Privilege and Street Harassment

December 4, 2008

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.)