You may have already read Questlove’s piece about his own experiences and Trayvon Martin, and if not, it is well worth checking out. I have my own complicated feelings about the verdict, but that isn’t what was foremost in my mind when reading Questlove’s reaction, and thus I’m not going to talk about it now. Instead, I found it striking how much of what he said about being a black man in a public space could be applied to being a woman in a public space.
Now, I don’t consider these two realities completely analogous because, well, they obviously aren’t, and my point is not to dissect who has it worse. But his choice of incident to focus on, his “pie in the face” moment, to quote him, involved him gradually realizing that he had inadvertently frightened a female neighbor in their building’s elevator simply by his presence. It left me feeling like his story ended up (perhaps accidentally) illuminating another insidious problem, which is the fact that women are often afraid for their safety in public places with men. We are taught to be this way as a form of protection, though whether it actually works is certainly debatable. And so, as I read about his neighbor refusing to give him her floor number, I thought, I might do the same thing, not because he’s black but because he’s a man who outweighs me by almost two hundred pounds. (Of course, I have no idea whether his neighbor was reacting to his size or his race or his gender, I am only speaking for myself.) In that same situation, I know I’d be thinking, how safe is it to engage with this man, a stranger much larger than me? It’s a calculation you are constantly making, as a woman out on her own. It wouldn’t make me feel any better that he clearly had a right to be in the building because rapists are everywhere and can be anyone, and it’s on you to protect yourself, not on them not to assault you. Or so the narrative goes.
But I said above that I “might” do the same thing because I take martial arts classes and have, on and off, since I first moved to Boston. I don’t want to be afraid, and I know because I’ve experienced it that most men I meet are harmless, as in, they don’t intend to cause me or any other woman any harm. However, it’s difficult to undo all of that conditioning, the believing that you’re bait. So for me, the result is that I decided to get aggressive. Being aggressive is pretty much the opposite of my nature normally, which makes krav maga perfect for me. Krav is all about meeting aggression with aggression. You stop a punch by getting into the attacker’s space and blocking it before it extends to you. You deal with the threat by fighting back, fast and hard. You learn how to protect yourself against someone bigger than you. As one of my instructors said earlier this week, you make your attacker think, “This bitch is crazy!”
Now that I know how to do this, I weigh my odds differently. If I’m alone in an elevator with a guy I don’t know, I am more likely to think of where I’d hit him first if he grabbed me than I am to think, “I need to pretend to ignore this guy to stay safe.” It’s not that I’m stupid enough to think I’d win every fight, it’s just that I’m confident I’d have a chance, and so sometimes, engaging with the stranger is a risk I’m willing to take. I don’t want the burden of being scared all the time, and learning how to fight helped me to dismiss part of the fear that I was taught. (It’s important also to note, I think, that we are taught in class to do only as much as we need to do to escape, much as Jill described doing in her great piece on Tuesday. The point is never to kill someone, it is to be aggressive for as long as it takes to flee.)
And this brings me back to Questlove’s piece and the tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin. Part of what makes me so sad about it and what was highlighted by Questlove’s response is that it seems there is nothing a black man can do. I can learn self-defense and feel somewhat better about my safety in a public space, but he can’t become less black or shrink down his body, which are probably the only things that would make those who are afraid of him and aggressive toward him feel better. And I’m not going to lie, I know that if I ever do have to defend myself and I hurt someone while doing it, it is very possible sympathy will still rest with me as a small, white woman. That’s the accidental privilege I get for looking how I do. The same can’t be said for Questlove, who will be seen as threatening by some people even when he’s just standing there, playing Candy Crush, trying to be a good guy. That should be depressing for all of us.