Editor’s Note: We at ViaNolaVie know the importance of words and how powerful those words can be when they are spread. We strive to produce a space where equality and fairness can shine. We are reposting Carmen Barika’s piece “Shopping While Sexy” in honor of her work, her voice, and her struggle that reaches many. This piece was originally posted in August of 2018.
This past spring I was cornered in the parking lot of the Whole Foods on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie by two police officers. They said they’d received a 911 call from an anonymous caller who — after observing my father and me eating breakfast biscuits at the Chick-fil-A up the street and then watching as I was dropped off in front of the Whole Foods several miles down the road (yeah, he had followed us) — somehow surmised I was a part of a prostitution/sex-trafficking ring.
The less-than-perceptive stalker … I mean, caller … had also identified my father and some guy parked nearby, whose license plates he had taken time to record, as a part of the suspected ring. (I’m thinking my father was supposed to be the “john” because I really don’t think his dad jeans screamed “pimp.”) Consequently, the three of us spent the next 20 to 30 minutes standing in the parking lot with the police officers (and, may I add, their five surrounding police cars) waiting to be cleared from any salacious, solicitous, unwholesome “ho-dom,” all the while wondering how three people grocery shopping at Whole Foods could have induced such an “unsolicited,” inconvenient misunderstanding.
Well, I had my ideas.
First of all, let’s get this straight: I was wearing jeans, a turtleneck, and pumps. This wasn’t stuff you’d find at Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s, or (worse) the sale rack in the back of a Rainbow. It wasn’t any of the standard type of regalia so often associated with “working girls.” Or maybe it was. Perhaps, like a Rip Van Winkle, I was just awakening from a long social slumber to find that wearing pumps is now considered code for “I’m totally selling my body for sex,” or, “Help, I’m a sex traffic victim being made to sell my body for sex.” If so, I’m thinking the authorities should seriously consider doing a raid on Zappo’s, ‘cause they’re absolutely selling out.
Naw, I thought. It couldn’t be just because of the pumps. But maybe it wasn’t the pumps themselves, but rather the location? Perhaps it’s acceptable to wear heels in general, but not while shopping? Perhaps wearing pumps at a grocery store is code for “I’m totally selling my body for sex … even as I shop for this over-priced flax seed oil.” Who knows?
After brief contemplation, I eventually moved on from the “I was dressed like a ho” scenario and began to consider if my unwarranted sex traffic stop had something to do with the fact that I simply looked good in what I was wearing. Had I stood out like a sore thumb to the 911 caller because I simply looked “too good not to be up to no good”? Has it become so commonplace in this town to be underdressed and out of shape that anyone looking the least bit fit and put together is immediately cause for consternation or suspicion? (Let’s face it. The combination of way too much red beans and rice and way too little walking, which has resulted in Louisiana obesity rates that break national records and bodies that people just want to cover up and forget, is making it less and less common to see an actual fit female figure in this city, much less amongst the aisles at a suburban Whole Foods.)
Or, I wondered, could such a rush to cry “she-wolf” be attributed to a greater society ill: a collective, clandestine contempt for the female and her body, resulting in her figure being made an object of shame and guilt?! Or, better yet, could a collective contempt for any woman displaying the least bit of her God-given sexuality be at play, thus leading to such public persecutions as I endured in the Whole Foods parking lot?
And was it worse for me since I was a sexy black woman in a country that has been notoriously known to question and challenge the virtue of black women, often denying them the same exonerated, liberated sexual expression as is often afforded many of their white counterparts? (Case in point: Taylor Swift wears few to no clothes and dates a new guy every month, while avoiding any accusations of and comparisons to a “ho,” or even a promiscuous woman.)
But before I got too confident that my good figure and healthy sexuality were the sole reasons that that stalker … I mean, 911 caller … mistook me for a prostitute or a peddled sex trade victim, I turned my attention back to my father and that other guy to whom I had been connected. Could it be that they had something to do with the total misperception as well?
Was it age? Since both my father and the other guy were noticeably much older than me, did it seem more like they could have been my “handlers”? Could be. But why had it never occurred to the caller that this noticeably older man could have been my father, not some pimp or john? Had he really never seen a younger woman out with an older man and thought, “Oh, what a nice father and daughter duo,” not, “Yikes! Call 911! There’s a young hooker and her john on the loose!”? And, then, why on Earth would the 911 people accept the mere description of “older man hanging out with younger woman” as criteria enough for dispatching five police cars to a grocery store?
After deciding the age theory was just too looney, I began to wonder if it could have been the expensive cars my father and the mystery “pimp” were driving (since, of course, anyone driving a Mercedes or Lexus in this town is either a pimp or a john). This quickly triggered thoughts of the “driving while black” phenomena which, considering the pristine record of police stops in this country, would be a total long shot, right?
Surprisingly, even my father — who, despite living through the not-so-distant discriminatory past, has always managed to maintain an annoyingly neutral, non-suspecting stance when it comes to questionable racial situations — wondered so, too. Besides, all three “suspects” involved were black. Would the caller have drawn the same conclusion if three white people had been involved? Would he have seen the fancy cars as something so abnormal, and the attractiveness of the girl as something so exotic and inappropriate? Has he called 911 on every white woman he’s seen dressed in jeans and pumps and being dropped off at a grocery store by an older man?
Perhaps, yes. Perhaps, no. The next time I drum up enough courage to go back to that Whole Foods, most likely wearing a very loose garbage bag of some sort, perhaps he’ll be on watch again and I can ask him.
Later we found out that the caller is the husband of the director of a woman’s crisis center, which the authorities argued might have made him more sensitive to the matter. I guess until the outdated law-enforcement policy that allows anyone — regardless of intent, common sense, logic, or sanity — to make anonymous 911 calls is changed, all of us — sexy, black, or otherwise — may be at the mercy of someone’s wacky, possibly-prejudiced scenario and lack of, apparently, anything else to do with his late-morning, post Chick-fil-A time.
Silly work, it seems. But I guess somebody has to do it.
Carmen Barika is a singer, performer, and playwright with a music degree from Florida State University. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin and NOCCA, she has lived in New York where she performed Off-Broadway while producing original performance pieces. Her original works have been featured in the New York Fringe Festival, the National Black Theatre Festival, the New Orleans Fringe Festival, and her play “Pressed” has been performed in the New Orleans prison system as part of its arts program. She has also been featured as a singer in the films The Paperboy and Pawnshop Chronicles and was the featured soloist this past spring in “Opera At Dusk,” presented in conjunction with the French Quarter Fest.