When I was about 16, I was taking a rare walk with my mom and younger sister. We were in East Cleveland, the city where my parents grew up and where my sister and I spent our weekends surrounded by family. I couldn’t tell you where we were going, but I can tell you what happened. A dude rode by on his bike and circled back.
“What up, shawty?” he said, looking at me, his eyes resting on my new, huge, boobs. “You cute. Lemme get your number.”
“No, thanks,” I said without breaking my stride. “I’m good.”
He rode his bike in circles a couple more times, made a couple futile attempts (“I have a boyfriend,” I insisted.), then rode off.
“You need to be nicer,” my mom said. “Even if you don't like them, be nice. You don’t want to make them mad.”
I didn’t reply, but her words stuck with me. I didn’t get why I had to be anything but what I was: polite. It wasn't until I moved to Washington, D.C., two years later that I found out that it didn’t matter how polite or nice I was, the simple act of walking down the street could be dangerous.
On my third day at Howard University, I was strolling down Georgia Avenue with a couple friends when a group of guys pulled over and yelled at us out the window. We all politely declined to stop and chop it up. What did we get for our disinterest? “F**k, y’all! Y’all ain’t that cute any damn way!” And a green Heineken bottle was hurled our way. In the years since, I’ve been complimented, propositioned, proposed to, cussed out, followed into Popeyes, followed home and followed to places I pretended were home to get away in cities across the country.
What I’ve experienced is nothing unique, or even all that scary when you consider that Black women have been killed for rebuffing dudes. But the Hollaback! video has turned a new light on street harassment this week, which is a good thing. And while I appreciate that all women encounter this type of ignorance from men who think we exist solely for the purpose of entertaining them, that video is problematic in that it is not “What 10 hours of street harassment in NYC looks like,” as CNN called it. After being called out on the preponderance of Black and Latino men on display, the video’s creators admitted that many of the white men who the subject encountered were edited out, which could give viewers the impression that they aren’t out here talking crazy to women, too (I can tell you from first-hand experience that they most definitely are).
But way before the anti-street harassment group’s video went viral, Black women were putting in hours in this space to educate men on how the cumulative effect of their attention — from the loaded “Smile! You’re too beautiful to walk around looking mad, girl” to the straight up disrespectful “I bet your man don’t f**k you like I will” — makes us feel uncomfortable and often unsafe while doing something as routine as walking to the subway or getting in our cars. Last year, I had the pleasure of supporting the work of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, an artist whose “Stop Telling Women to Smile” project centers around street harassment and its impact on women. And back in June, Feminista Jones sparked an #activism movement, #YouOKSis, which encourages all of us to look out for each other when we see Black women being harassed.
The fact is, Black women have long been subjected to a caste system in this country that not only places our feelings and need for safety on the floor somewhere over there, but kicks them under a bed and pretends they don't exist. And that tendency to discount us as less than human can make the streets a dangerous place. So it takes women like Fazlalizadeh, Jones, Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony, Akiba Solomon at Colorlines and all of us to show that we are humans to be protected or at the very least left alone, that we should be able to walk to the mailbox without being commanded to smile or “be grateful” for attention or gleefully perform the lewd act of some stranger’s dreams. So I’ll stand up for my sisters (my homegirls call me “Killa”). And I’ll continue to avoid eye contact with dudes and make a fast, safe getaway when “Good morning, gorgeous” transforms into “F**k you then, b***h.” And I’ll pray that by the time my daughter gets new boobs, men of all races will finally understand that invading a woman’s space, even with their words, is never OK.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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