Heading to the Walmart in the rain that had been falling on Mississippi since the early morning, my only thought was to get inside so my best friend and I could do our grocery shopping. My fingers, chilled to the bones, ached around my umbrella’s handle, and I wondered if the cold would start up the pain in my joints that visited with every drop in temperature. With all of this on my mind I was mildly irritated to find a man blocking the entrance with his shopping cart from the inside of the store.
The man, somewhat advanced in years and wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, stood just far enough from the doors so as not to trigger them into opening but just close enough that I felt nervous approaching.
My worries peaked when the doors slid apart and he held up his hand. I really did not want to deal with any harassment right now, especially with how cold I was.
“Stop,” he said, a telling Southern accent crackling along his voice. “Only girls allowed.”
The tendons in my neck tightened, but I resisted the urge to swear at him and brush past. I knew from experience that old Southern “gentlemen” typically had tempers as long as fishing hook. Instead I worked at keeping my face neutral while my friend laughed in clear discomfort.
He laughed then, as if it were all some cute joke. Dropping his hand like he had suddenly become gracious enough to allow us to enter the store, he looked away.
We passed, and now I permitted myself an anger-filled swear under my breath.
I have become accustomed to people mistakenly addressing me by male pronouns because of my short hair and tendency to wear jackets that disguise my chest. I have been called “gentleman,” “son,” and “young man,” on several occasions, and each time it has stung for only a second before I convinced myself to laugh it off.
This time, however, I was not going to laugh.
Let’s break down exactly what happened here.
- I was in a hurry to get inside because of the rain and the cold.
- This man, for whatever reason, thought it appropriate to stand partially blocking the entrance with his cart.
- I, as an educated woman, was nervous about finding my path to warmth and shelter blocked by a strange man.
- He insisted I stop my progress because he apparently wanted to inform me of something.
- I, without thinking, did as he said since he was a man, and an older man at that (respect your elders, right?).
- While I stood half in the rain, this man proceeded to tell me that “only girls” were allowed in the store (apparently he owns Walmart and gets to decide who can and cannot enter).
- He looked directly at me when he said this, which I can only take to mean that he was mocking my short hair, a typically masculine feature.
- He thought it was appropriate to joke about me not being a girl (which I am not since I am a woman, but that’s beside the point).
- I did not talk back.
- I did not tell him his comment was rude and not appreciated.
- I did not make any sign that I wasn’t pleased other than a restrained glare.
- He laughed, clearly amused at either his comedic genius or my discomfort.
- I passed in silence, only expressing my anger when he was out of earshot.
This is the problem with sexism. Normally, I have a retort ready for classroom situations and other possible events, but sexism does not wait for you to have your powerful speech ready. It doesn’t even wait for you to get comfortable. It comes when you’re in a hurry, flustered, tired, upset, or otherwise ruffled. And it catches you off guard because you really aren’t expecting or wanting to deal with sexism on top of everything else you have to deal with (since you’re a fully fleshed human being with a life and personality outside of what sexist strangers think of you, but you wouldn’t think that for how they treat you).
If I could go back in time and redo that event, I would clearly and calmly tell that man just what I thought of him, expletives included. I don’t care how old you are. You do not get a pass on sexism and rude jokes made about someone’s appearance. That man did not know the insecurities I have had to face since cutting my hair so long ago. He didn’t know about all the snide comments people thought were okay to make about how I looked like a guy or a lesbian.
But, you know, even if he did know, I don’t think he would have cared.