The following is an excerpt from journalist Eternity Martis's new memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun.
The February of my second year at Western University in London, ON, I went to the campus doctor’s office to address a persistent pain in my stomach that had become so unbearable that I couldn’t even get up for class. A blond nurse in her late thirties examined me on the table. “Does this hurt?” she asked each time she pressed on my stomach, and each time I said “yes,” the pain lingered, even after she moved to the next location.
“Do you drink? Maybe when you’re out with your friends?” she asked.
“Yes, but only socially,” I said, wincing at her fingers digging into my upper belly.
“How many drinks would you say? Do you drink pop as a mixer too?”
I paused. I had never counted how many drinks I was having. I replayed a typical night in my head: two, five, seven, eight. I thought about more recent nights: eleven, twelve. “Eight to thirteen a night. With pop as the chaser,” I sputtered. She quickly removed her gloves and looked at me, almost impatiently.
“Honey, you have gastritis,” she said. “It’s the inflation of the lining of your stomach, and binge-drinking makes it worse.”
“I’m not a binge drinker,” I pushed back.
“You’re drinking well above the recommended number of drinks for a woman your age. I see this all the time, it’s quite common among students.”
Stress was the main factor in my gastritis, she told me, not the actual drinking itself. “What are you so stressed about? Identifying it would help you work on how to manage it.”
I thought about how I would explain it to her: how does someone deal with the kind of stress that comes with feeling unwelcome and unwanted? When your grades are slipping because it’s easier to spend hours getting drunk to forget about how misunderstood and hated you feel in this city and on this campus? How about when your ex is haunting you and you’ve made your- self a doormat for the men you’re seeing, and everywhere you go you’re reduced to a body part or a racist joke?
Or when the only good friend you have, your anchor to home, doesn’t understand any of this and is slipping away, and the only time you talk anymore is when the night comes? What about when you can’t tell if you need cognitive behavioural therapy to stop thinking that you’re going to get assaulted, or if that’s actually your new reality? What kind of remedy is there when you’re in such a dark place that you’re afraid for yourself — of yourself? How, Doctor, should I aim to manage that kind of stress?
“I’ve just had a hard time adjusting to my second year,” I said, and she didn’t ask questions. She prescribed me some medication, told me to lay off the booze, stress, and acidic foods, and sent me on my way.
To deal with my own binge drinking, I first had to make peace with the term. I was a binge drinker. I drank past my limits, past the discomfort in my stomach, to have a good night or to forget a bad one. I drank to feel numb and to cope with the rejection I felt at school and during our nights out.
Gastritis is a chronic issue, sentencing me to a lifetime of pain if I didn’t get it under control. During the first few weeks after my diagnosis, I still went out with Taz at night, sipping water, but I often succumbed to a drink or two, which I deeply regretted when my stomach reacted angrily. After class I researched how to manage gastritis and what foods to avoid. I cooked my own meals instead of filling up on the spicy curries and greasy pizza we usually ate after the bar. To manage stress, I went back to yoga, which helped with the worrying thoughts that were out of my control. And when I craved the spoils of my old lifestyle, the thought of living with this immobilising pain for the rest of my life was enough to keep me on track.
Without a drink in my system, I got to see the inner workings of the bar scene, the ways white men took up space, jumping up and down on the dance floor, pushing and stepping on people, spilling their drinks on girls. The way they goaded each other and drank until they were puking on unsuspecting patrons. How they pulled out a joint in the middle of the dance floor with ease, only sometimes ripped from the crowd by a bouncer. How groups of white men schemed before sending one of their friends over to talk to the token woman of colour as the others laughed. Do you date white men? Where are you really from? I’ve never talked to a Black girl. I was repulsed by the swaying, glassy-eyed men who approached me, some of whom just stood in front of me, staring, smirking, leering.
Nightlife is one of the main places young white men try out their privilege and entitlement. In this show of heterosexual dominance, they perform for their other straight friends, harassing and targeting the groups they see as inferior — women, LGBTQ2S+ people, and bodies of colour — to maintain the respect and friendship of other men.
Sober, I watched men slip their hands up women’s dresses or grab the drunkest woman that walked by. I saw men feeding drinks to women already well past their limit. In the alleys and on the sidewalks, women lay incapacitated from alcohol and roofies, sometimes alone and crying, other times unable to cry out as the arm of a sober-looking man held them too close, promising that he’d get them home safely.
When Taz and I saw a girl who was under the influence, wandering around on her own or unable to even stand, we’d get her a cab, or at least back to her friends. It would take some time for me to understand that some of those women hadn’t just had too much to drink but had their drinks spiked. I don’t how many women’s lives I witnessed being forever changed in seedy bars.
Nightlife is dangerous for women, but it’s also dangerous for anyone who isn’t a straight white man. Over the years I’ve received messages from all kinds of nightlife-goers in London: from queer people who had been beaten and harassed by bouncers and patrons, and Black people who weren’t let into bars because of their attire. Former bouncers told me their managers asked them not to let Black people in because they don’t buy drinks. DJs at popular bars shared stories about their bosses demanding they not play hip-hop because it attracts “trouble.” Meanwhile, white guys started fights that spilled into the streets, kicking and head-butting each other, covered in dirt and blood. They openly groped women. Nobody thought they were violent or rowdy. Nobody thought they were trouble.
People of colour know they don’t have the luxury of blaming alcohol for acting foolish at a bar. We know that our bodies and our behaviour are always being policed. We don’t get an automatic welcome to the party — we are constantly having to prove that we deserve an invitation. Even then, we know it can be revoked at the first slip-up. For many of us, the misinformed message of respectability — trying to show that we aren’t a stereotype and that our values and currency are on par with white people’s — is reiterated by our parents, churches, and communities. If we achieve this, we are told, we will be welcomed by white people. If we act more like them, we will get half as far.
People of colour know they don’t have the luxury of blaming alcohol for acting foolish at a bar. We know that our bodies and our behaviour are always being policed.
Being respectable means that as a child and a young adult, acting foolish isn’t an option. We must act right, talk right, keep ourselves grounded, even as our white counterparts dance on a bar, or jump up in the air and push each other during their favourite EDM song like they’re in a mosh pit. We know that one wrong move will undo all our hard work. One wrong move could be labelled “suspicious.” It could get us taken down by bouncers. It could get us arrested or tasered. It could get us killed.
When white people behave badly, it’s an individual trait. When people of colour misbehave, it’s a problem with the entire race. White people get the green light to be hedonistic, carefree, flawed. Our culture loves to romanticise young, beautiful, and brooding drug-and-alcohol-addicted white people. There’s been a boom in addiction memoirs by white women — Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life, Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom, Lisa F. Smith’s Girl Walks Out of a Bar, Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today, and Sarah Hepola’s Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. Can you imagine a woman of colour writing a memoir about being passed out drunk in the bushes and then still having a job to go to in the morning? How about a Black mother who leaves her child unattended to drink without having them taken away by Children’s Aid?
We know we’re not afforded that privilege.
Films about university and Greek life are not missing from our cultural repertoire: American Pie, Accepted, Neighbours, Van Wilder, The House Bunny. Coming to Western, I wanted the type of experience I’d seen over and over again in films and TV shows and on Instagram feeds. But I now knew that it wasn’t a coincidence that those experiences were always about white students. When white people get wasted in public or do drugs, they’re having fun or finding themselves. Or, they’re poor souls from a good family who deserve sympathy and redemption. When Black people do it, they’re criminals who deserve to do hard time. White students can do worrying things at night because they know they’ll be protected. Whether it’s conscious or not, that is white privilege.
It is a privilege not to worry about looking stupid or getting too drunk. It is a privilege to misbehave or engage in criminal acts in public, and have people see it as so non-threatening that there’s no need to call the cops. It is a privilege to get a “slap on the wrist.” Meanwhile, young Black people are being stopped by police across North America for walking, sleeping, swimming, selling lemonade, going to class, picking up garbage. Killed for putting their hands in their pockets or for simply being in their own home. For being “suspicious-looking.” White people can be suspects, but they are hardly ever viewed as suspicious.
In February 2015, Aaron Ferkranus, a 26-year-old Black man, went into medical distress after being restrained by bouncers at the Thorny Devil nightclub in London for throwing a punch that temporarily knocked a white man unconscious. As the man was taken away by ambulance, bouncers kneed Ferkranus several times in the leg and pinned him down, keeping him there even after he stopped moving. While he was unresponsive and barely breathing, a police officer arrested him. When they did call the paramedics, Ferkranus had no vital signs. He was pronounced dead the next day. The Special Investigations Unit completed its investigation seven months later, clearing the officer in relation to Ferkranus’s death and concluding that the cause of death is still unknown. The officer who was facing charges refused to participate in an SIU interview and refused to provide a copy of her duty notes, which is legal.
Black men are plagued by others’ belief that they’re brutish and dangerous, but a fight between white men is viewed as nothing more than a boys’ scrap, even when blood streams from broken noses. It’s that privilege that allows white men to dominate nightlife spaces, to assault without punishment, to make others feel unwelcome. And they laugh and joke while doing it.
And our culture tells them: where is the danger in that?
Excerpted from They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up by Eternity Martis. Copyright © 2020. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.