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 columnist for, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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