Cat Calls Aren't Compliments

Two nights ago, I attended an Indian cooking class. The class was held in Fall Creek Place, a neighborhood four miles north of my own. I choose to bike to the class's location, and even rode with a Twitter friend who also had signed up for the class. After we learned how to make fish curry--and after we ate our share of it, too--we made our way back south. We pedaled down Alabama Street, pointing out and commenting on the color of particular homes. And as we biked--her in front, me behind and inside--we asked questions, half-shouting the answers over our shoulders. 

"Which do you like better?” she asked. “Your old neighborhood, or the one you're in now?" 

"The one I'm in now," I said, without skipping a beat. I thought about my apartment's proximity to restaurants, pubs, and coffee shops. I thought about how Fountain Square was, by foot, just ten minutes away, and how downtown was, by bike, fifteen. "Plus," I continued, "it feels ... 'neighborhoody.' I feel safer there." 

Little did I know that, an hour and a half later, my sense of security would vanish with a three-word slur. 

Wednesday afternoon was oppressive; a hazy veil had made the streets humid and gritty. By evening, though, the air was cooler and there existed, for once, a light breeze. From inside my apartment, I could hear the deafening hums of the cicadas, and, in a fit of nostalgia, I went for a walk. 

On my way back from Fountain Square, I stopped to take a photo of the skyline. I positioned myself against a railing, slightly bent over in hopes of setting up a better angle. I quickly glanced over my shoulder and noticed that a group of four male cyclists were closing in. As they pedaled past me, each of the cyclists proceeded to yell some sort of obscenity, slur, or sexist remark. The final and least offensive remark I heard was, "Mmm. Nice ass!" 

At the time, I did nothing but sigh. Cat calls and whistles and verbal harassment were things I had been hearing since I was thirteen. But as the sun lowered, and as the cicadas' hums gave way to the crickets', I became angry. 

Two weeks ago, while out on a run, I was cat called by three separate men. Each man was of a different race, and each slur had its own bite. I remember jogging down East Street, my breath heavy and footsteps hard. It was the end of my run, and I was nearing the three-mile mark. I was sweaty. I was tired. And I was lost in thought until a man stuck his head out the back window of an extended cab pick-up and yelled, "Run faster so I can see your jiggles!" 

He laughed. The truck sped on. And I dissolved into the pavement. 

I had started that evening's run on Monument Circle, where I had attended a rally in response to Ferguson. I and one hundred others had stood on the steps of the Monument, our heads bowed in a moment of silence, our hands raised in support. We had listened to writer and performer Januarie York recite a poem she had written after the shooting of Trayvon Martin. By the end of York's performance, cheeks were tear-streaked. She--and the rally as a whole--had given me something to both feel and think about. There was police brutality. There was race.

There were some things that I understood. 

And, then again, there were a lot of things that I didn't.

There are moments in life when you can't catch your breath. When there are no words. When all you have are weighted emotions burning inside your chest, waiting to boil over. The pressure just builds and builds and builds until your emotions bubble over the sides--messy, wet, honest. And, damn it, you have to cry in the gray glove of morning, when you're on vacation and the sun's first rays break over the mountains and you remember, just as you were about to forget, that beauty still exists. You have to. You have to hold yourself, hug yourself, rock yourself and let the hot tears of injustice bathe your cheeks because there's been another mass shooting and this, this, really, is the only way you know how to respond. You have to. You have to. You have to embrace a stranger--someone you've never known, and may never know again--for her bravery. She has a different skin color than you, but you don't care; you don't give a damn because all you know is that she came to a rally in Indianapolis with her eight-year-old autistic son, telling you that she lives in a constant state of worry for her child. "He could just be walking down the street in ten years, minding his own business, matching the description of someone who did do something wrong, and all of a sudden it's 'Stop! Put your hands in the air!'" the woman said in an Indy Star article. "And with his autism, he might get scared and run." 

A friend with whom I attended the rally was also interviewed by The Star. Her statements did not appear in the published article, but, as she herself said, "I'm not sure they actually want to use the opinions of a white, suburban housewife." She knew--and I knew, too--that the lives of many of those at the rally, and of those in Ferguson, were very different from our own daily experiences. 

Elizabeth from the blog Delightfully Tacky had similar thoughts, which she expressed in a post titled "Thoughts on Ferguson as a White Woman"

"I can't tell [people of color] that racism doesn't exist because I walk through the world as a white person who doesn't have to experience it. Of course I don't see racism; why would I? It's not happening to me. But as a woman, I know that living in the same place doesn't mean experiencing the same reality. Where I see a dangerous street with potential for a harassment or rape situation, men see a quiet sidewalk. Where I see a cop pulling me over for  a broken taillight, people of color may see a potentially vastly different scenario."

Or, as a male friend of mine said, "I don't think any of us white folks can ever understand what it is like to be feared ... by merely existing. I don't think we'll ever understand how that can affect a person, and their decision making." 

That friend, a journalist, had sent me a lengthy email with his thoughts on Ferguson. He told me that the story had been weighing heavily on his soul. A letter from my cousin said the same. My Twitter and Facebook feeds, for several days, were laden with posts, stories, comments, opinions, and articles. Many of my friends are journalists, or are former journalists, so the presence of such commentary is not unusual. We were all angry. We were all frustrated. We were all tired of asking questions. Why does this still exist? Why must we live in fear? In her blog post, Elizabeth said that when she sees her black Facebook friends who are mothers "share their despair over teaching their sons to never walk in a store with their hands in their pockets for fear of being accused of stealing, or to avoid wearing hoodies, or to never argue with a police officer for fear of the situation escalating to the point of something fatal, [she hears] the same despair of mothers with daughters sharing the heartbreak of having to teach their girls how to avoid getting raped, how to diffuse situations with harassers, how to give fake numbers instead of just turning a man down for fear of it ending in violence." She adds that, "We're fighting for equality ... for the opportunity to walk through the world without fear. For our stories to be legitimized and not discounted. For our lives to matter." 

Individuals are not disposable. 

The frailty of our existence is what occupied most of my thoughts on my run after the rally. Individuals are not disposable

I acknowledged that I didn't know what it was like to be feared. I acknowledged that I didn't know what it was like to be thought of as suspicious.  My fears, I thought, seem situational. My mother has always told me to be cautious. But she never had to teach me to be wary of what others thought of me. It just ... well, admit it, Dawn ... it wasn't necessary. For people of color, it is. I was halfway through my run, threading my sweaty body through the business suits chatting away in front of the Conrad. Exhaust from cars idling in front of the hotel overwhelmed my throat and lungs, choking me. And that's when I heard a voice. Over the traffic, and over the rambling chatter, I heard it. A grungy tenor.

"You dirty girl. Run over here and I'll make you pant!" 

The slur was gritty, as if I had heard it from a cigarette-wielding heroin addict whose clothes were rumpled from sitting on the back staircase of a dingy apartment that smelled of mold and piss. 

I kept my pace. 

His was the first of the three sexist statements I heard that evening. The second was on Washington, where a taxi driver honked his horn. He brought his vehicle to a crawl, matched my pace, and continued to honk and whistle until I waved, in his direction, that god damned Barbie-pink canister of pepper spray that I carry with me just in case. Not five minutes later, I was instructed, by a strange man in a pick-up truck, to run faster so that he could "see my jiggles." The fact that I spent half an hour running and was the recipient of three sexist remarks is disturbing. Evidently, it's impossible to go ten minutes without being reminded that I always have to be on guard.

After the incident with the four bicyclists, I shared my experience on social media. I was stunned--and humbled--by the number of comments I received. So many others shared their experiences. Their concerns. Their disgust. One friend even sent me a link to the following graphic, which was designed by Shea Strauss and appeared in Playboy

Cat calls don't make me feel beautiful. Men whistling and winking at me from their cars don't make me feel validated. They don't make me feel confident. No, they make me feel vulnerable and dirty. They rape of me of my self-worth. They make me feel worthless. 

As I mentioned before, the thought that most occupied my mind on that run was that individuals are not worthless. It doesn't matter what you are, who you are, what color you are, what gender you are, what your sexual orientation is, what you gender you identify with, or if you're tall, short, disabled or even unemployed. Individuals are not disposable.


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