by Tessara Dudley
There is a belief that women face more danger when traveling than men do, and that we must take extra steps to ensure our safety. Women are generally viewed as more vulnerable, and cautioned to be particularly careful, lest a stranger victimize us somehow.
Yet when I travel, I feel freer. The idea that I won’t see most of the people I interact with again is a comforting one, especially if I do have an unpleasant encounter. And since most of my traveling is for conferences or work events, the chances someone will miss me if I get into serious trouble are pretty high. While in transit, I live-blog my progress—a request from my mother a few years back—but I don’t consider it for my own safety so much as for my friends and family members’ peace of mind.
Honestly, I can’t recall ever having a significant moment of danger while traveling.
The truth is, I fear for my safety far more in the city I live in than I do when I leave it. Portland is not exactly the crime capital of the country, but I am very aware of the fact that I’m not safe here.
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In America, we’ve constructed this cultural narrative of “stranger danger,” teaching our children (especially girls) not to trust strangers, ignoring the fact that they and the women they will grow into are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a partner, friend, or family member than by a stranger. In fact, 73% of sexual assaults are committed by non-strangers. Mine were: each of the men who have sexually assaulted me were friends or partners of friends; none of them were strangers.
Still, I’ve had plenty of scary moments with strangers, all of them in my city. I’ve been shouted at from passing cars, had men follow me in cars when I jogged at night. Once, I was biking home from the train, and a group of frat boys in a truck turned off their lights and drove up behind me really quietly, so they could startle me by flashing the lights on and honking the horn right behind me, and then speed off laughing. When I was 20, I was followed into an all-night diner at 3 in the morning by a man I didn’t know, who put his arm around my waist and started whispering in my ear about all of the sexual things he wanted to do to me right there on the diner floor.
I was once sexually harassed and physically assaulted during rush hour for 25 minutes straight while a carful of strangers watched uncomfortably, none of them calling the train operator, none of them speaking in my defense. (The most agonizing part of that incident for me was at the 20 minute mark: the man harassing me said something rude to the White woman sitting on my other side, and a young White man I’d made eye contact with more than once said firmly, “Hey, you leave her alone.” The older man complied, returning to harassing only me. There were no further intervention attempts made, by anyone.)
Part of why these incidents are so scary is the White supremacist vibe that Portland oozes. My partner texted me last year while I was on campus to make sure I was safe. When I asked what was up, they replied that the news had reported the arrest of half a dozen neo-Nazis 4 blocks away from our apartment. This year, the FBI worked in collaboration with local police departments to pull off an operation resulting in the arrest of 54 White supremacists across the state, many of them in Portland.
And the police themselves have a bad reputation among people of color, and a history of wrongfully shooting Black men and women. The Portland Police just settled with a Captain in their vice squad who sued them for pay he missed when they put him on leave after he dedicated a display to several Nazis in a state park. Queer women I know have been harassed by cops while driving in Tigard; I get followed in Lake Oswego; friends have been ticketed while walking in Portland. It’s a hostile place to live—leaving is almost a relief.
Returning to Portland from a recent trip to DC for a student leadership summit, it occurred to me that I was scared of the group of people waiting nearby for the train into the city. Riding the Metro in DC, I had been distantly aware of the comfort I felt at being surrounded by other people of color, other Black people. Returning home, I felt bereft at once more being in a city with only 4% Black people.
Here in Portland, the last seat on the bus to fill up is often the one next to me—unless there’s a darker-skinned Black person on the same train. I’ve been called racial slurs on transit. One woman was so disgusted when I got on at the same time as another Black woman that she called us a slur and made her boyfriend get off with her to wait the 20 minutes until the next bus. A friend of mine was followed onto the tram by a woman who screamed at her and pulled her hair. Another friend reported a bus driver harassing a trio of Black teens trying to get on the bus.
No one ever speaks up in defense of us. This place has a reputation for being an ultra-liberal bastion of acceptance, but that’s not a reality: what is a reality is the inhumanity people of color are faced with.
Yet, when I tell these stories to white people, especially white men, who live here, I’m often faced with a blank stare. We live and move through the world in such vastly different ways that they often have trouble absorbing my experience. The reality of living in Portland is that the White people living here think there’s nothing wrong, while people of color are harassed and assaulted every day. The liberal white residents casually refer to the racist South and “flyover country”, while they are truly no better than anywhere else in the country. They’ve bought the lie about Portland being a utopia, and it keeps them from realizing they’re exactly the same as the people they revile.
The reason I fear Portlanders more than the strangers I meet while traveling is that I will never see those strangers again, but Portland is a small place; I’ll see the same people who refused to defend me against a racist attack during next week’s commute, and I’ll know that they still think of themselves as not racist. In their hearts, they believe they are good people, even allies. But they’re not, because I know they don’t think my humanity is worth defending.
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Tessara is a poet and educator dedicated to community support and using the sharing of stories to change minds and change the world. Tessara coordinates their university’s LGBTQ Speakers Bureau and brings an intersectional lens to all of their work. Tessara currently lives in Portland, OR.