Sent to you by moya via Google Reader:
it's 2pm. middle of the day. December 22nd. you know, a time when most folks are in an all around festive mood. i am on my way back to the office on the blue line metro, coming from a client meeting. if you know anything about dc's metros, you know those four seats at the end of each side of the train. i'm sitting in the front row. observe exhibit a:
i am only moderately aware of my surroundings. i have my headphones in. but the train is very crowded. there are people all around, sitting and standing. i am paying a modest level of attention to the people in front of me and no attention to the single row of passengers right behind me. then I feel a tap on my left shoulder. i immediately whip around, annoyed, because i didn't pause my iPod, and i may miss my favorite part of "being alive" from "company." to my surprise, man is staring back at me looking very impatient.
he says "I was calling you but you weren't answering, can i talk to you for a minute?" i respond with a calm "no. and you shouldn't touch people you don't know. i'm not interested." he immediately starts screaming at me. he tells me that he has schizophrenia and could kill me if he gets mad. (considering that i work with numerous folks who are living with schizophrenia who are not violent or dangerous, i am more annoyed by people overhearing that awful stereotype than the threat itself, especially on a train crowded with white folks when we are the only two people of color around) he says, "you ugly bitch, if i catch you outside of this train, i will fuck you up, you nasty bitch/hoe, etc." i want to do my hollaback duty, and maybe snap a picture, but we are so close that i'm convinced he will take the phone out of my hand and hit me. i turn around, try to ignore him and put my headphones back in. i am fuming. my skin is hot, i feel the tears welling up in my eyes, but refuse to let him see that he has officially put me back in my place.
he's talking, no, yelling. he's loud. he's waving his hands. there are people all around us. he is sitting six inches away from me. we are in a sea of white faces. we are the only people of color. i am looking for an ally. the white women (and one man) around me are staring straight ahead, pretending not to notice the very loud obscenities being yelled at me. when the train stops, i rush off. and I realize, i am two metro stops away from where i am supposed to be going. i am pissed. it's cold. i just added 12 blocks to my walk and now i am so angry that i start to cry.
the woman in the metro kiosk stops me, and asks me if i am ok. the truth is, crying is an understatement. i am practically barreled over in tears. heaving. this may be what a panic attack feels like. my skin is still hot and the tears won't stop for long enough to answer the woman's questions. she's very nice. "are you ok sweetie?" i am stuttering to answer her. i manage to say "a man on the train, he yelled and threatened to kill me. i thought he would get off the train behind me. is he behind me?"
she asked me if i wanted to call the police to make a report. i politely declined stating that "i don't believe in police." she understood, and gave me tissue. she said "i'm so sorry that happened." when i left work that day, i tried to make sense of what was so upsetting. here's what i came up with:
he went so quickly from trying to "pick me up," to calling me a bitch. that doesn't surprise me. it was demeaning, shaming, and scary. but not surprising. i know that street harassment has nothing to do with attraction and like other forms of violence, is all about power and control. women and trans folks are so often harassed and shamed in public, making us feel unsafe and unwelcome. i was a target. and when he didn't get what he wanted, i was disposable, and a bitch. and being someone's bitch when you aren't having consensual s&m fun, is whack.
i felt alone and unsafe. it was so hurtful and isolating to watch all of the people around us [not] respond to his threats of violence. i don't know what response i would have liked to see from folks around us, but no one looked up. i was surrounded by white folks and partially convinced that our two black faces were at best, irrelevant. maybe they thought this was typical black behavior. some kind of mating ritual. either way, as a black woman, this society has made it clear time and again, from slavery, and auction blocks, to me on the metro, that i am not to be protected. my black queer woman body is not valuable. it was probably something i was wearing anyway. i was ashamed. and that is what harassment does. shames us into believing that we are not allowed to walk down the street with dignity and respect.
I generally go through the world feeling relatively safe. i am often much more aware of my coloredness than my womanness. although, i realize that i am always both, and i never could, nor would i want to separate them out. they are always connected. i am a survivor. I spent years working at rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. i am not oblivious to sexism. but i so often am in women's agencies, where i am much more aware of my black skin. this moment snapped me back into my sexist reality in a cruel way. i felt helpless. i couldn't go anywhere, there was no one to help me, and i was ashamed and alone. i was genuinely terrified and really worried about my physical safety. i was worried about what all the white people around me were thinking about [violent] black men and [overly sexualized] women as they watched this interaction.
street harassment reminds us of our vulnerability in public spaces. it sets up a power dynamic so that i have to cross the street, i have to respond to male advances when I am not interested, just to maintain safety. street harassment reminds us that men should be the center of attention. it threatens our physical safety. it's not uncommon for verbal harassment to become physical, like the story of Tanganika Stanton in dc, who was killed by what would have otherwise been known as no big deal, or a flirtatious advance. harassment takes away choice. it forces us to interact with harassers, even briefly, when we don't want to. it is not a consensual act. period. if he intended to put me back in my place (which harassment attempts to do), it worked in that moment. i was silenced, afraid, and I felt powerless.
i got on the train last week, for the first time since that incident. as soon as i got off, i cried.
want to learn more about street harassment, look here: http://www.stopstreetharassment.com/
and in dc: http://hollabackdc.wordpress.com/