My grandfather, a Caribbean islander of mixed background who presents as white in some situations, Latin American in others and black in others, has seen (and heard) a lot in his 90 years.
He has little patience for naiveté so at a young age, I knew how to saw sheetrock, I knew about sex, and unfortunately, I knew about the construct of race. “Your white friends won’t be treated like you,” he’d say as he poked at my shoulder forcefully. “Hear me now or feel it later!” He taught me about privilege and I took copious mental notes. But he never mentioned the ways it would get physical.
Street harassment is a topic of discussion on social media, but I’ve been discussing it with girls and women in my life for years. It can be verbal or physical. These unwanted public acts perpetrated by strangers result in acute feelings of persecution, intimidation, and sometimes end in physical violence.
Recent viral media campaigns would have us think street harassment is perpetrated only by men, largely of color and that women of all stripes should band together against it in a monolithic manner, but one of the most prevalent types of street harassment I experience comes from pale-skinned women on the island of Manhattan. I just don’t talk about it.
KEEP QUIET OR SPEAK UP
Speaking truth to power is a task that becomes difficult as I mature. Whether in public or private spaces, I choose when and where to “tell it like it is” and to whom. Many of these choices involve complicated social circles, professional circles, integrated families and of course, the social media sphere. So why today? Simply put: I think it’s time for people to hear it. My grandpa is getting on in years, and today just seems like a good day to speak plainly. He’ll be proud of me as will some of my friends (including my white girlfriends).
WTF IS A MICROAGGRESSION?
A micro-aggression is new phrase describing what my grandfather simply calls acts of racism. Buzzwords and term-coinage help bring existing issues to the forefront. I believe the term microaggression has succeeded in bringing to light the daily acts of racism perpetrated by a group of young people called “millenials” (another buzzword used to describe people who were supposed to be “over” racist acts by now). These racist acts include things like white people using this word, talking down to their “Asian sidekicks“, or treating black men like “magical negroes” as Spike Lee describes here.
WHITE WOMEN HARASS ME OFTEN
The weekly acts of racism that I’ve endured for years, but haven’t spoken about involve white women who grab at me or body check me in Manhattan (and now the overwhelmingly white parts of Williamsburg). In the first instance, they feel entitled to my body. My grandfather would say it’s because they see me as property, so they don’t feel bad about reaching out and grabbing at parts of my body that they find “entertaining”. Very often – my hair.
The second instance is when they feel entitled to my space. I don’t delight in walking through predominantly white parts of my city, because too often, I contend with white women’s street harassment. They walk up with or without a male friend. Sometimes they walk up with a girlfriend. As they approach they make sure to walk straight toward me, even when I’m taking up as little space on the sidewalk as a lone-walker can. I’ve been body-checked into to the gutter throughout my college career. It got old.
I started walking on the sidewalk like other normal people, only to find these women bump headlong into me, hard enough to leave a bruise, then turn and shriek–
“OH MY GOD. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.”
– if I don’t step into the gutter.
This is a weekly occurrence that I’m very “game-on” about at this point. Though The New York Times and Thrillist have provided tips on “Walking in New York”, they both left out “Don’t Push Negroes Into The Gutter To Get By.” This happens so often that the only respite I get is when I am in a black area – where neighborhood folks say “excuse me” to be polite, even when they don’t have to.
Every area has it’s pros and cons. I’m still trying to find a balance that works best for me. I’m not sure Manhattan is it, but I delight in my memories of living on the island despite the street harassment I endured there. Have you ever experienced something like this? How do you deal with it?