“Heeey, white girl.”
Tuesday morning while walking to the subway for work, I was fumbling with my phone trying to find a good song on Spotify, when a man walked past and said that to me. I knew immediately that this was one of two things: one, he wanted to let me know I dropped something and/or my dress was tucked in my underwear (… which has NEVER happened before); or two: he was trying to hit on me. I checked my dress (totally fine), kept my eyes ahead and continued walking, and when he didn’t catch up to give me something I’d dropped, I knew it was a catcall.
Truth time: sometimes I don’t mind the catcall. Saying that out loud makes me sound anti-feminist and old-fashioned, I know, but there are instances where catcalls don’t bother me. It’s like men hitting on you in a bar. It’s not always welcome, and it’s not always well-done, but sometimes it’s enough to make you crack a smile and politely walk away, no harm, no foul. The best example is my relationship with the boys that hang out on my block. My ‘hood boys have been fascinated by me since day one, the only white girl on the entire block, and despite knowing my name, they frequently insist on calling me Snow White, like a nickname initiation to their circle. My boys look out for me, always making sure that I’m okay and I’m safe, and they always, always hit on me. Always. Literally, every time they see me. “Yo Snow White, you wearin’ that dress I like today!” “Hey girl, you get prettier every time I see you.” “Ay rubia, como estas mami.”
The boys know me well enough now to know that I’m never going to accept a date, and I know them well enough to know they’ll never stop asking. Yet I also know that they respect me, they respect my distance, and they have and will do anything to help me if I need it. They’ve stayed with me in the rain outside while I wait for the super to show up and fix my still-broken door, and they’ve helped me get in the building when it’s 3 a.m. and I can’t find my keys. So when one of them calls out “Girl I’d watch you run in them leggings all day,” as I leave for a run, or “Let me carry that for you, angel,” while I juggle groceries and my laptop bag in heels, I generally give them a smile and keep on my way, amused but not offended.
It felt strange that the comment earlier this week irked me in a way most of the Heights calls don’t. I get that I’m the minority in my neighborhood, surrounded by a well-entrenched Dominican community that doesn’t necessarily invite the gentrification rapidly making its way around the Heights. I get that I’m not terrible to look at, and that, to an extent, harmless catcalls are a part of Latin culture. I mean, in just the past week, I’ve been called blanca, snowflake, rubia, sweetie, sexi, mami, and of course, Snow White. Somehow, though, the white girl comment got under my skin: it wasn’t the slightly-stunned reaction of boys who aren’t used to seeing a white girl walking down the street like she lives here (because she does). It wasn’t the mostly-harmless comment of someone who sees me all the time and knows they can joke around with me like that. It was a possessive catcall, the kind you read about in all the articles trying to explain why it’s not a compliment for strangers to shout “que cuerpa, linda!” while you clutch your purse to your side and keep your head down, walking just a little faster home.
I’ve been catcalled every which way, across multiple countries and in every New York neighborhood, and I have no allusions to it ever stopping. That’s not bragging about my appearance, or the way I carry myself, but just a fact because I’m a woman. It happens to all of us, despite your skin color, hair color, what you’re wearing or where you live. It can seem like a sucky and a sexist part of life, and many times it is. It colors the rest of your day, the way you view a neighborhood or a particular location; it’s scary when men follow you and wolf-whistle repeatedly until they have your attention. I acknowledge that, and I’ve experienced that. So though I may get backlash for this next thought, here it is anyway: As scary as it can be, and as much as it shouldn’t happen, in my personal experience, it’s not always intended to be that way, and knowing when to laugh it off versus when to heighten awareness of your surroundings is just another lucky lesson that I’ve had to learn in my adult life.
I walked home Tuesday night, guard up a little higher after the strange morning encounter, and passed my boys outside the building. “Snow White!,” one called out. “You look tired girl! Bad day?”
“Just a long day, glad to be home!” I called back, fishing my keys out of my purse.
They all chimed in, “We’re glad to have you home too, beautiful.” I found my keys, made it to the door and said I’d see them later, feeling secure that if a creep came around they’d look out for me. Despite one of the boys shouting as the door closed behind me “Wanna come home with me later?,” I felt safe in their presence. The words may be scary to some, but sometimes in my neighborhood, the scary words are the ones that let you know you belong, if even just a little.