When he punched her, the air around the crowd held an electric charge of fear and anticipation.
When M. and I got off the subway in the West Village, there was a long line to get french fries from a truck, people standing around chatting amiably, and a general excitement about a night that is on the cusp of becoming a good time.
Three young Latinas stood in a circle. One was crying, and two were comforting her. I shook my head, because it seemed that they were having the kind of drama that would not matter 5 years from now. Haven’t we all comforted a friend who was devastated by the consequences of a night out?
An older black man (perhaps in his late 40s or early 50s) walked up to the crying girl and said, “your friends are leaving.” He kept interrupting their conversation. Two of the other girls were angry with him, and I almost stepped in to separate, but then decided the best thing to do would be protect M. and myself.
A minute later, the man made a wide, preparatory arc with his arm. He punched this woman in the face, and I am telling you the air stood still and our corner of the world was completely silent. A small crowd stood around in shock. A police car was right across the street. The men–bouncers, party-goers, and french-fry eaters alike–stood back in silence. The woman had not touched this man; she argued with him, and yelled, but she held back.
After he punched her, no police officer came rushing over. In fact, I looked at the police car. It was unoccupied, and there, I suppose, to prevent violence. The men shook their heads and said, “that was uncalled for,” but avoided eye contact with M., who yelled about how chivalry is dead. The women and man seemed to disappear entirely. In the uproar, we did not know where they went.
I disagree with M.–chivalry is not dead. It is a privilege that men grant to women they deem worthy. The Latinas were working class women in jeans and sneakers, women unafraid to jump in a man’s face and tell him all about himself. So the men didn’t bother helping them. No one did.
unfortunately, some men think like this, regardless of race or class. i do not stand in agreement with this meme, but am posting to show a terrible, terrible way of thinking.
I have studied feminist theories about domestic violence and male privilege. I have read and admired the poignant ways in which black women write about black men who are abusive. Only Hurston could make me fall in love with Tea Cake, who beat Janie in the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God. And Naylor made me want to marry a man like George in Mama Day, who slapped Cocoa. In those narratives, Tea Cake and George both died. It was a sort of literary justice for admirable men who have made terrible mistakes.
This is not one of those stories.
No, this was real life, right in front of my eyes.
And I knew why a black man could punch a Latina in the face without repercussion. In this country, there are values placed on people based on their race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality. Women of color are not valued in the way they ought to be. The intersection of identities means they occupy a space of oppression. Yes, women of color can fight against this. We all have agency. But on that street corner on Friday night, with no one there to rescue these women, and no one there to argue for them to have justice, it was clear to me that the system of oppression was still very much in place. It’s the reason why we mobilize against the violence done to black men, but forget the names of black women who have been killed. We should march for all of it, but somehow, the deaths of black women, or wrongful imprisonment, don’t quite attract the same headlines or amount of attention.
Ultimately, all of my academic theories could not have held that man back. I was just a medium sized brown girl in a pretty Guess dress who doesn’t know how to protect myself. Men have always fought for me, and God has always protected me.
For the rest of the evening, M. and I tried and failed to have a good time. There were too many questions left unanswered. When is it good to step in to protect someone else, and when should you step back and protect yourself? What risks should we take to protect others? If Jesus says, love your neighbor as yourself, and protection is a form of love, how can we love and protect others in a country with an increasing culture of violence?
I still don’t know.