Privilege and Street Harassment

Yesterday I went for a run after work in downtown Washington, DC. As I left my office, I had a feeling that I was going to get street harassed and so as I ran, I thought up things I could say when it happened (despite all my work on street harassment, I have yet to do anything more revolutionary at the time of harassment than ignore or glare at them). And I was right, I got harassed.

As I ran down the dirt path of the mall, a man who was walking in the same direction I was running turned around, saw me, waited until I was next to him, and then went “mm-mm-mm” at me as I ran by. It wasn’t the worst harassment I’ve had by a long shot but it is humiliating to be treated like I’m not a person to respect but one to objectify and infuriating knowing that if I had been a man, I could have done my run in peace.

Instead of saying something though, my immediate thought was about how if this were a few decades ago, he could have been attacked, jailed, or lynched for just looking at me for a second too long because he is black and I am white. The high number of lynchings has particularly been on my mind after recently reading: Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights movement from 1830 to 1970.

So I didn’t say anything to him because I felt my race privilege – yes we will have a black president but racism isn’t over! – and the shameful history of race/gender/violence in American and I kept on running. (Though given my track record of not ever saying anything, I may have done that had he been a man of any race).

Similarly, sometimes I don’t feel it would be fair to call out a harasser who is clearly of a lower socioeconomic status than myself. I immediately think about my privilege of class (and race if both come into play) and I can’t bring myself to call them out for exerting their gender privilege. Does one privilege trump another? Should I just call out all men on their behavior?

What are your thoughts?

(Note: I don’t think one race harasses women more than another. In particular, given how often black men have been falsely portrayed as preying on white women to justify murdering, assaulting, and discriminating against them by white people, I don’t want to perpetuate that in any way… The most offensive street harassment comments I’ve received were from groups of white young men and the scariest experiences occurred when various white men followed me either on foot (2xs) or in their car (1x). Oh and yesterday I got leered at by an older white man on the metro on my ride home from work/running. He finally looked and turned away when I met his stare and I was determined to say something if he turned around to look at me again but he didn’t.)

4 Responses to Privilege and Street Harassment

  1. b says:

    I’ve been thinking about this all day, mostly because I appreciate that you wrote it. This shit is mad complicated, and the rhetoric has long been about “exposing” our harassers, which doesn’t really do us much good, nor does it flip the problem around. What I wish is that there was a moment in which we could all say, “I’m sorry this is happening.” When I was a little kid, my mom and I were on vacation – in Boston of all places! – and were approached by a man of color late at night at a bus stop. I was so little, but I remember the bizarre interaction that took place and remember wondering how it could have happened. The man told my mom that when he’d approached us, she had pulled her bags closer, and he proceeded to explain why that wasn’t going to work, talk about his family, etc. My mom said something terrible and embarrassing about him when he left, not understanding the moment at all, not able to engage in that dialogue of “we’re oppressing each other.” I wish there was a way to stop and say, “This isn’t working for me and here’s why.” What’s the worst that will happen? People already feel unsafe when they’re followed and shouted at. Men of color can still fear the retribution of white women. Would anyone feel less unsafe saying, “This has got to end, and it is more complicated than gender and even race?”

    Blank Noise has been doing some great campaigns about how to learn to walk without fear, which turns it back towards how women can keep living through these moments. I think that speaks to larger systems of oppression and how we internalize it. I don’t have any interest in blaming myself when I’m harassed, but I am in control of how I respond and how I handle my attitudes towards my harassers. Almost everyone experiences oppression, and they may turn it around on someone else. I’d like to have compassion for these situations as a way to move forward.

  2. Thanks for sharing some of your thoughts on this complex issue. I definitely wish we could stop and talk with people and engage them in dialogue about why the interaction isn’t great etc. But knowing how many people are ignorant to these issues or don’t care and who get angry when they are confronted, it’d be a gamble, just as any other response to harassment is a gamble. You just don’t know what good it will do or if you’ll be safe.:/

    I love Blank Noise!! I wish they weren’t so far away; it’d be easier to engage in some form of collaboration

  3. ~Macarena~ says:

    No one gets to make you feel like shit. No one gets to make you pay for the shit in their life. I think we have the right to go about our business unmolested, and that this supersedes the feelings of anyone we ignore in the process. I often think that I should take to task anyone who wrongs me, and point out that Shaft didn’t take shit from anyone, and he’s fictional!

  4. Laura says:

    ‘Similarly, sometimes I don’t feel it would be fair to call out a harasser who is clearly of a lower socioeconomic status than myself. I immediately think about my privilege of class (and race if both come into play) and I can’t bring myself to call them out for exerting their gender privilege.’

    I’m sorry, but this is nonsense and just perpetuates the idea that men of any class and colour can do what they want, as long as it is to a woman. I’m from a very working class background, and I would hope that if any man from my area had the arrogance and audacity to harass a woman just for being on the same street as him, that she would call him out on it and not worry that she was being privileged if she happened to be middle class. Poverty does NOT equal automatic rudeness, and harassers should still be called out regardless of their background. Do you think harassers assess you according to your background, education or race? No – to them you are just a vagina – the very reason women are so justifiably angry and upset about street harassment. Stop making excuses for pigs!

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