By Guest Contributor Chiquita Brooks, cross-posted from The Goddess Festival: Oshun Returns
Is it just me or has street harassment reached an all time high?! Granted, as women we learn pretty early on that men will “cat call” us at any given time they deem appropriate once we’ve walked out of our homes. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in the car at a red light with your mom, or if you’re a mother with your child in hand, at foot, in stroller, or on back, these factors will not deter some men from their quest to get your attention. Unfortunately, it has become common place that cat calling or street harassment is something that as women we “have” to deal with, preferably in silence.
Those of us who identify as LGBTQ are also subject to street harassment, especially if we refuse to wear clothes that are gender specific. I personally experienced the most vicious street harassment, as a queer woman of color. From threats of rape & even death threats simply because I was walking with my partner.
Because the disrespect of women, especially Black women and LGBTQ persons is so widely accepted in our society, this treatment of us is normalized. All you have to do is turn on your TV,or listen to songs on the radio.
My encounters with street harassment have ranged from the laughable to emotionally crippling. Take today for instance, when a guy decides to tell me,
You are very attractive but need to do 7 sit ups a day to be fine, especially since the summer is coming up.
Now, this ridiculous comment was meant to shame me for not acknowledging his numerous advances while waiting in line to get my food. Even though I was upset in the moment, I categorize this type of harassment as laughable. Mainly because the perpetrator himself was toothless, well at least all of his front teeth were gone, he had a pot belly, his locs were dirty, and he had B.O. I need you to resemble Tyson Beckford if you’re going to attempt to judge my physique! Even then, you still have NO right! And not to toot my own horn, but TOOT:
Regardless of my physique though, I had to put this guy in his place. Especially, since I decided this year to stop & respond to the catcalls, obscene comments & loud kissing projected in my direction as a part of my healing process to reclaiming my sexuality.
“Excuse me what did you say to me?! NO, you need to do 7 sit ups a day! I’m fine, I don’t need your approval! And, Why would you say that to anyone? Especially a woman! Learn to respect yourself and women because you obviously don’t know how!”
I walked away slowly, or maybe it just felt like I was in slow motion, when you’re fuming with rage time seems to stand still! Either way, he never said another word. I’ve noticed that most street harassment offenders don’t expect you to respond at all, so when you do they’re surprised.
For me, each response is a moment of unlearning for my perpetrators. I tap into my Buddha nature (if there is any left for the day) and find compassion amidst ignorance. I acknowledge that he has taken the easy road, eaten every spoonful of BS that’s been fed to him on the TV, radio, movie screen, about me & women who look like me. And once my compassion has registered I explain: ”Yes I am a woman, Yes I am Black, NO I am not pleased by your lewdness, which is a lame attempt to shame me & elevate yourself. I urge you not to believe every thought that floats through your consciousness, that is not truth.” Although I must admit, at first it was hard. Mainly because I didn’t know what to say.
Besides, my intention wasn’t to add to the shaming or escalate the situation. I just wanted to be honest and make it crystal clear that I didn’t appreciate what was said to me & at times to even offer some advice on how to acknowledge or compliment a woman in the future. I found out about some organizations that gave really great advice on standing up for yourself and others in street harassment situations. One org is HOLLABACK!
I also found some encouraging videos:
Since I’ve been responding to the harassment, some men listen to what I have to say & even apologize for their behavior. Others become even more obnoxious & vulgar, it depends on the individual. Unfortunately, most of the harassment came from Black men no matter what borough or neighborhood I was in. I also observed in my newly gentrified neighborhood that the white women were not receiving the same sort of harassment from Black men. No one was calling them a bitch or threatening to steal their phones because of not responding to a “hey baby!” It was more like, “Excuse me miss may I walk with you? Would you mind if I got your number?”
Stop the presses, what is going on here?! Are race & color stereotypes influencing how I am harassed too?! I asked around and found that other Black women in the community noticed that the white women did not have to endure the same type of street harassment as they did. And a few light-skinned Black women, depending on just how fair they were, seemed to experience “street harassment lite” as well, or none at all I think this last observation is definitely influenced by the colorism that plagues and divides the Black community. Which means light-skinned Black women are treated with more grace if you will, because historically they have been labeled as more desirable, attractive and delicate than dark-skinned Black women.
Due to my constant battle with street harassment, I couldn’t help recall two passages from one of my favorite playwright & activist’s work, To Be Young Gifted & Black by Lorraine Hansberry. This book has been a source of guidance and wisdom for me over the years but now more than ever!
I began to meditate on the excerpt taken from her play A Raisin in the Sun: “measure him right child…” Only I switch the gender pronouns for my own sake so the line reads:
When you start measuring somebody, measure her right child, measure her right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys she come through before she got to where she is.
I believe that the complete lack of respect for Black women, especially when we’re publicly harassed, stems from the fact that our society has never measured us right. The image of the Black woman is continuously smeared & society has gone to great lengths in order to depict the Black woman as one unworthy of respect.
Since slavery the Black woman’s sexuality has been skewed in order to justify the abuse of her. So I understand how much strength, courage, integrity, & character it takes not to believe the lies. Moreover, the time, energy & dedication to unlearn something that has been ingrained in our psyches since childhood and in our society for centuries, is a full-time job in it self. Yet, its necessary if were ever going to shift to a more balanced way of being & operating in this world.
I’ve found that being mindful of exactly what message I’m being fed whenever I see a Black woman on-screen, in a magazine, described in songs on the radio, help me to use those moments as opportunities of unlearning.
Angry Black Woman Stereotype Super Bowl Commercial
The simple act of walking down the street as a Black woman and/or a LGBTQ person in America takes guts, takes, courage, takes heart. My goddess it takes heart & Knowing the truth of who you really are. Even though the “strong Black woman” stereotype creates the idea that Black women lack the vulnerability necessary to be affected by such things. That we can take any abuse in stride, from degrading street harassment to rape & other forms of sexual abuse, because we are that strong. Or that LGBTQ persons somehow deserve to be harassed because folks have warped ideas of our lifestyle, categorizing us as immoral. Thank goodness I have taken the time to measure myself right. I understand that we have been taught to feel shame around our bodies, our sexuality, taught not to speak out when sexually abused or sexually assaulted because nothing would be done. I have taken into account the hills & valleys Black women & LGBTQ people in this country have been through, thanks to the magnificent propaganda campaign against our very image. Although I acknowledge that we live in a world of isms: racism, sexism, colorism, classism, along with homophobia & transphobia that make it that much more difficult to measure us right, its imperative that we do.
… I can be coming from 8 hrs on an assembly line, or 16 hrs in Mrs. Halsey’s Kitchen. I can be all filled up that day with three hundred years of rage so that my eyes are flashing and my flesh is trembling— and the white boys in the streets look at me & think of sex. They look at me & that’s all they think… Baby, you could be Jesus in drag— but if you’re brown they’re sure you’re selling!
It’s heartbreaking to feel that Black men need to be included in this passage too. Its maddening to know that someone who shares my hue, my culture, & speaks of the injustice they too are susceptible to endure on a daily basis, can’t understand the injustice they do to Black women when they harass us on the street. But I have to measure him right too, he isn’t above being influenced by the propaganda campaign against Black women. It’s a choice that we as individuals must make in spite of what we’ve learned consciously or subconsciously over the years, to start treating Black women & LGBTQ people with respect because we are worthy.