Thursday, October 21, 2010

Street Harassment and the Problem of WWF (Walking While Female)

I am writing this post in response to another blog post that I read. It was about street harassment, and it was a rather incendiary post, the language of which made me more than angry. While 99% of my experiences with street harassment have involved black men, I have no interest in using that fact to argue that black men are somehow more prone to this type of harassment, to perpetuate any racist stereotypes about black men. Unlike the woman in the other post, I think this is a problem that black men and women need to talk about, and wholesale accusing black men of being sexist assholes only prevents dialogue, and it obscures the problem. And this is a problem – a problem that has been talked about by feminists and women in general for ages. This is a problem that involves the way men are raised to view women and the way women are raised to accept certain behaviors from men. I'll say more on this in another post. Right now, I share my stories because I think the discussion needs to begin somewhere: why not with the personal? I share these stories because I think it’s time we talk about how oppressive it often is just to walk while female.

Some Spring Day in Downtown Springfield, Missouri - 2006

After locking my bike onto a rack, I cross the street. The street is typically empty around mid-day, and this day is no exception. I head to Mudhouse Coffee, ready to sit and do some hearty pleasure reading. Just when I make it to the other side, I hear, “Hey, hey, pssst!” I roll my eyes, thinking, “Oh, lord, leave me alone.” I turn around: this is probably my first mistake. “Yeah, come here,” says a black guy with a cap twisted to the left side, as he sits in the passenger side of his best friend’s car. Or maybe his brother’s car. Imagine how much I don’t care.

I offer a nod and resume walking. Then, I hear, “Come on, girl, how you gon do me like that?” Mudhouse is a block away, and I realize these idiots are going to creep beside me in their car until I make it to my destination.

This has happened a few times before. I was in high school in Little Rock the first time it happened, and I was out walking with my younger cousin who was visiting from Dallas. A car containing at least three guys pulled up, and two of them tried to holler at us as the driver crept at a slow pace. I tried to ignore them as they talked: “Yo, come on, I just want a number,” “You can’t give a nigga a number?” Before I knew it, my younger cousin turned to one of the boys, and yelled, “Boo nigga!” I almost fell out laughing. I almost felt bad for those boys. And either they were embarrassed or they thought she was crazy because they promptly drove off. I think I heard one of them mutter, “bitch” right before they turned the corner.

I’m not thinking about that high school moment as these dudes harass me in Springfield. I am thinking about how annoyed I am. I look at the boy who’s talking to me, and all I can think is, “Negro please.” Just imagine Pam from Martin, the TV show, talking to Cole. That’s the voice I have in my head.

Finally, I turn to the boy – he certainly wasn’t acting like a man, so I dare not call him one – and I say in as civilized a fashion as I can manage, “I am not interested, okay. So, you go on” – I actually wave my hand, as if to shew them away – “and have a good day.” I didn’t smile. I didn’t mean it nicely. I meant, “Go on, now, before I get really real with you.”

He mumbles something along the lines of, “For real? Not even a number?” I don’t reply. Before they drive off, he offers, “You have a good day too, then, Miss Lady.” And that is it. I never saw the boy again.

Some Summer Day in Downtown Iowa City, Iowa - 2009

“Hey, hey, hey, slow down Miss Lady,” says an older black guy, in his forties probably. He has a chipped front tooth. I wonder why they are always calling me “Miss Lady.” I guess it could be “bitch,” so maybe I should be thankful.

I am crossing the street in one direction and he is crossing in the other direction, wearing baggy gray sweatpants and an ill-fitting white t-shirt. This man actually switches directions in order to walk alongside me. It’s the same man who once sat right next to me on the bus and proceeded to pester me with stupid come-ons for all of fifteen minutes, while I proceeded to make him feel like an idiot, again in the most civilized manner I could manage. “You know I’m your number one fan,” he told me the first time he talked to me on the bus. When I told him that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, that hopefully he was joking, he then explained that he’d seen me in the grocery store once and spoke to me, that surely I should remember him. I shook my head: “Nope. I remember faces. And yours ain’t one I’ve seen.” Then, I turned away to read my book. He continued yappering, and I essentially ignored him until he shut up.

This time, on the street, I waved him away, just as I’d done that boy in the passenger seat several years earlier. And, just like that boy, he quickly got the hint, said, “All right. I see how it’s gon be,” and turned in the other direction. He doesn’t bother speaking to me anymore when he sees me.

A Cold Day in May in Chicago - 2009

I am by myself on the University of Chicago campus, walking and taking in some of the neighborhood. The area starts to look a little sketchy and I take a turn onto a more pleasant looking street, where I find a coffeehouse. I get a soy vanilla latte and leave the coffeehouse. As I’m making my way back to the hostel on campus, this young black dude crosses the street to talk to me. He’s wearing a baseball cap, turned to the back and slightly sagging pants. He asks me my name and I refuse to tell him, but he just goes on, nicely: “Oh, I ain’t trying to be all up in your face or nothing.” I glance at him, trying to see what he’s about.

“I just wanted to catch up to you so I can tell you your style is hot. I like it,” he says. "I was telling my boy over there," he pointed back toward the corner where another similarly clad black man was standing, "and he was like, 'You oughta go tell her'."

My fro is standing high and I am wearing a light blue wool peacoat and wide flare (bell-bottom) pants. I probably look like I stepped out of a Shaft film. It’s late May and I am still wearing a peacoat. Thank you, Chicago, for your never-ending winters. “That's nice. Thanks,” I say to the man. He smiles, and as he stops to cross back to the other side of the street, he tells me, “Stay beautiful, sista.” I nod. I probably even smile a little as I say, “You have a good day, now!”

That last scene captures the majority of encounters I’ve had on the street with random black men. I wouldn't call what happened in that scene harassment. Maybe I didn't want to be bothered, but the man was respectful and kind. I have no problem nodding, smiling, or holding casual conversation with a stranger - so long as I'm not in a hurry. In fact, I like interacting with strangers. Makes me feel all connected to the world and stuff. But many women might consider what happened in that scene a form of harassment - a benign sort of harassment. While I wouldn't agree, I guess I can see where such women would be coming from. If you don't want to be bothered, you don't want to be bothered, and people should respect your right not to be bothered.

Like many women, though, I’ve had my share of run-ins with jerks, encounters more violent than the ones I’ve shared above:

  • I spent second semester of my junior year in London. There, a dreadlocked light-skinned guy actually grabbed my arm in the middle of Piccadilly Circus one night and tried to make me drink from his bottle of Hypnotic. I shit you not. Although pepper spray was then illegal to carry in London - I only found that out once I left London - I was seconds away from spraying him. I must have hurled every curse word and hateful thing I could think of at that guy, as my friend dragged me away from him. I'm pretty sure I tried to spit on him.
  • The first time I ever visited Chicago – junior year of college – I went with two white male friends, and when we ended up on a dodgy street at night, a couple of black guys tried to holler at me, yelling all kinds of tacky shit at me, like, “Damn, you fine as hell,” or “Damn, you a little skinny, but I like skinny women.” When I rejected them, they launched all kinds of obscenities at me, obscenities that mainly pertained to my being with two white dudes: “sell out bitch,” “cheap hoe,” etc. I ignored them and kept walking. Because it was my first time in a big city, it didn’t even cross my mind that their verbal violence could turn physical. Luckily, it didn’t. That same night, I was on the train with my two friends, when two black boys tried to videotape me and some random white girl on their videophone. They said some nasty, sleazy shit to me and that girl. The white girl looked utterly terrified. I, however, having already been thoroughly pissed off by the earlier encounter, turned and told the boys that I would fuck them up if they didn’t take that camera off of me at that moment. I know they could have hurt me, but I didn’t care. I’ve never been one to walk through the world fearful of men, letting them talk to me any kind of way. (It should be noted that my two friends didn't say a damn thing. They actually shushed me when I started going off on the two guys. I'm often amazed at how often men are complicit in the sexist-oppressive behavior of other men. Or else just too intimidated to oppose them.)

My experience with this problemstreet harassment – has admittedly been more fortunate than others. Guys usually smile at me or else speak respectfully to me. And when I refuse to speak to them, they usually turn and find some other poor girl to antagonize. Maybe I have some sort of look about me that says, “I really ain’t got time for bullshit.” I don’t know. What I do know is that some of my experiences have been far from pleasant, and it pains me to realize that I have been lucky, that some girls receive far worse.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, Ms. B! Personally, I have had limited experience with street harrassment (do dog chasings count!?!), but I do agree that it is a relevant topic. The question for me is, how to combat it - how can you be assertive without potentially getting into an altercation - or how can you prevent it from happening (or at least minimize the occurrences) in the first place?