Side Eyes, Catcalls & the Weight of Racism
As a woman from California, I was always taught to keep your eyes stony, your mouth set in a frown and your stride strong. It was something I practiced ever since I witnessed a young man throw a young woman to the ground. He spoke. She didn’t. He called her a b*tch. Her stride faltered, ready to whip back a witty response, I imagine. And he body slammed her.
Now, minutes past midnight, I kept it moving. I refused to look to my left. I focused on the streetlight. I counted the shadows. It was a particularly cold night. The only bodies on the usually busy Bed-Stuy corners were tucked in the occasional bodegas or their homes. The voice, gruff and irritated growled “Oh you can’t speak? I said good evening!” My legs began to walk faster. If I could watch myself from outside my body, I’d call it a trot. But I never looked directly at the dinged up blue car, so I couldn’t make out the man’s face. But I could feel the anger in his voice. He was in the passenger seat hidden by the shadows. His voice rang out clear one last time “Don’t worry. We’ll be back. You’ll see. Stuck up b*tches get raped.” And the car sped off. This is when I stopped walking. My legs stuck to the pavement in fear. In disgust. In disbelief.
And now that the car had sped through three lights. I wanted to yell obscenities. I wanted to cry. But it was cold. And I had a five-year-old daughter waiting for me at home with her father. So I called home. I took a right turn at the next corner to change my path home, just in case the threat was real and waiting for me somewhere in the dark distance. My partner picked up the phone. And in that instance. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was scared. I was scared for my safety. I was scared out of my mind. It felt too weak. Those words of fear, so I just said. “I wanted to hear your voice. I’m on my way home from the train.” I was just turning the block when my partner, the former high school track star sprinted toward me. His eyes stone. His mouth set. His fists balled up. I was relieved to see him. I grabbed his hand. We finished the walk home quickly. I asked him how did he know? He replied “You never call home to tell me you are on your way. I knew something was wrong.”
In an imperialist society maintained by patriarchy and racism; where economic, political, and military realities still reduce people to object and property; there is no guarantee that someone will come running to hold your hand and lead you through the dark. So when I witnessed the video of the white woman actress walking through the streets of NYC for 10 hours — I immediately tapped into my own memory. The blue car. The gruff voice. It is almost impossible to just see the “harmless” attention she received. I was too overwhelmed in the reality of my “too much.” And yes. It took me reading a report in the Daily News that said she received the ogling and crude remarks in Harlem, only to realize the inaccuracy of the article.
It took me watching the video again — with a different lens. The lens as a black woman. Here, I recognized “hello,” “good morning” as invitations to a longer conversation. Whereas “smile when someone is saying you are beautiful” was clearly an imposition. I won’t list in details all the many times men have been told by men to “smile” — this brazen demand, oddly reminiscent of black man being ordered to “dance, monkey.” The intended threat of a person walking next to someone that has refused to interact with them, is an act of threat. It screams “you can’t get away from me. you have to deal with me.” Hardly, the way I want to be courted. And eerily similar to the antics of a bully. When I witnessed the video, I was so blinded by the emotionality of my own experiences, that I missed the racial implications.
I then referred to the brilliant Jessica Williams from The Daily Show with her well-rounded discussion about street harassment; how men of all ethnicities are guilty of this catcalling behavior. It was after watching her report that I realized what I was feeling was the enormity of the “too much.” There is a lot to be said about the depiction of Black and Brown men in that skewed video on street harassment (and in media, period); Black and Brown men as serial harassers all feed into the justification of their murder. To paraphrase Frantz Fanon, in order for white supremacy to justify itself and its practice as violence, Black and Brown people have to not just be moralless, but the enemy of morals… “the quintessence of evil.”
Catcalling, street greetings, cupcaking, chatting or hollering is practiced by men of all ethnicities (though conveniently edited out of that viral clip) and in abundance. Nevertheless, this video insisting we dismantle racism does not mean the conversation of sexism should end. In fact, both conversations need to be synthesized in order to engage a thorough analysis of this imperialist patriarchal system.
A part of me mourned for the lynching of these brother’s images, but in the same vein — I cannot pretend the threat of walking as a woman down the street, whether in the middle of lunch hour or at midnight, doesn’t hold the potential to shatter my safety. I also cannot pretend that any oppressed person’s safety is guaranteed under the current system. My personal space is always in jeopardy, in a city where men will fondle women on too tight subway rides. In a city built on concentrated poverty and exploitation. My personal safety is always at risk, in a city where I can refuse a man’s advances and lose my life like Mary “Unique” Spears. Where I can also lose my life to a police officer, like Sherese Francis, one of 313 Black people extrajudicially killed in 2012.
How do we defend each other?
I am afraid to have this conversation with my daughter. But I am afraid not to.
How do we protect one another?
I’ve only been able to afford her the following rules: Do not speak to strangers. Do not trust anyone that whistles at you. Do not speak through the window of an idling car.
Her life depends on it.
Mahogany L. Browne is the author of books including Swag & Dear Twitter: Love Letters Hashed Out On- line, recommended by Small Press Distribution & listed as About.com Best Poetry Books of 2010. She has released five LPs and toured Germany, Amsterdam, England, Canada and recently Australia. Her journalism work has been published in magazines Uptown,KING, XXL, The Source, Canada’s The Word and UK’s MOBO. She is an Urban Word NYC mentor, as seen on HBO’s Brave New Voices, facilitates performance poetry and writing workshops throughout the country. She is the publisher of Penmanship Books, Director of Poetry & Friday Night curator of the famous Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Feature Image: StopStreetHarassment.org
Mahogany L. Browne’s Image: Rachel Eliza Griffith