Standing up for another woman is an act that serves all women. But sometimes the most meaningful consequence is a new bond that can last a lifetime.
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Last July, I drove down from bustling Los Angeles to sleepy—and very white—Carlsbad, on assignment. I was hired to record a Black man’s life story and was chosen because I’m half-Black. I had some time to kill before the interview, so I stopped in the local Starbucks, ready to plop myself down for an hour of exhaustion and relative boredom.
Not long after I set down my coffee and pulled out my laptop, a white woman sitting at a table in front of me asked a white man at the next table to watch her purse. Such exchanges are par for the course in coffee shops, and I have yet to see someone decline. However, this middle-aged man with a weathered tan pursed his lips, put two fingers up to them, and said, “It’ll cost you.”
The young woman, Gabrielle, shot back, “Really? You had to make it sexual? That was really inappropriate.”
The altercation could have ended right there, but the man’s aggression began to build, I believe because he felt rejected by this stranger, in a way that Commander Fred Waterford of The Handmaid’s Tale would have found morally unacceptable. The man accused Gabrielle of overreacting and misinterpreting his response. At that moment, I spoke up from simple reflex: “No, I saw it too.”
Harassment is, unfortunately, an everyday occurrence, and many strangers continue on instead of inserting themselves into an uncomfortable conversation. I hadn’t done—or even said—anything radical, but even simple acts of solidarity can result in quick friendships with lasting bonds. It could easily have been me who asked the man to watch my bag. I felt Gabrielle’s shaken response as my own, just as I would of anyone in a minority position whose voice is challenged when speaking out.
On April 12, 2018, eight police officers arrested two Black men for sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks without yet ordering. Michelle Saahene, a young Black woman, spoke up in the strangers’ defense but was ignored. That’s when Italian Catholic Melissa DePino added her voice to the dissension. “It was just sort of a visceral reaction,” she told me in a phone interview. “Honestly, I’d never really spoken up like that in my life.”
My standing up for Gabrielle had also been visceral. To me, the incident was clear: He was in the wrong, she was in the right, and my voice made it two against one.
Gabrielle thanked me, then quickly picked up her bag and left.
“I was only going ‘Hmm…’” the man said to me from across the room. “I was trying to think of what she could buy me, like a cup of tea.”
“Okay, whatever,” I shot back.
He retorted with classic toxic masculinity by denying my femininity, sexuality, and experience: “You’re obviously immature and have no experience with men.”
I’ve been married and divorced, I could have said. I’ve had a few boyfriends. But I knew there was no point.
Likewise, Melissa’s amplification in response to the arrests of the Black patrons did not stop them from happening. But Michelle recorded the arrests and Melissa posted it on Twitter before they went their separate ways.
Just like Melissa, I didn’t defend Gabrielle with any ulterior motive. When she left the coffee shop, I didn’t expect to see her again. But she returned just a few minutes later. I could almost see her metal armor.
She tried to reason with the man, hoping he could take the altercation as a learning experience.
“Don’t bother,” I said, trying to spare her the labor. “He doesn’t want to understand.”
The stranger then called Gabrielle an assortment of names—again, classic toxic definitions of perceived feminine faults—stupid, liar, crazy. His body faced hers. He outstretched his arms toward her in indignation. He stared her down, and his voice continued to amplify.
Gabrielle approached the register. A man, who I later learned was the manager, walked toward the stranger.
The stranger got up and left the coffee shop, continuing to spout epithets as he made his way out the door. “You have a condition! You’re hallucinating!” The stereotypical responses by this time were just pathetic, and it turns out Gabrielle looks just as young for her age as I do, making his verbal assault even more revolting.
I wanted to jump up and hug Gabrielle. Visibly unsettled, she returned to her seat but almost immediately got back up, came over to my table, and asked if she could join me. She took a risk on female friendship with a complete stranger, just as I had taken what could be considered a risk in defending her. We talked for the rest of my free hour. She told me about men aggressively following her car down dark roads while verbally attacking her and trying to physically attack her as well. She told me about ending an afternoon of surfing to find a man with a hoodie running toward her at full speed. She ran to the only couple left on the beach, and the man then ran the other way. The police accosted him soon after her phone call and found he had priors on his record.
“It’s ‘bro’ culture,” she told me. “[Surfing] is a toxic industry with horrible orientations towards women.” And surfing is popular in this coastal town with ample beachfront and inviting waves. Gabrielle further explained that the names of the contests themselves— such as “Bro Am,” which takes place in nearby San Diego— are openly sexist. She notes that women across the globe are fighting sexism in surf culture, however, just as they are in other male-centric sports.
Though Gabrielle’s harrowing chase was recent, I told her about my two childhood brushes with kidnapping— both involving strangers with cars— but we bonded over more than just escaping male aggression. We gingerly discovered we were both recovering fundamentalist Christians, as well as self-employed, grad school graduates. Gabrielle and I met the next day before I headed home. Again, our conversation flowed naturally, and four hours whisked by in the space of what felt like minutes.
The day after the arrests at the Philly Starbucks, Melissa DePino says she felt a strong desire to connect with Michelle. She found her contact information, and the two met for coffee—this time in a different location. “When you experience something that is momentous in your life with someone, that creates some bond,” she told me. “We’ll just be connected forever.” From that experience, they now run a project called Privilege to Progress, which encourages white allies to stand up against racism, on social media and in their everyday lives.
Gabrielle was surprised that a stranger would come to her defense, but it didn’t seem like a valiant gesture to me. “I’m used to harassment because of my race,” I said.
Instead of dismissing me, or being afraid to continue down the race road, Gabrielle validated my own experience and asked me questions, always asserting that I didn’t have to answer. I enjoy sharing my experiences and viewpoints because I believe this leads to greater understanding. Gabrielle and I shared a feminist moment, but she didn’t let the moment dismiss my own unique vantage point, and that led to our fast friendship.
Gabrielle could easily have countered my response by arguing that sexism is equal to—or even more important than—racism, just as Bette Midler did in a recent tweet. This argument is one of the biggest contributing factors to the gaping divide between white feminism and intersectionality—and one that Melissa and Michelle hope to lessen. “Two-thirds of the time, people of color are talking about race on social media, but it’s not getting through [to others],” she says. “If you’re white, your network is 91 percent white.” The latter is something Melissa and Michelle talked about at the 2019 Philly Women’s March in January.
“Women are great communicators, it is often up to us to bridge divides and find commonalities,” said Lisa Williamson Rosenberg, a biracial psychotherapist in private practice. “Especially in this climate of distrust.”
A few months ago, Gabrielle and I met up at another Starbucks on her way through Los Angeles for work, and I plan to see her in Carlsbad soon when I help a friend move down. Our initial experience reminded us how much easier it is to stand up for another woman than for ourselves. Our continuous validation of each other’s experiences strengthens our belief in our own instincts, lessening the voices inside our heads that make us wonder whether we did overreact. Women coming to the aid of other women—regardless of race, class, or any other difference—supports the collective affirmation of our psyche. Gabrielle’s and my moment in Starbucks didn’t lead to a national conversation on the importance of supporting one another, but we do so just the same.
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