“Women don’t owe you niceness.”
This statement has been implied, perhaps even said, in response to men who think “hi” or “hello” isn’t street harassment. This statement has come to mind with the dialogue that has flooded social media in response to the catcalling video. This statement has made me look at my personal experiences and the experiences of others to see if this idea holds any water.
For starters, I’m not one to be rude or brash. In fact, I try as much as possible to respect others because I wish to be respected. Yesterday, I talked about how genuinely smiling or greeting others that you have eye contact with in passing is considered respectful in my Nigerian culture. I talked about how I generally have to force myself to avoid eye contact when walking down the street in The States because that’s what they do here. But I didn’t mention how this aspect of acknowledging others has many layers, namely, the incidents in which I come across men in public spaces.
At 14, I was sitting at the bus stop trying to make sense of the foreign bus schedule as a fresh face in California as it was my third day here. A man who looked about 40 came by and said hi. I didn’t really notice him till he spoke to me but I said hello back. Moving from a smaller town in Kentucky, I thought this was just a hello. But then he asked for my name, a question I refused to answer. He sat next to me. Like, right next to me. And I shifted away. He came closer and told me I was a beautiful black woman. I thought to myself I’m only 14. He could tell I was resisting his advances.
“Oh, you don’t like Mexican guys,” he asked.
I ignored him hoping he’d leave me alone. Then he attempted to touch me. And with the cat-like reflexes I had no idea I had, I looked him square in the face, pointed at him, and I said very sternly, “If you touch me, I’m calling the cops.” He got up slowly and stood away from me.
It wasn’t just hello.
It wasn’t just hello when another man who looked 30 threw a loud, violent fit in a fast good restaurant when I resisted his advances which made me fear leaving the restaurant even in broad daylight. I was only 16.
It wasn’t just hello when another man followed me for blocks begging me for my number. I just wanted to get to my Spanish class.
It wasn’t just hello when I was walking to church after school and an older man was yelling “hey baby” from the other side of the broad road. He said I was beautiful. But he was charging for me and shouting at me from the other side of the road and I ignored him out of fear. Luckily, there were people around and there was a light nearby. But because I ignored him, he called me a bitch.
It wasn’t just hello.
Unfortunately, I have plenty more stories about street harassment, many of them occurring prior to my 18th birthday. As a result of these experiences, the practice of greeting others as taught by upbringing changes significantly when men are involved. I usually have headphones in my ears when I am walking from one place to another to curb any conversation without completely avoiding possible acknowledgement through a smile. I tend to avoid greeting men that set my intuition off for danger, not out of rudeness but out of survival.
After all, being nice means nothing if my safety has even the slightest possibility of being in jeopardy.
If you’re a woman, have you dealt with street harassment? How did you deal with it? If you’re a man, how can you help contribute the safety of women, especially in these circumstances?