Yet when I have talked to straight men about what happens to me on the streets I have consistently been met with looks of blank innocence. They insist they know nothing of it. I have seen the same conversation played out extensively on social media where the men most devoted to the use of the hashtag #notallmen always claim ignorance, are “surprised,” so “surprised” they’ll go as far as to insist that what women are telling them cannot possibly be true, that invention or exaggeration on a global scale must surely be in play. Talking to a straight man about street harassment can be, as many black folk including black men have pointed out, like talking to some white people about the daily indignities of racism.
Somehow something enacted in broad daylight thousands of times in the lifetime of virtually every woman has gone entirely unnoticed by most straight men. At some point you have to ask: How can it be so?
How can it be so?
I am driving down the road from my home in Freetown when a youth makes a kissing noise at me. I brake hard, bringing the car to a halt. “Did you hear that?” I ask the friend I have with me. She says she did. “I don’t believe it,” I tell her. To the young man I say: “Come here!” I expect this kind of behavior in many places, but I have not experienced it in the city where I spent many of my formative years. The youth, in his late teens or early twenties, is leaning against a wall in the company of four or so friends. One of them nudges him and points to me, telling him he is being called. He pushes off the wall and approaches the car; he saunters over but his cockiness has already lost its edge. People are watching, not just his mates but the women stallholders on the other side of the road. A couple of passersby, too, have stopped.
As I have said, I grew up in several countries in the world and as an adult I have traveled much of it. In every city and country I have ever visited I make tactical decisions before I step out of the door. Time of day, clothing, route: these things must be considered. Often this is done at a subconscious level; at other times advice might be sought or given. There is a constant tension between the
When I start in on the young man in Freetown he apologizes almost at once. “My name is Aminatta,” I tell him. “And the next time you see me you will remember that and you will use it when you greet me.”
The youth looks startled.
“Yes, Aunty Aminatta.”
“Yes, Aunty Aminatta.”
Sierra Leone is what some anthropologists have called a “matriarchy posing as a patriarchy.” It is also a gerontocracy, and deference is expected of anyone younger towards anyone older, even if only by a few years. Over lunch I tell my stepmother what has happened and she laughs. “Oh, it’s those little dresses you wear. They think you’re younger than you are.” My mother, sitting sideways on her chair like a Victorian lady riding side-saddle, is dressed in robes arranged in swathes around her. I am wearing a cotton shift dress and sandals. Then: “Anyway the NGOs brought all that here with them.” She waves a hand as she sips her ginger beer. Freetown then was home to hundreds of Western aid workers, newly arrived in the wake of war. There’s a tendency to blame unpalatable social behavior on outsiders—and yes, everything about those young men (the sagging jeans, the backwards-turned baseball caps, the sullen expressions) spoke of an enthusiasm for American rap—but my stepmother is saying something different. She is saying that they were treating me as if I were a Western woman.
On my first visit to Ghana a couple of years later I have a series of similar encounters: In a hotel a young man in baseball clothes murmurs suggestively as I pass by. I stop and I yell at him. His companion, an older man in a business suit, turns and looks at the young man open-mouthed and orders him to apologize. As they walk away he continues to gesture angrily. The porter with my suitcase asks me what the young man said. He shakes his head: “They send them to America, you see.” A few days earlier I had taken a walk down the beach at another hotel. There were men working on the scaffolding of a building, and one of them called out to me. I stopped and shouted at him: “Is that how you talk to your mother?” A local friend who I tell later on will smile at this point in my story. “So they realized you are an African.” On my way back I had to pass the men again and I was a little concerned about how the next encounter might go, but the men were silent.
I won’t make a host of claims about the position of women in West African society and nor will I say that a man will never speak or behave insultingly to a woman in a public space. But I will say this: if he does and if she makes it her business to reply, she can expect the crowd to have her back.
Whose Space? Loos, Queues, And Other Places
When I was still at college I read in a newspaper of a study purporting to show that when a man and a woman are walking towards each other on the sidewalk, the woman invariably steps aside for the man. I told my flatmate about it, and the next time we went out she announced gleefully: “You’re doing it! You’re doing it!” Ever since then, whenever I think about it, I try to hold my ground and have often found myself nose-to-nose with men who are evidently so used to the path clearing ahead of them they can’t figure out where I have come from. In the last year or so the discussion has resurfaced and now the behavior being described has its own portmanteau, “manslamming.”
In July of 2017 New York Times reporter Greg Howard, a black man, accused white women of doing exactly the same, writing: “When white women are in my path, they almost always continue straight, forcing me to one side without changing their course. This happens several times a day; and a couple of times a week, white women force me off the sidewalk completely.”
Earlier in the same year I was standing in line for the ladies’ in a theater in Baltimore. The theater was under renovation, some of the facilities were closed and the line was about 50 people long. Women were making way for very old women and women with disabilities, allowing them to jump the queue. The crowd that night was mostly white and by chance I found myself standing next to the only other woman of color in the line. A white woman, older (but not so old she might have skipped the queue) and evidently wealthy, walked down the line, stopped halfway and inserted herself just in front of me. I looked at her. I looked around. I caught the eye of the African American woman next to me. “Did that just happen?” I asked. She raised her eyebrows: “Don’t say anything,” she mouthed. But I did, I said: “Do you just do that then? Stand wherever in the line you want?” and eventually the white woman slipped out of the line and walked to the back. I asked the African American woman: “Was it just a coincidence that she stood in front of us?” And she replied: “I’m saying nothing,” and gave me a look like I had been born yesterday.
I return to Helen Moffett, who pointed to how, during apartheid in South Africa, the dominant group, whites, had used methods to regulate blacks in public spaces in ways which reminded them of their subordinate status. It’s all about power, people endeavoring,
Greg Howard asked an Asian friend, a man, whether he was forced off the sidewalk by white women on the streets of New York. The answer was no. It was the white men who plowed through him.
Many months ago at a friend’s book launch I was standing talking to a man I always liked to talk to whenever we met. He was tall, six foot two or three, and still broad shouldered though he was then in his eighties. We were standing close to the bar, and I was telling a story and turned at one point to find his face suffused with rage. I wondered what could possibly have happened, and I asked him if he was all right. “He would never, ever have done that 30 years ago,” he eventually said in a low voice. A man on his way to the bar had shouldered him. “As if I wasn’t there.” He’d been manslammed. I am as certain as I can possibly be that this man had never cat-called a woman, probably was even the kind of person who stepped aside for other people on the sidewalk. By the same token I am equally certain he has never endured a carload of women hurling obscenities at him, heard a woman hiss filth into his ear as he waited to cross a road, or seen a woman waggle her tongue and clutch at her crotch. I remember his face, the mix of fury and frustration, how taken aback I was that he could be so angry, because worse
As I write this I wonder about all those guys, of every class and color, who have interrupted my thoughts in order to remind me of my place. For whom it was fun to try to unnerve or to humiliate me. To them I say, Just wait. It’s coming. Too late for me. Too late for you to learn much except a mote of what it might be like to be treated as if you don’t matter. But it’s coming.
I’d like to say I wish I were a better person than to feel that way.
I wish I could. But I can’t.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is published October 17th