Melissa Harris-Perry - photo by MSNBC
MSNBC host and political science professor Melissa Harris-Perry had a disturbing experience during the Iowa caucuses last weekend. She took a class of students to Iowa to be part of the caucus experience and as she sat in a hotel lobby watching the returns on TV, she realized a man was standing uncomfortably close to her. He struck up conversation and it all felt… off. As she explains in a post on Wake Forest University’s site, he said:
“What I want to know is how you got credentialed to be on MSNBC.”
I am not sure if it is how he spat the word credentialed, or if it is how he took another half step toward me, or if it is how he didn’t respond to my question, but the hairs on my arm stood on end. I ignored it. Told myself everything was ok.
“Well. It is not exactly a credential…” I began.
“But why you? Why would they pick you?”
Now I know something is wrong. Now his voice is angry. Now a few other people have stopped talking and started staring. Now he is so close I can feel his breath. Before I can answer his unanswerable question of why they picked me, he begins to tell me why he has picked me.
“I just want you to know why I am doing this.”
Oh – there is a this. He is going to do a this. To me. And he is going to tell me why.
I freeze. Not even me – the girl in me. The one who was held down by an adult neighbor and as he raped her. The one who listened as he explained why he was doing this. She freezes.
I freeze. He speaks. And moves closer. Is there a knife under the coat? A gun? Worse?
And I can’t hear all the words. But I catch “Nazi Germany” and I catch “rise to power.” But I can’t move. I am lulled by a familiar powerlessness, muteness, that comes powerfully and unexpectedly. It grips me. Everything is falling away. Until in my peripheral vision I catch sight of a ponytail, the movement of an arm, the sound of familiar young voices and I remember… my students.
When she felt uncomfortable, Harris-Perry jumped up, ran behind a table, and she and a friend started making a ruckus. The strange man turned, ran outside, jumped in a car, and drove off.
This moment of fear is something many, many woman have known. It’s that moment when you realize a stranger is acting oddly, seeing you in a way that makes you feel deeply uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s just the feeling that someone might do something violent. It’s why I get nervous when I hear someone running up behind me, it’s why I usually cross the street if I’m alone at night and see someone walking toward me, it's why I will never watch a “home invasion” horror film. As women, we are burdened with an awareness that assault is always a possibility. This fear affects how we act in public. As Stop Street Harassment reports, a study of over 12,000 Canadian women showed that stranger harassment and assault has a more consistent and significant impact on women’s fears in public than non-stranger harassment and assault. This fear significantly reduces women’s perceptions of safety while walking alone at night, using public transportation, and while home alone at night. Even when “nothing” happens—when the person running up behind us turns out to be a friend, when the stranger in the hotel lobby turns and leaves—it’s not a feeling we can shake off, because the rates of violence against women are so very, very real.
That latent, ever-present fear is compounded for Harris-Perry because she is a Black woman who speaks about politics on TV. In the case of this near-attack, the guy was clearly upset about Harris-Perry being in a position of power. Who knows what he would have done if Harris-Perry hadn’t been so quick to recognize that prickly feeling that something was wrong, been in a place where she had friends, and been able to act on her fears.
In her post, Harris-Perry recounts how after the guy fled, she explained to hotel security that she receives hate mail and death threats and has had people show up at her office. The security officers “listened politely,” she says, but “I am not a candidate, so they go back to their evening.” Far too often, the security concerns of women are dismissed or diminished (“You’re being hysterical.” “You’re too sensitive.” “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”) when they are grounded in a far-too-real understanding of how people target, harass, and intimidate women. Listening to that fear and recognizing it as real is important—it might disrupt someone’s evening, but it might also save your life.