Unseen, Unheard, Unvalued, Unimportant …

… and yet folks wonder why I’m angry.

There are so many things I would rather be writing about today.  There are so many sad things I could be writing about today.  Instead of those things, I am writing this.

_____

Yesterday I was walking in lower Manhattan.  I was nearing Houston Street, thinking about ducking into the subway station at the corner and getting back to my book once I was on the train, thinking about the volunteer work I was scheduled to do later in the day, thinking about the residency applications I’m working on, thinking.

“Smile, big lady!”

Yes, because any moment of my life can only be made better by some random man demanding that I smile.  Because — obviously — I only exist to window-dress your day with my smiles.  Yes.

I could write an entire post about how annoying it is to have men ask women to smile.  That’s not this post.  I didn’t smile.

I didn’t smile and I kept walking up the block.

And then he grabbed my arm and spun me around to face him.  I was so taken by surprise, I almost fell into his chest.  Before I had a chance to rebalance and focus, he got in my face yelling about what made me think I was too good for him and how sick he is of angry black women, and how — fat and ugly as I am — I should be glad any man was talking to me.

Generally speaking, men don’t accost me.  They make any number of comments, give all kinds of looks, but they don’t put their hands on me.  I’m not saying it never happens, but it doesn’t happen often.  The last time I can remember it happening is five years ago.  Because it happens so infrequently, my first reactions are a little slow-motion.  First reaction: surprise that some stranger is grabbing me.  Second: look at the stranger and gauge how strong he seems to be and if I think I can fight my way away from him.

So I looked at this man yesterday.  He was taller than I am, maybe 6′ 2″.  He was slender, but he had spun me around.  Aside from the fact that he caught me off guard and so off balance, I am a big person, it’s no easy thing to spin me around.  That told me he was probably stronger than I am.  Third reaction: use my words.  I’m pretty good at talking my way out of trouble.  And I’m pretty good at shaming street harassers into backing off.

But this man was bigger and stronger than I am, and was already worked up, shaking me roughly, yelling crazy crap about fat black women and how entitled we act and how we should be more respectful when a man shows us some attention.  And I froze for a minute.

But then I unfroze.  And I started yelling for him to let go of me, started trying to break out of his hold.

And then I realized I was on a pretty populated street, and there were people around me.  I started asking people for help, asking people to call 911.  Most people ignored me, acted as if they could neither see nor hear me, didn’t even flinch away or glance in my direction.  I didn’t exist.  One man laughed at me.  Two men said they didn’t get involved in couples’ problems.  Couples’ problems.  As if anything about that scene looked like a couple having a disagreement.

I understand why the women who passed didn’t step in.  That man had already devolved to violent behavior.  I don’t think I would have stepped in, either.  But I would have stayed there.  I would have engaged the woman and called 911 as she’d asked me to do.  I would have let that man know that he had a witness to his harassment and that it wasn’t cool.  And I’m willing to bet that, one person stopping might have emboldened other people to stop, and that an audience might (might) have pushed that man to let go of me.

But no one stopped.  No one stopped.

I wish I didn’t have to stop here and say this, but I have to stop here and say this: every single person who walked by me yesterday was white or looked white.  The man in my face was white or looked white.  And that was when I my fear of the man shifted over to fear of what could happen to me if the police did come.  I wasn’t as tall as that man, but I am definitely bigger.  I could imagine police officers seeing me and seeing Eric Garner, seeing Eleanor Bumpurs, seeing a big black person who needed to be subdued, not bothering to see that I was the person being assaulted.

I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street.  Shouldn’t.  Do.

This whole scene didn’t take very long, from the moment he grabbed me up to this point was maybe only 20 or 30 seconds.  It felt much, much longer.

A group of black teenagers walked up and one asked if I knew the man.  I said I didn’t, and they immediately stepped between us got him off me and away from me, formed a shield between him and me.  They tended me — was I okay, had he hurt me, what did I want to do, did I want them to travel with me.  The man ran and two of the boys were going to go after him, but I stopped them.  I wasn’t going to be the reason for someone misinterpreting the sight of two young black men chasing a white man down the street.  More things I shouldn’t have to worry about.  But do.

The boys — because really, they were babies, maybe 15-17 years old — walked me to the subway and were ready to throw off whatever their plans for the afternoon had been to see me safely wherever I was going, but I said no.  Those boys were beautiful and fine and exactly the kind of men you want every man to be.  And I thank all of the people who raised and shaped them. And I didn’t mind at all that they called me “ma’am.”  I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t been coming up the block.

I was badly frightened by that man.  And I was angry.  Angry at him for not seeing me, for seeing only a female body that he felt he had control over.  Angry at him for putting his hands on me.  Angry at the people who wouldn’t help me.  Angry at every one of them who pretended not to see or hear me.  More than a dozen people passed me.  More than a dozen people ignored (or mocked) my call for help.  And I understand fear of putting yourself in danger.  But practically every one of those people had their phones in their hands (for all I know, someone put my street assault on Instagram).  It would have been an easy thing to call 911.  Just hearing someone make a 911 call would surely have sent that man packing.

I want to believe I was mistaken in my fear of the police, but how can I be?  There are too many stories that back up my fear.  There is Marlene Pinnock as just the latest example of black women not being any safer from police violence than black men.

_____

I want this post to be more articulate (yes, I used that word).  I think I am still too close to yesterday.  Retelling the story gives me a stomach ache and I lose sight of the points I want to be making.  I keep coming back to this: I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear that expressing my absolutely valid and appropriate anger sets me up to look like an aggressor, to fit someone’s stereotype of a loud, angry black woman, to make me someone to be ignored.  All the things I shouldn’t fear.  Shouldn’t.  Do.

Something that doesn’t give me a stomach ache?  Those boys.  Those boys who have probably been stopped and frisked all kinds of times.  Those boys who saw a bad situation and knew they could do something about it.  Seven children — all loose limbs and baggy pants and over-long muscle shirts and ball caps and big hair (one of the boys had a gorgeous afro!) — seven children stepped up.

__________

I’ve been away for a LONG time, but today is a Slice-of-Life Tuesday, and the slicers are going strong over at Two Writing Teachers!

Click over and see what everyone else is up to!

SOL image 2014

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31 thoughts on “Unseen, Unheard, Unvalued, Unimportant …

  1. I am so sorry and that is ugly. I am so sorry and I don’t know what to say except to agree that it shouldn’t be. I am glad you use your words to testify, to enlighten and to make a difference. Your story matters. Your words educate me to sadness, to heart ache and with tearful acknowledgement push me to awareness.

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  2. Wow! I can almost (almost but still no) understand if this had happened in the dead of night, people afraid of what they can’t see, but this happened in broad daylight! It angers me, too, and you have every right to express yourself! I teach an online course, and one of our course videos is a documentary on a young gay man. He was physically assaulted by a group of boys at their high school football game, with parents and school personnel in the stands. No one, not one person, stepped up to help him! It’s disheartening, to say the least, but we can remain hopeful because the world is full of good people, like the boys who came to your aide. I hope you find some peace and healing.

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  3. No, I do know one more thing I have to say. I’m not religious, but I pray to whatever powers that be that someone will step in for those boys too, if they ever need it — and god knows in this world they well might.

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  4. One more thing: this line hit me in the gut: “I wasn’t going to be the reason for someone misinterpreting the sight of two young black men chasing a white man down the street.”

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  5. Stacie,
    I was browsing Lisa’s Facebook page earlier and came across your post here. What you describe makes me sick to my stomach. I am so so sorry. This is terrifying and terrible. But I’m glad you wrote about it, if only to spread more awareness. It certainly got me thinking hard. The portion Lisa quoted on her blog: “I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street. And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street. And I shouldn’t have to fear that expressing my absolutely valid and appropriate anger sets me up to look like an aggressor” is such a strong statement to me. It sums it up perfectly and your words will stick with me for a long time. Much love.
    -Tamara

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  6. I’m so glad you commented on my blog post so that I could discover your blog. This is a powerful and important piece of writing, and I absolutely felt it. I agree with Tamara–your words will stick with me for a long time. It’s horrifying to me that people would walk by, ignore you, even mock you. But wow, do I feel good about that group of boys. I love that they were ready to forget their afternoon plans to make sure you were safe and got where you were going.

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  7. The first part of your post made me so angry. The second part, the part with the boys who stepped in and acted on your behalf made me proud and hopeful. But I leave your slice mostly sad – that we haven’t come nearly as far as we think we have.

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  8. Thank you for this piece. I am a white woman living in Australia but your beautifully written piece really struck me. You are very articulate and I admire your spirit. You should not have had to go through that experience with all of its injustices! I’m sorry that the things you shouldn’t have to fear, you do. I hope that your writing helps more of the world to be more color blind.

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    1. Dannyka6, just speaking from my own experience as an Asian American (and I hope I’m not stepping on Stacie’s toes in writing this comment), I usually wish people would be more color aware rather than color blind. It is hard to fight against systematic and deeply ingrained racism without seeing, acknowledging, and actively attempting to reshape the complex ways we all see color (at both the conscious and unconscious level).

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  9. Pingback: Nothing To Fear? Want To Bet? | Raivenne-lations

  10. Wow, Stacie, I just read this. It leaves me with my heart pounding. I’m so sorry that you went through that, and also appalled that so many people did not step in to help. It does warm my heart that a group of teenage boys, the same sort of kids that our culture and media train us to see as a menace, were the ones to step in and help.

    I’m having trouble finding all the words of what I want to say. This incident reveals so much.

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  11. I love you. I’m touched by your experience and the way you shared it and reminded that there is still so much more work to do…. Really, just love, though. That’s what I want you to know. You are not “un” anything. You are beautiful.

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  12. Wow. You are so articulate– don’t even give that a second thought! Thank you for sharing this difficult moment. I promise to do my best to make sure no one feels as alone in a similar moment as I live my life in NYC. You are my hero of the week– and what a week it has been. xo, Susie

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  13. I read your post after someone posted it on FB, and I had to try to say something. You and I are about the same age, and I’m heavy as well, but other than that we’re worlds apart. I’m a man, I’m white, and I live in California. I’ve never been scared like you were scared even for one second in my life. I’ve never been accosted and attacked for being white and fat. I’ve never called out for help to people nearby only to be ignored and laughed at. How anything like this can happen is almost unbelievable, but only almost, obviously. I had to try to say something, except I don’t know what to say. I want to tell you I’m sorry. I want to tell you my heart hurts. I want to tell you that while nothing like this has ever happened to me, I think if it did, I’d be so full of hatred and rage I’d be no good at all to anybody. That you are not full of hatred is proof that whoever you are, you’re good.

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  14. Pingback: “Our Skin Is Trouble!” | Musings of An African Woman

  15. Pingback: Powerful piece on street harassment, racism, and police violence | Hollaback! Twin Cities

  16. I am so sorry this horrible man assaulted you. I am so sorry none of the (probably) white bystanders came to your aid. I am so sorry you have reason to be afraid of the police.

    I am so glad those boys helped you.

    What an awful world we have built.

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  17. Thank you for your report . I am a jaded old man .I just figure the world has gone mad , that people will get in your face ,there is no sense of community ,and crazy people pop up out of nowhere if one is on the street .It was refreshing to hear your indignation and disgust .And it was inspiring to hear about the young kids who stepped in and stepped up.Thank you for you honest and vulnerable report ,for a few reasons . One ; it is good for me to remember a time when I expected decent behavior from my neighbors and fellow citizens , and that is indeed a very sane expectation .Two : the rampant fear of Police is epidemic especially among any “out group “. And finally a ground report on what kids are really like , those kids who stepped up , decent and strong and still willing to step up to a situation . I enjoyed reading this piece . It gave me a little hope that people are raising the bar on behavior and expectations ..

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  18. Thank you for writing this. Years ago, on my first trip to NYC, o took the wrong subway and ended up on Harlem. As a sheltered white woman, I was scared, plus disoriented… No subways in Utah.

    I found the right car to take me down to Staten Island and waited for, what seemed like, 40 long minutes. A rambunctious group of young black boys got on the train and, trained by years of cop shows, I was nervous.

    At some point the whole group got up and ran to the other side of the car and pounded on the windows. At first I was terrified. Was this the PCP fueled rant the TV was always showing?

    An older gentleman had fallen off the platform and the boys witnessed it. A couple sprinted, as only boys can, and saved that mans life.

    Where I had seen alien, scary, black boys, I now was able to see boys, good boys, raised well with good hearts.

    This experience opened my eyes so I could see, really see, my black friends in New Orleans. My streetcar driver Henry, who was such a character, he’d talk to himself the whole time. “Move that wagon”. He was awesome. Alex, who was so distinguished, and such a gentleman. I was chatting with him the day he saw a gorgeous woman and wanted to chat her up. I watched their love blossom on the streetcar. The beautiful boys marching with such in their marching band uniforms at Mardi Gras. The lovely ladies with their hair done in artisticly beautiful styles. They would look at my blonde straight hair, and I would marvel at the patience and time to create such art. It was so beautiful.

    When Katrina swallowed New Orleans, I searched the lists for signs of my friends. I mourned each of them. God, I hope they made it out and are happy today.

    I credit those boys on the subway years ago, who opened my eyes to, and beyond color. I pray that each of those boys ended up with happy families, and lives they dreamed of. I hope they made it beyond the horrible racism that still grips far too much of America!!!

    Where once I might have been one of those to pass on by, I hope I would have seen you, Really seen you and stepped in to help.

    Thank you to that band of boys all those years ago, who opened my eyes and helped me see a Fuller spectrum of color.

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  19. Thank you for sharing your story, there are so many different aspects to it, but what disturbed me the most was that someone put there hands on you, I can’t imagine how scary that must have been in itself, I’m sorry this had to happen and that so many people around you failed in their responsibility as human being to help protect you but I’m glad those boys showed up, wishing you the best x

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  20. Mira Steinzor

    (I saw this piece posted on reddit.com and left this comment there, but I am not sure if it was the author who posted it, and wanted to make sure it reaches her.)

    Reading this made me extremely sad. What a terrifying ordeal to have experienced! Please know that a random internet stranger is sending you hugs and hoping that you will never face a situation like that again. Honestly, I don’t know what to say after reading that devastating and beautifully written piece. I can’t imagine how awful that must have felt. I want to show this story to anyone who denies that racism or sexism exists, or questions why women don’t always feel safe.

    It is encouraging that those teenagers stopped to help. It did make me think how ironic it is that these teenage boys were the only bystanders to to help out in a violent situation that could have escalated even more, and it seems that this specific group of people (young black men) are such a common target of police brutality themselves. In a way, they had more to risk by helping out than any other bystander, and yet they did. That is true bravery and empathy.

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  21. I can’t even begin to imagine how you felt. There have been days where people have told me to smile and I didn’t, but I never got such a violent response.
    It saddens me that a lot of us don’t care about each other these days and this is what we teach our kids.
    However I’m proud of your emotional strength and your ability to write despite this harrowing experience. I hope you have a good day.

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  22. I am sorry to hear this happened to you. I am going to link to this post on my blog so more people can understand that this kind of thing still goes on in the 21st century. It’s troubling on so many levels. Glad you are ok.

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  23. Everyone: thank you so much for your comments. I have been overwhelmed by the response to this post, totally unprepared for the numbers of people who would read it and contact me. I so appreciate all the supportive comments and all the people who’ve felt comfortable to share their stories. You all rock.

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