I am 20. I am walking along the King’s Road in Chelsea in London. It is the 1980s. Three men are coming towards me; they are clearly together, though the foot traffic on the pavement requires each to walk a half pace behind the other. They are white, dressed in tight jeans and cap-sleeve T-shirts. The first man, as he passes, looks me in the eye and says: “You’re a pretty girl.” The second one smirks, but says nothing. The third one leans into my face and breathes: “Nigger!”
My final year at university and I had a part-time job working for an American foreign correspondent. One of my tasks was to pick up the broadsheets each morning, and in those pre-Internet days I would leaf through them and clip and file any articles on the stories he was covering. That day was a Saturday in summer. I generally came in later on the weekend and the street was already busy with people. I was on my way to his house with my haul of newspapers when I passed the three men.
You’re a pretty girl. Nigger.
The first remark did not seem designed to offend. You’re a pretty girl. It intruded on my thoughts, got my attention. Then came the complicity of the second man. Then, “Nigger!” What happened afterwards? Do you imagine that the first man berated the third man? Do you think they argued? And whose side did the second man take? None of that happened. I know it didn’t. You know it didn’t. The three men carried on walking down the road. At some point one of them likely turned to the others.
And they laughed.
A child learns to walk. The child hauls herself up on a chair or her mother’s knee, finds her balance and takes one tottering step and then another. The parents murmur sounds of encouragement, spread their arms. Come! Come! The father catches the child and swings her up in the air. My mother tells me that my approach was a little different from most infants’. I would crawl into the empty middle of the room and there I would take a breath and slowly rise. And I used my growing independence not to run towards her but to run gleefully away.
I grew up in the compounds of developing countries, in West Africa, where my father was from; and Southern Africa, the Middle and Far East, where my stepfather’s career as a diplomat took us later. The hazards of the compound were snakes mainly, and army ants. As children, my brother, my sister and I didn’t leave the compound alone much except to go and buy sweets or when we broke out in search of adventure. Around the age of five I began to borrow my brother’s clothes. Boys’ clothes afforded a greater practical freedom, were better for sliding down banisters, climbing trees, even the simple act of sitting. There was a lot of focus when I was growing up on making sure I sat properly, that is with my legs closed. My brother didn’t have to sit that way, which seemed odd to me, given that he had something far more prominent to display. I wondered why, if what girls had between their legs needed to be so closely guarded, we were the ones to wear skirts.
I went to boarding school at 6 and left at 18 for university in London. The enclosed worlds of compound life and British boarding school left me unprepared for the streets of the capital, the act of walking, specifically of walking alone and female down a street. Yet in my tomboy/cross-dresser days, which lasted until I was around 14, I had already begun to understand viscerally something I couldn’t articulate. I didn’t want to be a boy; I wanted the freedom I saw belonged to boys but not girls.
“I wondered why, if what girls had between their legs needed to be so closely guarded, we were the ones to wear skirts.”
2017. I am standing on the platform of a London tube station, I’m back in the city where I lived for 30 years, before making my home in the United States. A young man is looking at me. I ignore him, but his stare is intrusive. When we board the train he stands very close to me, and at one point his hand touches mine. I am twice as old as him, which makes this situation somewhat unusual. But everything else about it is familiar, and I’m old enough now to recognize exactly what is going on. The next stop is mine and so I move to stand facing the door. He follows and stands right behind me; I can feel his breath on the back of my neck. The train is crowded, it’s unlikely anyone else has followed his behavior closely enough to think it out of line. What the young man doesn’t realize is that I am facing the wrong door. This is my old home station, and the doors behind us will be the ones to open. At the last moment I swing round and exit.
A week or so later, on the tube again, I catch the eye of a man sitting opposite me. For a few moments I hold his gaze and then I look away. In the moment of turning I see him smile and it is a smile of triumph. He has won something, he has defeated me. Like the first man he is very young, around 20. In that moment I realize something chilling. My God, I thought, he’s
Nobody tells young girls that men own the power of the gaze. My mother never told me that men may look at me but I may not look back. That if we do our look can be taken as an invitation. Men teach us that. Over the years we train our gaze to skim men’s faces, resting for only a split second, shifting fractionally sideways if our eyes happen to meet. The man on the other hand, if he so wishes, will look at your face, your breasts, your legs, your ass.
In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey described how films are created to be seen from the point of view of the heterosexual male. Their female characters are presented to him as objects of desire. This is the “male gaze.” The gaze is power. Men own the power of the gaze. White people do, too. A white friend tells me of the time she took her adoptive daughter who is black to a small town in Maine and found her daughter the object of stares. “I guess there aren’t too many black people in that part of the country,” she suggests placatingly, because already I am visibly irritated. “And they don’t own a fucking television?” I say. “And they’ve never laid eyes on their president or his family?” (This was early 2016.) They stare because they can, by the gift of the power vested in them by their membership in the ethnic majority. They stare because her daughter’s discomfiture is nothing to them, may be the whole purpose.
When a man stares at a woman in public her sensitivities are, at the very least, immaterial to him. He owns the power of the gaze and he will, if he cares to, exercise it. The real mind-fuck is that enfolded into the action is the defense. The woman who complains may well find herself being told she should be flattered, that she is lucky men find her attractive.
“Where you going, baby?”
“Smile, little lady.”
“Want some of this?”
“Look at the ass on that!”
“You wouldn’t be able to walk if . . .”
“’Til . . . it . . . bleeds.”
“Nobody tells young girls that men own the power of the gaze. My mother never told me that men may look at me but I may not look back. That if we do our look can be taken as an invitation. Men teach us that.”
In the early 90s I shared an apartment in London’s Chelsea with a friend. One week, while repairs to the roof were being undertaken, we had scaffolding erected at the front of the house. My room was on the top floor and faced the street, and from there I could see the roofers go up and down the ladders. At certain times throughout the day they would take their breaks sitting on the scaffold deck right in front of my desk unaware that I could hear them as they took turns yelling comments at the women passing in the street below. The excitement each opportunity provoked was astonishing. “‘Here comes one, here comes one! Your turn!” One man in particular was actually jumping up and down on the scaffolding. The more evidently humiliated the woman, the greater the delight. From where I sat I noticed several things: Firstly, yes, the young and attractive women drew more aggressive attention, as if the men were intent on denigrating what they could not possess, to punish the woman for being desirable and also unobtainable to them; secondly, no woman who was walking alone was exempt; and thirdly, they especially liked to pick on women who were dressed for work, who almost certainly earned more than they did. The women were metaphorically stripped, just as women were in earlier times and still are publicly stripped in some parts of the world, for transgressing the boundaries of womanhood, for stepping out of their place. They were being shamed, stripped not of their clothing, but of their dignity.
As a child I was taught to ignore aggressive dogs, to keep walking. Once you’re out of its territory, the dog will leave you alone, so goes the conventional wisdom, and mostly it works. The same is supposed to be true of men, except it isn’t. They walk alongside you, they kerb-crawl you. If you tell them to leave you alone they will call you a bitch and ask you who the fuck you think you are. Every encounter, however seemingly benign, contains the possibility of violence. By the time it is over (you have entered a shop or a subway), your breath is coming quickly and your heart slamming against your ribcage. Why do men do this? Nobody asks the question and when I ask, I don’t get an answer. Sometimes it is said or suggested that this is simply the nature of men. What is interrogated more often is my response. Submissiveness is what is demanded. Women are taught not to answer back, for if we do we will escalate matters and then—the subtext—whatever follows will be our own fault.
Except I do, I do answer back. For, you see, it is in my nature. In London in those early years, I get into fights. In South Kensington a man threatens to punch me after I tell him to piss off. I say I am going to fetch a policeman and if he is still there I will have him arrested. He swears at me, but he goes. A man in Camden Town pulls out a knife and threatens to stab me in the stomach. A crowd, mostly white, gathers around me and watches to see what will happen. The man is black and so am I. The stand-off goes on for long seconds. “Do you want to fuck with me? Do you want to fuck with me?” Even then the ghost of a joke crosses my mind. Well, I thought I’d made it perfectly clear. Another man, also black and wearing dreads, moves through the audience. He walks up to us both, looks at the man with the knife and says: “What’s the problem, brother?” I never see that man again, not even to thank him, because the friend with whom I am walking has found a policeman and my harasser flees. But he is caught, and he goes to court and I am there, and I see him. His hair is braided and he wears a shirt and suit; he looks so different I wonder if I would have picked him out of a line-up. My statement is read to the court. He is found guilty, not of the sexual harassment which began the whole altercation, although the judge tuts at this part of my statement, but of possession of an offensive weapon. The case is over in minutes, my assailant is sent away to be sentenced at a later date. The girl I was walking with and her father attend the case. They both make it clear, though not unkindly because I have now learned my lesson, that this is my fault.
Later, when I tell the story I will discover that in the eyes of many of my white friends, the fact that I am black and both my harasser and savior are black makes this a “black thing.” Something in which they have no stake and in which the mostly white onlookers are now exempt from interfering; the courage of the dreadlocked man is suddenly not so great.
On the streets race and gender intersect, the dominance of men over women, of white over black, of white men over white women, of black men over black women, of Hispanic men over Hispanic women and so forth. Layered upon that is the relationship between men, the sometime competition and sometime complicity between men of all colors, the upholding of male power. This can play out in a variety of ways. For a woman of color, men of the same ethnicity may be ally or foe.
In London men view street harassment as an equal opportunities occupation. I’ve endured sexually aggressive behavior from men of every color and class. In New York I am rarely publicly bothered by white men. How to account for the difference? In America the edges of racial politics are sharper and more bloodied. Human motivations are often hard to fathom, but I’d give a good guess that white men in New York City are scared to be seen harassing a woman of color. To be seen. In public. There is also this—that within the codes of heterosexual masculinity, black men have ownership of and therefore power over black women. In some places this code is more strictly enforced than in others. On one of my last visits to the city I had to pass a group of workmen on a narrow sidewalk as they stood leaning with their backs against a building. In London this would be an inescapable moment. But we were in New York. All the
“In America the edges of racial politics are sharper and more bloodied. Human motivations are often hard to fathom, but I’d give a good guess that white men in New York City are scared to be seen harassing a woman of color. To be seen. In public.”
Emmett Till was murdered. Emmett Till did not own the power of the gaze, at least not as far as Carolyn Bryant was concerned. 50-plus years on, white women friends in New York complain of the behavior of some black guys there. They worry about being thought racist if they complain. This is the power play between men, the revenge exacted by certain black men upon white women but in reality upon white men. Payback is the pickup truck bearing a Confederate flag that cruises me twice on a long, lonely run in Western Massachusetts, the white guy with the baseball cap who turns his head and licks his lips on each pass.
At some point most women come to the silent and terrible realization that the men in their lives—fathers, brothers, uncles, boyfriends and husbands—are not especially outraged by their experience of sexual harassment.
Late one evening when I was in my mid-twenties I had a row with my then-boyfriend. I decided to go home until I remembered the time of night, that I didn’t have a car and would have to call a taxi if I hoped to execute my walk-out. I had very little money at the time and I’d have to weigh the cost of the taxi against the level of my outrage. A few months later, arguing with the same boyfriend (things didn’t last too much longer) while on holiday in Southern France, I remained walking on one side of the road while he crossed to the other. We were headed for the beach and the road was more or less empty. A man driving by, assuming I was alone, began to proposition me. I ignored him for a few moments and then I told him to get lost; finally I crossed to walk with my boyfriend and the man drove away. I remember very well my boyfriend’s reaction. He laughed at me.
Writing about South Africa, where the incidence of rape is among the highest in the world, the feminist activist, poet and academic Helen Moffett has stated: “Under apartheid, the dominant group used methods of regulating blacks and reminding them of their subordinate status that permeated not just public and political spaces, but also private and domestic spaces. Today it is gender rankings that are maintained and women that are regulated. This is largely done through sexual violence, in a national project in which it is quite possible that many men are buying into the notion that in enacting intimate violence on women, they are performing a necessary work of social stabilization.”
In other words, rapists are the shock troops of male power.
The more I think about it, the more I come to the uneasy conclusion that, whilst #notallmen are rapists or sexual harassers, equally #notallmen are too unhappy about the status quo either. The relative vulnerability of women in public spaces limits our freedom of movement and our choices. Good practice in personal safety—telling someone where we are going, allowing ourselves to be escorted home and not walking alone at night—all add up to an effective form of social control. “The necessary work of social stabilization.”
Only in the second half of the 20th century did middle-class women in many Western countries acquire some degree of freedom outside the home; before that, to walk unaccompanied was to be taken as a prostitute, a “woman of the streets,” a “streetwalker.” Walking, for a woman, can be an act of transgression against male authority. When a man walks aimlessly and for pleasure he is called a flâneur; a certain louche glamour attaches to the word. One rarely hears the term flâneuse. In her account of women walkers, itself called Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin observes that: “narratives of walking repeatedly leave out a woman’s experience.” Historically the free-ranging woman who dispensed with the domestic to claim ownership of the streets was a rare creature. Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, George Sand, the flâneuses who recorded their flânerie were women who all defied male authority in other ways, too. George Sand wore male dress so that she could move more freely around Paris.
“The relative vulnerability of women in public spaces limits our freedom of movement and our choices. Good practice in personal safety—telling someone where we are going, allowing ourselves to be escorted home and not walking alone at night—all add up to an effective form of social control.”
Only once has a man ever stood up for me against harassment by another man (with the exception of the dreadlocked man, though he did not know what had started the trouble) and the man who did so was gay. We were standing outside a bar in Soho in London smoking cigarettes when a young man passed me and made a remark to which I responded with a put-down. His rage was instantaneous. He was smoking too and he threatened to burn me with his cigarette, holding the lit end close to my cheek. My companion intervened and in doing so drew fire away from me, literally because now the burning cigarette tip was being held to his neck. The scene ended when a friend of the assailant pulled him away. Afterwards we talked about it. I observed that a straight man would almost certainly have reprimanded me for my comment but he, notably, had not. No, he told me, because he grew up having much the same fight on the streets: the sexual insults, the shouted provocations. As a gay man he had learned to stand up to bullies.
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
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
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 desire to look one’s best, to be noticed, and the price that will exact. I want to dress for my destination, the person or people I am going to meet or the event I am headed for, but I must also dress for the men I do not know who I will encounter along the way. Anonymity is something I can only imagine, to walk unguarded an impossibility. Certain places, though, are better or worse than others.
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
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, consciously and subconsciously and through myriad daily encounters, to establish dominance over those they consider less worthy. During the Jim Crow era in the United States, white Americans forced upon African Americans the same ignominies as white South Africans did upon their black populations, reserving certain public spaces and privileges for whites. When black people challenged this orthodoxy, it’s no coincidence they did it, just as black South Africans did, by walking, by marching, by crossing into those spaces barred to them.
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
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.