Coffee Rhetoric: Don't Speak: Women Don't Have to Smile or Say 'Hi' on Command

October 27, 2012

Don't Speak: Women Don't Have to Smile or Say 'Hi' on Command



Pic from: stoptellingwomentosmile.com
Recently on Tumblr, I shared an experience I had while out-and-about, that left me feeling a bit taken aback, because it ceases to amaze me how men go about exerting dominance and upholding patriarchy in shared spaces, towards women they don't know. And in doing so, will say the most crude things and make the most dictatorial demands, as if it’s their due. 


Also, while scanning my Facebook timeline, I came across another “Dear Black Women…” meme that, while presented under the guise of holding Black women in high-esteem, seemed to be nothing more than respectability politics in the form of a critical manifesto taking Black women to task over some perceived infraction against their manhood. The issue: this expectation that Black women should speak when spoken to by strangers on the street and smile on command lest we come across as seeming “bitter". Those agreeing with the meme were, of course, the segment of Black men who love to reinforce their disdain for Black women and our attitudes, and were predictably par for the course.

Personally, I am beyond sick and tired of this growing culture of misogynoir that demands it’s, somehow, my duty to placate some strange man’s ego or face his wrath in the form of being publicly berated, stalked, physically assaulted or looked at unfavorably because I’m exercising my right to do whatever the hell I want while navigating a public street. As 30-something-year old adult woman, I feel no sense of obligation to speak or smile on cue because some stranger I've never met or interacted with, will feel slighted.  

On any given day, a woman can be in the throes of a mindset that has her distracted or under distress. I recall one perfectly sunny day about several years ago: I walked from my place of employment (at the time), to the bus stop en-route home. I had just received an extraordinarily hurtful phone call from one of my sisters… our niece of 5 months had passed away. The weather was of no importance to me, because I felt numb. As I stood there quiet and very visibly shaken, silently willing the bus to come so I could go be with my family, this man proceeded to lecherously take up my personal space and mumble about how great I smelled and how "sexy" he thought I looked, and told me I “needed to smile” because it was “too beautiful a day to be looking so mad”.

I grew increasingly stressed behind the mask of dark, over-sized shades, so he may as well have been speaking to me in an indecipherable language from the deep, dank confines of a cave. But I was still cognizant enough to feel unbridled hate at the unwanted intrusion into my space. I was also incensed enough to feel the urge to want to pick up a blunt instrument and unleash a fury of violence on him and his audacity.  But I continued to willfully ignore him, much to his chagrin; and I thankfully didn't have a long wait to be able to get home.

Additionally, some weeks later, I was watched (unbeknownst to me), stalked into a wine bar and told by the perpetrator that he “had the right” to basically invade my space before he rattled off a list of unsavory things he wanted to do to and with me. He vehemently said that he "deserved a woman like me" after I asked him to leave me alone and expressed disinterest.

Listen, my humanity (when people bother to acknowledge it) has been relegated to a binder's worth of fucks.

Having to navigate a predominantly white, male political landscape that wants control of my body and thinks rape is legitimate – with any resulting pregnancies considered a gift from G-d is treacherous enough. So the prospect of having to walk on eggshells around a group of men (particularly in my own community) who are emphatic about defending the right to be able to stomp the shit out of me because I refuse to stop in mid-transit, to say "hi" or smile, is too much.

When you tell me to smile or insist that women need to speak when spoken to as if this isn’t a democratic society, the short answer is NO, I won’t and don't. Your response should be to move on without incident. To justify verbal or physical assault on women or get deep within your feelings because of a woman's refusal to respond to advances (benign or otherwise) is extraordinarily problematic and sociopathic.

If you're a man whose treatment of a woman is contingent upon whether or not she smiles and bats her eyelashes at you… a stranger… on the street and it has that much of an impact on your ego you, then it speaks volumes about you more than it does about the perceived pathology men like to ascribe to Black women.

Here's the official MEMO: I will welcome the male gaze and speak if I feel like it and reserve the right to do so if the situation warrants me to. I will, under no pressure or obligation to put you at ease. All women have the right to exercise agency without the threat of vitriol, push-back or violence. 

For more insight on gender based street harassment, visit the website for Tatyana Fazlalizadeh art series: Stop Telling Women to Smile which addresses the issue on a global scale and offers women a voice (via their personal portraits) to publicly confront their offenders. 

Also, the video “Walking Home” is an experimental short film/performance piece about the ramifications of street harassment on women of color.