Race, class, and street harassment

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!)

10 Responses to “Race, class, and street harassment”

  1. 1 Peggy Sue

    Thank you so much for putting into words a lot of thoughts I’ve been having for a long, long time.

    You hit it perfectly with:

    “…men exerting their gender privilege and sexism over women who have class and/or race privilege over them.”

    YES. It’s really important to say this out loud. Because it’s true and because we cannot abandon the fight against racism or classism in favor of defending a woman’s right to safely walk the streets.

    It’s ALL inescapably linked, and letting a white woman off the hook for racist behavior against a harasser of color is just as bad as looking the other way when a woman suffers street harassment, IMO.

    I remember when I came out as a big ole queer. I was excited and I thought wow, now I’m a part of this group, this group of people that understands oppression, so they’ll certainly be less sexist and racist. Yeah, uh, not so much. It was such a depressing and demoralizing thing to realize that oppressed people also buy into the “get ahead by stepping on others” mentality.

    So thank you for bringing this subject into the light so clearly. I don’t know the answers or where we all go from here but I do know that this is an incredibly important conversation to have. Thanks again.

  2. 2 Erica

    Holy shit! There are a 100 responses to that post!

  3. 3 Jack

    Erica: Yeah, I’ve hit the big time. 😉

    Peggy Sue: Thanks for your comment. It’s always reassuring to start off a possibly difficult and fraught conversation with a positive response. 🙂

    Yeah, it’s somehow more disappointing when people who are oppressed in certain ways just don’t get the other ways in which they’re privileged and perpetuate the oppression of others, isn’t it? Sometimes I’ll find myself getting more pissed off at, say, queers than other folks, especially when they’re politicized around queer stuff – kinda like, “Shouldn’t you know better?” But nah, I think we’re all kind of attached to the power and privilege we do have, even if in other ways we don’t have it.

  4. 4 Cimmerians

    Oh, *word* all over the place. I had to abandon the feminist spaces I hung out in because the hypocrisy of ignorance around race and class privilege made me nuts, and I had to give up the queer spaces because of racism, classism, body-hatred and sexism. Now I’m attempting to spend more time in anti-racist spaces, but I find that I have to deal with sexism and homophobia.

    I think I see the tragic flaw in my plan, and it involves interacting with other humans…

  5. 5 Bq

    Thanks for exploring this issue, Jack… this is something I have been thinking about as a woman of color.

  6. 6 Katie

    Cimmerians –

    I think my plan may be tragically flawed in the same way! Damn – I knew there was something I was overlooking…

    ABB – thanks so much for posting this. It’s the clearest articulation I’ve seen of the intersections of race, class and gender WRT street harassment and the movement against it. I live in DC and this debate has been all over the place for the last couple of years.

  7. 7 Akisi

    As a Black woman and a longtime anti-violence activist, I very much appreciate this important discussion. That said, I definitely notice here the common tendency to deal with the “discomfort” of the race/class/gender intersection by downplaying the fact that men of color who sexually harass (or engage in other forms of violence) must be held accountable.

    I understand, of course, the anxiety driving this, but I think it is quite dangerous to question/”complicate” fighting patriarchy in our own communities in the name of fighting white racism. Some of the comments come close to suggesting that women of color must somehow choose between their race and their gender (and, in speaking out about the sexism of men of color, risk being “race traitors”), a predicament we have been put in far too often. This is a false binary, as demonstrated by the work of feminists of color time and time again.

    It is, as the post and many of the comments point out, of course highly important not to perpetuate racist stereotypes while fighting sexism, which is rampant in communities of color as well as other communities. Downplaying that such sexism exists is not an effective tactic, and in fact subverts both our struggles and those of our sisters before us. Rather, we should be thinking about developing new strategies and building alliances that join anti-patriarchal and anti-racist struggles.

  8. 8 Sandra

    Thanks, Akisi, for your post — I think that’s a really important point. I’ve been at several organizing meetings around Puerto Rican issues (I’m puerto Rican) where women’s concerns about sexism were played down and the reasons given were about “making Puerto Ricans look bad” as a community. The people saying this included Puerto Rican men, but also white people who didn’t want to come off as racist (but in the process silenced the voices of Puerto Rican women).

    Anyway, I was interested in how representation issues play out on these anti-harassment sites. I actually posted a photo on the Holla Back NYC site a long time ago, and was concerned about men of color being overrepresented and made to seem worse than white men. So I counted them all, starting with the latest post (Jan. 27, 2008) back through the first one (Oct. 4th, 2005). I counted at total of 140 men (some photos are of more than one man). Of these, 48 were totally unidentifiable, because the photo was either blurry or from really far away. There is obviously a problem with putting people in racial categories based on a photo. Nevertheless, of the other ones, I think that 47 were clearly white (one is a staged YouTube clip, but the guy playing the harasser is white). 46 were men of color from a range of diverse backgrounds.

    This obviously isn’t definitive because race is a cultural category and maybe other people would differ about how to categorize some of these guys. There is also the issue of racial markers being used in posts with no pictures, like the slang thing. But it’s a pretty diverse group of harassers all around anyhow. I actually think they’re doing a good job with these thorny issues, and some of the readings/resources on the “Anti-Racism” link are really useful and informative.

  9. 9 Jack

    @Akisi: Many thanks for your comment. I think that you’re absolutely right. When I wrote this piece, and when I continue to talk about these issues, I’ve felt myself walking that fine line between highlighting the possible racism and classism at play and condoning or downplaying the sexism of men of color. I certainly don’t want to do the latter and I appreciate the reminder that we shouldn’t go down that path. I also wholeheartedly believe that we can’t stop fighting patriarchy and sexism in our communities for the sake of fighting white racism. However, I think there’s a difference between the work that’s coming from within communities of color and the work that’s coming from outside of it, like the HollaBack NYC website (which as I understand it is run by white folks.) I also don’t think that “complicating” things is a problem, if by complicating we mean acknowledging and speaking up about the complexities and the intersecting vectors of power that are at play here. I think that absolutely must happen, even if that means that struggles against both patriarchy and racism are a little more difficult and a little less clean cut.

    @Sandra: Thank you for your post as well. I definitely don’t want to come off like the folks who deflected conversation about sexism so as to not make Puerto Ricans look bad; as a Puerto Rican woman myself, I think that’s the same old bullshit all over again.

    As for the Holla Back NYC site, like I wrote in my post, I didn’t think it was horrible or completely worthless, but I did find a lot of things that made me uncomfortable, especially given that the site is not run by women of color. These are thorny issues, indeed.

  10. 10 Akisi

    Thanks for the response. I did not mean to imply that problematizing these issues is somehow negative or should not be done and apologize if that’s how it sounded. We must always engage in critical analysis with respect to our struggles, especially when it proves messy and difficult.
    I meant to emphasize the interrelation of theory and struggle and that we ought to work to translate our analyses into material realities – I actually think this is a great place for these conversations, and am hoping to have a bit of a discussion about what to do with the critiques laid out here. So:

    The point about the difference between work coming from within communities of color and other subordinated communities versus work outside of these spaces is key. Clearly there is a long history of profoundly distrubing initatives, some well-intentioned, some not, of privileged groups telling other people what’s what. In particular, white bourgeois feminism has frequently been guilty of this. Our collective problem, as I see it, is how to build alliances necessary for effective struggle in light of that history and suspicion.

    People, of course, have different views on this. Some think that alliances with, for instance, progressive and radical predominantly-white groups are inherently problematic and we must act autonomously. I do not think that is politically or strategically sound. There is a time and place for women-only spaces, queer-only spaces, spaces for people of color, etc. I am in no way suggesting otherwise. However, I think we must think very carefully about rejecting alliences with groups doing good work because they are white alone.

    I’m speaking generally here and know little about this particular case of the websites. It seems it is a good case study for this discussion broadly, though, in that it is not the classic, clear-cut case of a privileged group coming into a specific oppressed community and arrogantly regulating – I am in no way interested in working with people in that tradition. But the streets are everybody’s. So you have a white group, presuming that’s what it is, targetting a practice that is a problem for women generally (harassment by men), but the issue is that many of the culpable men are not white. Who, then, has the authority and legitimacy to call these men out?

    The issue of membership composition aside, I don’t see anything on these sites that is disturbing on its face – in fact, the project seems to me quite sound politically. It is also evidently quite successful in terms of getting the word out about this issue without relying on explicit demonization of men of color, looking at the press coverage. They certainly seem to be quite aware of the dangers we’ve been talking about here. However, the issue of who the members are–and how they are represented–is not nothing.

    -Would this be fixed if half the group were meaningfully-involved people of color also represented on the site itself?
    -If they are all white, would it have been better if they put up photos of people of color holding phones on the site to tactically prevent generalizations (lighter-skinned women doing the photographing of, in many cases, darker-skinned men), or would that in fact be worse and disingenuous?
    -If they are white, should they recruit a diverse membership actively?
    -And if they did, would we join?

    Just some thoughts.

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