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The Politics Of Safety For Women

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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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Michalet April 5, 2012 - 10:35 AM

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 - 10:53 AM

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 - 4:11 PM

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).

VirtualBelinda April 5, 2012 - 10:45 AM

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!

Rene April 5, 2012 - 11:15 AM

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.

mimi April 5, 2012 - 11:24 AM

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


Savannah April 5, 2012 - 11:53 AM

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?”

DrNay April 5, 2012 - 12:28 PM

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.

Diandra April 5, 2012 - 12:38 PM

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.

Tazzee April 5, 2012 - 2:22 PM

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.

Annette April 5, 2012 - 6:36 PM

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 - 9:17 PM

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.

Annaleisha April 6, 2012 - 1:00 PM

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!

vintage3000 April 6, 2012 - 1:04 PM

This was very courageous to put out there esp what you survived as a child.

Before the Internet i did not know there were other Black women threatened by this behavior. When i was about 5, someone old enough to be my great grandfather swatted my behind when i walked into a store to meet my mother. At that age you are bewildered and don’t know enough to say something. Now I live in Bed Stuy (sometime i joke it’s not gentrifying fast enough for me, sorry ya’ll) and while glad to see warm weather I always dread the harassment from Black males who think all random Black women and young girls are their personal harem. And it’s extra special when you are subjected to their brand of catcalling on a busy, commercial street in midtown Manhattan. Dude who WORKED at the post office window asked me if I minded that “your beautiful breasts take attention away from your lovely face?” After having guys talk to my chest most of my life, this still left me speechless and he only shrugged when I managed to stammer out how –i couldn’t even fnd words for what that was. They view us the same way we were horribly abused during slavery, and I don’t want to hear ‘hello my nubian empress’ either-just want to get from A to Z in peace. And I am wearing my pretty clothes and high heels. I understand how you camouflage yourself, but you have worked damned hard on your body and in this environment you are made to feel ashamed for even showing it. If you look at one of those neighborhood watch sites, when I typed in my zip code i could not believe the convicted sex offenders here.

Sorry for the rant. It’s enough to make you want to handle things a certain way, you’re oppressed so you’re going to turn around and degrade me? -i don’t think so. I am glad you are doing it positively, but it’s not even something you should have to be bothered with.

Kait April 6, 2012 - 1:05 PM

This post was both eye opening and heart wrenching… thank you for having the courage to share. No one should ever have to feel this way and I am sorry for what you are experiencing. You will get through this…you do have the strength and the power…look at what you have already done! And take hope and joy and strength from the fact that you are taking the right steps. We cannot control much in this crazy world but we can control our minds and all that grows from them. I wish you luck and peace and STRENGTH as you continue on this journey.

Erica April 6, 2012 - 5:21 PM

Erika this is a really profound and thought provoking submission. Thank you for sharing your story. As a native New Yorker, I totally relate to your concerns. Ironically, this sort of behavior happens all over NYC regardless of locale – Midtown, Upper East Side, Harlem & the outer boroughs. I moved from my childhood home in Harlem to Westchester the minute I got grown and made me some money (lol). Believe me, money does not buy you immunity, just another class of predator. While there are crazy people out there, we as women have to step up our game too and stay on the offensive, not the defensive. I’m only 5’2, so I feel I always have to stay on my guard. When I’m walking to and from anywhere and even leaving my car, the ipod, iphone, “i” whatever, gets cut OFF. I don’t want any distractions to keep me off my guard. I’m amazed by the number of women in NYC who walk the street talking on their cell phones or with headphones in their ears. They are totally oblivious to their surroundings. They risk getting run over talking on a damn cell phone. While diligence doesn’t stop a madman, we can make it harder for these clowns to commit crimes against us. I agree with you, self defense classes, strength training, etc. will give you the physical and emotional support you need. Most importantly, you must not live in fear. Wear what you want to wear. Live your life fearlessly….you deserve it!

Jabre April 7, 2012 - 12:01 PM

I wholeheartedly agree with your post. And people wonder why I have a 80lb pitbull as an inside dog. He’s my ‘I wish you would’, lol

marie April 7, 2012 - 3:15 PM

I feel really shy to comment after reading your article, but with all due respect, I may say that you have a lot of courage to write about this, I am impressed I would’nt have been able to.
Really wish that you overcome this really soon and continue to move on.
I send you many hugs!

PS: You are right about this predominantly black area thing: in the caribbean it is all the same!! What’s wrong with us??

Camille April 9, 2012 - 8:51 PM

Wow. Just wow. Your article brought back so many memories of my fear, starting in high school, of walking by a bunch of boys, because it was their hobby – their “right” – to call to me, to say something negative if I didn’t respond; worry about (crazy) men following me home, or where ever i was going. I hate wearing tight pants going out, and if so, my shirt has to cover my butt or I’m with my boyfriend. I’ve been harassed enough times to still be fearful about walking home alone, late. Still fearful to 2nd guess my decision to ask my bf to move out because then, who will protect me? I like Harlem and although a lot has changed, nothing has changed. Thank you for so eloquently expressing the fear of so many of us, by sharing your experience/feelings.

Erika Nicole Kendall April 10, 2012 - 6:03 AM

I probably should put a trigger-warning on the post, huh? 🙁

Camille April 10, 2012 - 6:58 PM

trigger warning – maybe. perhaps, also think about submitting your piece as a ‘letter to the editor’ of the times or daily news, etc to reach a broader audience. it resonates with so many of your readers, who knows who else’s attention it will grab – it’s such a valid, “un-talked-about” topic.

Elle April 9, 2012 - 9:12 PM

You have stated so eloquently what women go through as soon as they hit puberty, it uncomfortable, degrading and unfortunately part of life daily. I also understand where you are coming from having moved to NYC five years ago, and not having the safety of a car but walking everywhere has really open me up to street harassment. I’ve armed myself physically for anything that might happen but the psychological side still gets effected (thank god for headphones). But Erika you can’t stop! Ignore the ignorance and keep it moving. I just hope more respect is shown for you when you are walking down the street with your baby.

Elle April 10, 2012 - 12:07 PM

Thank you for this. You just put into words something that I couldn’t. We are in the process of moving and I hate my neighborhood and the county that we live in, but I couldn’t make my husband understand where I am coming from. Your post has given me the courage to try to talk to him about it again, before I pay more money to live somewhere else I don’t feel safe. He doesn’t understand why I don’t want to “go for a walk” or simply “leave the house.” He can’t even fathom–and he has four sisters. Sometimes I just want to put him in my body and let him walk around for a little while. Since I can’t, I’m going to read him this post. And yes, it really touched me that much. So again, thank you.

Is it just me, or did you feel safer when you were bigger? I hate to equate it to this, but the weight made me feel more secure in some ways. Not stronger, but somehow..insulated. Invisible. Not a target. And in some ways, not to be messed with.

Erika Nicole Kendall April 10, 2012 - 2:41 PM

Looking back, I don’t think it was that I felt “safer,” just that I felt like me being this manner of “less attractive” – because, duh, who wants a fat girl? *sad face at my old self* – might make me less of a target. If anything, I feel “safer” now because my ability to whip some ass has increased and my belief that I can fight for my life is more solidified. I wrote about this part a bit before.

I don’t know whether you can feel “secure” when you think and feel this way (because “secure” doesn’t mean invisible….because then you base your safety on whether or not you’re seen), but I do know that it’s a complex combination of beliefs that contribute to us thinking that the gained weight actually is a good thing, regardless of how we gained it or whether or not keeping it is actually healthy for us. :/

Lynne April 10, 2012 - 1:27 PM

Wow! I appreciate your courage and
willingness to speak your truth. I thank you for using your voice, and fingers to uplift and encourage and at the same time free yourself. May God continue to bless you and yours with all that you need…((hugs))

soulsentwined April 11, 2012 - 4:27 PM

I’ve experienced this sort of harassment since I was 12 years old ( I looked 9). Post college I’ve always had to drive to work and that has minimized the opportunities for harassers. I would like to move closer to work so that I can have a walkable commute for both health and financial reasons. But I worry that I’ll be harassed if I walk to work.

Claire April 13, 2012 - 5:48 PM

I’m white, 42, living in a good apartment in Sydney australia. Feeling ‘safe’ is how i choose homes, times to walk and places to walk. Humans are monkeys recently descended from trees….. The behaviour you describe is not limited to your racial, socio-demographic or economic ‘location’. I am enjoying being over 40 and a little heavy… I learn aikido so that i can feel able to defend myself and my child from crazies. I am safe now. I wasn’t safe before and the husband never understood my point of view. I wish i had something more useful to say, but humans are just a type of animal and mating dominates male thinking. Learn self defense…. As a sport, not a 2 day course. Live well ladies. Solve the fears with action. AND whats wrong with enjoying being home????? Live to you all. Claire

Claire April 13, 2012 - 5:50 PM

Ha! That was LOVE to you all…. Soz 4 typo

Eva April 16, 2012 - 1:57 PM

It doesn’t happen only in NYC; I’ve had it happen to me all over the US, and even in West Africa. Not so much now that I’m in my 50’s. Anyway, I think the key thing you mentioned are boundaries. Many people just aren’t taught them. Seriously. Boundaries are modeled. If you don’t see them growing up, you won’t know what they are. People who don’t have them think that someone who doesn’t want to be their BFF/lover/spouse after meeting them for five seconds is nasty, cold, evil. It doesn’t help that the media reinforces this nonsense, books, movies, TV; all of them have a story in which the woman at first says “no” but by the end of the story, she has changed her mind and recognized that he’s her “true love.” It’s confusing for a person who doesn’t get that catcalling isn’t going to endear you to him.

niksmit April 16, 2012 - 2:55 PM

I hear what you’re saying for the most part here, but I take issue with what I see as a false sense of security that you have with gated communities.
Do you really believe that you can walk freely at any hour of the day or evening anywhere?

I made the move from a midwestern suburban car culture to walking the streets of Harlem, Washington Heights, the South Bronx, and Crown Heights. I can definitely relate to the adjustments you’re making.

But I’ve also been catcalled and made to feel unsafe by groups of young white men while walking on a suburban street as well. It’s just one of those dangers of walking as a woman, anywhere.

I applaud your proactive response and recognizing your own part in your reaction to these changes though.

Erika Nicole Kendall April 16, 2012 - 3:57 PM

It’s not “gated communities.” It’s *that* gated community with *those* security measures. And yes, with frequent security patrolling at every turn, I did feel safe walking freely at any hour of the day.

It’s a privilege to experience that kind of freedom… and, with all privileges, comes frustration that others can’t or may never experience it themselves.

Marla April 17, 2012 - 8:08 AM

Thank you for writing this. The experience of a gated community is strange to me, growing up in the country in Australia. but I have felt this ‘male’ presence, this blurring of boundaries between myself and the sphere/actions of others. I wonder if my sister feels it too, but we never talk about that ‘kind of thing’.

Cross-Post: The Politics of Safety for Women | Version 4.0 April 18, 2012 - 12:19 PM

[…] Seriously, just read it, like, RIGHT NOW: Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss: The Politics of Safety for Women […]

Mynord Moreno May 2, 2012 - 12:08 PM

Hey, what happened to Mike Sullivan’s post? Apparently, it must have pressed someone’s button. This blog obviously doesn’t follow the “Fair and Balanced” doctrine.

Erika Nicole Kendall May 2, 2012 - 1:34 PM

I’m still looking at the insulting and petty comment left by “Mike Sullivan” …in my “pending” comments.

Comments on this blog go through moderation, and are approved by me.

The ONLY way you could see the comment left by “Mike Sullivan” is if YOU are “Mike Sullivan,” since the only way the comment would appear on your screen is if you were replying on the page where YOU left the comment.

So…you basically left an inflammatory, petty and misogynist comment on my blog only to respond and reply to yourself with a political pitch? (Since I see ALL THREE comments you’ve left in response to yourself. ROFL)

Son. Go find a rubik’s cube. That’s a MUCH better waste of time than playing with yourself in my comments.

Frances May 26, 2012 - 2:24 PM

This really touched me. As a woman of Irish and Cherokee descent my experiences obviously aren’t going to be the same as yours, but I grew in NYC (aside from my first 5 years which were spent on a reservation in the midwest) and I understand the fear that comes with walking down the street late at night and being harassed by strange men who don’t like to take no for an answer.

I was sexually assaulted a few years ago and the consequences shook me to my core. I spent years being afraid of going outside at all, to the point where my children were suffering because of it. I decided to do something about it and I began Krav Maga classes a few weeks ago (Israeli martial arts) and it’s done a world of good. Not only is it helping me get in shape but it has made me feel safer and more comfortable in my own skin.

Tanisha Jones May 30, 2012 - 2:57 PM

I dunno about you gals, but you cant live in fear. I live in east NY, and nuthin’ bad ever come my way. I own a pitbull and I take its everywhere with me. Guys be too afraid to holla at me.

Aly June 4, 2012 - 2:54 PM

I really appreciated reading this post. After losing a significant amount of weight this past year and simultaneously moving to Philadelphia for grad school I have struggled with how to react to the cat calls and street harassment. There are strange and uncomfortable downsides to changing how you look, and it has definitely been a transition that I hadn’t anticipated.

It was a wake up call that as I was saying goodbye to my parents (putting them in a cab to the airport) on my first solo day in Philly that a man walking down the street grabbed my ass – right there in front of them. I believe that this type of attention (and harassment) is part of the reason that I held on to extra weight for so long. I lost weight for myself, and I am so much more confident because of it, but there are days and encounters when I wonder if it was worth it. My good health is not an invitation for men on the street to comment on my height, my figure, my appearance!

Often I feel like this is a topic that I can’t discuss with my women friends without feeling like I am “humble bragging” about men thinking I am attractive. This subsequently makes me feel more isolated and unsafe – the men win! Thank you for putting words to my thoughts and making me feel a little less alone!

Young One September 20, 2012 - 2:11 PM

Thank you Erica for this post. My heart goes out to you…and all females who know and live this…

I have lived the majority of my life in suburbs of large cities or in the heart of small cities. My husband and I decided to make a move to Cleveland and live in the heart of the city. Wow, I never realized just how bad street harassment could be until we moved here.

Some men have never learned how to respect women and it is soooo deplorable…

It totally sucks, it takes away from the experience of wanting to live in a walkable downtown close to attractions.

I have certainly noticed as a black female, I get harassed just because I’m walking down the street…I understand about defense mechanisms…take another route, wear no makeup, wear baggy clothing…

We as women shouldn’t have to do that…

Somewhere our culture is broken, where some men are not taught to respect mothers, daughters and or sisters…This is what I wish we could fix.

Chivonne January 10, 2013 - 11:30 PM

I really, really appreciate your transparency. This is the unfortunare experience of so many women! Thank you for being their voice.

Heidi March 16, 2013 - 6:38 PM

Thanx Erika for sharing. I was wondering would u ever consider moving back to Florida just to have sanity and peace of mind?

Erika Nicole Kendall March 16, 2013 - 7:20 PM

I would, but I also have to learn to cope. It’s not sensible – just packing up and running every time I’m uncomfortable. Besides, there’s nothing that says I wouldn’t pack up and move back, and wind up encountering the same foolishness that I encountered in NYC – times change, people and communities change. What would I do then?

Nadia May 9, 2013 - 5:28 PM

Great post! This is part of the reason why I spend more money than I should to live in a neighborhood where men do not think it is okay to treat women and girls in that manner. I grew up in that sort of neighborhood and would feel sort of dirty as a young girl when I went out into the street to run errands, etc. and those types of comments and stares were directed at me.

Nydia May 27, 2013 - 3:56 PM

Wow. I totally agree with what you have posted having been the subject of similar unwanted attention since I was about 13 years old because I have big breasts.

Danielle June 3, 2013 - 9:27 PM

I’m a born and raised New Yorker, and I see what you mean. I’m lucky that I haven’t been harassed a lot, but I can’t say I haven’t been, period. When greasy hair, a TWA sweatshirt, and JNCO’s prompt someone to grab your ass, it’s like WTF?!?!?

For people new to living in NYC, it is a big adjustment in many, many ways. I wish I could speak on the larger issues at hand, but you already made a lot of great points.

I can only recommend learning to look as pissed off and as angry as possible. Always look like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. Don’t react unless it becomes physical, and if need be, carry something to defend yourself.

It can be a large set of pointy keys to box cutters, or a knife if need be. The only issue with the other two is if you get checked on the subway. If you know someone who can get you pepper spray, there’s that too.

I wish I could say things like this don’t happen in NYC, but they do. The news would be on all day if it covered what happens here. It’s really scary when things go down and it’s not reported. And, in years past it has gotten better. Parts of where I live I can go to, where 10-15 years ago, I wouldn’t.

Is it ideal? No, but when they say if you can make it in NYC, you can make it anywhere, it’s true. Although I couldn’t hack rural life. Major culture shock 🙂

Welcome to the neighborhood, and stay safe <3

cptacek November 7, 2013 - 9:43 PM

I was going to suggest pepper spray or a concealed weapon, but I forgot it was New York City. I had to stop at a rest stop in the middle of Kansas the other day, and I made sure to take my pistol with me. Because you never know.

Kathrin August 17, 2013 - 1:18 PM

WOW…you really put it all out there! I really appreciate it.

I’ve been thinking/feeling a lot about safety in public spaces a lot and it actually has nothing to do with living in Oakland. Looking back, I felt this way in Atlanta and in Philly but in different ways.

I’ve lost 170ish lbs over the last couple of years and the more I lose the more men feel they are entitled to speak to me however they please. I hate what this says about sizeism in this country and how this reinforces fatphobia. I also hate how it makes ME feel on a personal level. I walk with a few other folks during my lunchbreak and neither of them understand why it bothers me so much. “Take the compliment. You look great.” Never mind that I am queer, but even if I were straight, having a random dude sucking his teeth at me and commenting on my “ass” is not a compliment.

Angela February 18, 2014 - 2:47 PM

Thanks for sharing Erika. Powerful testimony and I pray for you that you will live as you deserve to live … free with peace of mind in a space that feels like home. I think it is important, however, to not over-generalize. I, like many other Black females, grew up and lived as an adult in Black neighborhoods. I have never been a victim of a violent crime and therefore rarely (maybe never?) equated the very dehumanizing cat calls and objectification by random men on the streets to be a direct threat to my personal safety. I do, however, share most of your sentiments and find that kind of behavior from men very insulting. Maybe if we as women talked about this more and support each other as we occupy public space (by calling out men who do it commit to teaching our sons and brothers what it means to treat women respectfully (instead of ignoring it). Then Black women could enjoy a higher degree of safety and security in our neighborhoods.

Anna Denton April 18, 2014 - 12:10 PM

Hello Erika, Thank you for writing this. I empathize with you. Living in Harlem for two years made me feel as if I was going backwards on my journey towards self-empowerment and owning my space. Getting dressed became a mental struggle: “I love those leather pants, but I don’t want attention for them…Ratty sweats don’t make me feel good, but they also stop men from trying to make me feel bad…”

My breakdown came one morning when I was taking my dog out while wearing nasty sweats, dirty hair and a massive puffy coat, and some guy stood RIGHT IN FRONT OF my path to the door outside, and harassed me, in my own building, at 8 AM. I was so upset I tried to take the revolving door, forgetting my puppy behind me, who was squeezed in the door. Thankfully, my dog is totally fine, but I was a crying sobbing mess who never figured out the right response to these guys – yelling at them incites ire and violence, ignoring them means they follow you, making eye contact sometimes shuts them up and sometimes eggs them on.

I have no idea what to do, but I found this incredible artist who does: http://stoptellingwomentosmile.com/. Look her up, she’s doing some incredible stuff in Brooklyn.

Erika Nicole Kendall April 18, 2014 - 1:30 PM

Yesss, Ms. Fazlalizadeh! She is so amazing. The NYTimes did a write up on her taking her work to GA, but – of course – the end of the article just made me sad all over again. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/10/arts/design/tatyana-fazlalizadeh-takes-her-public-art-project-to-georgia.html?_r=0

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