Turning The Tables: What Happens When You Tell A Man To Smile?

April 11, 2014  |  

Why don’t black men smile?

About a year or so ago, I posed that very question to my Facebook network. It was a casual observation, one which I had made from looking at various profile pictures of stone-faced black male acquaintances and strangers alike. I always thought this ironic considering that despite their aversion to frowny-faces on women (try uploading a picture of yourself without a smile and see how many of those comments include a question similar to the one I got: “why you no smilez…”), men are allowed to walk around looking like they’re all but two seconds from choking someone out. So I decided to ask.

Of course, the simple question, which I hoped would point out how entrenched sexism is in the fabric of society – to the point that we even have different rules to govern how a women should curve her lips publicly as opposed to men, who are allowed free range of expression – was not received that way. There were some who got it. However, most of the responses were defensive. There were the men defending themselves, citing historical reasons why black men don’t go around smiling at people. There were the women and men, who vehemently challenged my assumption (even as many of the male respondents’ profile pictures proved me right) and sought out pictures of smiling black men. Some just gave me the complete shady brush-off of, saying, “Well a black man will smile if you give him a reason to.”

The most ironic response came from the guy in my Facebook timeline who wondered why I would even ask such a question considering black women (meaning me) had been so vocal as of late about how inappropriate it was for men to tell random and strange women on the street to smile. Of course, that was exactly the point–to reverse roles in hopes of moving out of the sheltered comfort of your position into the discomfort of a new position in to create a new understanding of each. Somehow, he missed that. Or maybe he caught it…? People do find all sorts of ways to deflect and derail. However, I get his angst either way. Nobody likes to have their autonomy questioned and regulated by complete strangers.

With that in mind, I direct you to the now infamous (mostly in my mind) “black man smile” thread I recently saw. In a short film project by The Guardian UK’s Leah Green, she decided to test out real street harassment and sexist scenarios we deal with everyday on men. According to the description for the video, all the scenarios were real-life encounters, taken from the Twitter handle of The Everyday Sexism Project, which aims to document street harassment, sexism and abuse worldwide.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter (I’m talking street harassment and sexism in general), the video itself is a freakin’ hoot! Basically, Green approaches random men in public spaces and films, on hidden camera, their responses to some very accurate street scenarios women often face. My favorites include:

  • When she walks past a guy on his phone and yells “nice a**, mate” to his confusion and distress.
  • When she becomes the creeper and stares in the face of a random man, who is out on his smoke break, and says nothing at all. She doesn’t smile. She doesn’t frown. She just stares at him.
  • When she goes into a hardware store and asks the male clerk if there was a woman there who could assist her with grout purchase, because women might know a little bit more about those kind of things – no offense. His reaction, particularly the stuttering in disbelief at the idea that she would think him less knowledgeable based upon his gender, is hilarious.
  • When she walks up on some construction workers and yells for them to “get their a**es out,” which I suppose is an across-the-pond euphemism for something sexually inappropriate, and then watches as one of the men indignantly responds with, “You can’t talk to me like that.” Two snaps. You tell her, boyfriend!

The video itself is very well put together and I commend Green for even having the courage to approach strange men and act out these scenarios. According to a follow-up essay about the reaction to the video, responses to it were mixed, with lots of women commending her for highlighting how sexism affects us every day. Green also writes that many men too were complimentary of the video, particularly expressing to her how seeing the roles reversed helped them to realize the weight of those sexist actions. However, there were others, she writes, who thought her project to be cruel for exposing men to the same vile treatment that women are exposed to daily, a treatment society is generally okay with.

But as Green beautifully said in response:

Sexism is a big deal, and telling women they should put up and shut up does nothing to solve the issue. Furthermore, such an argument necessarily interprets the film as a straight “get your own back” tale, when it is exactly the difference between the way the men in the film reacted and the way women react in real life that puts the issue so beautifully into focus. I am well aware that I come across as, at best, a complete fruitloop in this video: the men targeted were mostly completely confused by my sexual advances, and all but one refused my offers.

I hear stories of women being inappropriately spoken to like this all the time; I personally experience it often. Never, ever, have I heard of a woman being surprised when, for example, she is honked at by a male driver. Scared, perhaps; embarrassed, almost definitely. Women have grown to expect sexual aggression and thus it becomes normalised. By turning the tables we can look at harassment with fresh eyes. The men’s disbelief mirrors the disbelief we all should still feel when such acts of everyday sexism happen to women; their surprise reminds us this should not be taken as a compliment, or brushed off, or tolerated.

Of course, that is if folks are willing to listen. Some folks do know exactly how sexism affects women and just do not care. Nevertheless, I think this video can be a powerful teaching tool. And I’m not gonna lie, I laughed.

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