Power From My People

Power From My People

by Sabrina Margarita Alcantara

When sexual harassment turns racist, I summon up ancestral resistance.

I’ve had my share of put-downs on the streets. Sometimes I can tell it’s on account of what race the perpetrators think I am (“Hey, chink! Don’t you have dogs where you come from? Oh, that’s right, you eat them!” “Love them chinas!”). Sometimes I know it’s happening because I’m a woman (“Oooh, love them legs!” “I’d love to put you between two pieces of bread and lick in between!”). At other times it’s because they’re provoked by my tattoos, piercings, and/or what I’m wearing (catcalls and lots of grabbing.) And sometimes it’s because I’m hugging my girlfriend’s waist while strolling down the street (“Why? Can’t you get yourself a guy?”).

It gets on my nerves to the extent that I just wanna box their ears!

Knowing that I could kill someone
if I wanted to, the way I approach
scumbags on the street has changed.
I don’t feel so powerless anymore.

I come from Filipino/Spanish/Irish/Chinese ancestry. I discovered at an early age that people like to categorize and put your ethnic background/sexual orientation/class strata into neat little boxes so that they can say to themselves, “Oh yeah, those stereotypes were right!” And they never think that maybe the people at the other end really don’t give a flying fuck that they don’t fit perfectly into the molds that other people set for them.

It’s seemingly more acceptable for guys to harass women like me from nonwhite or nontypical backgrounds. They figure that I don’t look “white enough”; so it’s easier for men, from various backgrounds themselves, to attempt to perpetrate verbal and physical bullshit onto me — ranging from grabbing my thigh while I’m walking past them to hurling obscenities. I’m convinced that it’s because I remind them of some femme/dyke/Asian please-let-me-submit-my-little-flower-ass-to-you “mystique” that I tend to become a magnet for strange men with power trips who want to test my limits and see how far they can go.

As a “woman of color” myself, I try to make sure I’m not harboring some kind of racism in my own head, but one day I just decided to start tallying the kinds of guys who would bother me. I found that although men of all different colors harass women, the majority harassing me were Black and Hispanic.

When white men attack me, it’s usually when they’re hanging outside with their buddies and holding beers in their hands in front of a deli. Or maybe they’re construction workers doing a job when I pass by on my way to work.

Guys of Asian descent might look at me a lot, but nothing that makes my temper flare. Coming from an Asian background, I think it stems from the fact that (older) Asian men are cultured to not say very much, not be physically demonstrative, or not bother women they don’t know. Younger Asians hardly ever bother me, probably because they know where I’m coming from, and they know, from their experience, that Asians tend to be easier targets than most minorities — probably because some may not look like they’re “from the hood” or are not looked on as a force to be reckoned with in a street confrontation.

But where I live it seems more culturally acceptable for Black and Hispanic men to be vocal and physical. These are the homeboys (usually young, and usually Black and Latino) who run with a barcada (the guyfriends they hang with) and want to impress their mates with their prowess at how they handle the girls.

The same is true for men of all races, of course, when they’re hanging outside a bar, at a party, or on the street with their male friends. But when they’re alone, it’s a different story: White men never approach me, unless they’re nuts, but Black and Latino guys will still attempt to victimize me — and on a much quieter level, with much more subtlety. The loud voices that everyone could hear when they were with their barcada become mumbling under their breath as they pass my shoulder, and it is only men who are alone who grab my thighs or arms. This is more frightening, because the action is more personal and the intrusion into my space more invasive, more disturbing than catcalls from a distance. When I realize these guys have the balls to do this, it sometimes catches me off guard, and reminds me to be on it more so than usual.

Generally I don’t care what color the guy is; I just lump them all into the same stew of bad eggs that have a problem with their machismo. Before, I used to have such uncontrollable rage toward guys who would violate my space and body and my state of mind that I would actually take them on physically and attack back without hesitation. There was one time when someone was blasting insults at my parents… I just saw red and blanked out awareness of what I was doing; then next thing I know my mom’s pulling me off the guy. Afterward she told me I had punched him. I didn’t even know it! It was at that time I realized I had to get a grip.

I had to learn how to choose my battles. And I had to arm myself in case a confrontation got ugly.

I used to think that martial arts and defensive techniques were singular to the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. But then I found out that Filipinos had their own martial arts — and I was ecstatic.

There are many forms of Filipino martial arts. Some are called Kali, Escrima, Arnis, Kuntaw, Silat. The art I study is called Pananandata, or Filipino Weapon Fighting. I scoured New York to find a good teacher. Thankfully I didn’t have too look far; I had a friend who was studying with “the Professor,” or Po, as I call him (Po is a term of respect when addressing an older Filipino/a). The simple moves he taught me can deliver fatal blows. Some techniques he showed me didn’t seem all that powerful at first, but when I practiced on him and he demonstrated on me, I found out that people are not as physically impenetrable as I thought. Up until then, I assumed that “if the guy’s bigger than me, forget it!” But through the Art, along with some moves borrowed from Aikido and other forms, Po taught me that I don’t have to be gigantic to make an impact. Today, using simple objects that I carry on me regularly, I can directly incapacitate someone who attacks me.

Filipino Weapon Fighting has become my mode of self-defense, and knowing its history makes it even more empowering. Filipino martial arts stem from a form early Filipinos taught themselves, mixed in with Malay and Indonesian styles, and involves lots of sword fighting. Because this fighting style is fierce, many colonizers who came to conquer the Islands found themselves surprised at the Filipinos’ brutal prowess. The countries whose goals were to acquire the Philippines did so, but only after they lost much of their army to ugly deaths.

I have often dreamt of using this ancestral knowledge to off many a sexist/racist/homophobic jerk on the street. But knowing that I could kill someone if I wanted to, I have found that the way I approach scumbags on the street has changed. I don’t feel so powerless anymore — not only because I have the power to do something so extreme but also because I have choices: I have the choice to educate if a stranger genuinely seems innocently ignorant, or to blow off a person’s hatred and misunderstanding so I don’t waste my time, or to defend myself. Either way, I don’t feel as powerless.

Feeling victimized is so easy if you don’t know what to do about a situation, and if you allow yourself to be talked to in a certain way without responding back with an “I don’t appreciate that,” “Stop it!,” grabbing that guy’s hand on your thigh and twisting his wrist the wrong way (outward), or, if you have to, scratching his eyes out. It’s important to realize that you can defend yourself with everyday things like pens, bags, books, or those chain wallets that us kids wear nowadays (a favorite with my teacher). And it’s important to voice out against the behavior itself, loud enough to embarrass the perpetrator if you can. Nothing is worse for a guy than having a woman publicly humiliate him on the street — most men don’t expect to be called on their shenanigans.

Sometimes it almost scares me, realizing that my ancestors’ knowledge can actually extinguish a life. It’s a really big responsibility, and I’m in no position to play God(dess). My temper is still mighty quick, and I often find myself locking horns with men who are taken aback at my gall to actually take a stand for myself.

As many times as I’ve been attacked on the street, I’m always aghast and surprised while it’s happening. I hardly have any time to figure out exactly if it’s because I’m a woman, a person of color, queer, or all of the above. But I have to act quickly, and realize that hate is hate and most perpetrators are purely on power trips to constantly assess their manhood.

Thanks to Po and my people’s fierce resistance, I’m prepared.

SABRINA MARGARITA ALCANTARA writes a zine called Bamboo Girl (PO Box 2828, New York, NY 10185-2828) under the pen name Sabrina Sandata.