Last week Hollaback! facilitated a much needed discussion on race and street harassment, using the hashtag #harassmentis on Twitter. The panel included: @schemaly, @Besito86, @jamiaw, @fazlalizadeh, @jpercentie, @hollabackboston, @ihollaback, @jennpozner and @cocacy.
Street harassment, as defined by Hollaback!, “is a form of sexual harassment that takes place in in public spaces. At it’s core, harassment is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically marginalized groups of their vulnerability to assault in public places. It can lead and contribute to violent altercations, other forms of sexual violence and hate crimes. It reinforces the sexual objectification of already subordinated groups in everyday life.”
Before the tweet-up started, Hollaback! encouraged those who were interested in participating to review the #harassmentis guide and rules, important for those unaware of the type of language used in conversations such as this, and the importance of knowing when and how to talk about issues regarding race, and when to take a back seat and listen.
The release of the New York Times article “On Being Both the Wolf and the Lamb” brought widespread criticism including this piece: “Everything Wrong with Gentrification in One New York Times Article.” It seemed a better time than ever to call out racist responses to street harassment – digging a little deeper into how and why:
- harassment of women of color is often overlooked and deemed “cultural.”
“Well for youth, black girls are seen as jezebels who want attention from men, therefore any harassment of them is jusified #harassmentis” -@fazlalizadeh
“I feel that when I get harassed, it’s more vulgar and aggressive because I’m a black woman.
Let’s face it, street harassment is a world-wide issue, which is why there is a movement to end it internationally. It is not only prevalent in India, it is not only in Brazil – these are problems created by patriarchy, which is the result of the colonization of people of color. It slithers its way into societies and it engulfs the communities that it takes hold over. It blames those who have been forced into its virgin/whore dichotomy, a perpetuating cycle that can only be dismantled after facing it for what it is: oppression, women being subordinate to men.
- women of color are often blamed for harassment by men because our bodies are hyper-sexualized, thus forced into a victim-blaming back and forth.
“@iHollaback WOC are hypersexualized and then blamed when their sexiness “provokes” harassment. Frustrating on many levels. #harassmentis” -@nualacabral
“Growing up I was always told that my body provoked unwanted attention in ways that slimmer girls’ bodies didn’t.
“..we’re being harassed as hypersexualized women. And not just by men. We get harassed for our “otherness” by white women.” -@fazlalizadeh
#harassmentis street harassment has always been racialised for me – I once got told a man would “fuck me til I spoke English.” -@doloresonthedot
The trending #fasttailedgirls, created by Mikki Kendall, spoke of the hypersexualization of black girls, in which she mentions a great piece on this topic by @LexiScorsese: “The Myth of Fast Black Girls” [TW: Rape]:
“This is nothing new. Sexuality has been projected onto, used as a weapon against, and been a site of contempt for Black women at least since colonization. Inherently animalistic & hypersexual, impossible to rape, the antithesis of constructed virtuous White womanhood. While no identities of children or adults makes anyone impervious to predators, the intersection of gender & race has unique implications for Black & brown girls..”
This really hits home with me; as a mixed race girl, my first encounter with street harassment was when I was nine years old. My mother sent me to the store to buy candy on a hot summer’s day, wearing a tank top and shorts. A man pulled up in a car and started talking to me, eventually shouting sexual favors he wanted me to do for him. Of course I had no idea what he was talking about since I had never heard a lot of the words he was using in his solicitation. Ignoring him, I went into the store hoping that he would leave by the time I got out. To my surprise he waited for me and continued to creep slowly next to me as I made my way back home. At this point I had put together that the man thought I was much older than I was and wanted something from me. It wasn’t until I yelled, “I’m nine!” that he drove off with a puzzled (and ashamed) look on his face. When I told my mother about the experience she laughed a little and said that he probably thought I was a teenager because I was tall for my age. She didn’t tell me it wasn’t my fault or that the guy was a creep, she just made excuses for his behavior.
- the recurring act (even within the tweet-up) of women of color being silenced by white women, who dismiss our experiences by insisting: “We all share a similar experience, living in a sexist society,” and when women of color voice their being uncomfortable, we are “misinterpreting” white women.
“WOC can & should decide if what we suffer is racialised, not WW. & tbh? 99% of street harassment I’ve received from WM IS racialised.” -@doloresonthedot
Whilst participating in the tweet-up I didn’t catch these tweets from women of color that are specific to experiencing racist harassment. It’s tiring to point out the derailing of a few white women who thought it was important (or even OK) to remind people that we shouldn’t forget that we are women (most of us participating, anyway) and that sexism is part of the problem. Dear white mainstream feminists: please stop trying to remind women of color that we are, in fact, women. We were involved in the conversation to address the intersections of the two in this tweet-up, just because you don’t experience the racialized aspect doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Having two forms of oppression that are deeply-seated in patriarchy is work enough, trying to convince and educate you in addition is exhausting and frankly not our responsibility. This is the part where you listen, are supportive, awesome allies and spread the word to others in the white feminist/anti-street harassment movement.
- the reality that holding multiple identities creates more experiences of harassment, as well as a higher chance of experiencing violence, i.e. a queer woman of color who is walking with a partner may experience: 1) racialised, 2) sexist, and 3) homophobic street harassment.
Chiquita Brooks, the incredible founder of The Goddess Festival: Oshun Returns, speaks to me and gives me life with her piece: “Street Harassment and Race: A Sliding Scale.” She goes on to say:
“It has become common place that cat calling or street harassment is something that as women we “have” to deal with, preferably in silence. Those of us who identify as LGBTQ are also subject to street harassment, especially if we refuse to wear clothes that are gender specific I personally experienced the most vicious street harassment, as a queer woman of color. From threats of rape & even death threats simply because I was walking with my partner.”
To many, homophobia (and homophobic attacks) are a serious safety issue when existing in public space, in Chiquita’s story she is terrorized with sexual assault and violence because her relationship with another queer individual interrupts and threatens the (cis-hetero) “male gaze.” Patriarchy has allowed men to think they are entitled to view, objectify and act upon women’s bodies, regardless of their objections, consent or desire.
The conversation on race and street harassment is far from over: the #harassmentis tag is still available to use for identity-related tweets on your experiences with street harassment and harassment in public space. Hopefully in the future we can have more centralized discussions, that will use hashtags from people’s own personal narratives, rather than incorporating them into a broader consciousness. Derailment, by voicing white women’s opinions on how women of color should react, feel or respond, creates an unnecessary divide. Our identities are important to us, all of us, and homogenous platforms that are used to voice them only do a disservice to those who are already marginalized by the oppressive structures we are hoping to dismantle.