Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on BlackYouthProject.com and is reposted with permission.
I’m not a touchy-feely person. Like most humans, I appreciate having a say in whose fingers touch me, if I can help it. On New York City subways this seems almost impossible. But even when subways are crowded, it’s easy to notice people moving their bodies awkwardly to make sure they are not being touched.
It’s because people like personal space. We have a right to claim our space and be guardians of our bodies.
One evening, I was on the train with my partner reeling over Avengers: Infinity War after having watched it the second time when I caught an older white woman’s hand hovering over the sleeve of my pink faux fur coat. If I did not catch her, she would have touched me without permission.
When we locked gazes, she asked if she could touch the fabric and, naturally, I told her “no.” Her face twisted into a look of bewilderment and she glanced up at my partner, her eyes urging him to keep me in check. The beep of the subway doors was my cue to break eye contact with her and continue our conversation.
As the woman exited the train car, she told me that she just wanted to feel my coat, and mockingly repeated that she wouldn’t touch me as she got off the train.
Her response to my refusal felt like a not-so-creative way to tell me she didn’t agree with a Black woman having agency over her body. I hopped on Twitter to voice my outrage. Her actions weren’t surprising, and it wasn’t out of character compared to other white people I had come across, but I wanted to know: how many Black women have had similar experiences and how often?
So I asked.
This wasn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. I attended a concert on New Year’s Eve and a drunk white woman decided it was her duty to fix my collar. No permission. She did not let me know that my collar was waving to everyone first. I remember feeling her fingers brush the back of my neck out of the blue, just because she thought she had the right to.
Racial harassment has been defined by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a form of employment discrimination. It is unwanted and unwelcome behavior because of your race or color. While racial harassment was coined to describe the ways in which this type of violence can occur in workspaces, it can also exist on trains, in clubs, and virtually anywhere.
Historically, with white women-led feminist movements in the US, the issues that affect Black women are intentionally carved out of national conversations in order to serve the interests of white women. This is why so many of us are skeptical even in our support of newly founded movements like #TimesUp. Topics like consent have pushed their way to the front of trending topics, but we also must address racial subtleties affecting Black women for these conversations to truly be feminist.
How race affects conversations surrounding consent isn’t just about fingers in our hair or incessant searches at TSA. In response to my tweet, many Black women shared that they have also been sexually assaulted by sober and drunk white women alike.
White womanhood is inherently doused in entitlement and maintained through victimhood and the gaslighting of Black women’s experiences. This entitlement is rooted in the racist myth birthed during slavery that Black women’s bodies do not belong to us. As activist and organizer Fannie Lou Hamer said, “A black woman’s body was never hers alone.”
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The case of Recy Taylor, a Black woman who was abducted and raped by six white men in 1944, highlights the ways Black women were historically made “incapable” of violation, as scholar Patricia A. Broussard proposes. It also reveals the lack of bodily integrity Black women are allowed to have. The quick dismissal of Recy’s case breathed life into future violence exercised against Black women by both white men and women, as these racial assaults would continue not to be interrogated by the justice system.
When these racist myths are created and perpetuated, it frames our bodies as subjects and toys for our oppressors. White women who touch our bodies without permission are subscribing to this white patriarchal idea that our bodies are not ours and that we have no say in who is allowed to touch us.
More Radical Reads: Feminist Rage: 4 Ways White Feminists Continue to Silence Women of Color’s Anger at Racism
Last year, the New York Times published an intensive investigation of three Black women being sexually harassed in Chicago’s Ford plants. This story was largely ignored by others in the mainstream media despite the heightened #MeToo climate. We are intentionally silenced because of pre-existing racial prejudices that frame our existence, making it difficult and almost impossible for us to defend ourselves when we’re violated. This is the very reason the white woman on the train grew unpleasant with me when I denied her access to my body.
I wasn’t surprised when that white woman mocked me while exiting the train. White women are really good at ignoring issues that don’t concern them, so I knew the reasons why I didn’t want her to touch me would be beyond her.
I’ve grown increasingly tired of feminist movements stepping over Black women or using us to further their opportunistic agendas. I join the chorus of Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Audre Lorde, and so many Black women before me who have expressed their exhaustion with having our humanity disregarded to center white women. Time Should Be Up for them too.
Rachael the Lord is a writer and performer based in New York. She writes about Blackness, pop-culture, faith, feminism, fan fiction, and arts equity. Follow the Lord on Twitter: @rachaelthelord.
[Featured Image: Photo of a fat Black woman with short curly purplish hair, dangly earrings, a septum piercing, and a bright blue top paired with a long metallic necklace. She is photographed from the side sitting and talking. Behind her and blurred is a fat white person with short dark hair, glasses, and a black and white polka dot top. They are listening to her speak. Behind both folks is a white wall. Source: Source: AllGo – An App for Plus Size People]