Monday, 19 March 2012

'Are you even black?'

To mark International Anti-Street Harassment Week, we are writing about our experiences of street harassment. Yesterday, Anouchka wrote about her experiences on NYE.


As I'm sure many of the other posts on this blog will say, street harassment is something as a woman you become, sadly, very accustomed to. The most memorable however took place when I was on a three month holiday with a friend whose family lived in Tokyo.

Each day, after teaching my English classes, I would go on to meet two of my friends working as hostesses in Tokyo's numerous hostess bars. The time would usually be anywhere from 11pm onwards. And, every night, I would walk past a nightclub with a group of hard faced bouncers weeding out the potential clientele.

Each night as I would walk past , without fail, one of them would say something along the lines of 'hey, sister'. My response would always be to continue ahead. At first I was flattered. Here I was in an amazing city across the world, where no one seemed to notice me apart from these cool looking ADULT men. By virtue of being migrant workers, it seemed that they were adventurers just like me, daring to go somewhere new and different. I had respect for these men because I felt that I knew something of their struggle. I didn't respond because I was shy and didn't know how to even begin a dialogue, let's face it, life is not what it is made out to be in American TV movies.

Once the novelty of this wore off and, it did very quickly, I started to get annoyed that that they refused to accept my silence as a sign that I wasn't interested. Before reaching the stretch that they would be standing on, I would brace myself for the cat calls. Ignoring them meant that there was now a bitter tone to their usual comments and they would look at me as though I was something off. Soon I began to walk on the other side of the street, to avoid them altogether.

One night I happened to be walking with one of my friends on her night off. Unaware that there was a problem with the side of road our usual hangout was on, she assumed that this was our easiest route. I felt too awkward to go into a long explanation of what seemed to be nothing. After all, it was only some guys expressing how they thought I was attractive, I should have been flattered not intimidated. As we came along to the bouncers the usual calling out began. I continued my conversation with my friend, looking at her or straight ahead. Before we had gone out of hearing range, I heard one shout out 'are you even black?'

It may seem like an insignificant comment that I should have been smart enough and strong enough to dismiss. But it was not. I had grown up the only black girl on my street, in my school, a handful of the ones at my uni. For me, this comment and my sense of anger and hurt at it has taken up a lot of my time. Some of it good. My sense of being expected to 'act black' by both white and black people became properly crystallised at that moment. It was something I had spent much of my late teens thinking about. How do you act black? In this case my blackness was directly related to the fact that these handful of black men felt a sense of ownership towards me that I obviously did not share.

For all it's distinctive qualities, my street harassment story is ridiculously prototypical. Men, strange men, feel and believe they have a right to your body, to attempt to own it with their whistles, stares and words. When their sense of entitlement is challenged you are made to feel as though there is something deviant about withholding the correct complying response. You become the problem. An uppity woman who thinks she is better than she actually is. It is, yet another, daily form of violence against women.

- Lola Okolosie

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