, The Op-EdsThe Politics Of Safety For Women

The Politics Of Safety For Women

Brooklyn Heights, NY

There is a trigger warning for violence and general issues of safety, here. Please protect yourself.

An important part of this journey, for me, has been learning more about myself – paying more attention to the way I do things and the why behind the choices I’ve made. In the past six or seven months, I’ve learned some really nasty things about myself… not nasty because they’re so bad, but nasty because I’m pretty sure it says something about me.

Ask me if I care, though.

When I was 18, I moved out of my mother’s house. Left her house for the dorms, and left the dorms and moved into a house with a couple other people. It wasn’t in the safest environment, but it didn’t matter – I was pulling so many double shifts at work that I barely noticed. I, eventually, would go back home around age 21 to have my daughter.

At this point, it gets tricky. Once I was stable, I moved her to a gated community in Miami. Complete with security code entrance, security patrolling the neighborhood and even its own emergency response system, I felt safe there. I felt like it wasn’t a big deal to be out with my daughter after dark, walking around the neighborhood.

Eventually, I would move her (and our new puppy, Sushi) closer toward the beach, where it was less secluded, but because it was Miami Beach, cops patrolled the area every ten to fifteen minutes. I felt, again, safe. The island was no wider than maybe four or five street blocks, and I knew what those street blocks looked like. They were clean, loiterer free, frequent police visibility… safe. If I wanted to walk take my dog for a brief potty walk in a short dress, I could do that without being audibly harassed.

But when I moved to New York…

Let’s just put it this way. In a span of 16 minutes, I had 8 different men inappropriately speak to or compliment me on my body. I had a pair of men who followed me up a street all but outright demanding that I talk to them, and when I didn’t? They proceeded to discuss my underwear and how “scandalous” they must’ve been.

The Mister, as much as I love him and as much as he does to make me feel safe when I’m in his presence, has a full time job. And, unfortunately, it’s not to be my bodyguard.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that as a survivor of sexual violence – and, let’s face it, I was kidnapped as a child (and while you probably didn’t hear about it, rest assured that I can clearly recall at least 6-8 cop cars rescuing me) and, though the ordeal didn’t last very long, it has affected me as an adult – my safety is invaluable. My mother left Cleveland for Carmel in my teens – left her family and friends behind – because she knew, but never outright said it. She never plainly expressed it to me, but she knew she needed to get me some place where it wouldn’t be a problem for me – instead of, say, a boy – to take the trash out after dark. (Never mind the fact that most of my friends were joining “gangs” at that age and my Mom wasn’t having that sh-t.) That’s why it was so easy for her to welcome the pregnant me back home. We all know what it’s like for young pregnant girls who have no support system. Being back at home, 22 and pregnant, gave me the support I needed to start the business where I could afford that community in Miami.

Street harassment promotes a paralyzing fear in me… and it originally didn’t. Not because either of my experiences with having my safety shaken actually began with street harassment, because that’s certainly not true. Honestly, had it not been for my being followed by two men who didn’t like the fact that I was actively trying to create boundaries and choosing to deny them the pleasure of my company, I might’ve been able to overlook the “Babys,” the kissing-at-me-like-I’m-a-dog – yes, like a female dog… a bitch, if you will – and-expecting-me-to-come-so-you-can-pet-me-on-the-head-and-call-me-a-good-girl, the compliments thinly veiled in sexual innuendo… and I might’ve even focused less on the van of old male pedophiles – possibly in their late 40s – trolling for young Black girls fresh out of class to try to “pick up” in their van and, ostensibly, turn them out.

When you see all of this, experience and encounter all of this on a regular and consistent basis, it promotes fear. It compels women to react not out of their own choice, but out of fear. (I’ve long said that men policing other men’s sexuality is in direct correlation with the fact that men don’t want to be subjected to the same treatment that they bestow upon women – “What, I look like a b-tch to you? You gon’ disrespect me by kissing at me to come talk to you like a female or something’? Those bitches are the ones you kiss at! Not me, you faggot!” – and, therefore, contributes to the problem that is hypermasculinity.) Women act out of fear… not out of a desire to choose their own destiny, even when that destiny is so simplistic as “what to wear that morning.” Because, remember, if you’re wearing a short skirt and you’re raped on a street corner… it’s your fault. You shouldn’t have been wearing that. Hell, you probably shouldn’t have been out of your house. Why aren’t you barefoot and pregnant, again?

And, as a byproduct of blaming me for the bad things that happen to me, it has had a direct effect on me. I hate leaving the house and, when I do, I’m wearing the Mister’s sweat pants, his coat, and his t-shirts, with two giant dogs in tow. I’m always feeling like it’s my fault – even after I’ve written countless times about how it’s no one’s fault but the person who does the harassing – and that I shouldn’t be wearing such a form fitting pair of pants/that skirt/that jacket/that t-shirt in the first place… but I want to wear it. I’ve earned the ability to look the way I do in it, and I have the right to wear what I please!

That intersection of earning the body I have and a fear of “inviting” – whatever the hell that means – harassment has resulted in me hiding in my bedroom. Ever since I moved here. Literally. I rarely go out, and if I do, I’ve got the almost-hubby with me. I have a gym in Brooklyn Heights and Midtown to escape to… and I fear even leaving my house to get there. As a young girl growing up in a predominately-Black environment, you learn early on that “outside” is no place for you to feel safe. You equate “away from outdoors” with safety pretty quickly. If being followed by two men who’s parents never taught them boundaries makes you uncomfortable, well… you don’t have to deal with that when you’re inside. If you’re horrified by the sight of old ass pedophiles looking for young girls to snatch up, asking them if “they want a ride,” then you don’t have to deal with that when you’re inside. Bothered by the number of times strange men feel comfortable demanding your attention? Go inside. Highly unlikely to find strange men there.

And, worried about having your safe haven of “inside” invaded? Well, that’s what the two big ass dogs are for. Sala? Sala answers the door before I do, and while the UPS guy knows Sala… a strange man does not. Sushi? Well, Sushi barks softly and carries a big bite.

I’m sorry to say this, but it’s just not safe in the hood for Black girls… or those of us who were, once, Black girls. Or any girls, for that matter. The politics are so far from being equally beneficial that Black girls will never see the privilege of peace from sexual violence (or the threat of such) that most men have. The police are rarely there. The men aren’t there to “police” the behavior – as I’ve said before, it’s not even a matter of “Do you not respect this beautiful Black queen, my brother?” it’s simply “Dang, dude, just chill. That’s not how you talk to women.” – and provide even a modicum of safety. The women aren’t even there – if they live in that neighborhood and know how bad it is? Chances are, they’re keeping their asses in the house, too. How many of us, as minors, weren’t allowed outside? They’re trying to keep their children in the house, too… it isn’t until we’re teenagers that we start feeling entitled to roam those great outdoors and screw it all up.

So, who’s protecting Black girls? (It could also be asked “who is protecting gay Black men and the boys who are trying to “protect” their girl friends, but I am neither of those and am not writing about those. Just know that it doesn’t escape me.) Who is making our communities safe for us to walk through? In an essay I read on Ebony, a young girl was in a house with both her brother and her friend and, as three boys demanded entry to their home… once they were granted access, chased the girl upstairs and attempted to rape her. Her brother’s friend was sitting in the same room with the attempted rape, anddid nothing. The brother, who opened the door, never came upstairs to help his sister. Is this my daughter’s fate? Shit, is it mine?

I won’t lie – this conversation is often debate fodder for the almost-hubby and me. As a man, his idea of safety isn’t “Will you be raped? Kidnapped?” – it’s “will you be robbed?” Ask any woman – we might still be shaken by it, but any number of us would’ve preferred to be robbed. All he could really “get” was that this was no longer Biggie and Jigga’s Brooklyn, and it took a lot of tears and a lot of long talks to get him to understand why that’s not everyone’s experience. (Again, for “women,” the default feels “white;” for “Black,” the default is suspiciously “male.” Hmm.) Buying a house for “the value” isn’t, actually, valuable to someone like me. We reflected on the number of times he was asked, as a minor, to accompany one of his friend’s sister to the store, to school, back home, and so on. I told him that, while it was nice to have him around after work and that sleeping next to him is the best sleep I’ve ever had in my life, who is going to protect our children and me when we’re out? Would I fear buying nice things and keeping them in our house because I wouldn’t want to lose it in a robbery, the one “safety” issue he understood?

I can’t live in a space where I’m not comfortable with walking freely at any hour of the day or evening. I know that privilege… that pleasure, and I won’t give it up for anything. My heart is fighting against it. I can’t live in a space where literally no one feels inclined to ensure safety… and, to the detriment of the Black community, that is places where Blacks tend to live the most. It has also made me understand New York real estate that much more – the cheapest places to live are “the least safe,” and are also places where this harassment runs rampant. For many reasons, these places are also predominately Black. The perpetual fear that Blacks are scary and bad and dangerous – ahem – also plays into the reality that becomes the “white flight” and the prices people will pay to avoid “the scary Blacks.” It’s obviously not because something is inherently wrong with my people, it’s because – much like a frat house where it becomes policy to give girls roofies so that you can “score” with (read: rape) them – the behavior goes unchecked. It’s because there are no consequences. The main inhabitants are the ones who benefit from the policy (of compromising the safety of women), therefore no one is inclined to actually report it. There’s no one reminding anyone how wrong it is to challenge a person’s safety, especially women… not because “they are women,” but because they are consistently seen as “weak” and “helpless,” two qualities often targeted to be taken advantage of.

Couple all of this with the way Black women are encouraged to fear police, as if police are any more dangerous than many of “our” neighborhoods… and it feels like we’re intentionally engineered to have no advocates in our corner, and very few people will understand that. Not advocate as in “bodyguard,” but advocate as in “willfully and thoughtfully considering women and their experiences.” Add to that how many of us are shunned for not wanting to live in the thick of all of this foolishness? We’re selling out, we’re assimilating… and many of us might be, but is that always the dominating concern, here? Absolutely not.

Even after having learned and realized all of this about myself, the fact remains that I still have to be here. I still have to be around people I don’t want to be around. I still have to worry about whether or not the next pair of men who follow me up a street demanding my attention will decide to take it by force. I still have to worry about being deemed a piece of walking property, considered owned-and-occupied when walking with my fiancé, considered “vacant, ready and waiting for occupation” (much like a hotel) when I’m alone. I’m still parsing out what this means for me when I leave my house and walk/bike through Brooklyn, because I’ve been so uncomfortable with the places I have gone, that I’m woefully unable and lacking in the desire to find spaces and places that are for me. If I don’t even want to leave my bedroom, how or what is my first step?

For starters, therapy. It’s absolutely not sensible to fear leaving your own house… but, I do. I’ve fantasized about packing up my raggedy duffle bag and leaving, running back to Miami or Indiana with my mother, but I can’t let this defeat me. I’m better than this. It’s irrational to think I shouldn’t be more aware of my surroundings and environment, but it’s equally irrational for me to think that the only way to be safe is to hyper control my surroundings by never leaving the house. I’m proud of myself in that, with all this stress, I have yet to eat my emotions or even consider risking my progress, but the goal is to replace emotional eating with mentally and physically healthy ways to cope. This isn’t it.

The second is giving myself something to do to keep me out of my own head. The purpose of my studying to become a certified personal trainer was so that I would have reasons beyond myself to get out of the house and put in some work. Training for a race – just have to pick the right one – should also do the trick. Reading books, playing games… anything to keep me out of my own head. Occupying my damn time.

The third thing I’m doing, quite frankly, is for my own sanity. I’m taking a kickboxing class. Something to make me quicker, faster, stronger… better. A class that could make me feel more capable of protecting myself if and when something happens will help me fight the “helpless” and/or “she can take it” stigma society puts on me.

I can only do so much… it just happens that I can, at a bare minimum, do what I can to help myself.

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By | 2017-06-10T11:46:15+00:00 March 7th, 2013|Running, The Op-Eds|50 Comments

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes food and fitness, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is also certified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because she likes having alphabet soup at the end of her name.

50 Comments

  1. Michalet April 5, 2012 at 10:35 AM - Reply

    Wow Erika; you put out there. Big hugs for you GF. I too got tired of the ‘witty come ons’. I’m perfectly happy ‘selling out’ but I encounter this problem in suburban settings as well. I’m not sure what the solution is (besides getting a taser). Mentally preparing yourself by remembering that you’re a survivor is a way to start. I use to stop and say “your behavior is making me uncomfortable”, but that was DC in the 80’s-90’s. Things have changed and respect levels have been drastically lowered.
    I felt your angst and torture while reading your essay. I was involved in a similar position as a young girl. (an admirer of my singer father wanted his daughters out of the way so she could have him to herself) It changed my world growing up and as a young woman but I eventually took my power back. Find your peace sister. Be aware but try not to play the ‘what if’ game. It can paralyze you.
    I’m sending prayer to cover you on this leg of your journey. Mish

    • Erika Nicole Kendall April 5, 2012 at 10:53 AM - Reply

      I’ve always valued your insight as a commenter and supporter, Mish. Thank you so much for this. It was really hard to write and, as it is currently spring break, I had to write it without tearing up because my daughter sat next to me as I typed. Sigh.

      • Michalet April 5, 2012 at 4:11 PM - Reply

        Thank you Erika. I know you will rise above this just like the many other tests that have given you such a beautiful testimony.
        FB / inbox me. We can keep in touch better. I go back to China in September.(This time I’m only going for a month).

  2. VirtualBelinda April 5, 2012 at 10:45 AM - Reply

    I agree with everything you have written 1,000 percent. I have been considering writing a similar piece to this, but at a different point on the continuum of this type of situation and the ways in which men fail (mostly due to cultural norms) to support women in situations where the women are not being treated properly by other men. They don’t even blink about it. I appreciate your voice!

  3. Rene April 5, 2012 at 11:15 AM - Reply

    Thank you! My husband and I are looking for a place to move to. We currently live just outside of Baltimore and he would really like to move to downtown Baltimore. While I realize the benefits of living downtown – lots of things to do and places to go often withing a reasonable walking distance – I’m not worried about walking around when I’m with him. Its when he isn’t there that bothers me. Its knowing that if we’re downtown, we’re a little to close to the not so safe areas of town. (to many of “us”) Its sad but its how I feel for many of the reasons you mentioned.

  4. mimi April 5, 2012 at 11:24 AM - Reply

    wow. so valid on so many point. I will say this though, I think indirectly that is why when I lived in NY, I lived in queens (sunnyside area not jamaica area). My realtor was black and she would show me places in harlem that I just didnt like.

    I thought it was maybe since I gre up in a West African country and not a typical African-American neighborhood. But i certainly did not feel comfortable with all the guys just hanging around the steet corners and front porches…and thought about what it meant for when I walked back at night from the subway… alone.

    I loved it. Like I told my friend anytime I went to see her in Morningside, it’s so different how where you live changes your experience. I would take the subway to go out from my home, come back at 3am from a party….short dress etc… and no one on the 7 train would even say hello to me. They would just mind their biz. and i was happy. and i felt it was cause they were mostly asian/mexican dudes who were 1. not checking for some black girl and 2. on their way to work and not really awake.

    But the day I took the train in the evening (9pmish) to see my friend (a train) in jeans and a regular shirt. The number of “hey baby’s” and “can i get ur number”…. “ur looking gooooood” i got, once I got higher than 83rd st was just annoying.

    I’m not actually scared by it but I would rather avoid it (just like those people at the mall, trying to get you to stop, I always walk a different path just to avoid them).

    Anyway, I think part of it is cultural….and a lot of guys dont really mean harm by it..obvi. some do….but it’s annoying that women are the ones that have to deal with it.

    In short, I feel your pain

    *hugz*

  5. Savannah April 5, 2012 at 11:53 AM - Reply

    Amazing post Erika. Thank you for sharing this with us. I am also sending love and strength your way. I shared this on Facebook and this is the what I added:

    “I hate that this is something that women, esp Black women in the Black communities have to deal with. There is nothing worse than feeling like if something happens to you in the course of you minding your own business(ie being verbally harassed or better yet followed by some weirdo) it’s your fault for being a women, wearing that item of clothing, deciding that you have the right to decide who you give your attention to, that you dare to have dominion over your own body, that you dare date someone who isn’t Black, who isn’t male. It can be very frustrating trying to navigate the world in this manner. And yet we do. Everyday we get up and face this depressing reality, except for those who can’t or don’t. The women to paralyzed by fear or traumatized by what has happened to them in the past. What happens to them? How do we create spaces where this isn’t the norm?”

  6. DrNay April 5, 2012 at 12:28 PM - Reply

    Erika, know that no matter what you are a survivor and can move past this current wave of fear. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’m sure that just hearing about your fears will be helpful for someone who has been hiding in their room just like you. Continue to stay aware of your surroundings but also continue to live your life. God bless you.

  7. Diandra April 5, 2012 at 12:38 PM - Reply

    I would never ever move to a place where I could not walk the streets safely after dark, and I have lived some scary places. The BF, luckily, understands this, and I know he is often more scared than I am when I am out after dark – he has seen what the wrong encounter can do to a woman (and a relationship).

    Having said that, the last time I was approached in a less-than-acceptable way was in broad daylight and surrounded by a group of people. Don’t think that anyone would have said a thing.

    Next plan: I am going to earn enough extra money so I can take some kind of self-defense class. I will still be smaller and lighter than most potential attackers, but I am sure I can make them hurt.

  8. Tazzee April 5, 2012 at 2:22 PM - Reply

    This is such a true and powerful post! I currently live in Metro Atlanta and I’ve wanted to move intown for some time. This was a wake-up call for me. I can walk to the grocery store, pharmacy and my two of my favorite restaurants with no problem. While my husband doesn’t like me to walk at night, I don’t feel unsafe doing so. When I previously lived intown, I didn’t walk anywhere.

    It is indeed sad that we can’t feel safe in ‘our’ neighborhoods. And you’re correct, the issue remains unchecked. I guess the people that could do the checking feel there are more pressing matters.

    I’m praying for you, that you’ll find a place to live in peace and not fear.

  9. Annette April 5, 2012 at 6:36 PM - Reply

    Thank you so much for a place where we can come and speak our truths. I also after I got small the unteenth time. Where my cute new outfit just walking in my neighborhood two boys which I didn’t know rolled by and wanted to talk to me. I said I wasn’t interested. they started to follow. Fear like I have never felt paralyzed me I ran into a newspaper store and talked the gentleman behind the counter that guy has been following me and I came in to hide. The guy said he didn’t see the big deal. My heart was jumping out of my chest. I was literally crying a basket case. It brought it all back again. Of course I put on the weight to feel protected.

    Now that I am much smaller I still wear the baggy clothing as protection so I don’t bring attention to my body. I have started meditation daily to help quiet the fear and heal the past issues. I see other women who feel free to wear cute outfits what they like and feel comfortable and safe. I wonder sometimes if my fear attracted the situation I was sacred of occurring again. I want my power back.

    • Michalet April 5, 2012 at 9:17 PM - Reply

      Big hugs to you Annette. No woman should have to go through that. It’s not your fault. Understand this in your heart and soul. It Was Not Your Fault!
      Peace to you my sister.

  10. Annaleisha April 6, 2012 at 1:00 PM - Reply

    Hello Erica,

    I have been reading your website for some time, I really enjoy your posts!!!

    I will be putting your and your daughter in my prayers.

    I also experience sexual harrassment, I have also noticed a reduction in the amount of harrassment since I have gained a weight, around 15kgs. Because there are many West Indian (WI) and West African (WA) men in the area of London I live in. It is not surprising that there is sexual harrassment happening. I live in an area with a high crime rate also. Because of what I have experienced I have decided not to live in an area with alot of WI and WA people (because where there are WI and WA women the men will be there also). It is a crying shame as I was raised in the WI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    The only solutin for me is to move away from the areas that working class WI and WA with no respect for women frequent. Men who are educated don’t behave like that so I feel that if I can live in a middle class area things would improve for me.

    My heart bleeds for young girls and women who may not be able to afford to move out of areas like the one I live in. It is truly sickening. The black community is a toxic and dangerous place for girls and women (also for young boys who will no doubt see and learn this disgusting behaviour) the threat of sexual harrassment and violence is significant and has a huge negative effect on ones psyche.

    I don’t see any other option than to not live in a predominantly black area. I will HAPPILY accept someone calling me a “sellout” for this. As I am aware of the true reasons why I would not want to live in a predominantly black area.

    Thank you for this post. I thik this is the first time I have ever commented on your site but this article really touched me as I have suffered in the same way you have.

    Forgive any typos pls!

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