In days past, a canary in a coal mine was critical for safety. Miners would keep a caged canary in a mine and as long as they heard the canary singing they knew they were safe from the noxious gases that they were exposed to. If the canary stopped singing and/or dropped dead, miners also knew the mine was no longer safe to work in. Our neighborhoods are our mines and street harassment is a noxious gas that threatens our community safety and stability but goes unacknowledged. The time has come to notice the canary is no longer singing, our communities are getting less and less safe and if we don’t take notice, no one will.
As a member of and activist within the Black community I’ve often thought of street harassment as an unfortunate yet excusable inconvenience. I didn’t grow up in an area where there was a great amount of street harassment but I do recall learning after school or on weekends that calling out to women about their bodies wasn’t a problem, it was a rite of passage. When with male friends, one would dare another to speak to a passing woman and the next would egg on the next friend to up the anti, “I bet you won’t tell her she has a nice ass.” Like the adolescents we were the bet was attempted and others were waged in escalation. Like many young males, this socialization set in motion a pattern of engaging women, not as people but as passing object of male sexual desire and power.
Many argue that street harassment is simply an ill-conceived attempt at getting a date or a woman’s attention, but I’m not convinced of this perspective. Not too long ago, I was speaking with a number of young Black men about “hollering.” They told me that they’d shout at women on the street, make sounds like “psssstttt” to get their attention, and when they really wanted her attention they’d break awa from their boys and yell from the stoop or trailing behind women like, “hey ma! Let me talk to you. Why you walking so quick? Slow down.” The young men were all confident that what they offered up as their way of engaging young women was doing them a service of getting them closer to these women. When I asked, “How many of you can name someone’s wife or significant other they got in a conversation that started with, ‘Ay, daammmmmnnnn your ass is fat. Where you going? Let me holler at you?” They laughed and rebuffed my questions but then began to unpack their assumptions about gender relations, sexual pursuit, and power.
More than anything else, street harassment is about power for boys and men. For Black men who have been locked out of many of the proposed social opportunities of American society, be it work, education, healthy living conditions, etc. power feels a bit foreign. This lack of power exists along with media that inundates us images of “success” that are far from our grasps. In response, many young Black men look for local spaces to have power over something. This power over usually crystallizes in our relationship to women in our community. As boys and men harass women who pass by and feen interest in women responding favorably to grotesque advances and comments about their bodies, it’s all too common to hear these encounters end with, “Fuck you then, bitch!” This last ditch statement reflects males attempt to salvage the “power” in the interaction. The catch is that the final statement not only fails to provide the harasser with power, it also further disempowers the harassed.
Street harassment is so harmful for our community because it serves to dually disempower the Black community. Street harassment is constant in the places I travel daily but seldom do men engage the work of dismantling this “power play.” Both women and men are disempowered, though I must note that women bear the brunt of this disempowerment by have having their sense of safety, their body image, and notions of worth constantly tried in public places. Street harassment is tied to larger gender issues that pervade our community that often result in unstable homes, intimate partner violence, and increased police surveillance. All of which weaken our community. While most men I encounter on a daily basis, to my knowledge, do not harass on the street, most that harass are men. As men, our silence is deafening and we continue to ignore the canary in the mine which says our community needs to deal with issues of gender and power. Until we see street harassment as the problem that it is, we’ll continue to live in our neighborhoods like the miner who labors in a mine with a dead canary, until it’s too late to get to safety.
– Dr. L’Heureux Dumi Lewis, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York
This post is part of the weekly blog series by male allies. We need men involved in the work to end the social acceptability of street harassment and to stop the practice, period. If you’d like to contribute to this weekly series, please contact me.