It was the 1990s. I was in my 20s, and part of a training class for a new job. There was a mix of us from all over — different backgrounds and races. The instructor was an older white man. One day, a group of us trainees decided to get together for drinks. We all went home and changed into casual clothes. Since it's Florida and always hot, I threw on some shorts and cute mules (remember, it was the '90s). I arrived at the bar and greeted everyone. I was surprised to see the instructor there, but carried on. He began making weird comments to me, and inquired of the male friend I was with (who I'd known for a long time through school) if we were sleeping together.
Sufficed to say we were all uncomfortable.
The next day in class, the instructor called on me and, in front of everyone, asked, "Isn't it true you like to wear daisy dukes on your days off?"
I was mortified. The entire class gasped in horror.
In case I wasn't sure, he repeated it again, with a smirk on his face. I refused to answer.
After class, I promptly confronted him, telling him how inappropriate his comment was. He became angry and told me I needed to lighten up and get a sense of humor.
The day was not over yet. I went to the bathroom and tried to compose myself. I grabbed a couple of the ladies in my class, and talked through my options. It was then I discovered he had made crass comments to another lady in the class.
Being the daughter of two assertive West Indian parents, I considered telling the top boss what had happened. I started to question if this job is where I wanted to be. My performance definitely suffered. I felt that if I spoke up, the powers that be would take his side over mine. Although they witnessed it, I felt I couldn't ask my classmates to put their job on the line for me. Most of all, I felt humiliated by someone who was supposed to teach me.
Of course, I also had the self doubt. Did I need to lighten up? Am I too sensitive? It's not like he physically assaulted me. Is it really that bad? If I went full out on this thing, what will happen to my career — will it be over before it all started? Will I be flushing seven years of education (undergrad and law school), $100,000+ in loans down the drain, and have to move back to my parents' home in disgrace?
After my analysis, I decided to say nothing. I made it through, moved on to other jobs/positions and became part of the "whisper circle" — that circle women depend on for safety. "Girl, don't be alone with ABC". "XYZ has a foot fetish — govern yourself accordingly."
Years later, I learned that the instructor mellowed out and was sorry for his actions. It came about when folks who knew both of us said "Melba likes and talks to everyone. Why doesn't she talk to you?" His answer was along the lines of, "I didn't treat her very well." Due to the South Florida professional community being so small, I have encountered him and, 20 years later, been cordial.
I'm not going to "out" him. Doing so has way too many collateral consequences that would affect more than just one person. Knowing that he realized what he did was wrong, that he was no longer in a training capacity and being very sure that he is no longer harassing young women (my whisper circle is very solid), the time, to me, has passed.
Out of this experience, I learned for the rest of my career to give as good as I got. I encountered men in my profession that were sexist, racist or just simply trying to get laid. One sarcastic retort from me, and they knew where they stood. My responses were not always ladylike, but they got the job done. I developed a really tough outer layer. I did my best to protect vulnerable young women in my profession, and as I grew more senior in my career, advocated on their behalf. Sometimes it required direct intervention in public — and there was no shame in my game.
But at times, I helplessly stood by as some women, faced with harassment in the courtroom by certain men with power, went through the same analysis I performed decades before. Some young women were afraid of being labeled early in their careers as a "troublemaker" or"problematic." Having just gotten started, they accepted the abuse dished out by some judges or male attorneys. Hearsay (repeating stories one has heard, but did not witness firsthand) does not get very far in official channels.
However, I also think of the supportive men, then and now, who helped me be better and stronger. These are men who took the time to mentor and advance young women, with the only interest being in their success. My appreciation for them has deepened over the years.
Would I have made the same decision today? I'm not sure. Hindsight is 20/20 — I now have the benefit of age, wisdom and more gravitas from having built my career.
It's not just actresses.
This is life as a professional woman.
And it shouldn't be.