- Nia Alexander Campbell
What's The Deal With Boys (When You're Black)?
The specific answer to that very generalized question can be complicated, nuanced, and lengthy. Though perhaps I cannot answer it, I can at least give you a run down of my own experiences, observations, and thoughts.
So catcalling is a thing . . . right?
I hadn't heard of the stereotype that Moroccan men were huge flirts until after I got back in the States. What I had heard was that there would be rampant catcalling, that I'd be insulted for exposing my knees, and that I'd be touched without permission. What I experienced, however, was nothing at all what people had warned me about. Based on my treatment and watching the way other women in my group were treated, I noticed that it seemed to be dependent on what we looked like. I know that sounds painfully obvious, but I hadn't taken my physical appearance into full consideration when I was panicking about strangers swearing curses at me for wearing cargo shorts.
So, is catcalling a thing? The quick answer is yes. However, I think the type of comments women receive is tied directly to their appearance, more than just the way they dress.
All of that in mind, I will also mention that the advice, warnings, and expectation I had were all given to me by white women, ages 25 to 40. Well, I was a 20 year-old black woman . . . I didn't look like any of the women giving me advice. The fact that we had different appearances, and different connotations associated with our appearances, I believe truly effected the way men treated us.
Appearances are more than just clothes or just race, though. Other factors like how we did our hair & makeup, the way we carried ourselves, our size, our age, the way we spoke, if we covered our hair, and how touristy we looked also played a part.
So what experiences did I have and what did I see to bring me to this conclusion? Let's get into it.
The reactions I got:
Let's start with what I looked like: My skin is chocolate brown, I barely make it past the 5 ft. marker, and my dark eyes were always slightly magnified behind a pair of nerd specs.
I was 20 years-old, but people say I look 14. The fact I was dressing like an overgrown child probably didn't assist in aging me up. My long hair was twisted short and speckled with cowrie shells; I usually wore it pulled back, half up, half down. No makeup and modest dress, but with plenty of prints and colors. I've got a small build, but enough breast and butt to make shirts hard to button and jean-shopping difficult; no matter what I wore, people could see my figure. My demeanor was quiet, I often made eye contact, and people say I have a nice smile (when not taking awkward new phone selfies).
I had men call me things like "power flower", "funky cool", and "brown sugar". Two men gave me their Facebook contact information. There was also a man who went through a whole process, referring to me as a "true Moroccan sister" and giving me a free pair of handmade leather embroidered shoes before asking me what hotel I was staying at. I told him "We were in and out so fast, I didn't catch the name of the hotel!"
Good answer, right? Just say yes.
Well, it backfired a bit when I found out some other students had ordered leather merchandise that required delivery to our hotel in the evening. I thought, Oh no, now he knows what hotel I'm staying at! What if he comes and finds me? I can't tell you whether or not he came because I definitely hid in my room until dinner. When I finally emerged, the stuff had been delivered and there were no flirtatious shopkeepers in sight.
My anxiety quelled, I ate dinner with the group, and I prepared for the rest of the trip . . . which proved to include more flirty shopkeepers.
The reactions the other young black woman got:
A Sudanese woman, 24 years-old, long & curly dark hair, clear brown skin, and makeup on fleek. She was at least 6 feet tall and, frankly, built like a brick house, an Amazon. She was the kind of girl that stands out in any crowd (in any country) and the confidence she exuded was just another accessory along with that pair of shiny, round, couture sunglasses. During the day she dressed conservatively, wearing solid colors and loose cut dresses that covered her knees and elbows. In the evenings, she sometimes transitioned to clubwear.
She definitely drew attention, mostly in the form of quiet stares, but one stranger was bold enough to run his hand over her butt. Another man, though, was very polite and actually got to know her before asking her on a date. He cancelled the date, but at least it was a pleasant mini-courtship.
The reactions the older black women got:
No one bothered them at all. The only reactions one of them got was when people stared at her for being a "bald" woman. In reality, she had her hair shaved down in a very low TWA. Aside from that, neither of them received notable harassment or commentary, catcalling or otherwise.
The one black guy in our group:
21 years-old, handsome, average height, average build, and sporting a lengthy beard, which he had purposefully grown out before the trip. He wasn't flirted with, of course, but many people asked him if he was a religious figure.
Wait, so are you saying that white women are treated differently than black women?
Well, it's not that black and white . . . dang, no pun intended. Honestly. Some aspects of anyone's appearance are universally going to draw attention in an environment surrounded by straight men. If you have big breasts, black or white or green, you're going to get some attention one way or another.
However, I do ask you to consider the difference between the way whites and blacks would be viewed in an environment like this, especially considering the many intersections that come along with being black or white when you add in things like nationality and history.
For example, Morocco was a French colony until 1956, so that's still in living memory for a lot of citizens and the impact is still very evident (to the point where roughly 40% of people speak French). That alone can explain the bits of animosity I noticed when some of the men were interacting with the white women in our school group. After all, all white people were referred to as "European" even if they were American.
That in mind, when it comes to being "The Ugly American", or even just regular American, the image people see is usually a white person. The idea of "American" equating to "white" explains why people were always surprised to learn I was American.
But what about the African girl who got felt up? Well, that's still part of a string of stereotypes. Sub-Saharan Africans had the connotation of being poor, uneducated, easy, powerless, and generally "less than"; it made it okay for men to put their hands on her.
That said, I was just as American and just as black as the other students present on the trip, yet I didn't receive any form of negative treatment. That could be for a number of reasons, like maybe it was just because I was quiet or polite or had a nice smile. However, I can't help but wonder if it's because I wasn't seen as fitting fit into either category; I wasn't not really white (American) or really black (African).
But remember this is just one experience.
Obviously, not everyone in the country thinks this way. These are solely my thoughts based on the way I was treated, what I observed of others, and what locals told me about "Europeans" and "Africans". Don't let this be a definitive guidebook to the way all Moroccan men see women of different backgrounds. This is just my experience. I'm telling you these things so that you aren't caught off guard if it happens, not to promote stereotypes or encourage you to bring stereotypes with you.
Now, let's end on something lighthearted.
For someone who was only in the country for roughly a week, I didn't expect marriage to come up often. Well, in our group, which consisted of maybe 10 women, there were at least two marriage proposals. I'm not sure how serious the men were, but I say it's worth mentioning, even if it was only a joke.
I actually had a conversation with a young boy one evening about my present marital status, specifically if I was married to the Pakistani student in our group. Maybe it's because he and I were the same height, maybe it's because we both wore glasses, or maybe it's just because I was walking next to him, but for some reason that 7 year-old felt the need to get some clarification. Was I or was I not married to one of the two men in our student group?
In response I made a joke, which the boy interpreted as an affirmation. Yes. Yes, I was married to the student I had met only 3 days ago. With that all squared away, his next question took me by surprise. "How many camels?", he asked, essentially inquiring into how many camels my husband gave my family in exchange for my hand in marriage. I couldn't tell if this was a joke or not, so I decided to ask my new husband.
He, not having been paying attention to the conversation, was quite surprised when I asked him to dig through his memory and remind me how many camels he gave my dad when we got hitched. After a moment of confusion, he answered proudly: "One hundred thousand." Whether or not the boy took him seriously, and whether or not the question had been a joke in the first place, the boy had his answer.
And I suddenly had a husband. Not a bad night.