By Guest Contributor Sonita Moss
I don’t feel safe in Seattle.
Specifically, I don’t feel safe in public.
I love this city. Its many neighborhoods, the “little” big city vibe with a more laid-back pace of life. The expansive mountain ranges and views of ocean waters. Housing so dense it is seemingly stacked on hill after hill of pavement and grass. The skyline at dusk and twilight, travelling both north and south on the I-5. It is unrushed and easy, yet there is some nameless vibrance to this place.
Of course, I’ve been here just shy of 8 weeks.
I’m still a rookie, but I am a maverick of emotion. I don’t feel safe here.
The dueling intersections of my social identities: race, class, gender & age have forged a path of extremely unpleasant, unwelcome events at a rate that I have never experienced in my entire life. Here are the facts, the need-to-know-to-get-it information:
I am black. I am a young woman in my early 20s, but I am frequently presumed to be younger. This is important. I am living below the poverty line.
That is a recipe for disaster.
In the past, I discussed my experiences regarding the language of race while living in Europe. I had just come home, a recent college graduate, and I wanted to enact social justice work on a larger scale: I applied for AmeriCorps. My AmeriCorps experience thus far has been amazing, but we are not paid well. In fact, our pay is not technically a salary; it is reported as a “living wage” because it is so low. So living in Seattle, I am poor. Looking for housing on a minuscule budget is difficult, thus I ended up in the deepest south neighborhood, Rainier Beach. Housing is significantly cheaper here and unsurprisingly, there is a very high concentration of black residents.
This is how the story begins.
My job is in the center of the city, an hour away by bus. The bus stop was a 10-minute walk from my house. Less than half a mile. I lived in Rainier Beach for 4 weeks. From the moment I stepped foot outside my door I became prey to the men, specifically black men, of the neighborhood. Whistles, shouts, catcalls, offers for rides twice [once while I was on the phone] occurred every single day. It was so mind-boggling that I started keeping a sexual harassment diary; it was cathartic to examine the harassment and muse on how it reflected larger cultural values of power relations and young black women marginalization. We are the 1%.
All those womanist musings I read about my objectification and debasement, suddenly I was egregiously living them week to week.
Being a black woman, my body is not my own, I am inviting attention by casual dress, I should be grateful for positive attention to my appearance, I am self-righteous [i.e., a bitch] to condemn “natural” male reaction to feminine wiles.
These things are true; they can be placed in a cultural context and analyzed every which way sociologically. It is difficult to be cerebral about experiences that are not abstract. And so I attempted to remedy the situation. I literally began policing my dress: the baggier pea coat instead of the funky, plaid, slim-fitting blue one, the loose-fitting cords instead of the slightly tighter business casual pants, the converse sneakers instead of the riding boots that “clicked” when I walked.
To no avail, it did not abate. I wryly noted that these men were especially verbal with their unwanted commentary: “you are looking gorgeous today, sweet thing!,” “when you know you are working it you know you are working it – I know you know!,” and my personal favorite, shouted out a frantically unrolled window: “you don’t have to walk in the rain!”
As soon as my hour-long ride ended and I entered the campus of the high school where I work, my role as open-invitation free-for-all do street wench ended. I was viewed through a different lens: for those who knew me, the idealistic young newcomer and for the majority unfamiliar staff, a student. Without makeup [and sometimes even with] I was mistaken for a student very frequently. I was asked for a hall pass or questioned why I was in the photocopy room.
This abrupt shift threw me for a mental loop: I am a young woman, a teen to many inside of the school, yet out there [public spaces] so many older black men view me as a sexual conquest. I work with young men and women of color and it sickens me to imagine what the girls are subjected to walking down the street – and similarly, what our boys are being taught.
And still, I feel unsafe. The incidents escalated today.
Walking the 10-minute trek to the bus stop, I hurriedly put in my iPod buds, often a welcome refuge to hearing the absurd and searing comments of men. Not soon enough. I heard a yell, and against my better judgment I looked up and saw there was a car stopped on the road across the street and the window was down: “do you need a ride, baby?” a young black man, perhaps around my own age, called.
I did what women have long been taught to do: I turned my head and ignored him.
And then I felt extremely unsafe. He abruptly swerved across the road, seemingly right toward me, changed directions, and drove off at top speed. My heart was beating out of my chest, every hair on end.
I felt so unsafe. I anxiously cowered in the bus stop shelter, waiting for my ride.
Fast forward to a few hours later, I am with a young white male friend leaving Target. We are casually chatting, laden down with our purchases. At the cross walk a bedraggled black man appears from nowhere and says, “Damn how is it that all the fine black women are with white boys?” We are both stunned. My friend says “What?” in a terse tone and I begin laughing – half out of nervousness and half because I want him to know that he will not incite my anger. “Yeah how is it that white boys are getting all our fine black women – and who are you? And you think it’s funny, huh?’
His eyes are so cold. His voice rings volumes of rage and genuine bewilderment. He is shaking his head.
Suddenly the white hand is flashing and we cross the street. Our harbinger is angrily walking the other direction, grumbling. My friend is shaken – race is rarely visible to him and perhaps on another level, he felt unsafe too.
We immediately begin rehashing and I stare across the street – the man is looking at me and waves – fuck you I murmur under my breath and gaily wave back, smiling.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
As a black woman, it seems that my primary romantic responsibility is the preservation of black relationships. Never mind that the majority of black women do not date outside of their race, far fewer than black men. I am first and foremost to be evaluated on my appearance. I cannot break racial and gender mores by walking down the street with a white male friend.
Until now, I have seldom walked public spaces alone, so frequently. I have never ridden the bus so frequently. I have never lived on such little pay. I have never felt so unsafe.
Seattle has earned a reputation for being a progressive city, although the history of this city belies such a notion. In a 2005 nationwide study, Seattle was ranked the 17th most Liberal city in America. There is inexorable evidence of Seattle’s commitment to maintaining its liberal reputation: the most happening neighborhood in the city, Capitol Hill, is also the mecca of the gay community, it is majorly promoting an electric car initiative, and people wear flannel and those foot-shoes everywhere.
In actuality, Seattle is no more or less racially progressive than any other town I have lived in. Again, my social identities greatly impact my perspective. I grew up in a half-black half-white forgettable city in Michigan. It was very segregated by neighborhood and is currently undergoing gentrification. I went to college in Ann Arbor which hosts an annual event called Hash Bash, very liberal, and very college town-y. I received much less sexual harassment walking around campus but this may be because there were students literally everywhere, and not many seemingly feckless men sitting around, leering at young women.
Even if it is merited, do not mistake this article as an attack on [black] men who think it is okay to harass women, or young girls who looks like easy targets. I often wondered angrily “don’t they have something to do?” as I walked past Walgreens toward school, through the Central District. It is no longer the “ghetto” that locals claim it once was. It, like Rainier Beach, is undergoing extensive gentrification. Amidst the pastel-colored condominiums and new Quizno’s eateries, there are so many unemployed, almost 9 percent throughout the city. Since joblessness historically affects black males double the rate, probably around 18% of black men are without substantial employment. There is something demoralizing about the oppression of being without work when you have the motivation – I wonder how this transforms into demoralizing young women? I mean honestly, do they think that we enjoy it?
Even though they have terrified me, alienated me, marginalized me, I cannot hate them. To place it in context engenders empathy where resentment does not easily fester. Instead, I can acknowledge this pain without devaluing the pain of such pernicious attacks. This is an essay about a far too often ignored topic: street harassment.
This post is for the young, black women who have experienced far worse for far longer. This is the validation of an experience, sexual harassment, that is belittled and normalized to the point it is necessary to explain in great detail why and how it is so harmful [for my friend on the car ride home]. This post is not an attack on black men. It is important to place identities into context: the fact that I am a young black women being harassed by solely black men since my arrival, especially middle-aged black men, is significant. It is troubling, but necessary to acknowledge.
Since I have moved these incidents have reduced dramatically; my new neighborhood is predominantly upwardly mobile Asian families. The ride is 15 minutes. As of today, I am decidedly focused on new responses to sexual harassment – not simply ignoring it.
I want to invite young women of color to share their own stories of sexual harassment by strangers. My first memory of this is the 7th grade, I was 11 years old. He was a boy who ‘liked me’ and he touched my butt as I walked past him in the halls. There is no doubt that stories likes are rarely told: perhaps indignantly told to a friend, only to be dismissed or blame-shifted.
How does this affect your relationship to public spaces and what responses have you developed? Not necessarily in the moment either, but perhaps afterward. What is your coping mechanism?
There are initiatives designed to that uplift and redefine young’s ideas of masculinity, programs that decry harmful treatment of women. Still, we live our lives unprotected from sexual harassment every day. If Seattle is truly one of the “Best Cities for the Next Decade”, I’d like to feel safe standing next to a bus stop.
It is literally my job to empower and encourage black youth. At work, I feel positive and useful, I am making amazing emotional connections and learning from the kids I am meant to mentor. I feel strong. But the moment I step outside of the school, I feel unsafe. I have much to learn and a year-long contract. This is my first step toward security.