I was hit on the other day while walking down the street.
This isn’t a strange occurrence for most women. For me, it happens often enough to be annoying, though rarely enough that I still haven’t written out my full list of snarky responses. However, as an ethnically ambiguous woman, the comments are usually geared toward my looks; asking where I’m from, how ‘exotic’ I look, or something of the sort. I’m sure many mixed and non-white people have similar experiences.
But this particular instance made me think a lot harder.
It went a little like this:
“I’m sorry, Miss, could I just stop to talk to you for a moment?”
Now, I’m from New York. Though I don’t live in the city currently, it’s managed to rub off on me. So the New Yorker in me was going “What the hell does this guy want, it had better be directions because I don’t have time for this.” The non-New Yorker in me decided to give him a chance. I ended up saying, “sure,” not sure what to expect.
“Where are you from? Because you look like an Egyptian Queen, I mean with that hair [it’s very curly] and that dress [some loose thing I wear when I’m feeling the need for extra comfort], are you Persian?” He said.
I went for the least complicated answer because I needed an out and I had a meeting to get to and immediately became uninterested. “I’m American.”
He didn’t stop there. “No, but, like, what are your origins? Are you Indian?”
I cut him short by mumbling, “Latina,” knowing that it would be the only reply he would be satisfied with, and rushing into Starbucks. But I had enough time before my meeting to think about the conversation that just happened. First, why the hell did I let him keep asking me where I was from? And why was that the first question that popped into his head? I felt incredibly upset, annoyed again that someone was interested in me because I looked “different.” Annoyed that I bothered to answer him. But maybe it was an overreaction.
As one does, I proceeded to text several friends about the experience to hear their opinions. Some agreed with my indignation, and others asked me why I was so short with him…that he was just being nice. So I spent the next while being torn about how I should react to these kinds of things. Am I too much of an indignant feminist? Do I look for a fight wherever I go? Why do I even feel bad about this? Why did I even engage?
I came up with a few answers that satisfied me, at least.
First, if someone is interested in a person walking down the street and actually wants to have a conversation, they should come up with something normal to say. Even “hi” would have made it better. But this was someone who was trying to put me in some sort of box so he could figure out why exactly he found me attractive. By immediately asking me my ethnicity, not letting me just be “American” (which is not the wrong answer, just not what he wanted), he was trying to justify…I don’t know what. Maybe trying compliment me more by implying that I was different. Which is an entirely different issue with our society today.
Second, sure he was polite, and it’s that politeness that makes me feel a little sheepish for getting so annoyed, but that shouldn’t make his slightly offensive words more valid.
Third, when a woman walks down the street, she isn’t asking for compliments, she hasn’t dressed up for anyone around her. And if you just have to talk to her, don’t ask her about something personal–which the topic of identity definitely falls into.
The end result of all of this was wishing that I had stopped him mid-conversation and said, “look. Next time you think a girl is pretty, come up with something else to say. The weather. It doesn’t matter. But don’t ever do what you just did again.”
Hopefully next time I can fight my initial urge to be nice and demure and actually say what I’m thinking instead of figuring out a witty reply an hour later. We’ll see. I’m rather good at retrospect.