By Guest Contributor Erika Nicole Kendall, cross-posted from Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss
There is a trigger warning for violence and general issues of safety here. Please protect yourself.
An important part of this journey, for me, has been learning more about myself–paying more attention to the way I do things and the why behind the choices I’ve made. In the past six or seven months, I’ve learned some really nasty things about myself … not nasty because they’re so bad, but nasty because I’m pretty sure it says something about me.
Ask me if I care, though.
When I was 18, I moved out of my mother’s house. Left her house for the dorms, and left the dorms and moved into a house with a couple other people. It wasn’t in the safest environment, but it didn’t matter–I was pulling so many double shifts at work that I barely noticed. I, eventually, would go back home around age 21 to have my daughter.
At this point, it gets tricky. Once I was stable, I moved her to a gated community in Miami. Complete with security–code entrance, security patrolling the neighborhood, and even its own emergency response system, I felt safe there. I felt like it wasn’t a big deal to be out with my daughter after dark, walking around the neighborhood.
Eventually, I would move her (and our new puppy, Sushi) closer toward the beach, where it was less secluded, but because it was Miami Beach, cops patrolled the area every ten to fifteen minutes. I felt, again, safe. The island was no wider than maybe four or five street blocks, and I knew what those street blocks looked like. They were clean, loiterer free, frequent police visibility… safe. If I wanted to walk take my dog for a brief potty walk in a short dress, I could do that without being audibly harassed.
But when I moved to New York …
Let’s just put it this way. In a span of 16 minutes, I had 8 different men inappropriately speak to or compliment me on my body. I had a pair of men who followed me up a street all but outright demanding that I talk to them, and when I didn’t? They proceeded to discuss my underwear and how “scandalous” they must’ve been.
The Mister, as much as I love him and as much as he does to make me feel safe when I’m in his presence, has a full-time job. And, unfortunately, it’s not his job to be my bodyguard.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that as a survivor of sexual violence–and, let’s face it, I was kidnapped as a child (and while you probably didn’t hear about it, rest assured that I can clearly recall at least 6-8 cop cars rescuing me) and, though the ordeal didn’t last very long, it has affected me as an adult–my safety is invaluable. My mother left Cleveland for Carmel in my teens–left her family and friends behind–because she knew, but never outright said it. She never plainly expressed it to me, but she knew she needed to get me some place where it wouldn’t be a problem for me–instead of, say, a boy–to take the trash out after dark. (Never mind the fact that most of my friends were joining “gangs” at that age and my Mom wasn’t having that sh-t.) That’s why it was so easy for her to welcome the pregnant me back home. We all know what it’s like for young pregnant girls who have no support system. Being back at home, 22 and pregnant, gave me the support I needed to start the business where I could afford that community in Miami.
Street harassment promotes a paralyzing fear in me … and it originally didn’t. Not because either of my experiences with having my safety shaken actually began with street harassment, because that’s certainly not true. Honestly, had it not been for my being followed by two men who didn’t like the fact that I was actively trying to create boundaries and choosing to deny them the pleasure of my company, I might’ve been able to overlook the “Babys,” the kissing-at-me-like-I’m-a-dog – yes, like a female dog … a bitch, if you will–and-expecting-me-to-come-so-you-can-pet-me-on-the-head-and-call-me-a-good-girl, the compliments thinly veiled in sexual innuendo… and I might’ve even focused less on the van of old male pedophiles–possibly in their late 40s–trolling for young Black girls fresh out of class to try to “pick up” in their van and, ostensibly, turn them out.
When you see all of this, experience and encounter all of this on a regular and consistent basis, it promotes fear. It compels women to react not out of their own choice, but out of fear. (I’ve long said that men policing other men’s sexuality is in direct correlation with the fact that men don’t want to be subjected to the same treatment that they bestow upon women–“What, I look like a b-tch to you? You gon’ disrespect me by kissing at me to come talk to you like a female or something’? Those bitches are the ones you kiss at! Not me, you faggot!”–and, therefore, contributes to the problem that is hypermasculinity.) Women act out of fear…not out of a desire to choose their own destiny, even when that destiny is so simplistic as “what to wear that morning.” Because, remember, if you’re wearing a short skirt and you’re raped on a street corner…it’s your fault. You shouldn’t have been wearing that. Hell, you probably shouldn’t have been out of your house. Why aren’t you barefoot and pregnant, again?
And, as a byproduct of blaming me for the bad things that happen to me, it has had a direct effect on me. I hate leaving the house and, when I do, I’m wearing the Mister’s sweat pants, his coat, and his t-shirts, with two giant dogs in tow. I’m always feeling like it’s my fault–even after I’ve written countless times about how it’s no one’s fault but the person who does the harassing–and that I shouldn’t be wearing such a form fitting pair of pants/that skirt/that jacket/that t-shirt in the first place…but I want to wear it. I’ve earned the ability to look the way I do in it, and I have the right to wear what I please!
That intersection of earning the body I have and a fear of “inviting”–whatever the hell that means – harassment has resulted in me hiding in my bedroom. Ever since I moved here. Literally. I rarely go out, and if I do, I’ve got the almost-hubby with me. I have a gym in Brooklyn Heights and Midtown to escape to…and I fear even leaving my house to get there. As a young girl growing up in a predominately Black environment, you learn early on that “outside” is no place for you to feel safe. You equate “away from outdoors” with safety pretty quickly. If being followed by two men who’s parents never taught them boundaries makes you uncomfortable, well…you don’t have to deal with that when you’re inside. If you’re horrified by the sight of old-ass pedophiles looking for young girls to snatch up, asking them if “they want a ride,” then you don’t have to deal with that when you’re inside. Bothered by the number of times strange men feel comfortable demanding your attention? Go inside. Highly unlikely to find strange men there.
And, worried about having your safe haven of “inside” invaded? Well, that’s what the two big ass dogs are for. Sala? Sala answers the door before I do, and while the UPS guy knows Sala…a strange man does not. Sushi? Well, Sushi barks softly and carries a big bite.
I’m sorry to say this, but it’s just not safe in the ‘hood for Black girls…or those of us who were, once, Black girls. Or any girls, for that matter. The politics are so far from being equally beneficial that Black girls will never see the privilege of peace from sexual violence (or the threat of such) that most men have. The police are rarely there. The men aren’t there to “police” the behavior–as I’ve said before, it’s not even a matter of “Do you not respect this beautiful Black queen, my brother?” it’s simply “Dang, dude, just chill. That’s not how you talk to women.”–and provide even a modicum of safety. The women aren’t even there–if they live in that neighborhood and know how bad it is? Chances are, they’re keeping their asses in the house, too. How many of us, as minors, weren’t allowed outside? They’re trying to keep their children in the house, too…it isn’t until we’re teenagers that we start feeling entitled to roam those great outdoors and screw it all up.
So, who’s protecting Black girls? (It could also be asked “who is protecting gay Black men and the boys who are trying to “protect” their girl friends, but I am neither of those and am not writing about those. Just know that it doesn’t escape me.) Who is making our communities safe for us to walk through? In an essay I read on Ebony, a young girl was in a house with both her brother and her friend and, as three boys demanded entry to their home…once they were granted access, chased the girl upstairs and attempted to rape her. Her brother’s friend was sitting in the same room with the attempted rape, and did nothing. The brother, who opened the door, never came upstairs to help his sister. Is this my daughter’s fate? Shit, is it mine?
I won’t lie–this conversation is often debate fodder for the almost-hubby and me. As a man, his idea of safety isn’t “Will you be raped? Kidnapped?”–it’s “will you be robbed?” Ask any woman–we might still be shaken by it, but any number of us would’ve preferred to be robbed. All he could really “get” was that this was no longer Biggie and Jigga’s Brooklyn, and it took a lot of tears and a lot of long talks to get him to understand why that’s not everyone’s experience. (Again, for “women,” the default feels “white;” for “Black,” the default is suspiciously “male.” Hmm.) Buying a house for “the value” isn’t, actually, valuable to someone like me. We reflected on the number of times he was asked, as a minor, to accompany one of his friend’s sister to the store, to school, back home, and so on. I told him that, while it was nice to have him around after work and that sleeping next to him is the best sleep I’ve ever had in my life, who is going to protect our children and me when we’re out? Would I fear buying nice things and keeping them in our house because I wouldn’t want to lose it in a robbery, the one “safety” issue he understood?
I can’t live in a space where I’m not comfortable with walking freely at any hour of the day or evening. I know that privilege…that pleasure, and I won’t give it up for anything. My heart is fighting against it. I can’t live in a space where literally no one feels inclined to ensure safety…and, to the detriment of the Black community, that is places where Blacks tend to live the most. It has also made me understand New York real estate that much more–the cheapest places to live are “the least safe,” and are also places where this harassment runs rampant. For many reasons, these places are also predominately Black. The perpetual fear that Blacks are scary and bad and dangerous–ahem–also plays into the reality that becomes the “white flight” and the prices people will pay to avoid “the scary Blacks.” It’s obviously not because something is inherently wrong with my people, it’s because–much like a frat house where it becomes policy to give girls roofies so that you can “score” with (read: rape) them–the behavior goes unchecked. It’s because there are no consequences. The main inhabitants are the ones who benefit from the policy (of compromising the safety of women), therefore no one is inclined to actually report it. There’s no one reminding anyone how wrong it is to challenge a person’s safety, especially women…not because “they are women,” but because they are consistently seen as “weak” and “helpless,” two qualities often targeted to be taken advantage of.
Couple all of this with the way Black women are encouraged to fear police, as if police are any more dangerous than many of “our” neighborhoods…and it feels like we’re intentionally engineered to have no advocates in our corner, and very few people will understand that. Not advocate as in “bodyguard,” but advocate as in “willfully and thoughtfully considering women and their experiences.” Add to that how many of us are shunned for not wanting to live in the thick of all of this foolishness? We’re selling out, we’re assimilating…and many of us might be, but is that always the dominating concern, here? Absolutely not.
Even after having learned and realized all of this about myself, the fact remains that I still have to be here. I still have to be around people I don’t want to be around. I still have to worry about whether or not the next pair of men who follow me up a street demanding my attention will decide to take it by force. I still have to worry about being deemed a piece of walking property, considered owned-and-occupied when walking with my fiancé, considered “vacant, ready and waiting for occupation” (much like a hotel) when I’m alone. I’m still parsing out what this means for me when I leave my house and walk/bike through Brooklyn, because I’ve been so uncomfortable with the places I have gone, that I’m woefully unable and lacking in the desire to find spaces and places that are for me. If I don’t even want to leave my bedroom, how or what is my first step?
For starters, therapy. It’s absolutely not sensible to fear leaving your own house…but, I do. I’ve fantasized about packing up my raggedy duffle bag and leaving, running back to Miami or Indiana with my mother, but I can’t let this defeat me. I’m better than this. It’s irrational to think I shouldn’t be more aware of my surroundings and environment, but it’s equally irrational for me to think that the only way to be safe is to hyper-control my surroundings by never leaving the house. I’m proud of myself in that, with all this stress, I have yet to eat my emotions or even consider risking my progress, but the goal is to replace emotional eating with mentally and physically healthy ways to cope. This isn’t it.
The second is giving myself something to do to keep me out of my own head. The purpose of my studying to become a certified personal trainer was so that I would have reasons beyond myself to get out of the house and put in some work. Training for a race–just have to pick the right one–should also do the trick. Reading books, playing games…anything to keep me out of my own head. Occupying my damn time.
The third thing I’m doing, quite frankly, is for my own sanity. I’m taking a kickboxing class. Something to make me quicker, faster, stronger, better. A class that could make me feel more capable of protecting myself if and when something happens will help me fight the “helpless” and/or “she can take it” stigma society puts on me.
I can only do so much…it just happens that I can, at a bare minimum, do what I can to help myself.