Street Harassment And Race: A Sliding Scale

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:

HEY SHORTY!  by GIRLS FOR GENDER EQUITY

& SH-T MEN SAY TO MEN WHO SAY SH-T TO WOMEN ON THE STREET

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.

Spike Lee’s School Daze: Wannabees vs Jigga- Boos

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!

Image courtesy of Ebony Models

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.

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  • http://twitter.com/StellaMarr Manhattan Call Girl

    Thank you for this important post. I was trafficked in prostitution for ten years — it was hell in a war zone — but because I’m white I had it ten times easier than women of color. They were treated worse and were more often the victims of violence. The mostly white Johns used the fact they were dark-skinned, asian, or Hispanic as a racist sexualized trap — to justify the most hideous behavior including the frequent use of racial slurs and violence during the act.

  • Violet

    I am really curious to hear about WOC’s experiences with street harassment from white males. I am a queer white woman and regularly receive the sorts of threatening street harassment described in this article, from men of all races (much more so in my city, Philly, in every neighborhood–whether they be predominantly low-income black or rich white people areas!–than any other city I’ve spent a significant amount of time in, and I’ve heard from women of all ages and races that they feel street harassment in this city is particularly bad, though no one can say exactly why, any Philly readers have input?), but overwhelmingly the comments that are disgusting and often scary, but never actually escalate beyond words, come from men of color. I’ve only been followed/chased/etc by men of color a handful of times.
    White men, however? Are in my experience incredibly aggressive and in-your-face with their street harassment. They’ve been handed the keys to the castle their whole lives and so think, more than any other males, that they’re entitled to whatever they like, and it’s a most heinous transgression to deny them your female body. I usually cannot go a day without being cornered, followed, or manipulated into some incredibly frightening situation by men who aren’t used to being labeled as “predators” or “criminals” merely in light of their skin color, and so are emboldened to basically act like complete sociopaths in broad daylight.
    So what about the women of color here? Do white men harass you differently than do men of color, or with greater or lesser frequency? Does the neighborhood you’re in change their general harassment “style”? I’m really interested to hear how race dynamics mediate this sort of street harassment. And completely terrified to hear, to be honest.

  • Violet

    I am really curious to hear about WOC’s experiences with street harassment from white males. I am a queer white woman and regularly receive the sorts of threatening street harassment described in this article, from men of all races (much more so in my city, Philly, in every neighborhood–whether they be predominantly low-income black or rich white people areas!–than any other city I’ve spent a significant amount of time in, and I’ve heard from women of all ages and races that they feel street harassment in this city is particularly bad, though no one can say exactly why, any Philly readers have input?), but overwhelmingly the comments that are disgusting and often scary, but never actually escalate beyond words, come from men of color. I’ve only been followed/chased/etc by men of color a handful of times.
    White men, however? Are in my experience incredibly aggressive and in-your-face with their street harassment. They’ve been handed the keys to the castle their whole lives and so think, more than any other males, that they’re entitled to whatever they like, and it’s a most heinous transgression to deny them your female body. I usually cannot go a day without being cornered, followed, or manipulated into some incredibly frightening situation by men who aren’t used to being labeled as “predators” or “criminals” merely in light of their skin color, and so are emboldened to basically act like complete sociopaths in broad daylight.
    So what about the women of color here? Do white men harass you differently than do men of color, or with greater or lesser frequency? Does the neighborhood you’re in change their general harassment “style”? I’m really interested to hear how race dynamics mediate this sort of street harassment. And completely terrified to hear, to be honest.

    • modestgoddess

      I’m a light brown cis gendered black woman and it is pretty rare for me to be sexually harassed by white men. Examples include a guy calling me “brown sugar”, random guy walking up behind me and running his fingers through my hair in a club, a car full of college aged white guys barking at my friend and I as we walked down the street at night, a middle aged white male in a van pulling up to me as I waited at a bus stop and offering me a ride (I was 15, looked younger, and have no doubt in my mind that he was a serial killer). Most of my harassers are black and/or Latino. All of these examples took place in urban Ohio.

      • Mike

        It’s horribly sad that you can count four distinct experiences as “pretty rare” examples of being harassed. Sometimes the nature of some people gets me depressed, and that’s even without my directly experiencing anything…

  • ArianeLAH

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. From early childhood to the present, I’ve been subjected to verbal harassment from black and white men of various ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. What makes it worse is that some label it as a sign of desirability or brush it off as a typical effect of masculinity. This can make some girls and young women feel as if they don’t have the right to protest. Therefore, it’s important that women of all ages reclaim the ability to articulate their displeasure. Thank you for doing so.

    • Mickey

      Same here. Ever since I was a young teen, males, from young enough to be my kid brother to men old enough to be even my grandfather, as well as every color on the rainbow and all socio-economic backgrounds, have made advances towards me. From the innocuous “Hey, pretty lady!” to “Nice tits. Nice ass.” I only had one man verbally harrass me to the max simply because I did not want to acknowledge him. There is a difference between a compliment and a non-compliment.

  • DelphineBlue

    Thanks for writing this, I have also noticed in my predominantly Black neighborhood that it’s seldom the White women who are harassed in this manner. Like many Black American women/girls over the age of 12 I have been called a bitch too many times to count, by insecure, self hating and violent Black males who are upset when they’re ignored. I watched two Black guys in front of me walking behind a very young teenage Black girl, and had to listen to them joke about “breaking that lil b in”. Even though they were not talking about me nor any loved ones, I had a revenge fantasy for hours behind that one. There is no way I would raise daughters in an inner city Black neighborhood.

  • DelphineBlue

    Thanks for writing this, I have also noticed in my predominantly Black neighborhood that it’s seldom the White women who are harassed in this manner. Like many Black American women/girls over the age of 12 I have been called a bitch too many times to count, by insecure, self hating and violent Black males who are upset when they’re ignored. I watched two Black guys in front of me walking behind a very young teenage Black girl, and had to listen to them joke about “breaking that lil b in”. Even though they were not talking about me nor any loved ones, I had a revenge fantasy for hours behind that one. There is no way I would raise daughters in an inner city Black neighborhood.

  • http://twitter.com/Tenji95 Theresa Redford jr.

    Amazing article!

  • B

    Street harassment and unsolicited comments is something that I continue dealing with as well. Unfortunately, this causes me to avoid a certain demographic of men/boys standing on the streets instead of working or in school. Thank God for headphones! It’s not something that we should tolerate because society “normalizes” it. It’s not that we are accepting it, we are trying our best to ignore it (stupidity). Screw society! If you give respect, you get respect. Men who harass women on the street make it difficult for men who just want to give a woman a compliment.

  • NYC Chica

    Absolutely thorough, amazingly on point and necessary. More of us need
    to raise our voices in outrage, and unlike you, I refuse to “measure him
    right” as he heartlessly attacks, degrades, objectifies and dehumanizes
    me, he and all my black “brothers” out here. It is the only point on
    which you and I disagree. For them I unsheath my sword and go to battle
    full force, sometimes at the risk of physical harm. I believe in tough
    love, no free passes. Nobody ever gives me a pass, dammit.

    Great piece. And yes, while ALL women experience harassment, black
    women get a special, hatefully reserved, amped up dose of it that others
    rarely experience. Would be great if more than just a few black men
    got to read this. Thanks for informing those who don’t know and for
    sharing your experiences and thoughts.

  • NYC Chica

    Absolutely thorough, amazingly on point and necessary. More of us need
    to raise our voices in outrage, and unlike you, I refuse to “measure him
    right” as he heartlessly attacks, degrades, objectifies and dehumanizes
    me, he and all my black “brothers” out here. It is the only point on
    which you and I disagree. For them I unsheath my sword and go to battle
    full force, sometimes at the risk of physical harm. I believe in tough
    love, no free passes. Nobody ever gives me a pass, dammit.

    Great piece. And yes, while ALL women experience harassment, black
    women get a special, hatefully reserved, amped up dose of it that others
    rarely experience. Would be great if more than just a few black men
    got to read this. Thanks for informing those who don’t know and for
    sharing your experiences and thoughts.

  • Ms Sheeba

    It’s excellent that you mention the cause for the harrassment, fallacies propagated in society about gender roles and racial stereotypes and how it may be wiser to take up the role of educator to help some of these men unlearn the faulty information they have already absorbed whether it is met with acceptance or hostility. That method, to me, supersedes a vengeful insult any day. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Ms Sheeba

    It’s excellent that you mention the cause for the harrassment, fallacies propagated in society about gender roles and racial stereotypes and how it may be wiser to take up the role of educator to help some of these men unlearn the faulty information they have already absorbed whether it is met with acceptance or hostility. That method, to me, supersedes a vengeful insult any day. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Anonymous

    I believe that I am partially agoraphobic (if there is such a thing) as defense mechanism due to being harassed daily since I was 11 years old. Moving back to my hometown of Oakland has definitely triggered my need to stay indoors just to avoid the graphic comments from (mostly Black) males. I find that I even dress more demurely because I walk a lot and take public trans. My my white boyfriend will ask me to not wear something that will show off my figure in an effort to avoid the harassment that even he has witnessed. Yes they don’t care that I’m walking hand-in-hand with my sweetie! I definitely challenge (flip-off, verbally confront, steady direct eye contact, etc…) any guy who has the audacity to harass me. Most of them are shocked by my forwardness. This leads me to believe that most street harassers are cowards.

    I would rather not have to walk around with my guard up all of the time, this creates a fair amount of unnecessary stress. Old habits die hard because I still prefer the safety of the indoors at 35 years old. Now that I have a daughter on the way I fear for her physical and mental safety and I hope that I can raise her to be strong and to not internalize my fears.

    Thank you again for this article. This is topic that needs more light shed upon it. Now if we can get some male POCs to be our allies and to take responsibility.

  • Anonymous

    I believe that I am partially agoraphobic (if there is such a thing) as defense mechanism due to being harassed daily since I was 11 years old. Moving back to my hometown of Oakland has definitely triggered my need to stay indoors just to avoid the graphic comments from (mostly Black) males. I find that I even dress more demurely because I walk a lot and take public trans. My my white boyfriend will ask me to not wear something that will show off my figure in an effort to avoid the harassment that even he has witnessed. Yes they don’t care that I’m walking hand-in-hand with my sweetie! I definitely challenge (flip-off, verbally confront, steady direct eye contact, etc…) any guy who has the audacity to harass me. Most of them are shocked by my forwardness. This leads me to believe that most street harassers are cowards.

    I would rather not have to walk around with my guard up all of the time, this creates a fair amount of unnecessary stress. Old habits die hard because I still prefer the safety of the indoors at 35 years old. Now that I have a daughter on the way I fear for her physical and mental safety and I hope that I can raise her to be strong and to not internalize my fears.

    Thank you again for this article. This is topic that needs more light shed upon it. Now if we can get some male POCs to be our allies and to take responsibility.

    • Anonymous

      I’m not trying to chastise you or anything, but please do be careful if you’re challenging guys – alone or with others. The last time I tried that, it was several months ago and I had a little more confidence because I was walking with a couple of girlfriends at night and two black guys behind us were making comments. One of them backed away all like “no disrespect meant my queen etc.” but the other erupted like I had insulted his mother. I was genuinely scared for our safety… there really is no telling how they will respond if you challenge them. Women have been shot and killed for doing this.

      • Anonymous

        Thank you for your advice. I tend to try to weigh each situation on a case-by-case basis.

  • Eva

    “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.”

    You have a point here. I am light skinned and though I did get catcalls when I was younger, it was mostly, “Miss may I walk with you? Can I get your number?” I still get catcalls but now they’re from men in their 70′s and it’s the same thing, “Hello miss, you got pretty eyes.” Anyway, thank you for opening my eyes. I do believe that this harassment is very serious and women and men need to speak about it. Once I saw a man in his fifties lusting after a very young girl. I said to him, “they’ll put you under the jail for that.” He looked at me and was embarrassed.

  • Eva

    “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.”

    You have a point here. I am light skinned and though I did get catcalls when I was younger, it was mostly, “Miss may I walk with you? Can I get your number?” I still get catcalls but now they’re from men in their 70′s and it’s the same thing, “Hello miss, you got pretty eyes.” Anyway, thank you for opening my eyes. I do believe that this harassment is very serious and women and men need to speak about it. Once I saw a man in his fifties lusting after a very young girl. I said to him, “they’ll put you under the jail for that.” He looked at me and was embarrassed.

  • RunningLady

    Thanks for talking about this issue. I don’t live in a big city so I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like in a place like NYC, but I do like to run and am particular about when/where I run b/c of this issue. It’s such a simple thing. I should be able to go outside my house and exercise without worrying about being harassed, but I have to and I have to carry extra stuff to protect myself. I like your idea of speaking back to these men b/c I have wanted to, but the fear they instill has made me hold back. I’m going to try speaking up or giving them the finger like I’ve wanted to do.

  • RunningLady

    Thanks for talking about this issue. I don’t live in a big city so I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like in a place like NYC, but I do like to run and am particular about when/where I run b/c of this issue. It’s such a simple thing. I should be able to go outside my house and exercise without worrying about being harassed, but I have to and I have to carry extra stuff to protect myself. I like your idea of speaking back to these men b/c I have wanted to, but the fear they instill has made me hold back. I’m going to try speaking up or giving them the finger like I’ve wanted to do.

    • miga

      Sadly this is why I don’t go out for walks anymore. My neighborhood is just filled with assholes- several of whom sit on the stoop three doors down and bark like dogs in heat whenever I or my friends pass. It creeps me out because these men know where we live, know our schedule, and have tried to touch us as we walk past. Once I even caught a dude creeping around in our front yard. It doesn’t matter if I’m on the phone- it just insults them that I’m not paying attention to them. I learned long ago to look busy, pretend I don’t speak English, and walk with my eyes down when I pass men on the street.

      • Anonymous

        This is so sad – that we experience this threat to our safety while simply trying to exist as human beings in public spaces and the lengths we have to go to to try to mitigate the danger. I like to run as well but I’ve been actively challenging myself to try to unlearn my fear of young (and hell, even the older ones because they can be as skeevy as any) black men I encounter. I usually still will not acknowledge the men sitting on the stoop (your description of barking like dogs in heat is very apt) but if I am passing one on the sidewalk, I do try to make eye contact, smile, and say hello like I do non-black individuals. If nothing else, I hope that it can teach them that they can have an interaction with a strange young black female that doesn’t have to be demeaning or threatening. Just two strangers politely acknowledging each other.

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  • http://twitter.com/undrcoverhippie yoli bee ☆

    I learned how to drive and bought a car after using public transportation as my only form of transportation for 2 years. I loved the experience itself, but the daily harassment began to become too much. Even a bus driver treated me like crap (didn’t acknowledge me or was passive aggressively angry towards me) after seeing me ride the bus with my boyfriend.

    I usually ignored the harassment, but the one time I did say something, I was called “fucking retired” by a man old enough to be my father. I didn’t back down, though. I continued, “maybe the next time you’ll think before harassing girls half your age, you fucking creep.” He sped off in anger, but it felt so good to stand up for myself.

  • http://twitter.com/undrcoverhippie yoli bee ☆

    I learned how to drive and bought a car after using public transportation as my only form of transportation for 2 years. I loved the experience itself, but the daily harassment began to become too much. Even a bus driver treated me like crap (didn’t acknowledge me or was passive aggressively angry towards me) after seeing me ride the bus with my boyfriend.

    I usually ignored the harassment, but the one time I did say something, I was called “fucking retired” by a man old enough to be my father. I didn’t back down, though. I continued, “maybe the next time you’ll think before harassing girls half your age, you fucking creep.” He sped off in anger, but it felt so good to stand up for myself.

  • Elaine

    Thank you for writing this. The street harassment I suffered made me leave New York and left me with some man-hating tenancies, and revenge fantasies, some of which I acted out when I was really loosing my mind.
    I hope this article brings awareness and helps to change the situation for young women on the street.

  • Elaine

    Thank you for writing this. The street harassment I suffered made me leave New York and left me with some man-hating tenancies, and revenge fantasies, some of which I acted out when I was really loosing my mind.
    I hope this article brings awareness and helps to change the situation for young women on the street.

  • onalark

    Fuck, this is upsetting. I’m white, cis, and mostly het, and given the amount of bullshit I get whenever I leave the house, I can’t imagine what y’all have to deal with. And I’m embarrassed that it never occurred to me before how much worse street harassment would be for POCs, especially queer POCs.

    • http://www.theepicadventurer.com/ Julia

      I am also white and cis and was about to write basically the same thing. I hate what I am subjected to, so I just wanted to send some love and support to everyone who deals with worse.

  • Anonymous

    this is an important piece that I can personally relate to. Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    this is an important piece that I can personally relate to. Thank you!