Recently, I was walking home from lab. I was by myself, and the sun hadn’t set yet. I was waiting for the signal at an intersection, and I could see a man just standing around on the other side of the street. I could just barely see his outline as the sun was in my eyes, yet seeing a man just standing gave me vague feelings of unease. After all, I am a woman, and I have therefore been carefully taught that I should be afraid when I am alone. As I crossed the street, I could see that he didn’t appear to be homeless; my impression was that he was waiting for someone, and chose a rather unfortunate location in which to wait. He was a younger, trim, black man, and he was looking rather dapper in a light colored suit and matching hat.
Even though I am no longer residing in the Midwest, that culture lives deep in my blood–and so I make eye contact and smile when I walk by people. I made no exception with this particular gentleman. He smiled back, and said hello, and I responded in kind. Then, he said, “How are you, pretty?” I just giggled.
Let me pause here to explain what was going on in my mind at this moment. I was very aware that he called me pretty.It was the first time in a very long time that someone had called me that. It’s especially unusual that I am complimented on my appearance by a man in my own age-range. I felt touched to be so complimented. In all honestly, I was quite flattered. I was suddenly very aware of my outfit, my posture, my hair style, and how I thought I would appear. Yet–as this man didn’t know me at all, I also felt as though he was manipulating me, that he WANTED to me to feel complimented, so that he could have some small power over me. And in that sense, the fact that he called me pretty doesn’t mean anything at all about me; instead, it reflects upon him. And in a deeper sense, any manipulation he intended was quite effective, as his comment literally struck me speechless. But then, perhaps I was being hard on this stranger; perhaps he only meant to brighten my day, and I was taking his remark in the worst possible way. Perhaps, in fact, I was being racist! In what sense was this interaction determined by the fact that he was black, and I am white? How would I have responded if he had been a white man? Do I have an implicit bias at play here? And I also wondered, does he REALLY think I’m pretty? I hoped that he did. All of this flashed through my mind as my feet kept moving me forwards of their own accord, as as nervous laughter bubbled up from inside of me.
In response to my giggles, he wished me a good day. I yelled back, “You too!” without ever slowing my pace. What unfolded next caused this event to be solidified in my memory even more clearly.
There was another man walking behind me; he was smallish, white, and a bit nerdy looking. As he passed by the complimentary stranger, he said, “Don’t harass girls!” with a quiet firmness in his voice. The black man defended himself, saying that he wasn’t harassing me, and the conversation ended there.
My feet kept walking. My thoughts at this point were now only more complicated. On one level, I felt very respected by this second man. I was glad that he had the bravery to stand up for what he thought was right in respect to the treatment of women. Yet, I wondered if he knew how long it had been since someone called me pretty, and if he did know that, if he would have responded in the same way. I wondered how much of this interaction–both my internal process and the white man’s response–was impacted by feminist ideas. I wondered if he thought me weak for not saying something myself, for being friendly and going along with it. I was a little bit offended at the implication that I wasn’t able to stand up for myself and make my own opinions and desires known, if I did indeed feel harassed. I wondered if he was aware of how he, as a man, is more outside of the situation than I could possibly be. I wondered if I should thank this second man. I didn’t want to, really, as that would imply that the first man was indeed being a tool, and I simply wasn’t sure about that. Or, maybe this white man was also unfairly responding to the black man’s race. I thought about saying instead, “Hey you? You’re alight.” But I didn’t, in part because I decided that he wasn’t actually defending ME, he was defending WOMEN. Inaction won the day as my feet kept walking and he turned off and I lost my opportunity to say anything. I wondered if I had missed a chance to speak for women as he had taken his chance to speak for men.
If I could live it over, I’m still not sure how I would respond to either man. If I were a man, I’m not sure how I would treat women. Is there any context in which it’s appropriate for a man to call a woman he’s not dating pretty? What does it mean for women’s body image issues that compliments on her appearance are seen as harassment?
How do we, men and women, treat each other with respect?