What does it take to be mistaken for a sex worker in America? Apparently, brown skin. Social media exploded over the weekend when black actress Danièle Watts posted on Facebook that she was handcuffed and detained by LAPD after they allegedly thought she was a prostitute for making out with her white husband in public.
While the details of her situation are still emerging, the fact is, hers is not an uncommon story. All over the world, Black women—dressed scantily or covered from next to ankle—are propositioned by random men who read their skin color as an indication of their openness to sex for money. In her foreword to Ayana Byrd and Akiba Soloman’s Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts, poet and activist Sonia Sanchez wrote about being grossly propositioned by a white man in New York City while leaving a meeting in the mayor’s office. “I had thought that with my coat and my purse and my briefcase, I would be seen that night as a professional, as the professor of English at Temple University that I was. But all he saw was a Black woman outdoors at night. He saw a prostitute. A streetwalker. An easy, available Black woman. He didn’t see me.”
She’s not alone. At the 2011 convention for progressive tech organization Netroots, “Ask a Sista” panel moderator Cheryl Contee asked the six professional Black women on stage if any of them had ever been mistaken for a sex worker and every one of them raised her hand.
Our children aren’t even immune: In a 2006 incident that simply breaks my heart, then-12-year-old Dymond Milburn was accused of solicitation (“You’re a prostitute,” one of the Galveston police officers yelled, “You’re coming with me.”) while standing outside her home, thoroughly beaten and taken from her parents—only to eventually be charged and tried for assaulting a police officer for trying to get away.
And these are just the stories that made the news. There are dozens of women on my Twitter timeline who report being propositioned and harassed just for being, by men who felt at liberty to own and place a dollar value on their bodies for their enjoyment. Writer Jamilah Lemieux asked her followers to “RT if you are a Black woman (trans or cis) and have been assumed to be a sex worker by a White man,” and received tons of heartbreaking replies, including from women who said nearby police were useless and even someone who was detained by customs agents at the Canadian border.
Whether hanging out with friends at a bar, traveling abroad, or simply walking to their cars, far too many Black women have been made to question themselves when a white man asked her “How much?” “Am I showing too much skin?” “Did I have too much to drink?” “What did I do to make him think I would kneel before him for a dollar?”
But the mistake isn’t ours. We live in a world where Black women’s lives are devalued and our bodies are fetishized. In a country where from the moment our toes touched land, prices were placed on our exposed breasts and behinds—all the easier for the white men who would control our fates to make their bids. And not much has changed when it comes to some men. We may be clothed these days, but the mentality remains the same for them: To be a Black woman is to be a sexual object who can be bought—and arrested. I’m not optimistic that Watts’s story will change the way we are perceived and treated, but I do hope that the sharing of our stories will at the very least erase the isolation that so many women experience after being propositioned or detained. We’re all in this together.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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