The whole country seems to be unsettled now that the trial is over and George Zimmerman has received zero punishment for the undisputed fact that he provoked a fight with and then shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin. All I keep thinking is imagining myself in his parents’ shoes, my baby killed and getting no justice. But the truth is, despite all the folks saying “We are Trayvon,” I’m not, and my babies *aren’t either. We are *unlikely to be perceived as threats based on our race. We *are unlikely to be held to a higher standard of suspicion. We *likely won’t be required to moderate our clothes or behavior or whereabouts in order to make others feel safe and thus ensure our own safety.
And Questlove has written a great piece about what it feels like to be like Trayvon, to be black and male in this country, to constantly be worrying about how others perceptions of his danger level affect his own safety. And I think we should all read it, and I think we should all think hard about the way racism and segregation affect our own day to day lives, and the fact that a lot of us live in neighborhoods where seeing a black man walk down our street would be so unusual as to be perceived as a threat. My friend Kyran, for example, has been asking some great questions about the intersection of economic and racial injustice in our communities.
But at the same time, the central story Questlove tells, about how hurt he felt by a woman who lived in his building clearly perceiving him as a threat when she was alone with him on an elevator, well, I am that woman, and I can’t say I blame her. If Questlove wants us to all walk in his size 14 shoes, then he needs to know a thing or two about that woman’s high heels, about what it means to be a woman in rape culture.
We are told over and over again that rape is something that happens to girls who aren’t vigilant enough. Who walk down the wrong streets at the wrong time in the wrong company. Who have too much to drink. Who wear the wrong clothes. Who send out mixed signals. You are constantly on your guard or you “get raped,” a phrase that has always bothered me because it’s like “got milk?” As if I went and picked it up at the store or had some say in the matter.
I’m not often alone in public these days, but I chronicled lots of harassment and intimidation from the days when I used to be, which you can find under my Bus Stories tab. It was daily, and the general message I got was: to be female, alone, in public is to be at risk.
When I am alone in an isolated place, my keys are between my fingers in case I need to use them as a weapon, and I have my phone out and ready to dial 911 if I need to. I would certainly be wary to be on an elevator with a strange man of any race, because an elevator is an isolated place. And this vigilance is exhausting and numbing, and there were days I have come home and literally cried because one more man yelled something ugly and intimidating at me as he drove past.
To be a woman in public is ALSO to be told you “aren’t shit,” as Questlove says he’s learned. It’s to be told you are an object for the taking, a message made clear not just by words shouted out of moving cars like “HEY SUGARTITS,” but also in the looks, and in the ways people talk about those unvigilant girls who get themselves raped.
I think, somewhere, there’s a place where Questlove and that woman in the elevator have something in common: patriarchy tells them both they ain’t shit. They both have varying levels of privilege, him as a man, and her as a white woman. It’s only in taking down the patriarchy that they can both feel safe in public.
*Words changed slightly from original post in response to comments and in an effort to make clear that I am attempting to recognize the privilege afforded to women perceived as white in this country. I don’t want to leap to the assumption that we are never seen as threatening by others, simply recognizing the fact that we usually aren’t.
**Traffic and comments keep rolling in on this post, and while I’m really happy with the attention it’s received, I’m also busy chasing 16 month old twins, and don’t have time to reply to every comment. I would also urge you to check out this beautifully-written, painful post that’s another take on the woman in the elevator. The comments and responses to this post have been thought-provoking and inspiring. I’d say a great step toward dismantling the system I believe hurts both the “woman in the elevator” and Questlove is to think about our fears, confront and examine them. I believe there are reasonable steps toward self-preservation, but there are also walls and barriers that separate us from one another. I need to focus more on reaching out.