Inviting Street Harassment: When ink, piercings, a vagina and black skin intersect

By Lebohang ‘Nova’ Masango

Nova reflects on the white supremacist capitalist society that expects her to be okay with white women flipping her dresses to see her tattoos, black men who shout out ‘magosha’ and ‘ama-tatoo’ as she walks the streets and black women who ask ‘innocently’ “do you know how beautiful you would look without all of that?” She is ever more adamant that their ignorance and fascination with the body that she loves is their problem and not hers. 

In the few seconds it took to bend down and adjust my shoelaces, I heard a nonchalant “Oh, I’m glad you stopped, actually,” as I saw my short dress being flipped up and the face of a white woman appear, lowered over my left thigh and studying it intently. I stood up and looked at her for a moment, indignant with shock, anger and revulsion. She smiled at me as though there was nothing out of the ordinary and my mind raced for a reaction. Knowing that I would be unforgiving of myself later if I were to let it go, I told her sternly, “you cannot touch people’s bodies without their permission.” We were in a crowded walkway as students left their lecture halls for lunch so my statement drew some attention from passers by. “I just wanted to see, sorry” she said with a nervous grin that feigned innocence. She had violated me greatly and I walked away fuming, yet satisfied that she was obviously humiliated.

I’m a black woman. Street harassment is a violence I endure daily. I’m a pierced and tattooed, black woman. The burden of strangers’ leers, remarks, unsolicited physical contact and unwarranted aggression is a rarely spoken violence I contend with in addition. This latter harassment doesn’t come in a package that I can easily categorise (e.g. black men in public spaces) in order to maintain my guard, so I never know when and how it will come at me next. The incident with the white woman is significant because I have always considered Wits University to be my safe space. Although there will always be mutters and gasps as I walk past, I hardly notice and more importantly, I’ve always been guaranteed that I am safe from violence and that the right to my personal space is recognised.

Prior to my socio-political conscientisation, conversations where I justified my choices to people, such as braids to my white classmates, were a given and they seemed perfectly normal. I am enraged that these interactions that are capable of leaving us so deeply scarred, are actually nothing to the perpetrators – both easily done and forgotten. In my more recent years, enraged by the reality of this world and the Rainbow Nation myth adding to my inability to have recognised this ‘benevolent’ racism as a child, I’ve sworn to never find myself in that predicament again. Truly, if any white person or man is to try me, I will make it so memorable, so absolutely “oh no, you did not!” that the person would have to have some serious introspection before they ever try it again, at least, with me.

I find myself at the receiving end of this kind of invasive behaviour from men and women, mainly white and black and of course, it ranges from “innocent” curiosity to aggressive incredulity. Considering that this white supremacist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal society has such little regard for black women, notions of acceptable aesthetics for us are still constrained by the narrow spectrum of pop culture and respectability politics. Anyone who transgresses this is bound to have his or her autonomy questioned and violated. That woman doesn’t know me. Her complete lack of respect for me through her casual lifting of my skirt in public really speaks to the pathology of white supremacy in continuing to perpetuate the myth that any and all black bodies exist for white people, for their entertainment and labour. The men who later saw me and shouted, “Yoh! Ama-tattoo!” and “magosha!” as I rolled my eyes at them after they made quite a huge performance of looking at me, also don’t know me. The pathology of patriarchy and misogynoir has conditioned black men to be constantly engaged in a relationship of abuse with black women. For daring to make aesthetic choices that do not pander to their particular male gaze and also being unapologetic about refusing to be flattered by their sexual harassment, I become the site upon which their existential frustration and desire to be phallocentric peers with white men is enacted. I will not be agreeable to their delusions of superiority.

Conversely, there are those who style their intrusive, lack of respect under the guise of ‘innocent questions’ or ‘making conversation’.  They have decided to make it my problem that this is the first time they see someone who looks like me and thus, expect me to coddle their curiosity whilst also being responsible in ensuring that their feelings are not hurt while they disrespect me. I am expected to smile and offer up polite answers for “did it hurt?”, “how much did that cost?”,“how do you blow your nose?”, “do you know how beautiful you would look without all of that?” and look interested as I am told all about a stranger’s childhood fear of needles, for the millionth time. (Dear, non-pierced/non-tattooed individual: Nobody cares, boo.) Self-preservation means that I often turn to the person and curtly ask, “Why do you feel comfortable with asking me that?” This simple act of reflecting their gaze back on them is empowering because I can watch them squirm in the face of how they did not see that coming and the realisation that I refuse to be accountable to them.

My existential conundrum in occupying his body and also transgressing normative constructs of how society perceives it leaves me open to experiencing the worst that humanity has to offer on a normal day. I fight back in whatever way I can. I’m now accustomed to having to conduct my daily affairs ready to shout down men in the street and snatch my limbs away from the grips of strangers. Every day includes me imagining scenarios I might find myself in, creating escape strategies and having my meanest glare ready for quick retaliation. Loved ones often warn that I should just ignore them but I seriously refuse to accept that anyone can disrespect me and walk away, unscathed.

I love my body, my skin and every, single choice that I have made in adorning them. I take up space and assert my right to exist as I am, wherever I am. Even when I am walking through the streets of the Johannesburg CBD – a terrifying place to be young, brown-skinned and a woman with a penchant for short shorts – I insist on not covering up. I will not suffer the oppression of my autonomy, in a pointless attempt to control men’s choice to behave violently towards us women. I will live and move as I please. Your ignorance or fascination with my body is your problem. Do not make it mine.

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  2. This is absolutely amazing and I share her sentiments. I have a nose piercing and I’m constantly asked why I decided to do it. I never asked anyone’s permission to pierce and therefore do not need to explain myself. It is unfortunate that society is conditioned to behave the way it does and it’s young woman like her who refuse to sit back and watch the injustices that will help in getting rid of these injustices. Keep doing you.

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