This morning as I walked to work, minding my own business, listening to a podcast, I saw a black man approaching me with a raised fist. I had just passed another man who was clearly struggling with an addiction, who mumbled under his breath as he lurched toward me on the sidewalk. I pretended not to see him and went to the other side of the sidewalk. That is when I noticed the man with the raised fist, who was also likely dealing with an addiction. As he approached me, even though I knew I was the only person in the vicinity he could possibly be targeting, I pretended not to see him too. Unfortunately, there was a lull in my podcast, so as I passed by without acknowledging him — the second strange man expecting my attention in a 15 second time span — he yelled “Look at you doing the most, you f*cking sell out.”
I was walking to work, with things on my mind besides how ingrained racism and patriarchy allows men to feel entitled to accost me on the street. But I was pissed at myself for not saying anything back, even though that would have been the stupidest thing I could have done, considering the violence that too often occurs to women in similar situations.
The words “sell out” went in deep. Was it because I was well-dressed? Was it because I didn’t raise a fist or speak in return? I wondered if this man thinks the Obamas are sellouts, even as I simultaneously acknowledged to myself that he probably doesn’t have much thinking going on in his head at all.
I have only recently started wearing my hair curly after two decades of chemical and thermal straightening, but the politics of curly hair is not something I am willing to take on. As I watched the shadow of my hair haloed around my head as I walked down the street, it made me angry that the way my hair grows from my scalp gives anyone license to make assumptions about me, where I come from, or where I am going.
Just yesterday, before the incident of the raised fist, I was at my office when a middle aged white man attempted to compliment me. His initial comment was innocent enough, but the pause before he opened his mouth told me he was going to say something about my appearance, and that it would probably be about my hair.
As the doors to the elevator opened, almost stumbling over his words, this ‘professional’ man said “I like your hair.” Harmless, right? I said thank you and continued writing the text message I had been working on. As we entered the elevator, he continued, “It reminds me of the good old days, you know in high school.” I just looked at him because I did not know (or care to know) what the hell he was talking about. Unfortunately, he continued, “You know, people used to put combs in their hair, and they’d comb it out to be wild like yours.” Since he was a professional who presumably has his shit together enough to take in a response, I replied, “This is just how it grows out of my head.” He stumbled over a few more words of explanation, and I left the elevator.
From the office to the street, the way my hair grows seems to be a reason men think they should stop me from what I’m doing to project their politics onto me, a stranger. This is, by far, not the only time this has happened, and I am by far not the only woman this has happened to. Solange even wrote a song about it, and there’s a reason it became a sort of anthem against this kind of shit.
But knowing that I am not alone in this experience, and even knowing that these men are idiots, did not make me feel less alone during the encounters, and it did not stop the voices in my head from feeling insecure about my identity, my politics, and my place in this world. I was fuming by the time I got to the office this morning, and was on the verge of tears, and it’s all because some shitty men decided to project their shit onto me.