Street Harassment May Be Color Blind

But the viral video that depicted only men of color catcalling a White woman recalls a disturbing tradition of brutal punishment for such a thing, that dates back to the Scottsboro Boys.

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When anti-street harassment organization Hollaback! created a video of a woman being subjected to relentless catcalls as she attempts to navigate the streets of New York City, they didn’t just pull back the curtain on the dangerous pervasiveness of street harassment. They inadvertently blew the lid off of the entrenched, sexual demonization of Black and Brown men in this country. 

The video, done in collaboration with Rob Bliss Creative, was edited so that the vast majority of men seen sexually harassing the woman—who could easily be identified as White—were men of color. Where were the White men? They were there, according to Bliss. Unfortunately, they just showed up at the most inconvenient times.

“We got a fair amount of White guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera … it is not a perfect representation of everything that happened,” Bliss wrote in a comment.

Hollaback! issued the following statement in response to the controversy, insisting, “We regret the unintended racial bias in the editing of the video that over represents men of color. Although we appreciate Rob’s support, we are committed to showing the complete picture. It is our hope and intention that this video will be the start of a series to demonstrate that the type of harassment we’re concerned about is directed toward women of all races and ethnicities and conducted by an equally diverse population of men. 

“Hollaback! understands that harassment is a broad problem perpetuated by a diversity of individuals regardless of race,” the statement continues. “There is no one profile for a harasser and harassment comes in many different forms. Check out our Harassment Is: Identities and Street Harassment guide on how individuals experience harassment differently. This video should have done a better job of representing this knowledge.”

I call bullshit.

Let’s look at the name of the organization: Hollaback! Now, let’s take a quick detour into African American Vernacular English and talk about what it means to “holla” at someone. There are many words, places, dances, and things that have been Columbused over the years, and Gwen Stefani tried it with “Hollaback Girl,” but “holla” is a word that solidly remains at the center of Black casual communication. Similar to the versatility of the word “muthafucka,” as detailed by the late, great Bernie Mac, its meaning has range. Holla can simply mean good-bye. When a Hip-Hop artist says it—“Holla atcha boy”—it means f*ck with me, ride for me, listen to me, like me, love me, buy my records, keep me relevant. 

You can holla at someone, meaning speak to them in a loud tone. 

You can holla at someone, meaning you just called or texted them. 

If someone suggests that you holla at someone, that can mean anything from check on them to make sure they’re alright (Yo, you might want to holla at Kareem); circle back to them because they asked about you (Nita said holla at her); or it can mean express interest in someone you’re attracted to (“Hey beautiful, you mind if I holla at you for a minute?”)

While there is no single definition of what it means to “holla” at someone, the word’s usage and rhythm is unapologetically Black. So when the goal of a campaign is to “holla back,” it’s glaringly obvious who and what they deem to be the most clear and present danger to White women on the street. And when that language aligns with a video showing a White woman (presumably) being “holla’d at” on the street by overwhelmingly Black and Brown men, their messaging is even more dangerous.

And we’re not stupid.

This problematic, racist framing of street harassment harks back to Emmett Till, who was 14 when he was murdered in Money, Mississippi, for whistling at a White woman. As the brilliant Akiba Solomon wrote over at Colorlines, it also springs forth from the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers who, in 1931, were falsely accused and found guilty of gang-raping two White girls.

The myth of the mad Black Buck finds its way into our literature, such as Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas and Harper Lee’s Tom Robinson. It was used as an excuse for the brutal lynching of Black male bodies and it’s been used throughout history to prove the innate criminality of Black men. Men who we are supposed to believe are so simultaneously predatory and sex-crazed that just the sight of a White woman makes them a pack of ravenous beasts who would never be content with a mere “Hello.”

These feral men, according to the Hollaback! video want flesh—White flesh. And for a small donation, you, too, can make sure that White women everywhere are a little safer.

This is the type of racially charged ignorance that makes it that much more difficult for Black women to fight sexism in our communities without being called traitors to Black men. I wonder if Hollaback! realizes that by invisibilizing Black female victims and hyperfocusing on Black aggressors, they have left Black women vulnerable to increased cyber harassment. After writing about my own experiences with street harassment, I was harassed daily online with emails, tweets, even a meme taken out of context in an effort to show that by speaking out against street harassment, I was demonstrating hatred for Black men. 

I wonder if Hollaback! knows that there are men (and I use the term loosely) who hurl the epithet “Negro Bed Wench” at any Black woman who refuses to remain silent about intraracial and gendered violence that disproportionately affects Black women. Why? Because state-sanctioned murder and harassment of Black men is something that is deemed a community issue, while street harassment is something that we should be able to handle alone. Especially if we just smile at the well-meaning brother who thinks “Dat ass, though” is a welcome compliment. 

When we “holla back” at the harassment we face, we are called bitches, hoes, sluts, and government agents (I kid you, not) aiding and abetting attempts to incarcerate Black men. We are accused of being “extreme feminists,” an absolutely nonsensical term intended to diminish the very complicated terrain that Black women must traverse in order to make sure that in saving our communities, we are not left bloodied and bruised in the corners, dodging unwanted advances from brothers who should know better. We have to deal with our safety, or lack thereof, being considered a distraction, or even worse, a deflection from the systems of oppression that affect us all.

Let’s be clear: This video is valuable in that it shows how vulnerable women are as we navigate public spaces. We have to be hyperaware of the stance, tone, and proximity of men in our immediate surroundings. Even if not one man we encounter in a day intends to cause us harm, we literally have to read them and assess the threat level before moving into spaces and that’s no way to live. 

But all the victims aren’t White and all the aggressors aren’t Black and Brown.

To add insult to injury, Slate follows up with this nugget of wisdom, “White Men Don’t Catcall. They Harass In Other Ways,” which reads in part:

“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 (“in passing,” as Bliss puts it) 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.”

I won’t even get into the prejudiced and frankly outdated notion that men of color are “never” in positions of power, but the very idea that White men’s harassment is somehow more polite, traditional and subtle is a wide swing and a miss. There is nothing different about White violence except its acceptance by society at-large; White men are not somehow less scary. In fact, if the message wasn’t widely received by the Great Pumpkin Riot of 2014, drunk White men are arguably the most dangerous of them all. 

Feminista Jones’s #YouOKSis campaign raised awareness around the terrifying harassment that Black women face every day from men of all races and ethnicities. Yet the mainstream interest in the story barely gained traction. There were no Associated Press articles; it didn’t go viral, or at least it never gained quite the momentum of the Hollaback! campaign. It didn’t traffic in stereotypes meant to conjure a visceral reaction from people based solely upon seeing a (presumably) White woman at risk in the presence of Black and Brown men who are inappropriate at best, predatory at worst. 

Hollaback! may have had the best intentions, but the road to hell is paved with them. And if it matters to them at all that Black anti-street harassment advocates support this campaign, they are going to have to do better—much, much better.

They can just holla back at us when they do.


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