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August 2013

Things Street Harassing Black Men Actually Have Said To Me…

One of the common things mentioned in regards to street harassment is about men who demand that women smile on the spot. Never mind how I feel that day or my disinterest in being emotionally policed or performing emotions versus feeling/experiencing them. Never mind that my “Resting Bitch Face" (H/T @Chescaleigh) seems to upset the patriarchy beyond measure. The demand for smiling is about control and nothing else. But honestly, being demanded to smile is on the bottom of my list of the offensive stuff said/done to me during street harassment because Black men say/do much worse to me. The absolute worst would be the rape threats, threats of other violence, purposely bumping into me or pushing/groping. In addition to the aforementioned, these statements below hurt me even more than the demands to smile, which simply irritate me.

"You ain’t shit." Now it would seem like this is an escalated response, perhaps after some initial harassment and my reply to the initial harassment. But no, this has actually been the first thing out of some Black men’s mouths. Not even "ay girl" and then it later escalates to this. Several times this has been their first phrase. I don’t reply. I do make eye contact. I make them look at me and recognize the full gravity of what they’ve said. Most of the time they drop their eyes.

"Hey, virgin." When this happened I just looked at the man without reply. He then said “I dunno why you givin’ me that look; I didn’t say ‘virgin’, I said ‘birgin’ ‘cause I know you ain’t no virgin.” What/who the fuck is “birgin/Birgin?” This man seriously made up a word/name on the spot! I didn’t reply. Even if this is a word, his intent was to escape his original stupidity, not to use an obscure word. (He also intended to place me in the “virgin vs. whore” patriarchal binary.) He looked genuinely embarrassed and pathetic, but only because other Black men nearby laughed at him versus the usual two reactions to street harassment that they have which is to join in the harassment or pretend it isn’t happening. Not once has a Black man stood up to another one for harassing me. Only once has this ever happened in over twenty years of experiencing street harassment and it was a White man who stood up to another White man who harassed me. Even so, only once in over twenty years? (To be clear, I don’t desire patriarchal protection; as a Black woman, other than from my father, I’ve never had any man be protective of me anyway. I do not desire nor expect it. It would be nice if some men called out misogyny when it happens as opposed to being accomplices or ignoring it.)

"Well fuck you then, bitch." Every Black woman that I know has heard this phrase. It comes after my rejection of a man’s initial request (maybe for a conversation [which usually means a soliloquy on their part] or my phone number). My rejection reply is usually "no thank you, have a good day" or just "nah." Since these men are entitled (especially when it comes to Black women, as to Black men, we should be “thankful” for their harassment since this White supremacist society has informed them that Black women are not desirable, and they choose to accept this without dissent) a “no” is some sort of grave injustice in their lives where misogyny is the only adequate response to restore their lost sense of phallocentric power.

"Ay, that bitch is fine/that bitch got a nice ass/titties." This comment surfaces when it’s a group harassment effort. The men sometimes choose not to speak to me but to speak about me as an object, and loud enough so that I can hear, with the hopes of restoring their sense of power (and sense of homosocial bonding) through degrading me. Usually other insults or sexual statements trail this one. Some include “I bet that bitch has good pussy” or “I bet that bitch can fuck.”

"Ay, you fuckin’ anybody right now?" No hello. No conversation. No several months of dating before sexual conversation comes up. Nope. This is how several men have started talking to me with this as their initial statement. The milder forms include "ay, you gotta man?" or "do you have a boyfriend?" The milder forms sometimes escalate to "well fuck you then, bitch, you ain’t all that."

"You ain’t all that/you ain’t cute." I’ve heard this since I was 12 years old and as recently as last week. This reply is a standard and common one and fits into any street harassment situation.

"Oh, so you a lesbian/you like White men?" It never occurs to street harassing Black men that I’ve met, dated, liked and loved Black men before. That our relationships didn’t start with aggression and vile hatred. That rejection of them individually has nothing to do with other cis heterosexual Black men who don’t street harass, though they all still have male privilege and may still engage in patriarchal thinking on some level. That rejecting street harassment doesn’t change my sexual orientation from heterosexual. That lesbian and bisexual Black women are also street harassed and they hate it as well. That some women are raped after what starts as “just” street harassment in people’s minds. That Black trans women experience street harassment that often turns into violence or even worse, murder. In addition to these street harassing men’s homophobia is the fear of the “better” White man. This internalized racism means that they’ve decided that White men are automatically more kind and polite than they are, and if I reject their aggression, it must be because I desire White men. This is ridiculous to me since I’ve also been street harassed by White men (though less often than by Black men), by White men who are cops, directly propositioned for sex by White men despite them knowing that I am not a sex worker (which means that they do this to degrade me because misogynist men do not respect sex work or sex workers; society at large does not respect sex work or sex workers) or they’ve decided that the only reason to engage Black women is for sex. I’m not under the White supremacist delusion that White men are automatically “better.”

Patriarchal and sexist thinking impacts men of all races and classes. Because some Black men have adopted hypermasculinity and phallocentrism as a source of power, especially when they cannot assume capitalist power as a source of dominance because of racism or poverty (this is one of the contexts where White supremacy and capitalism meet patriarchy, as bell hooks has alluded to in much of her writing) they view themselves as the ultimate version of masculinity and deem other men as “nicer” and thereby “weaker.” But this form of masculinity is ultimately dictated by White supremacy and leaves many Black men trapped in a narrow space for performance of hypermasculinity versus being an authentic, nuanced human being.

"Bitch, I ain’t even tryna say nothin’; I don’t talk to Black women no how." This is weird because they are in fact trying to talk to me but once they feel rejection coming, they think telling me that they date White or Puerto Rican (“Puerto Rican” is often incorrectly used as the catch-all label for any Spanish-speaking non-Black women that they date) women will hurt me more than the usual "well fuck you then, bitch." Actually, it hurts less and I end up feeling bad for the women that they do date.

And honestly, I’m thrilled when they don’t date Black women because it’s supposed to mean one less Black man to harass me. Supposed to. But as I reveal above, it doesn’t stop them from talking to me. Or worse, once they’re out and about with their non-Black women of colour or White women, they start performing affection hoping that I will be upset. I continue about my day as usual and they get mad and leave. Thus, beyond the anti-Blackness involved in their choices—which should be critiqued and discussed—I don’t care who they date. The problem is even when they date outside of their race, they still bother or harass me.

The final thing that occurs is the generic insult or flex of patriarchal power. I could be having a normal conversation with any other person and a Black man will interrupt it to insult me, try to divide us up, or inject something ignorant that is supposed to “impress” me such as "oh I’ll pay for that, I got that" when I’m already paying for something at a store checkout. Some whip out wads of cash in my face. I usually move to a different cash register to check out. Some literally follow me around a downtown area, a store or a mall. They don’t say anything but who enjoys being followed? Where? What person likes this? Some harass me in front of White audiences, hoping to degrade me in front of White people as if they’re not participating in their own degradation as well. Some use degrading song lyrics to harass me. Some do it while on the job, especially government jobs where it’s harder for them to be terminated. In essence, I’ve paid tax dollars to have men harass me. I’ve…paid for it. Some yell out their phone conversations mentioning money or salary in some way.  (This is in juxtaposition to the men I mentioned above who  don’t have class privilege, so they often use more aggression since they don’t have money to flex as a source of power.) This has happened at the airport several times. Once when I wouldn’t give the man attention, he yelled out that “idiots” are always on their earbuds since I was the only one with white earbuds in with an iPod on at the time. (And naturally, he did this for a White audience.) I usually move to a different area of the concourse when this occurs.

I’m always dodging, moving, escaping. Always. It’s tiring.

I can count how many pleasant, normal and engaging conversations or genuine compliments that I’ve received from Black men in public space. (And actually, I don’t really want genuine compliments from them either. Being left alone in public space is the greatest compliment ever.) Almost all interactions with them are street harassment or generally hostile. It doesn’t matter what I say or do. Most of them time (though not always) I don’t respond at all or argue. If I add up the normal conversations with male family members and normal, brief conversations in public space with Black men that I don’t know on a weekly basis, street harassment outnumber these by 5 to 1 at least and 10 to 1 at most. Even if I added in decent (with more than 5 tweets each involved) Twitter conversations with Black men, street harassment still outnumbers them all.  Overall, the most common experience of any type that I have with Black men is street harassment.

When I saw the video of the Black woman who pepper sprayed the White man who harassed her for four minutes without stop and heard about the older Black woman in my local area who shot (and killed) a Black man who street harassed her at a gas station, I honestly smirked. The former is a reasonable response. Of course the latter is not a reasonable response. It’s extreme. But this Black woman was in her 50s. I’m in my 30s and I have dealt with street harassment since I was 12. And I’m tired. I can’t imagine how tired she must be. And she had enough. While I don’t condone the violence, I understand where it comes from. I often imagine Final Destination like accidents and buses hitting the men who say and do these things to me and I laugh. Heartily. I tire of the abuse. I understand the impulse for retribution or even extreme and wrong responses.

I practically cheer when I make it through a day without any men, Black or otherwise, street harassing me. Days like these are rare and fewer than ten days a year in most years. I just want to be left alone. I’m tired. After two decades of abuse filled with years of abuse filled with months of abuse filled with weeks of abuse filled with days of abuse filled with hours of abuse, I’m honestly and sincerely exhausted.

(Two final notes: 1) I am critiquing intraracial street harassment and misogynoir, not Black men using AAVE. So don’t come here with racist comments regarding their language style; I also use AAVE. 2) I don’t really need any White Opinions or Whitesplaining regarding my experiences here. And of course, I am not even remotely fucking interested in any mansplaining at all, ever. Thanks.)

Related Essay List: On Street Harassment

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