I bobbed my head to Mos Def’s 2000 song “The Questions.” In it, he and fellow “positive” rapper Common ask playfully: “Why do these girls look so good in the summer?” It was one of my college days’ popular hits. Yet the song’s insidious encouragement is for men to look. For black women, who are besieged by negative comparisons to Caucasian standards of beauty and who are humiliated by global color politics dictating dark skin as least desirable, the song is ironic. It is nice to be uplifted for a change. However, the lines are daily crossed against us in a rape culture where all women are vulnerable, but black women’s bodies and respects can matter the least.
In October 2014, rejecting a street suitor killed 27-year-old Detroit mother Mary Spears. At her family’s bereavement dinner following a funeral, a man shot Spears after she told him she was engaged and could not give him her number. He wounded five others there. In this assailant’s mind, he was entitled to attention from an unknown woman just because she caught his eye.
Mary Spears became a martyr for street harassment, a shadowed byproduct of rape culture, if not its precursor. Street harassment is a fact of daily life for women across the world. Following mass publicity of her death, women of all colors and backgrounds outcried living with undue shame and paranoia due to persistent, vulgar public come-ons. The reality is that, for women, ordinary obligations like commuting to work and grocery shopping carry an immeasurable price of negotiating with countless men along the way — almost always without women’s provocation.
Since I was about 12, the attention men give my physical body has titled me into irritation, sadness, moodiness and eventually reclusiveness. I brace myself for flirtation and approach from men the moment I walk outside until I get home. Yet it is always unexpected; I cannot possibly predict their advances given the number, location and variance of men who verbally poke and even physically touch me. At times, I shut down to blank and numb in a futile attempt to just live my life feeling human and not as a sexually stimulating object.
By my early 30s, this had accumulated to agoraphobia. I did not leave home for weeks. I lived off savings and short-term gigs. I cringed to go out to teach, work or exercise. My finances and health suffered. Eventually, a great therapist helped me fortify my mind and emotions, to disassociate myself from the violations. Most days are good. However, on many, I bury the pain.
While black women are not the only ones to experience catcalls and harassment, white women’s bodies have historically held higher consequences for transgressions against them. Moreover, U.S. News and World Report is just one venue recently reporting the abysmally low marriage rates for black women due to incarcerated, poorly educated or unemployed men in their communities. So in urban areas of lower or mixed socioeconomics, men’s marital obligation to just one woman evaporates to leave the majority of men in public single — and still looking, with no reproach. Over time, these daily micro-violations build and embolden rapists.
Scholars like Dorothy Roberts (Killing the Black Body) and Sharony Green (Remember Me to Miss Louisa) unearthed stomach-churning evidence of black women’s sanctioned abuse in civilization, beginning with the transatlantic slave trade. White men could buy, sell, rape and murder black women with little to no consequences. Conversely, men of color conditioned to harsh consequences for whistling at Caucasian women or even looking their way. So black women became targets for sexual aggression the laws would not allow white women to easily endure. The residuals of these power dynamics manifest today in black women’s unchecked public sexual objectification and harassment.
There is hope. In 2014, New York City’s MTA began a website for reporting sex offenses in its subway system, and harassment is included. The Wall Street Journal covered a 50 percent increase in reports due to this and citywide publicity that inappropriate touching and catcalling on the subway is criminal. The organization Stop Street Harassment is just one raising awareness for this crippling part of life for too many women. Until street harassment is seen as the violation it truly is, do your part to teach boys this is wrong, and correct men in your lives who practice it.