On Twitter I mentioned an annoying harassment experience that I had this past Friday. A Black man (a stranger) yelled out that my natural hair in two strand twists looks like “worms.” He said this in front of 3 White people (also strangers…this was in public), and then smirked. He looked around at each of them as if he was waiting for recognition through a laugh or applause. They didn’t laugh. They didn’t applause. We all just stood their quietly and then walked away. No one thought he was funny.
Some of my Twitter followers replied to me. Most had wisecracks about this guy, were upset and/or were lovingly supportive of me. I wasn’t upset about this particular incident though. Honestly, the whole thing was just too sad to be angry.
Just as I mentioned in an earlier post, Street Harassment Observations, I’ve dealt with harassment since age 12. That would be TWENTY YEARS of street harassment, sexual harassment and random insults coming my way and primarily from Black men. (“Primarily by”…not “only by,” as I mentioned in the earlier post that I just referenced. Other men do this as well.) And, it usually makes me angry. But one oddity that I didn’t mention in that post is the behavioral difference when: Black men harass me when they’re alone vs. with other Black men vs. around a primarily White audience.
When they harass me while they’re alone, they are still disagreeable and awful, but the incidents seem to end much quicker. When they’re with other Black men and they are performing patriarchal masculinity, usually threats of physical violence occur. They yell and threaten me (though luckily to date I have not been physically harmed) while laughing as a group. The incidents aren’t as quick as solo acts.
When a Black man harasses me and more than one White person is nearby, he becomes even louder and looks around with a smirk on his face as if he’s waiting for a reaction from the White people. The smirk makes me think he’s waiting for their approval or agreement either through laughter or applause of some sort. However, in my experience thus far, no approval comes. No laughter. No applause. The White audience stares blankly, or quickly walks away (in a few instances, they actually spoke up to disagree with the men/defend me—which makes the men back down and go away. The men NEVER argue with or disrespect the White audience.)
Once a Black man called me a “bucket head” loudly after I wouldn’t give him my phone number. This was in 2006. The man asked me for my number in 2005 and 2004. I don’t think he remembered the previous occasions. I always declined politely. He looked around (this was at a public library) at the three White men nearby before yelling out this insult that even a six-year-old is too mature to say. He smirked. They didn’t return the smirk and laugh, however. He rapidly walked away. He has not bothered me since…and I have seen him since.
Once I was researching Japanese photographers. I had just come back from Japan in the spring of 2007, and attended a major photography expo while there, so my curiosity was peaked. I had a book of Japanese images on the counter at the library. I also had on a necklace of some Japanese coins that I brought back as a souvenir. A Black man moved in close beside me—really too close for a stranger, deeply staring at my necklace, then the book on the counter. I eventually looked up and asked if I could help him. He said “oh um…you remind me of my…my daughter.” I said “ok,” expressionless, and went back to researching books in the computerized card catalog. He then looked around, saw White faces and raised his voice in anger to say, “but…but MY daughter is a lawyer though, a LAWYER!” I guess that was supposed to be a jab at me since I was checking out photography books and I had my camera bag on my side? (i.e. society-accepted status of lawyer being “better” than a photographer) Or perhaps this was a way for him to assert equality (via status by proxy of his daughter) amidst the Whites? He then smirked. Looked around. The White people’s attention returned to their computers or books. No one cared. No one smirked or laughed. Nothing.
I have many stories like these that I could share. These are almost “tame.” Some involve much worse comments. WORSE. A colourful assortment of “bitch,” “whore,” “slut,” “ugly” and more. Swear words. I really don’t want to write about any of these examples. But nonetheless, in no instance was anyone in these White audiences even remotely moved. Ever.
It’s truly sad to me some Black men create these performances, hoping that their hatred for me will be applauded or confirmed by Whites. Some strange White individual laughing at me in public (despite it never occurring…as I said) is irrelevant to me. I’m more concerned about how White privilege itself means stereotype and social harm for me, and how institutionalized racism means financial, employment, social, legislative and other harms for me. Them confirming hatred for me has already occurred on a much grander scale (though on an individual scale as well, for example, in past corporate workplaces, not during these street harassment performances.)
This particular type of street harassment makes me genuinely more sad than angry like the other types of street harassment (such as what I mentioned in my earlier post on street harassment) do. Sad. Not sad with “hurt feelings” per se (though of course thousands [not hyperbole…it has to be thousands by now] of attacks over decades does affect my perceptions and mental health over time—-I am human too after all), but sad that these particular Black men are doing this. They’re making existing aggressive stereotypes about Black men self-fulfilling prophecies and performances while hoping that their hatred of me will mean that they are viewed as “better” than I am? And by whom? Irrelevant White strangers that automatically have an opinion that matters…because they’re White?
So…why do these Black men seek this type of recognition amidst strangers? What will they feel if they finally get it one day in one of these incidents that I endlessly experience? Do they process societal hatred for Black women as…”love” for Black men? I would say that the stress-created, institutionalized racism-impacted shorter life expectancy that they have says no. Stop and frisk says no. Prison Industrial Complex says no.
There are times when if push comes to shove, the media (i.e reality tv, commercials) will choose to cast a Black man over a Black woman. There’s definitely more Black male celebrities that receive love than Black female ones. And, there’s definitely male privilege in society, even for Black men. But, I don’t think Black men should perceive slithers of perks for a select few as an overall societal “love” for them, especially a love that can only come about if they must hate (and prove that hatred of) half of their race to get it. Love is never born out of hate. And though they DO HAVE male privilege that Black women do not have, it still hasn’t exactly translated into societal “love” for them.
Black people still have to be aware of our bodies in the public sphere as this can mean life or death. It has for centuries. Shift the “wrong” way/wear the “wrong” thing in a park and we’re perceived as criminals that should be shot. Being in a neighborhood where we aren’t wanted could mean arrest or death. While in a store, sliding hands into a purse to retrieve a cell phone can mean the label of shoplifter is quickly applied. Most Black people don’t have the luxury of fully ignoring White people’s perceptions in the public sphere.
At the same time, I refuse to be apart of these "we’re Black and we hate each other" performances (through street harassment) that Black men have tried to orchestrate for White audiences—telling themselves that White opinions in these instances matter—White approval of his perception of my existence as worthless then makes it a fact. Much of this hatred is a reactionary and internalized social by-product of a 1% White hetero-patriarchal classist capitalist colonialist imperialist sexist homophobic society.
I never reply once the “punchline” insult is heralded in these instances. (Though I use the word “punchline,” in many cases the FIRST thing said to me IS the insult. Not even “hello.” Insult first.) I too change direction or attention. And sadly, the Black men in these instances are left alone with their hatred. The White approval never comes. (And this is NOT to say that White people, individually or systemically have not/can not ever capitalize on Black male hatred for Black women. They have. They can. That’d be another post.) I don’t participate in the display of hateful argument that they want to perform for Whites either. I ignore it and/or walk away. The sad part is performance or not on my part, White approval or not, their performances have already sealed in at least half of what they want people to know—-they hate me. I just…never complete the reciprocal performance.