Oh You Can’t Speak To A Brotha?

By Guest Contributor Ndidi Oriji

Dear MTA Employee,

I am the woman who requested your help Wednesday morning at approximately 9:40am. I came to the station agent’s window and told you that I swiped my metro card and the display read “See Agent”. You told me to swipe it at the window. When I did, the display read “See Agent” once again. You looked at me and you said, “It says we should go out to dinner.” I responded “What?” and you repeated what you said. I asked you to help me because I didn’t want to miss the train. You repeated, “It says we should go out to dinner, you should give me your number…” I walked away angry, while you yelled after me, “Miss! Miss!” and pushed the button to let me in. I ignored you, used a new metro card to let myself in and went on my way. I’m writing this letter to explain my anger and in the hopes of preventing this type of interaction in the future.

You don’t know me. I am 32 years old. I am a lawyer. I have a mother and a father, two brothers, two sisters, one grandmother still living and a lot of cousins, aunts and uncles. I have a boyfriend. I have no children, although I love kids. I go to church on Sundays. I’ve lived in Brooklyn, New York for almost ten years. I like to sing although my boyfriend says I have a terrible singing voice. I enjoy spending time with my friends. I love to read. I watch too much television. I’ve traveled a lot and love going all over the world. I would hope that people who know me would describe me as nice and funny, compassionate and kind.

I walk a few blocks to the train station every morning and most mornings, on my way to the train I have to deal with three to four interactions with younger or older Black men. Sometimes it’s “Good morning Sister” or “Have a good day.” To which I most often reply “Good morning” or “Thanks”. Most of the time though our interactions are not as innocuous. There’s “Hey sweetie” and “Nice legs” and “You are really wearing that outfit” and “Damn” and “Hey baby” and sometimes it’s just loud, undecipherable grunts and noises and looks with clear and understood meanings. I don’t respond to any of this. I keep my head down and try to walk by quickly without eye contact, which often elicits no responses but can also lead to “Oh you can’t speak to a brotha?” and “Alright then whatever!” and “This is why brothers and sisters can’t get along!” and “This is what’s wrong with sistas!” Those are some of the “nicer” responses. Many use much more colorful and hateful language. This happens on the way to the train and on the way from the train. It happens early in the morning and late at night. It happens in Brooklyn and on the streets of midtown Manhattan as I head to my job. It happens everywhere in New York City and it is constant.

It affects how I approach everyday activities. I’m constantly on the lookout as I walk in my Brooklyn neighborhood. If look ahead of me and see a group of Black men gathered at some point that look like they’ll harass me, and I decide that I don’t have the strength to walk the “gauntlet” right now, I cross the street and keep my head down. It hurts me to do this because I don’t want to assume. I know the danger of assumptions. I have brothers, a father, a boyfriend – all of them Black and all of them subjected to wrongful assumptions that are made about them everyday. But I’ve also had enough bad experiences of my own to never let that hurt stop me from crossing the street. Sometimes I cross the street more than once even though it’s only a few blocks to the train, just to avoid having to choose to respond or not respond and suffer the consequences. Sometimes I put on my headphones. Sometimes I put on my “don’t even think about talking to me” face. Sometimes these strategies work and sometimes they don’t.

I tell you all this because I want to give you context. I want you to understand that although you may have just been in a flirty mood on Wednesday morning, or you may have been trying to make small talk, or you may have just wanted to have a conversation with someone, or you may have spoken to another woman right before me and she found you cute and funny, I was not in the mood. I was trying to get to work. I needed your help. I didn’t need you to turn my morning into one long defense of my humanity. I didn’t need you to add to the “gauntlet” that I already had to walk to get to the train station. I needed you to respect your uniform and respect yourself and respect me. I needed you to treat me like you would treat your sister or your mother, as a human being who needed your help. I needed you to look at me and not see a potential date, or a woman or anything but a customer who was on her way to work whose metro card wasn’t working. I needed you to do your job, help me with my metro card and send me on my way with a “Have a nice day”.

I don’t know you. I can see only that you are a young Black man. I imagine that you have a mother and a father, brothers and sisters, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. You may even have a girlfriend or a wife and maybe children; perhaps you go to church on Sundays. You may have lived in Brooklyn for many years. Maybe you like to sing even though your girl says your voice is not the best. Maybe you like to spend time with your friends. Perhaps you like to read and watch television and travel, and people who know you would describe you as nice and funny, compassionate and kind.

But none of this came through on Wednesday morning. The only thing I got from my interaction with you was to identify you as one of the men who somehow think that because I am a young Black woman they have a right to have access to me, to refer to me in an intimate way, to have completely unsolicited and unwanted conversations with me, even to touch me inappropriately in the street. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. But I hope that this letter helps you know me a little and the next time you see me or anyone else who needs your help, you’ll just do your job, help them, and send them on their way with a, “Have a nice day.”

Thank you,
A Brooklyn Resident.

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Ndidi Oriji is a lawyer and a resident of Brooklyn, NY, by way of California and Nigeria.