Yeah, Telling Black Women ‘To Carry Pepper Spray’ to Fight Street Harassment Is Missing the Point

Illustration for article titled Yeah, Telling Black Women ‘To Carry Pepper Spray’ to Fight Street Harassment Is Missing the Point
Photo: tommaso79 (iStock)

While at lunch with a friend a few years ago, she couldn’t locate her lip gloss, so she emptied her purse out on the table to find it. She didn’t have much in there—an iPhone, a wallet, her keys and a small make-up kit. And also, a can of pepper spray.


She noticed me noticing it, and volunteered that she’d had it for a year and a half, hadn’t yet used it, but felt better with it than without it. And then, as the conversation progressed, she began naming all of the potential weapons she carries.

“My keys in a pinch. My heels if necessary. I’ll swing the shit out of a purse too.” She also spoke on how, if she’s walking somewhere and feels even the slightest bit of danger, she’ll scan the street for potential weapons.

“Bricks, rocks, a bottle in a garbage can. It’s whatever.”

This, of course, was one conversation with one woman. But I doubt it’s a leap to presume that she’s the norm, not the exception. The world is a more dangerous place for women than it is for men. And the possession of a ceaseless cognizance of potential dangers and shrewd ways to combat them isn’t elective. Because of this, suggesting that a woman—a black woman, particularly—find better ways to protect herself is like telling an owl to get Lasik.

With (most) black men, this reality is understood on a near-subconscious level if the perspective is switched and the danger at hand is white supremacy—law enforcement in particular. Imagine, for a second, how foolish and fucking stupid it would sound if, in response to a protest about police brutality and the prison-industrial system, the advice given was “Just shoot at the cops first.”

Anyway, I don’t want to belabor the point, which simply is that when a person like Temi Oni shares their experience with street harassment and is brave and articulate enough to express the tornado of ambivalent feelings a lifetime of experiences like that can produce, “Get some pepper spray” is an unhelpful and insulting response. If you are a person who responds this way to a story like Temi’s, please stop.


That’s all.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


Vanessa Futrell

You are a man and it is you who has missed the point. We, women, are forced to navigate our way around the world with a completely different mindset than men when it comes to safety measures. Men just don’t get it.

The thing that was the most disturbing to me was the amount of time that Ms.Omi analyzing spent on analyzing the man’s predatory behavior.

I was n the board of “New York Women Against Rape. We divided our efforts between lobbying for the Rape Shield Law. The other half, we spent teaching women safety street smarts. Please tell your friend to keep her keys, cell phone, and pepper spray in an easily accessible handbag or coat pocket. Digging around in her handbag for these items, if needed, will put her at an even greater disadvantage.