Shame on Public Transit
Photo by Adam Conolly, Creative Commons by NC-ND 2.0
The notorious TTC.
It is a hotbed for shaming girls and women, especially those of us of colour. To be told through body language - staring, gawking and scanning - that you should not be taking up space, and that your body is a nuisance, is depressing.
Tone it down, they say. That means denying that our hair deserves to be colourful in the face of institutionalized racism that tells us that we are “ghetto”, “unprofessional”, and “childish” for doing so, while white girls and women are told they are edgy and sexy. That means rejecting the ways our bodies grow and blossom out of fear of being sexualized, bullied, and killed for not conforming to ideas about gender because our bodies are not the standard. And that means that we are silent about our right to express ourselves because too often we are told that we should be grateful for the tiny space we have, and stop complaining. These racist, white, sexist, patriarchal, othering, capitalist gazes force us to construct ourselves in accordance with harmful controlling images. They punish us for our truths. And anyone can tell you that suppressing your truth doesn’t work to stave off the staring that folks on the TTC do.
I remember when this first started happening to me. I was 13 or so, on my way home from school. I’d pay my fare and head to an empty seat only to be followed by pairs of eyes I had never seen before. And if I stood up or bent down in any way, these eyes would scan my dark-skinned Black body like I was a platter of food, waiting to be sold and devoured. The unwanted attention made my palms sweaty and my breathing heavy. Was I doing something wrong? I would look down at the floor because I thought I was. But the staring didn’t stop. Eyes would follow me out the door, even if I was exiting the bus with a large crowd.
Like many folks that have experienced this crossing of boundaries, felt dirty, violated, and ashamed. I felt like I didn’t own myself, and I believed other people when they said with their eyes that I was their property by virtue of being in a public place. It took such mental preparation to stand up and get off at my actual stop because those that believed they owned me instilled fear within me and drew anxiety out of me. In Toronto where racism manifests itself often subliminally, it is hard not to second guess your gut.
In “The Politics of Hair Removal for Women of Colour”, @bad_dominicana is quoted as tweeting that “for white girls hairy legs are liberating coz they remain on a pedestal. for WOC shaving is reducing amount of abuse u already get”. The author Tasnim Ahmed converses with three women of colour about how their decisions to shave (or not) are informed by that very real consequence of abuse, and they link it to appearing attractive to men, the stronghold of patriarchy, and navigating parts of their femininity by trying to fit into and uphold the images of dainty, innocent white women for survival. While they all described different experiences, the common thread is the push and pull between being consistent in your feminist politics and trying to survive a world in which behaviours are attached to you based on the name (i.e., identity, stereotype, etc.) you are called.
Calculated decisions about expressions of femininity, such as clothing, with the intention of reducing the amount of shaming convinces us that we can control the way someone sees us. We can’t. Someone is going to screwface. These happenings are expressions of institutionalized of sexism and racism that damage our self-esteem and deny us permission to listen closely to our wants, beliefs, needs, and desires, on purpose. I’ve remained hungry for hours during many commutes rather than eating food that I couldn’t eat “neatly like a lady” because I was afraid that I would be called a monkey, for my Blackness is linked to the racist idea that I am wild, reckless, and need to be tamed.
As I’ve learned to live in my truth by reading, connecting with Tumblr users with similar experiences, and writing stories like this, I’ve also learned how radical it is to disrupt gazes. Derica Shields writes that gazing at yourself adoringly is a practice of controlling the narrative. It allows you to demand how you deserve to be seen. And because I know now how I want to be seen, I’ve started returning gazes on and off the TTC. I am cementing my humanity for myself, affirming that I deserve this space, and I deserve to be well and live well in it.
You can read more of Jean Boampong’s work at jeanboampong.tumblr.com.