I was recently walking down a street in D.C deep in multiple streams of thought. One, that Eden Hazard goal against Manchester United is indeed quite sweet for Chelsea but oh so painful for me to see. Manchester United, when will we recover? Two, where am I now and where am I walking to? Three, oh gee, so much to do when I get back home.
I’m aware of the crowds waiting for a bus or just idling around. I’m aware of the ebb and flow of city traffic on my left. I do hear mixed in the din a man’s voice. It seems to come from a car. It says something that sounds like “Hey there, can I join you?” Then louder “hey, where are you going?” I pass by two men on my right just as I approach the intersection. They are bulky Black men who seem to be in their forties. One steps in my path, as if he’s checking the traffic and says “hey baby”. The other, leaning back against the side of a shop says “Nice dress”. Since I’m aware of them, and they aware that I am aware of them, and since one of the comments was technically a compliment, I respond “Thanks” without stopping to make eye contact or converse. Behind me, I hear the second guy retort “I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to the dress!”. In my head, I roll my eyes and shake my head.
After crossing the street ahead of me I immediately walk into a corner bakery/cafe and find a private area to sit to check my phone for my bearings and to figure out where I’m supposed to go next. Within a couple minutes, a Black man, looking like he’s fifty, with a missing front tooth, and a doo-rag on his head is in my personal space, cornering me off, in my face smiling. “Hey beautiful, didn’t you hear me calling you?, he asks sweetly, still smiling, although I don’t at all feel at ease. I’m speechless, and I suppose I have a “what the hell?!” expression on my face. “Where you from?”, he continues while I come to, shake my head and wave him off. “I had to stop my car for you, just for you, don’t you see, didn’t you hear me calling, I had to stop my car and come find out where my beautiful sister is going so I can give her some company”. It dawns on me that this is the man who was calling out earlier on the street and that those words were meant for me. I begin to say “please go away” while still shaking my head and waving him off and checking my phone and looking at a blue car parked illegally with the hazard lights blinking that he is pointing to when the entirety of what he’s saying hits me and I explode in a “What do I care if you had to stop your car…I didn’t ask you to did I?!”
Okay, probably not the best thing for me to have said, sitting in a corner of a sparsely populated bakery with a strange man blocking my exit. For all the few other patrons and shop owner know, two black people came in minutes apart and headed for seats in an isolated area to continue a private domestic dispute. Luckily, as this man’s face was turning dark, an even older Black man approaches and says “this is what you came in here for? To harrass this pretty young lady? This is a bakery, you suppose to buy something”. With that I clearly state “Please leave me alone” to which the older man says “See, she don’t want to talk to you” and they both leave to the counter. I continue to sit in the corner (I know, I know) doing whatever I’m doing, when they return from the counter and despite the vast emptiness of the bakery make themselves comfortable on the stools next to mine. “I just want to know where my African sister is from”, the harasser starts again, prompting me to put my phone away and walk right out of the cafe.
I was pretty much angry and shaken up for several hours afterwards. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced unwanted attention. “Hey baby” and my all time favourite (insert sarcasm) “Smile baby” are a dime a dozen. But I’ve never felt so threatened before. I’ve felt angry and diminutive so often. I have felt afraid once before. That was probably my first in these series of unwanted male attention when at the age of 12 or 13 I was with a bunch of male class mates at a children’s fair at Ridge Park in Accra, Ghana, when a relatively young man holding a toddler girl in his arms, called for me authoritatively. Now, in Ghana, you respect your elders. We had only been back to the country a year or so and there were a lot of people who knew my parents and us the children who I didn’t know. I thought he was one of them as he started with a “How are you?” until he got to “Where do you live?” and there was something so wrong with his gap-toothed grin that I stepped back, turned around, and walked back to my friends who were snickering. I felt not only afraid and diminutive, but also humiliated and very alone.
Sexual harassment, objectification, victimization, cat-calling, flirtation, flattery. Whatever you want to call it. Who decides what the proper terminology to be used is in any given occurrence of street harassment? Though I personally didn’t feel sexually harassed in the events recounted above I certainly felt all of the objectification and belittling and none of the flirtation nor flattery!
Any way you slice it though, whatever IT is, it is an unfair burden on the life of a girl or a woman everywhere. IT that subjects us to the aggressive entitlement of any man’s gaze is intimately woven into society’s expectation of a woman’s duty to be attractive. A status quo many of us have gladly accepted. We should be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, plucked and shaved, tucked and trimmed, smoothed down, curves in only the right places, and … quiet. We should want to provoke a reaction of want in a man; therein lies our power. Desirability is the ticket. Looks. Charm. Sex appeal. Voila! Alas, we are so far gone down the rabbit hole that patriarchy is deeply embedded in our brains.
I’m so lucky to be living the life that I am. To be able to use the brains God gave me so effectively in a society in which I too can access economic resources directly (though not yet equitably) so that I can be self-sufficient without having to rely on my desirability to any random man, be he ugly, ancient, stupid, and ill-spirited or rather handsome, smart, and kind. Lucky that society has only partially succeeded in making me feel so wanting in my body that I have little to no reason to help feed the depilatory, hair straightening, cosmetic surgery, and bleaching cream industries that rely on our self-hatred. Lucky that I know my life has worth simply because I am alive and not because a male stranger cat-called me.