the headlines.

The typical fears and precautions espoused to us as women throughout our lives came to mind. The double-standard that these platitudes even existed has enraged me since I was the age of my own children. Be careful walking by yourself. Don’t go out alone at night. Cross the street if someone is suspicious. Some of these seem sensible but I still ask myself the same question since I was a girl, “Why are we expected to worry about such things? Why do I need to worry about them at all but boys aren’t expected to?”

From an early age, as women, we learn that we’re responsible for not becoming victims. The implication being that if we’re victimized it’s somehow our fault. Be nice, be careful, don’t dress provocatively, don’t anger anyone. Yet men are raised with the expectation of being brave and strong and if they behave aggressively it is forgiven within reason as long as it is to protect somone or a part of team sports. Who decides this? Why do we continue to teach these inequalities to our children?

My introduction into needing to remain vigilant of my safety as I entered womanhood started with my mother sharing one of her many horrifying accounts of violence perpetrated towards her as a teenager. She was driving as she recounted the tale to me and wouldn’t make eye contact as she shared with her then thirteen-year-old daughter the dangers of being a woman. You see I had just gotten my period for the first time the month before and I could sense that she was nervous as she explained to me that I needed to be more aware, afraid, of any males around me. That she had noticed them looking at me and that I would need to be careful from now on. Especially growing up in rural Oregon where women disappeared without any mention in the news. I knew what she meant and I held that fear within me far before she ever told me her stories.

Yet her stories continued as I grew and I was told many times that parties were dangerous and an invitation to being raped. Always watch your cup, never drink alcohol, and if you get drunk you’ll be a target. She told me about attending a frat party and being tricked into going upstairs. She jumped off the roof to avoid being raped as she was chased. She was only 18. Her family forced her to leave that college and change to a city college where they could keep a closer eye on her. Originally she had been offered a scholarship to Stanford but they made her turn that down as well because they were afraid of her being involved in the student protests. My takeaway was that my grandparents sucked, fraternities sucked, that my mom had a hard life, and that nothing was fair in this world. She wanted to protect me from the violence of men but unfortunately that vigilance created in me a more generalized skepticism and resentment of the world by the time I reached high school.

Why did I need to be paranoid? Why couldn’t men be decent human beings? Was I supposed to live my entire life in fear of men and conform in my behavior to avoid male aggression or judgement? In my mother’s opinion, yes. Blame it on how she was raised, her generation, or the many years of abuse she endured but that was the clear message. She wanted me to be safe. Life wasn’t fair but that was how it was and I needed to learn that.

As I became a mother myself, I told myself I would not perpetuate the double-standard and that I wouldn’t scare my kids into being afraid to live just because of their gender despite any trauma I’ve endured in my life as well. Yet that’s easier said than lived when the realities of parenthood come about. I’m raising individuals after all, not vehicles for my own politics. Any preconceived notions of how you’ll respond to hard questions and events suddenly change when you’re comforting your child from a bully, being discluded, or worse.

I hope these stereotypes are changing. That the generations to come learn, and retain, governance of their own bodies and the gender specific tropes of the past remain there. That violence of any kind isn’t tolerated yet all current signs point to that not being likely. The recent, and much talked about, reminder being the murder of Gabby Petito yet for all of the attention her case has received there’s so many more like hers that occur daily without notice.

The media treat the murder of women as fodder for their own reality show and women are ranked as news worthy based on race and socioeconomic status. Missing white women are headline makers but women of color, especially indigenous women, are rarely mentioned and ten times more likely to be targeted as are all women of color.

“Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, said that her heart goes out to Petito’s family, but that she also grieves for “so many Indigenous women″ whose families have endured similar heartache “for the last 500 years.″”

How much can we shelter our children from the violence in the world from touching their lives? That’s one of the many terrors we carry with us as parents because the simple answer is that we can’t. Like swatting away an airborne illness, it’s impossible. We can only empower them with knowledge and skills to protect themselves but where is the balance between overwhelming them with fear and a safe dose of awareness? Whether we’re discussing “stranger danger”, governance of your body, or the current pandemic; where do we draw the line on what we can prepare them for?

Today I talked to the kids about the myths that were used to create the Thanksgiving holiday and why it’s so significant that our president recognized Indigenous Peoples Day to be celebrated today. That it was a sign of change being possible and that we could fix the wrongs of the world but it takes far more effort to do so than to carry on and ignore them. That the violence towards our people, and especially women, continues and that it’s their job to question the world and what is presented as facts in our history.

“Can we celebrate Festivus instead of Thanksgiving again this year?”

I sighed and chuckled, “The weekend after, yes, but that day is the Day of Mourning for our people.”

They both looked lost in their thoughts. My son perked up, “Can we mourn grandma and Simone too?” (Simone was our family cat.)

“Yes, we can mourn and celebrate their lives that day.”

They both were silent once again, “Can we have pie?”

At least I know I haven’t totally jaded them yet.

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