Street Harassment Intersectionality

by | November 1, 2014
filed under Feminism

You’ve probably seen the viral video of the woman who walked the streets of NYC for ten hours, getting over 100 catcalls in the process. It has sparked a lot of important conversations about street harassment. But as a few have already pointed out, almost all of the men featured in the video are men of color. As a white feminist I feel I have a responsibility to speak up. Thankfully (unfortunately?) a perfect opportunity presented itself just this week.

I was folding my clothes in a laundromat. An older white man startled me by getting too close to me. He was talking at me about my tattoo. Honestly, I don’t blame him. It’s a gorgeous half sleeve I’ve been adding to all summer, with one more session left. It’s a badge of honor; over 16 hours of pain have gone into it so far.

I’m not upset that this man appreciated my tattoo. But my giant headphones, the fact that we never even made eye contact, and the fact that I was in the middle of folding my underwear all should have been indicators that this was not a good time for me to talk. I’m upset that he got in my space and took my time and attention.

Most of all, I’m upset that he touched me without my consent. He marveled at how big my piece was, and I flexed my bicep, which he took as an invitation to touch my skin, right on the pink delphiniums my artist painstakingly needled into me. I’m uncomfortable just remembering the experience. There’s no need to touch a tattoo. Once it’s healed, it feels the same as the other skin. But even if it wasn’t, I didn’t give him permission, and he didn’t ask. He was a total stranger, and he never stopped to consider that maybe he shouldn’t touch me. No matter how I decorate myself, I am not a painting. It shook me up and ruined my day.

The next time I visited the laundromat, he came back. I tried to shrink myself, wanting to disappear. He joked with the staff and then left. I felt anxious and dizzy, flinching at the slightest sound or movement in the corner of my vision. That’s not how I want to feel when I do laundry. I already put it off too long as it is.

So I worked up the nerve to talk to a friendly woman who works there. I asked if he works for the laundromat, or is affiliated with them in some way. I told her what happened and how uncomfortable I felt. But no, he doesn’t work there. He’s just a creep with a lot of free time. For a few minutes while I finished folding my clothes, we bonded over the experience of being harassed by the same man.

This is where intersectionality matters. Because even though he harassed us both, we’re different. Our experience being harassed by this man was also different.

For instance, instead of touching her arm, he grabbed her breast. English is not her first language, so she felt exponentially more flustered and unsure of what to say in the moment. And, most distressing, she is not a patron but an employee of the laundromat, and she feared that if she responded too strongly to the harassment, she could lose her job.

There are dozens of differences between how I experience street harassment and gendered violence as a white woman compared to the experiences of women of color. For just one tiny example: if I ignore a harasser or tell him off and he responds with hostility, the comments are most likely not going to be about my race.

Acknowledging that this woman’s experience of harassment is different than my own doesn’t diminish mine in any way. I still felt disgusted by what happened, and the man still had no right to touch me, even though it wasn’t as aggressive as what happened to her. Ignoring the role that race (or sexual orientation, or gender identity, or body size, or disability and other factors) plays in street harassment only serves to further the oppression of others.

It’s also important to acknowledge is that as a white woman, speaking out about my harassment can have different consequences depending on the harassers.

Historically, white womanhood has been painted as something fragile and pure in need of protection from men of color. The most notorious example of this was the violent lynching of Emmett Till, killed at just 14 in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. This may sound like ancient history to some, but today the fact that I am white makes me more sympathetic to law enforcement should I decide to press charges, and the criminal justice system disproportionately arrests and imprisons men of color. This doesn’t mean any man gets a free pass to harass us; it means that our experiences of harassment do not happen in a vacuum.

It is important to talk about street harassment. But it is important to take an intersectional approach and admit, collectively, that this problem is bigger and more complicated than any one person’s story.

The nice woman who works at my laundromat said her boss didn’t do anything after she was harassed. And it feels icky to admit, but her boss will probably take me more seriously, because I’m a paying customer, and because I’m white. It’s messy, and I hate that either of us were subjected to it. But this is where the conversation is at right now. The fact that I’ll be taken more seriously means our society is as racist as it is misogynistic, and we have to work against it.

So as nervous as it makes me, I’m going to talk to the manager at the laundromat. And I’m going to keep talking, to everyone, about street harassment.

Laundromat photo byVisitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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