Maureen Evans Arthurs works in higher education in Columbia, Maryland, and is a board member of Stop Street Harassment.
The author. Courtesy of Maureen Arthurs
The author. Courtesy of Maureen Evans Arthurs

Recently, Ebony editor Jamilah Lemieux wrote on Twitter, “RT if you are a Black woman (trans or cis) and have been assumed to be a sex worker by a White man.” It was retweeted more than 150 times. Here are some responses:

The online conversation about women of color being profiled as sex workers made me think about my own stories. The first time I was mistaken for a sex worker I was on my husband’s arm at an event in California four years ago. A man approached me, asking if he could buy me a drink. I declined, and he proceeded to whisper to me, “How much?”

In my naivete, I asked, “How much for what?” It wasn’t until I looked him in the eye that I understood exactly what he meant. I was speechless, angry and embarrassed. I hastily walked away while flashing the ring on my left hand, hoping to indicate that I was married. To this day, I wonder if he thought I was laying out my price.

I relived the incident in my head over and over again, almost excusing his behavior. Here I was, a tall, dark-skinned, thin, twenty-something woman on the arm of a white man in his mid-thirties. How mismatched and odd, I thought, we may have looked to some.

Our relationship now spans a decade. But that hasn’t stopped the repeated propositions a few times each yearJust last month, at another event, several male acquaintances propositioned me. Comments ranged anywhere from, “You’re  on the wrong arm, sweetie, I wish  I could go home with you…” to the incredibly forward, “We have this whole place to ourselves, it’ll be a shame if we don’t maximize our time here and slip away?” all said within 10 to 15 feet of my husband.

Until I began writing this piece, I never told my husband about any of these incidents because they were incredibly humiliating. I am not alone. This has happened to dozens of my friends and colleagues.

While there is not research specifically on black women being solicited for sex, a national study on street harassment conducted by GfK, a top research agency, found that more African American respondents experienced street harassment than other racial groups — for example, 48 percent experienced verbal harassment, compared with 45 percent of Hispanic respondents and 36 percent of white respondents. Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting and ending street harassment worldwide, has found in story submissions to the blog and conversations with women after workshops that dark-skinned women are more likely than light-skinned women to be asked questions like, “How much?”by men in public spaces.

Instances of mistaken identity are especially common for transgender women of color, like Monica Jones, who was arrested and accused of prostitution in 2013 for simply walking through an area the police officer said was “known for prostitution.” It also happens to girls. In Galveston, Tex., three police officers were sued by a couple who said the officers arrested and beat their then-12-year-old daughter in 2009 after mistaking her for a prostitute.

For centuries people have stereotyped women of color as overly sexual, promiscuous and sexually available, as well as in need of policing. Scholars like bell hooks, Deirde Davis and Patricia Hill Collins have written about how from the time of slavery through the present, the creation and perpetuation of a racist myth that black women are promiscuous, sexual animals and Jezebel temptresses has been used to justify their sexual, economic and social subjugation.

But this is about more than just being seen as sex objects. It’s also about respectability and the right to be in public spaces. Joanne N. Smith is the founder of Girls for Gender Equity, an organization that works with young women of color in Brooklyn, said these young women have “shared countless stories of being stopped by the truancy police and having to show ID to prove that they are who they say they are and that they are where they are supposed to be” — often when they are en route to their internship with GGE. She sees their experiences as similar to that of black women who are assumed to be sex workers because “it’s dehumanizing and devaluing of women of color and is a form of policing of our bodies by community and law enforcement.”

Personally, living in a Maryland community that prides itself on diversity and inclusion sometimes gives me the false sense of security that racial profiling doesn’t happen here. But the fact of the matter is, it happens everywhere.  Howard County blogger Candace Y.A. Montague recently wrote about African American women failing to be included in conversations about profiling and race in our own community. I agree: We need to have our voices heard.

With that national attention centered on Ferguson, Mo., over the past few weeks, the topic of black bodies in public spaces has permeated the media. While this important discourse must continue, it must also expand from men’s experiences alone to include the unique ways African American women are targets of racial profiling and harassment.

Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment, contributed to this article.

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