This is a subject that I have been mulling over for some time and have finally decided to try to put down in words (today of all days because of an uncanny encounter earlier that I’ll get to in a minute). But before I get into the thick of it, I want to clarify a few things: all of the stories I’m going to tell in this post were encounters with black men, but that is not a reflection of some deeper belief I hold. I do not think that black men are more inherent womanizers, more likely to cat call a woman, or more of a threat to me than any other race of men (It’s in my nature to fear them all equally — something I touched on in a previous blog post that you can read here: Men Are People Too).
The fact that all of the following examples were encounters with men of color, I believe, has everything to do with my sample base. I live in an apartment complex and an area of town that has a strong international presence and is very racially integrated (even in my own apartment I have a roommate from Jamaica, a roommate from Morocco, and a Jewish Egyptian roommate from New York… and then there’s little ol’ me. Sometimes I feel like a bag of wonder bread in a world market bakery — white, soft, and lacking in distinguishable flavor by comparison). As it happens, and is unfortunately often true of neighborhoods that are culturally diverse — there’s a pretty low count of white people here. I only know of maybe two or three others besides myself who live in my complex and one of them is the old, presumably homeless man who smells like pee and hangs out in the parking lot. So most of my encounters with men as of late have been with men of color.
That all was a very long introduction to the subject that I actually wanted to talk about: cat calling. It’s something that pretty much every woman experiences (I used to get it the most when walking to and from choir practice in high school, but it happens everywhere).
And in the name of fairness, it does happen to some men too. Not as often, but it does (for example, I whistled at my fiance’s butt in Walmart a few weeks ago as he wandered off to find the bathroom. He didn’t hear me… but the old woman two aisles over did and her wrath was palpable as I blushed and scuttled away).
Some cat calling is overtly aggressive and obviously being used as a weapon to intimidate the woman it is directed at (honking, screaming, lewd sex noises, comments about a woman’s body — these are unnerving and not hard to identify as a deliberate threat).
What I’ve encountered a lot more of recently, however, is a gray area of cat calling that I have struggled to classify. Was it all harmless and well meaning? Was I reading too far into it? Not far enough? What was different each time that made me react differently? I’ll break down the occurrences as they happened for you and from there maybe you can help me decide. The one thing that each occurrence consistently had in common was me being dressed like a literal homeless person (we’re talking 3XL sweat pants, slippers, sweat shirt, unwashed hair, no bra).
The first time was back earlier this semester. I was leaving my apartment (WAAAYY overdressed for the 90 degree day, but I was sick and found comfort in my layers so I didn’t take them off and was therefore already sweating 10 steps from my front door). In contrast to my weather-inappropriate attire, there was a young man coming back from the pool, barefoot and shirtless. We passed each other on the walkway.
“Hello, beautiful. How are you?” he said, smiling.
Immediately I felt threatened by the intimate greeting from a total stranger– especially because I was anything but beautiful in that moment — but I didn’t want to appear intimidated, “Good, thanks. You?” I asked, not meeting his eye.
“Good!” he said, then called back over his shoulder, “Have a blessed day!”
That last remark took the barb of fear out of my heart. It was a statement of kindness not menace. I thought perhaps the difference was cultural. White people (as a rule of thumb) are an uptight bunch. We purse our lips and nod at strangers, we don’t compliment them. I’ve never been called beautiful by a white man who I didn’t know who didn’t also stare at me like a piece of meat when he said it. But maybe that wasn’t true for this man and how he had been raised to greet people. I wished that I had looked into his eyes to see if I could see his intention within them.
The next time it happened I was in the grocery store and an employee approached me while I was looking at frozen pizzas**
**(actually the very next time I was complimented by a black man who didn’t know me, he had mistaken me for man from behind and said, “Hey man, sick hair.” And I said, “Aw, thanks” and he said, “Oh, um, I mean, ma’am” and quite frankly, that hurt my feelings. But I also think there is a lot there that we could unpack about the difference in how men compliment other men — or rather, women they mistake for men — vs. how they knowingly compliment women. For now though, let’s focus on the next time a man knew that I was a woman and complimented me).
“Hey beautiful, you finding everything you’re looking for?” he asked.
“Yes, thanks” I said, closing the freezer door without grabbing the pizza I wanted and quickly walking away. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears as I walked in a winding, randomized path through the store, trying to put distance between me and him and refraining from checking over my shoulder. I left without finishing my shopping. His tone was friendly and his words not inherently threatening. In fact, I could easily make the same cultural difference argument that I had made before, but this time I had looked into his eyes and I had seen clearly that I was not safe.
Fast forward a bit and the next time it happened was a few nights ago. I had gone into the store for a bottle of wine, and since it was the only thing I needed, I grabbed my receipt to verify my purchase and didn’t put it in a bag (save the planet and all). As I was walking to my car a man yelled after me,
“That’s right, baby! All you need is a bottle of wine. You do you, beautiful.” I fist pumped the bottle of wine over my head in response, but didn’t look back. He hooted a long, loud, laugh and walked to his car. I hadn’t felt threatened by him and his teasing at all and I smiled to myself as I got in my own car and drove away.
I was thinking about all of this while I drove to the Food Lion around the corner from my house this morning to buy something for breakfast. I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet and looked like I could star in a post on the People of Walmart page. For a reason that I can’t remember now, I had started thinking about this “gray-area cat calling” thing and how to define it. I thought about the comments, the delivery, the locations. I was thinking about what I had been wearing and the way that I had responded each time, trying to find the common denominator. I parked my car. It’s not like I had been dressed to impress. Heck, I had barely been dressed to not actively repel. Why had they called me beautiful? Was it just a friendly term like when little old ladies call you sugar? Was the difference in eye contact? If I had looked at the men who I hadn’t felt threatened by, would I have seen ulterior motives in their eyes that should have frightened me? What was the secret to knowing when a compliment was just a compliment (even a poorly worded one) and when it was a threat?
I stopped for a car to pass me before walking into the store. A man leaned out the passenger window as they drove by, “Hey, baby doll. How you doing, beautiful?” he said, waving and smiling.
I think my jaw actually dropped. Not because what he said was particularly shocking, but because of the issue running through my mind when he said it. I looked him in the eye and, on a whim, smiled a big, toothy grin back at him. In that moment I decided to not be afraid. I don’t know what his motives were or what he thought of my response– the car kept going and I didn’t see his face. What I do know is that in that moment it occurred to me that a genuine smile might, perhaps, be the only response that achieves my goal regardless of his motives. If it was his intention to compliment me, then I could smile my thanks, because you know what, I am beautiful, thank you for noticing. And if it was his intention to intimidate me, then I could smile my defiance; radiant and unafraid.
I realized then that I might not ever be able to truly tell what a man’s intentions are when he calls me baby or honey or doll or beautiful. You could argue that the answer is for men to stop doing it altogether to avoid the confusion (I don’t disagree), but I can’t control that, only how I respond.
And I realize now that I don’t think there is a formula for distinguishing a gray area cat call/compliment. Things like cultural norms, personality, and background have to be taken into consideration because every man and his motives are different. You can’t always know. However, I think that sometimes you can see a person’s spirit shine clearly through their eyes and that you should trust your gut on that (even if I could go back, I would not smile at the man who scared me so badly I couldn’t finish shopping.)
But for me, for now, I am choosing to win my fight against misogyny (ironically enough) by smiling**
**(unless, of course, you tell me to. In which case I’ll tell you to go soak your head because you don’t get to tell me how to feel or react to the world around me, especially not for the sake of making myself more pleasing for you to look at).
Until next time,