a word on checkpoints and the assailing of women’s bodies

The State of Emergency is now in its tenth month. Violent crime levels appear unabated. Every issue of the Western Mirror carries a front page headline on some gruesome murder or gunfight.

Twice daily checkpoints are my new normal, since I live and work in two separate parishes. I drive through, waving to the unlucky soldiers assigned to stand in the middle of the road in the grueling summer heat, and smile.

At first I would approach each checkpoint with a sense of trepidation. Would they stop me to search my car? And then annoyance. Would they stop me to try and get my number? My experience was getting harassed by soldiers and police officers alike who appeared to have no other reason to stop me than to chat me up like a man in a bar. It was unprofessional and frustrating.

I used to slow and stop so that the officer or soldier could peer into the car, but these days I slow down just enough to give a brisk wave unless I’m told otherwise. This is just another way one learns to navigate social conventions as a person of the feminine gender.

After a while, when my frustration had faded to good-natured acceptance, I started to notice female soldiers now deployed to man the line. One day while cruising through at my snail pace, I overheard a bus driver call out a raunchy greeting to the lady soldier standing in the road. I cringed, and questioned.

Beyond the sexism that exists among one’s professional colleagues, a sexism that can potentially be challenged and eroded by professional success, is there a deeper and more pervasive sexism in society at large that undermines the execution of professional ‘gender roles’?

Is there a certain level of respect accorded to soldiers and police officers? Do we accord that same respect when the soldier or police officer is a woman? And does the change in tone when addressing a female member of the armed forces imply a lack of respect, or is it simply a neutral cultural phenomenon?

I’m pretty sure that woman was used to getting catcalls in her line of duty, and many women are. Some find it annoying, some find it flattering, and for some it’s just a part of life, neither good nor bad. In my culture there are many things that my liberal ideology struggles to accept, and this is one of them.

Is it inappropriate and unacceptable for a man to calls out ‘Psst, babes‘ when a woman walks by? Is it only inappropriate when he does it to certain Women, or in certain Spaces? Does the acceptability depend on the man’s intention: to objectify and assault, or to compliment and affirm? If the action is allowed, is there an expected response? Is it rude to ignore them? It certainly seems that way.

And is it really such a big deal?

In some spaces it can be. As a general rule I ignore the leaking air and the catcalls, but on certain streets I make damn sure to respond with a polite greeting. At issue here is the concept of danger. On main roads I feel safe enough to ignore the calls; on side streets I am too aware of my vulnerability to invite an uncertain threat. I fear, so I conform. But does this make me complicit in a social norm I desperately wish would change?

I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important that we start talking somewhere. A catcall on a lonely avenue isn’t the same as being sexually assaulted, but the threads of gender-based violence run deep. Until we can pick up the ends, wherever they are scattered, we will never begin to untangle that knot.

Lessons in Womanhood

As a black girl child uncertainty was bred into my bones. I was taught to doubt my every thought and decision. Taught to believe someone else’s version of the truth. Taught that my feelings were irrelevant to the task at hand, which was to pave the way for someone else’s vague notions of success. It isn’t that my family deliberately set out to rob me of self-confidence, but these were the lessons I imbibed as a child who was sensitive to the ways of the world.

As an educated black woman I marvel at how much these lessons continue to affect me, particularly in my academic and professional spheres. I note with envy how easily my male colleagues assume roles of leadership. How confidently they navigate their realms, without second guessing, without deferring to another person’s judgment.

I’m acutely aware of the influence that social class must necessarily have on these gendered upbringings. The poor have always been subjugated and have coped with that subjugation by adopting a deferential attitude. This is as much a survival tactic as anything else – the poor frequently have no options for economic mobility other than servitude. And a good servant is docile.

But I don’t want to be a good servant.

I want to be a strong black woman. Strong black women (history says) are rarely ever liked, but they are respected.

If there is one truth I must give the daughter I may never have, it is that her self-worth should never be called into question. That she does not have to shrink to make way for others to grow. That she must go out and make her mark on this wretched, wonderful Earth without fear or hesitation. That she must do this with as much poise and compassion as she can muster because the world will not be kind (though kindness is needed).

This is the lesson I hope society will one day teach: that our black girls are not pawns, no. They have been Queens all along.

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Credit for the image (as well as my blog avatar) to Zigbone.

From Preatoria to Hopefield

Some thoughts on “The Problem with Black Hair”

Jamaican girls with unmixed African hair – that super coiled, cry when it combing out, deceptively short until you tug on a strand hair – have mostly always relaxed their hair. Which, like most major life decisions, is totally okay when it’s a choice. Not so okay when  mothers relax their 5 year old’s hair because they just can’t bother to comb it.

Recently there’s been a movement toward “embracing your curls” – which some of my more cynical and curlier friends have decried as a purely “mixed girl hair” movement. African hair doesn’t bounce around your ears in curly waves, they complain, no matter how much product you put in it. Fair point, but short accessorized afros are steadily gaining pace among trendy hairstyles of the 21st century. And I am so happy when I see people not giving up on their natural hair for the sake of having it easy.

If you know me, you would know that statement is more than a little hypocritical, because my sole purpose in locking my hair was to have a low maintenance hairstyle. I hate combing my hair, bitterly, but I didn’t want to relax it because chemicals are terrifying. Locs were the compromise.

It helped my decision that locs are still relatively uncommon in this part of the island – the Kingston liberal arts and hipster scene is awash with dreads both real and temporary but in Montego Bay I’ve found locs are largely restricted to the working class. And I like to make minor stirs when I can, upset people’s predisposed notions.

The radically opposing points of view on black hair simply cannot find middle ground. There is the “natural camp” and the “neat camp” and for some reason they have decided that never the twain shall meet. Obviously one can be natural and neat, if one only adjusts and compromises the meanings behind those adjectives.

The afro is going to face the same uphill battle that locks did, because of its historic associations. Once upon a time, the only people with locs or afros were people who couldn’t afford to straighten their hair (read: poor people) or people who were rebelling against society (read: criminals). This antipathy toward hair that isn’t long and straight with no strand out of place is as entrenched as our antipathy toward melanin, toward the spectrum of sexuality, toward difference on a whole.

But the world is moving forward, tentatively. Acceptance is in.

The Strange Duality of #lifeinleggings

The ineffable Carla Moore (of mooretalkja) recently posted a video of herself on Instagram wearing ‘yaad clothes’ – no bra, somewhat revealing top, and short shorts. Her caption read,

“As a woman the things you do to liberate yourself may just end up as fodder for somebody’s spank bank. That doesn’t mean you should stop trying. It does mean you need to be realistic with yourself about consequences and how you will deal with them.”
–Carla Moore (Instagram @mooremayhem)

In the video she talked about the duality of this liberation/spank bank existence and how she was able to embrace this duality as a 30-something year old woman, unafraid of dealing with the consequences of her actions.

This duality is an unbalanced in-between space that many feminists have been navigating for years. The urge to dress up/dress sexy for yourself is always countered by the knowledge that men will assume you’re dressing up for them. The boldest feminists, I think, have barreled on regardless of what men may think, dressing however they want. The not-so-brave still resist, and I count myself in this category because sometimes I’m still afraid to dress up, thereby drawing attention to myself. And as a woman in the Caribbean (the whole world, but especially at home), male attention is usually the last thing you want to attract.

But going beyond the purview of #lifeinleggings and extending Carla’s think piece to a more general awareness of the feminine existence, another question arises: What other parts of myself am I struggling to reconcile? Aside from my sexuality (style? attractiveness?), what other definitions of myself clash in the public and private spheres?

The other day I went Christmas shopping and got super excited by the silly Christmas hats on display. I was trying them on and making faces while my partner snapped pictures (for blackmail purposes, I presume) when I heard a voice say, “Dr. Robyn?”

It was my former consultant and his daughter, whom he introduced to me. He was amused, his daughter was very politely concerned and I was absolutely mortified.

Compared to life in leggings, this is a shallow contemplation. But a necessary one nonetheless. Aspects of myself that I like and respect – my whimsy, my silliness, my endless stubborn optimism – won’t always impress other people. Can I live with that duality, the awareness that the same feature will represent different things to different people?

Writers have to deal with that all the time. They (we?) pretty much exist in a plane of ambiguity. One piece of work can be torn to shreds and elevated time and time again. How they feel about their creation will not be how their reader feels about it.

I suppose there is plurality in all things. It’s a condition of life. At the same time as we are somebody’s daughter or son, we are someone else’s sister or brother, mother or father, friend or enemy. We navigate these existences unconsciously (there goes my cis-privilege), but the burgeoning consciousness about gender interactions forces our experiences as women into a harsh light. We’re rethinking all the old ways of thinking and doing things, and we’re doing it loudly.

I’m waiting with bated breath for the outcome of these hard conversations. I’m hoping it ends with a woman being able to walk down the street and have it be just that: a walk down the street, instead of an invitation to harassment.

pax.