This is a guest post by Renee Bracey Sherman. Renee is a participant in Echoing Ida – a project of Strong Families. She is a fundraiser at the Wikimedia Foundation, serves as the social media coordinator for the Bay Area Doula Project, the board chair for Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Bay Area Chapter, and supports ACCESS Women’s Health Justice. Renee, a proud Chicagoan, is currently pursuing her Master’s studies in Public Administration at Cornell.
I cried in the shower this morning, same as yesterday, and the day before. I’m hurt. Badly bruised by your words. I know your words weren’t intended to wound me, but they did.
It was a beautifully hot day in Oakland, and I decided to wear a dress; not to look cute, not to catch anyone’s eye, but because it was hot. I was headed to an event to celebrate mamas, all kinds of families, and life. I tweeted on my phone, smiling to myself, and then it happened. This man in blue walked up close to me and whispered, “Hey Girl, you’re beautiful”, then blew a kiss in my left ear. I could feel the saliva from his kiss land on my earlobe and hair. And like that, he was gone.
It startled me. I wiped my ear clean, several times, but still felt the stinging of his voice in my head. My ear still feels hot and wet from his kiss. There wasn’t enough time for me to yell to tell him to stop, or to ask for help from a passerby. So, I did what most people do these days, I took to Facebook to shout my anger.
‘Really? More street harassment?’ I wrote. ‘Can’t I just wear a dress in 90 degree heat in peace?’ It was the fourth time that day that I had endured harassment while walking around town. Car honks, shouts asking for my number, but this one really got to me. He invaded my personal space, put his face over my shoulder and his lips to my ear. He left me feeling violated.
You responded to my post; I assume to try to make me see the glass half full and feel better. You reminded me that cat callings on the street aren’t a bad thing. “It lets you know that YOU GOT IT!” You told me that I was a ‘walking exhibit’, one that men on the street ‘can look at, but not touch’. When I saw this I froze. Is this what one of my closest cousins thinks of me? All of my hard work and education amounts to a walking exhibit, not even a person.
I cried. I’m embarrassed.
Am I a fool for hoping that you would see me as more than that? I thought you were one of the ‘good’ guys – one of those stand-up men that most people dream about. I have always been so proud to share how amazing you are; a teacher, a man who never spoke ill of his girlfriends, a man with whom I could have an honest and loving conversation. You were supposed to have my back. I chose to stand up at your wedding, not because you and your wonderful wife asked me, but because I wanted to stand and support you, as you had throughout my life. I wanted to honor you the way you have always honored the women in our family. Was I wrong?
I cried in the shower this morning. As I lather my body, I can’t help but be mad at it. Mad at my curves. Mad at my skin. Mad at my face. I scrub my ear over and over again. It still feels dirty. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make it as clean as my other one.
I need you on my team, cousin. I need you to understand why the behavior of your friends is not okay. It isn’t simple appreciation of my looks; it’s harassment. I need you to support me and understand why women like me should be free to walk down the street without men invading our space, yelling at us, honking at us. We need to be seen as people in public spaces, not exhibits for men to vote on with cheers as we walk by. I need you to support me and tell your friends that the way to approach me for a date is to tell me how smart I am, engage me in a conversation, ask me how my day is going – all before telling me that I’m pretty. You need to help stop this culture of degradation of women that leads to violence, rape, and death. One in three women will be abused at some point in her life. It has happened in our family, and it starts with this culture. When you stand by and let your friends do this to me, you’re hurting me too.
I’m tired of being told I look like Halle Berry, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, and any other light-skinned celebrity out there – because let’s be honest, I don’t. At all. Every time someone says that to me, I know it’s because they didn’t take 30 seconds to look at my face, just the 10 it takes to compare my measurements to Beyoncé’s. Next time your friends want to compliment me, have them tell me I remind them of Angela Davis’ spirit or Audre Lorde’s courage. Try, “Damn lady, you seem like you could be our next senator! Can I take you out?” They’d have my number in seconds.
Cousin, I love you. You’re a thoughtful teacher, a wonderful uncle, respectful husband, a strong Black role model, and will one day be a father. In your students, I hope that you will instill the radical ideas that not only are girls and women people who deserve equality, but they are of value beyond their curves. We deserve to be judged on the content of our character, not on the beauty of our face.
I want to know that when I walk down the street or in to a boardroom, people aren’t judging whether my skirt fits well around my ‘booty’, but how much my words will inspire them to create change. I can’t do this alone. I need you and other ‘good’ men like you to be my allies. I need you to stand up and call out injustices when I am not in the room. I need you to echo my voice when others won’t hear me. I need you to help make that change.
The next time you hear that I am upset for how I was treated on the street, don’t just offer up words that say it’s okay. Get angry like I am and vow to help change our society. And next time you see a guy shouting at a woman on the street, turn to him and tell him to stop, because she is your cousin.