Street Harassment: breaking it down by race/privilege

I am sure many teachers and students saw the Hollaback video that went viral a few weeks ago of a woman walking around New York city streets for over 10 hours, and the unending street harassment from men that followed her every move.

It makes for great viewing leading into a classroom discussion:

  • Is this the reality for all women?
  • It is a similar experience for all women?
  • Does it happen in all locations?
  • How does it effect women? and men?
  • What would be different for women and girls if this phenomena did not occur?
  • Why does it happen?
  • Do men understand how it impacts women? And, if they did, would they do it anyway?
  • Why do men do it?

But there were two other articles, one with also with a video, posted about the Hollaback video that have not yet gone viral, nor are they likely to.

Firstly Collier Myerson’s article notes that the NYC harassment video showed the experience of one woman – a white middle class woman – and the only harassing men shown in the video were Black and Latino.

I confess that while I did notice this in passing I explored no further. It just left me with a vague feeling of unease.  But am 100% confident that if I was a Black or Latino man or a woman it would have been the first thing that jumped out at me. I would have reacted by thinking, “I bet she only walked through Latino and Black residential areas. Did they do that deliberately?”

Collier notes that this video serves as a de facto cautionary tale: to avoid Black and Latino men at every turn, because from the looks of it, they alone are loathsome predators.

I tend to think this is spot on. I may not have noticed the ‘race messages’ explicitly but I am sure that its implicit message would tend to validate my unconscious reactions and responses.

I am not saying that I am racist. In fact I work hard at noticing how these messages are produced and on checking my unreflective initial responses to situations. But I am saying that this is a life-long task. One doesn’t just arrive at a morally righteous non-racist state. We may not be racists but racism still inhabits us. My response to this video, my inadequate response to its implicit message, is not unique.

I am pretty sure that Hollaback did not intend to create nor legitimise fear of men of colour. But that does not take away its unintended message.

In fact, in response to criticism of his video, Hollaback acknowledged that there were white men who harassed, but ‘for whatever reason’, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera and so was omitted.

This ‘”for whatever reason” quoted above is quite important.

In the second article, “White men don’t catcall, they harass in other ways” Lee Dockett suggests that the reason is related to white privilege.

 …white men, on average, don’t catcall in the same way that men of color do—and oftentimes, as I’ve learned, they don’t do it at all.

That, of course, is not to say that white men don’t have their own predatory nature—one that is expressed in ways unique to their privilege. As we know from countless court cases, it’s not that white men don’t hassle women … it’s that they do it in a different way.

 For all men, harassment of women has more to do with establishing power than it does sexual interest; they do it to control space, both public (the very street you both walk on) and personal (a woman’s self-set boundaries). Men of color catcall vocally and visibly on the sidewalk because they have to—not that there’s ever excuse for harassment. They need the “Sexy!” and “Smile!” to create the illusion of dominance in shared public spaces that social constructs and institutional racism have never afforded them control over.

White men, on the other hand, have no use for that sort of catcalling. They marked their territory centuries ago. So, instead, their sexual harassment is less invasive and harder to recognize—even when it’s staring you in the face. They do it in bars, at parties, on the frat row at your local college campus, in boardrooms, and other places men of color are never privy to, at least not in positions of power.

Myerson also notes that the lack of women of colour in the video implies that it is a problem only for white women:

 Additionally, black and brown women were excluded, as if we do not exist, or are not affected by street harassment when, in fact, we are more endangered by it. Black and brown women, women of color, of size, and trans women are among our society’s most vulnerable. Black women are at a greater risk of domestic violence. For trans women, even leaving the house can be fraught with emotional and physical violence. Women of color, regardless of gender expression, have an extra layer of fear and anxiety when walking down the street. The Hollaback video’s omission of white men, and the omission of black and brown women, worked together in an sinister alchemy to reinforce centuries-old stereotypes about who needs to be saved and protected and who needs to be feared and controlled.

But Myerson has the last word on this issue because she decided to make a similar video using women of colour and guess what happened.

 As (bad) luck would have it, while we were shooting a video about how women of color were affected by street harassment, one of our interviewees was approached — totally unsolicited — by a white man who asked her for a kiss.

How apt, and what a great set of resources for a very important classroom discussion.



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