So, I have to admit – I was a little nervous when posting about street harassment the other day. I was really eager to open up the conversation, especially because it was focused on a queer/gender non-conforming/trans experience and perspective that I’m not used to hearing. But I was also worried about certain dynamics that tend to surface during these conversations, namely dynamics of race and class.
While women and other gender underprivileged folks of all races, ethnicities, and classes can and often do experience street harassment, the voices that I usually hear in these discussions are most often of women with either race or class privilege. This is not unique to conversations about street harassment: most larger conversations are dominated by the voices with the most privilege. In conversations about street harassment, though, this has an interesting and profound effect, as you’ll often have some very complex and conflicting power dynamics going on: men exerting their gender privilege and sexism over women who have class and/or race privilege over them.
Power and privilege are complex things. Sometimes, you’ll have instances when the power differentials clearly go in one person’s favor – an upper-class white man harassing a poor woman of color is a nice, neat situation in which you don’t have to hurt your brain to understand what’s going on. But what about when it’s a poor man of color harassing an upper-class white woman? There are weird and complex things going on with power in that situation. And again, let me stress – street harassment is never justifiable. Victims of street harassment, on the other hand, are fully justified in their rage and hurt and other feelings around it, and are also justified in standing up to their harassers and speaking out against it. However, I don’t think we should pay attention to one power dynamic – gender – while disregarding others, like race and class. Yeah, it might be harder than simply writing off the men as sexist assholes and leaving it at that, but that’s the thing: if we ignore the complexities of different forms of power and privilege, we often wind up perpetuating discrimination and oppression in the process.
When I was writing my last post, I looked at the HollaBack NYC and Boston for the first time. I think there’s a lot of worth in the tactics and the message behind the website – turning a critical lens on harassers, quite literally. And yet, I found myself cringing every once in a while. Both the NYC and the Boston sites have anti-racist statements (here and here; the Boston site also includes class in theirs, saying that “replacing sexism with racism or classism is not a proper Holla Back” and that they ask that “contributors do not discuss the race or class of harassers or include other stigmatizing commentary.” They also acknowledge right out that “initiatives combating various forms of sexual harassment and assault have continually struggled against the perpetuation of racist and classist stereotypes.” I appreciate that acknowledgment and the site creators’ commitment to avoid perpetuating that dynamic.
However, can it really be avoided? As soon as a picture of a person of color or a person whose class privilege you can read from looking at them is posted, race and class come into play. It’s unavoidable. Even when people don’t post pictures of their harassers, their are often clues in what they write, most often in the language and grammar and accent cues used when describing what the guy said.
Even outside of the posts themselves, class and race come into play. Right from jump, we have the name of the sites – “HollaBack.” Now, Gwen Stefani may have brought this into wider parlance, but I think that many people understand “holla back” as part of Black urban vernacular. Whose image, then, is conjured up up immediately by the name of the sites, a name that frames the rest of the sites’ content? The header images on each site say something, too. On the Holla Back Boston site, the header image uses an urban alley backdrop with a tagged dumpster and a graffiti-style font for the words; these things are inflected with class and cultural references and send messages about them.
The header and sidebar images on the HollaBack NYC site are even more interesting. There are seven people in the image, all holding up camera phones – representative of the people “snapping back” against harassment. Now, we can only go with visuals here which aren’t always good indications of race, but when I see these images, I definitely see mostly white people (at least five out of seven.) The images in the sidebar that depict people wearing HollaBack NYC merchandise are both of apparently white people. People of color start to show up far more on the site when you’re looking at the pictures of the harassers. So this sets up a weird dichotomy: the people depicted as being behind the cameras, doing the snapping, wearing the merch and supporting the site are mostly white; the people depicted as doing the harassing are more mixed but (by my count of the first 36 images on the site) mostly people of color.
I also can’t help but wonder about how subjectivity works, both on what winds up being posted on the site and in the larger conversation about street harassment. Our society works damn hard trying to convince us that Black folks, Latinos, and other people of color, especially men, are really scary, scarier than white men. How much of that have we internalized? Hell, I’m a person of color and I know I’ve internalized enough to kind of hate myself for it sometimes. How does that affect how we experience street harassment? What comments seem most threatening, and from who? What’s going to just mildly annoy us and what’s going to make us feel angry, gross, or threatened enough to take a picture and post it up on a blog?
I’m not trying to say that these sites suck or are worthless or should be taken down or anything like that. What I am trying to communicate is what I take from the site as a woman of color – there’s parts I can say “right on” to, but there are other parts that really squick me out. Yeah, there’s something that makes me feel uncomfortable about the image of a white person snapping a picture of a man of color, even a sexist jerk of color, and posting it up on the web for all to see in a manner that sometimes reminds me of the mug shots of men of color that the media just loves to show us all the time. Am I less of a feminist, do I care less about women, am I less angry about street harassment and committed to ending it because I acknowledge that discomfort, put it out there, want to discuss it and interrogate it? Nah, I don’t think so, because I think we’ve learned many a lesson from the early years of feminism about asking women of color to put aside their race and their race politics for the sake of “all women.” It ain’t right, it don’t work, and it won’t get us anywhere.
So let’s get somewhere. This is the first time I write about this stuff, or even think so much about it. I’d like to hear people’s thoughts and reactions; I’m especially looking forward to hearing what other women and gender-oppressed people of color about this.
(Cross-posted at Feministe; feel free to check out and participate in the conversation over there as well as over here!)