first person

Easy Target

I was harassed and assaulted in broad daylight. Would bystanders have intervened if I was white?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

The workshop is called Self-Defense for Yogis. My neighborhood studio has offered it a few times since I arrived in Washington, D.C. but it takes me until November 2015 to sign up. I dread it from the moment I hit the purchase button. Taking the class feels like an admission of my inability to navigate the world without help, of how often I feel afraid when I step out of my apartment, of how tired I am of my own body.

The men who have sexually harassed me have come in all stripes. Young, old, black, white, tall, short, rich, poor. Heterosexual and gay. Educated and not. They’ve been strangers, friends, and friends of friends.

My outer layer has long been an invitation for men to smack their lips lewdly, grab my calves, pinch my hips, follow me home, call me names for lovers, and yell obscenities at me on the street. I’ve learned some things; others are unlearnable. Summer is worse than winter and spring worse than fall, but the nuisance is year-round. The amount of skin I expose is an unhelpful metric. My face could be masked up and cars would still slow down so men could crane their necks out of open windows. The unwanted attention does not make me feel beautiful, nor is it meant to. I realize that it isn’t about whether I’m pretty or about wooing me. My shell is an afterthought. A canvas for splattering insecurity and dissatisfaction.

Exiting the interactions intact requires caution. At times, I project obliviousness convincingly — blessed be the headphones, for they shall deliver me elsewhere. When the men insist despite this soft rejection, I take the careful approach and give them an ear. It’s hard telling which of them are carrying knives. The pepper spray my stepdad Dave sent me is buried somewhere in my apartment, unopened. It had been a kind gesture from him, but a part of me suspects that escalating these forced interactions with a chemical assault would not end well for me. I opt for a reserved smile and pray the men have somewhere else to be, so they can feel in control of ending our conversation. If we must keep talking, then the letdown must be gentle and always, always impersonal. These are fragile men.

While the world conditioned me for public humiliation, it taught them that they deserved access to me. Or, at the very least, the pretense of access. And so the list of valid reasons to deny them excludes a lack of desire on my part. If I walk away, it must be due to an exhausting workday, or because I’ve mysteriously lost my command of English, or better yet, because I already belong to another — preferably cisgender — man. Nor am I permitted to seem afraid. I’ve been called a bitch enough times to appreciate that the pace at which I extract myself from these forced exchanges must be tolerable to the men.

There are often plenty of eyes around. Sexual harassment has tainted each street I’ve ever strolled, every bus stop I’ve stood at, every campus I’ve crossed, every bar I’ve sat in, and every cab I’ve ridden in — regardless of whether I was the intended recipient. It’s happened in deserted alleys, but also in plain view, in places that should feel safe, if only for the sheer number of bodies around.

Sometimes, I think people who have been on the receiving end must be better equipped to notice. Then again, having eyes isn’t the same as seeing. The people alongside me are eager to get home; they’re busy talking to lovers, instructing waitstaff, smoking cigarettes, waiting for the light to turn, reenacting that last work meeting in their heads.

I never cease to be surprised by the number of my male friends, sensitive feminists, who believe street harassment exists, as any sensitive feminist would, but claim to have never seen it with their own eyes. I doubt they are lying to me. It’s easy to miss what’s in front of us without a reason to look. But to be routinely harassed in a sea of people, without so much as a blink, without anyone asking if I’m alright, if this man is bothering me, it makes me doubt my sanity. Did the exchange happen as I experienced it? Did it happen at all?

The self-defense class lasts an hour. The instructor is a karate black belt. Through a dance of footsteps and elbowing, he teaches us to get away in one piece. I will forget the precise sequence as soon as I leave the studio, but the basics stick. Eyes, throat, balls. Don’t be afraid to use your teeth. This is the easy part.

An endless trove of security footage shows women and young girls being kidnapped in open air, as people they’ve never met shove their alarmed but eerily silent faces into vehicles. People are often around at the time, putting carts away in the parking lots and filling their trunks with groceries, blindfolded by the immediacy of the small tasks before them.

How well my gender is trained, from a tender age, to take up as little space as feasible. We pride ourselves on not interrupting. We hesitate to cause a scene. The self-defense instructor tells us that aggressors count on this socialized instinct. Screaming just might stun them long enough to save our lives.

So tonight, we scream.

There are born screamers — and then there’s everyone else. I think the better test of which category one fits into isn’t shock or sex but anger. I watch the naturals with envy as their voices escalate steadily and without effort, unchained by proportion or the median range of decibels in the room. The rest of us seethe discreetly.

We are trying to scream.

The problem is that the hotter my rage runs, the harder my throat works to stamp out the betraying notes. Instead of rising, my voice lowers into a trembling growl, then a loud whisper, and finally, silence. Useless in the face of danger. A few women in the self-defense class soar to an almost convincing pitch but I can tell they’re still holding back.

We are learning to try to scream.

My first attempt is meek, wouldn’t grab a toddler’s attention. It’s been years since the last time I screamed, and I mean really screamed — the kind that empties your lungs, drains your strength, won’t let anyone look away. I was a teenager in my parents’ home. Even then, I wasn’t awake enough to deserve credit. The bloodcurdling sound had pierced through my nightmare. Only once my mom and Dave appeared in my doorway, their faces aghast, did I understand that the scream had emerged from my chest.

My second effort is better but not great. Still, walking home from the studio that night, I feel a little bolder. The studio is two and a half blocks from my apartment in Petworth. Knowing my parents would check the city crime alerts, I’d hesitated to give them my precise address until the apartment was mine and it was too late to reverse course on moving. The alerts emphasize carjackings and armed robberies, but I don’t have a car to jack and don’t look much worth robbing. The street offenses that cause me anxiety are rarely reported. Harassment that falls short of rape doesn’t warrant the note. Nor am I convinced that men are worse within the city limits than elsewhere. All sexual harassment being equal, I choose proximity to the people and amenities I love. And though my parents still fret about Petworth, they of all people understand that total safety is an illusion.

My mom and Dave had worked as hard as anyone to make our home in Reno danger-proof, defending it with ramparts built of tight curfews and prayer. I attended church two to three times a week, and prayed with my parents nightly. Our daily life was infused with God and evangelical theology through practices intended to sanctify the walls of our home. This was true in a literal sense, as when my mom dabbed holy oil on the windowsills (to keep demons away), and figuratively, in the type of media that we absorbed (also to keep demons away). Throughout high school, I was to be back under their roof by nine p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and certainly couldn’t go out both nights. Sleepovers were mostly forbidden. And still, this had not sufficed.

On an afternoon in March 2004, a man I’ll call Pastor Ilunga had phoned from London to inform us that he was coming to see us in Reno. Our duplex would be a tight fit, and the self-invitation was on short notice, but we were thrilled to receive him. Dave could finally meet my mom’s spiritual father. Just two weeks later, the man of God stood in our doorway. I was fifteen years old, more of a teenager than when we left London two years earlier. Pastor Ilunga, on the other hand, had not changed much. There was his same timbre, booming with authority, and the same playful eyes, perhaps in a pudgier body. Had his cologne always been this strong?

Dave carried his luggage up to my bedroom. I was to take the sofa downstairs for the length of his stay. While our guest settled down, I tried to shake off the shyness that stiffened my limbs whenever I felt intimidated. At dinner, I ate without speaking unless spoken to first.

The hugs began on his second or third day. They were sporadic at first. I was emerging from the kitchen when he rose to his feet and asked me to embrace him. When it happened again, I was reading a textbook on the sofa. The time after that, I was working on the desktop downstairs. Pastor Ilunga was a man of God, an elder and a guest in our home. It was my duty to go to him when he called, though I felt a tendril of guilt. Clearly, I’d not missed him as much as he missed me.

By the fourth day, the squeezes felt like an eternity. He’d just demanded another one when I searched the room for my mom’s eyes so she’d take note of my exasperation. Where was she? Minutes earlier, she was humming in the kitchen. I considered the previous hugs. Each time, my parents had been close but out of sight. Doing laundry upstairs. Picking up the mail. Searching for a fresh set of batteries. This was creepy. But what could I do besides obey him? This time, the pastor clutched me so tight that I feared it might crush my ribs. He buried his nose in my neck and inhaled long as if to empty me. Hours later, I could still smell his fragrance on me.

“Ness, can you take him to the indoor pool?” my mom said from the kitchen one evening. She was stirring a pot on the stove. Our neighbors in the complex rarely swam around dinnertime. It was sure to be just the two of us. I pictured myself standing on the edge of the water, barefoot, reluctantly in a swimsuit. And Pastor Ilunga, watching. What if he asked me to get in? What if he insisted on touching me?

“I have homework. And don’t feel like swimming.”

“I don’t want him to get lost on the way there,” my mom said. I begged her with my eyes. Please don’t make me go. For once, don’t make me. Pastor Ilunga sat nearby, pretending not to listen. My mom looked up with mild irritation but missed my telepathic plea.

“It won’t take long,” she said. “You don’t have to get in the pool.”

Having made sure to leave my bikini and towel behind, I waited tensely on a lounge chair while Pastor Ilunga swam some laps. He was agile, stronger than he looked. I braced myself for another embrace but when he was done, he simply put his clothes back on and signaled that he was ready. On the walk back, we talked about God and faith. I tried to seem relaxed, to play normal. He veered on a tangent. There were things a man of God was permitted, he explained, things that could seem immoral if anyone other than a man of God did them. He didn’t list examples. I told him that theory didn’t sound right to me.

On the fifth day, after another insistent hug, I snuck my phone into the half bath and dialed my friend Christina. We had met this school year, our sophomore, and though our friendship was young, I trusted her instincts. I told her that I was at a loss with what was happening. Here was a spiritual leader who seemed to really care for me. His attention should have felt flattering. Maybe Pastor Ilunga was seeing something in me that I didn’t. Yet, his touch repulsed me. I asked Christina what she thought, whether all this seemed right to her. Was I overreacting?

“Oh my god, Vanessa. This is not normal. You have to tell an adult,” she said. “Promise me.”

The alarm in her tone surprised me. I told her that I would. But after we hung up, I sat on the toilet and sounded out the words in my head. Pastor Ilunga won’t stop hugging me. My parents would look at me as if I’d lost my mind. The hugs had to be innocent. This was our home. No man would be so brazen as to be improper towards me in my parents’ vicinity. I felt ashamed of doubting Pastor Ilunga’s intentions. How conceited of me to believe a man in his sixties, a grandfather, might desire me like men on the street sometimes did. But even if I was right, and I wasn’t, his visit was nearly over. I could get through these last days without a fuss.

On his second-to-last night in town, the pastor called my name in a raspy whisper. I was in the hallway upstairs, getting linens out of a closet, after just having wished my parents goodnight. The voice came from my bedroom. A sliver of light passed through the ajar door.

“Come here,” he said.

My mom was talking at Dave while brushing her teeth. If I could hear them, they could hear me too. I advanced towards my room but stopped in the doorframe. Pastor Ilunga was flattening my comforter with great focus. He refused to look up.

“Yes?” I asked. He shuffled something on the nightstand. Maybe his Bible. I couldn’t see well. “Did you need something? A toothbrush or a towel?” Another minute passed or perhaps seconds. Too long for silence. Then, finally.

“Come here.” My stomach clenched but I crossed the room’s threshold. “Close the door.” I obeyed but stayed within reach of the doorknob. This was safe. I was safe. “Come here,” he said again.

Without asking this time, Pastor Ilunga wrapped me in his arms so forcefully that it pressed out my breath. He loosened his grip twice: the first time to smell me rabidly, and the second time, to lean into my ear and say, “Do you want me to come visit you?”

I paused to digest each word, in that order, in that moment. “You’re always welcome to come back … and visit us in America.” I felt my mouth warp into an involuntary smile and the rest of my body rigidify, as if the blood in my veins was congealing all at once.

Pastor Ilunga leaned back, without letting go, and took a good look at me. He cocked his head to the side and smiled. “No. Tonight.”

“I can’t … I have homework … and need to go to sleep.” The absurdity of my response jolted me. I shoved him off, hard. As I released myself from his grip, his large hand fell sloppily down my breasts and across my stomach. I hadn’t noticed it crawl up my shirt, and over my bra. I ran out.

Downstairs on the sofa, alone, I replayed his words in my head. How dense of me. I hadn’t actually said “no.” What if he came for what he wanted anyway? In a matter of minutes, the duplex would be dark. My parents would fall asleep. The possibility of waking up in the middle of the night with his heaviness on me made me nauseous. If he covered my mouth, no one would hear me scream.

I knew just what to do. Asking to sleep in my parents’ bedroom would raise alerts. But neither would flinch at the notion of keeping their door open. That’d make the pastor think twice about executing his plan. My mom was a light sleeper. A “win-win” as Americans liked to say. I bolted upstairs and asked for this small favor, in French so as to not inconvenience Dave.

My mom’s face twisted immediately. “Why? Did someone touch you? Did someone do something to you?”

Sitting on the edge of her bed, I tried to recount what Ilunga had asked of me but couldn’t process enough air to finish my sentences. My first panic attack. After I calmed down, my mom informed Dave that I would be sleeping on a cot at the foot of their bed.

I slept through the soft tap on their bedroom door at four a.m., and my mom’s steps as she accepted Ilunga’s offer to go on a walk for a conversation that she would not describe to me until he was gone. They circled the grounds of the complex. My mom says that she let him talk first. Whatever I’d reported — she wouldn’t reveal what, so he guessed — it was all a figment of my vivid imagination, the antics of a teenage girl starved for attention. My mom looked him in the eye and warned him if he ever laid a finger on me again, she’d kill him.

On Saturday morning, we delivered Ilunga back to the San Francisco airport, his body too close to mine in the back seat, and Dave at the wheel, unaware of the secrets crowding the car.

I pass the self-defense studio again one chilly evening in March 2017 as I head to the Petworth metro station, down New Hampshire Avenue, past the signs that ornate front yards with Black Lives Matter and Pride rainbows. A band I’ve been itching to see, Adult Mom, is playing at the Black Cat tonight. It’s warm enough for leggings and a loose sweatshirt. I could’ve walked or biked but it’s a little past eight and Taryn is already waiting for me at the venue.

The train platform is scattered with people, but much more tranquil than in rush hour. Along its length are coffee-brown pillars painted with the yellow-green line itinerary, and double-sided benches made of concrete. I slouch on one, a foot on the seat and the other on the ground. A young white couple sits on the backside. To kill the wait, I scroll down my Facebook feed aimlessly. A man takes the spot on my right. He’s around my age, late twenties or maybe early thirties, with shoulder-length dreadlocks. His complexion is as dark as mine. I register his face as handsome.

He taps my arm but I’m not in the mood to indulge men tonight. Undeterred, he motions towards the iPhone in his hand. I look at the screen. It’s a note, just for me: please sit like a woman. The man joins his hands in prayer with a pleading face.

I scoff at him and get back to minding my own business.

He taps my shoulder once more. Another note for me, longer this time. I refuse to acknowledge him so he taps me again, and again, and again, like a petulant child. With my headphones still in and gaze fixed on my own phone, I inform him coolly that I’m not planning to look so he might as well give it up.

Train lights beam out of the tunnel. I stand up, thinking the exchange is over. The rails grind so loud that I almost miss the shouting. I pull an earbud out. It’s the tapper, calling me a ho from fifteen feet away. When did he get that far back? I yell back that I like sitting like a ho, that it’s very comfortable to me. He continues to hurl insults at me, voice dripping with disdain. I am so vile to him. The feeling is mutual. I can’t explain why I refuse to cede the space as I have dozens of times before. Instead, I tell him what I think: “You are garbage and you can go fuck yourself.”

The train doors open. Rather than enter the car closest to him, he doubles back towards me. He’s moving quickly. I stumble towards the door closest to me. My instinct won’t let me turn my back to him. I don’t know what he’s holding anymore. I can’t see his hands. Only his face, zeroed in on mine. I accept that he’s going to hurt me and that I’m not going to get away before he does it. I decide that it will be a fist. No one has ever punched me but I know this will hurt. Tata Hélène’s face had stayed bruised for days. The time my ex slapped me, that time at his place, and afterward he went to sleep while I lay in his bed, wondering why I was still there and not on a train home, my cheek had burned for a half hour. He hadn’t even put much effort into it.

I am firmly inside the car when the tapper rushes in. He pushes aside a young brown woman in a green sweater to get to me. A black teenage boy watches the scene placidly from our corner of the train. We are all characters in his video game. The white couple that shared our bench hesitates to enter the train. They look through me with neutral faces, I think, calculating the personal cost of skipping this train and getting to their dinner reservation seven minutes late. Are they assuming this is a quarrel between lovers because the tapper and I are both black? The couple stays on the platform.

The tapper stares me down. He wants to do it so bad, I can tell. It’d be easy with me frozen there, big stupefied eyes, practically begging for it. But he catches himself. He’s a better man than that. A woman probably raised him. He has sisters or a daughter. So he tilts his head back, slurps up a thick wad of saliva, and spits it all in my face. It’s on my chin and in my eyes and in my hair. He runs out before the doors close. The train drags south. My fellow passengers stare out the black windows; the teenage boy reabsorbs into his phone. But the brown woman in the green sweater is talking to me while furiously digging through her purse. She says that she saw the whole thing, that I didn’t deserve it, that I didn’t do anything wrong. I let her dab my face with a tissue.

This is the last time that I take the metro until summer. I don’t report the tapper to the police. Even if I wanted to — and what good would that do me now? — my brain had erased his features as soon as the doors closed. Only broad details remain. Around six foot two. Athletic build. My skin tone. For months, I recoil at the sight of dreadlocks — every other block in Petworth — in fear that it might be him, prepared to finish what he started while my neighborhood watches passively.

Would I be reaping what I sowed?

Compliance and complicity share a root in the Latin word for together. Both intimate an agreement of wills and participation, however reluctant. Both are essential to letting men assert dominance over our homes and bodies. I’d complied and been complicit more times than I cared to admit. I’d let catcalls go, minimized them, and surrendered rather than speak up. I’d told my parents about the pastor and, in time, about the family friend, but reported neither man to their families or communities. My silence had allowed the pastor to return to his church unscathed. As for the family friend, his punishment was the mild discomfort of pretending not to notice my extensive maneuvers to avoid being left alone with him more than twenty years later. The men counted on my silence and I performed as expected. We all did.

How many people stood idly by while twenty-two-year-old Tiarah Poyau was having fun at a Caribbean music festival in Brooklyn, and a stranger insisted on dancing with her, then, upon being denied, gunned her down? How many looked away when another catcalled nineteen-year-old Ruth George, who was walking to her car in a Chicago parking garage, and convinced themselves that she must’ve known him, this man who would choke her to death minutes later? And who saw twenty-nine-year-old Janese Talton Jackson’s killer follow her out of a Pittsburgh bar, after she rejected him, and shoot her in the chest? Were the Harlem streets empty when yet another man killed twenty-one-year-old Islan Nettles, the woman he was catcalling moments before realizing that she was transgender?

A little spit never killed anyone. I’m supposed to feel lucky.

The self-defense instructor was onto something when he encouraged us to use surprise to our advantage. My off-script reaction had stunned the tapper, just as it had allowed me to get away from the pastor all those years ago. I could’ve gotten away that day, screamed my piece and run out of the metro station. But I wanted to stand my ground. I, too, deserved to feel safe in this public space, in my own neighborhood. I assumed that I’d be safe because of my neighbors. He bet on the same, in spite of them.

In the end, the tapper was right. Most wouldn’t bother to see if everything was all right with me. No one would force him to back off or demand that he apologize for harassing, then assaulting me. The platform would pray for a swift end to the disturbance. This is what we have inherited and built upon: a culture of nonintervention, where individual comfort trumps the collective good. Screaming embarrasses us. So, we look away.

The cost of this group apathy has never been borne evenly. In their 2019 study of sexual harassment in the workplace, academic researchers Dan Cassino and Yasemin Besen-Cassino found that, between 1996 and 2016, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dropped by 70 percent for white women compared to 38 percent for black women. I suspect that sexual harassment follows a similar pattern in the street and, perhaps, in the home. And why wouldn’t it? “The shift … indicates that harassers are conscious of power relationships, and choose to target more vulnerable women,” wrote the researchers.

Nothing about this vulnerability is innate. Rather, it is the byproduct of a history that was never interested in distributing oppression evenly when it assessed blackness, in all its gradients, in order to price and put to service and sexualize and inflict violence on bodies like mine — sometimes for profit, often at no consequence, and in certain instances, with the blessing of the state. This same history informs men’s perceptions of my standing within our stratified society. It influences their calculus, consciously or not, of whether their sexual harassment will be noticed, of the likelihood anyone will take me at my word, or intervene if the interaction sours.

Reimagining the events of that night, this time in the shell of a white woman, I doubt the train platform observes the incident with such cool detachment. I wager that the tapper doesn’t set his target on me to begin with. Instead, he taps the shoulder of the darkest woman around. She might be wearing a green sweater. Wisely, this one gets up to wait elsewhere on the platform. Perhaps, in this white shell still, I notice metro police officers riding down the escalator. An enlightened citizen, I look out for the tapper’s safety instead, conscious that public spaces are far more hazardous for black men than me. The train pulls in. The white couple gets to dinner on time.

It isn’t that sexual violence doesn’t reach white women. It does, with disturbing frequency. But a woman’s screams never land in a societal vacuum. Collective passiveness means that my lone scream might save me one day and kill me the next. The ultimate outcome rests on luck, but the odds are a cumulation of history.

Still I refuse to believe in the impossibility of reclaiming our homes, our neighborhoods, our right to enjoy public spaces. It will be difficult. It will demand more than well-intentioned signage or symbolic marching. Reclamation cannot be entrusted to a state that responds to trauma by inflicting trauma. Nor can it be outsourced.

On the contrary, the impulse to undo this apathy must come from within the whole. And with it, a new ethos. A rejection of complacency. Compliance with braver rules of solidarity. Complicity with the intent to defend one another. If I refuse to believe that it’s impossible, it is because the alternative — a world in which certain bodies are sacrificed to harassment, in which certain bodies are forbidden the comfort of a safe space — is too unfair to accept. This must be a group exercise. Our homework is to scream together.

Excerpted from Home Bound: An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging by Vanessa A. Bee. Published by Astra House. Copyright © 2022 by Elisabeth Vanessa Assae-Bille. All rights reserved.

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