On That Street Harassment Video and Race

By Akiba Solomon Oct 30, 2014

For the past couple of days I’ve been thinking about that video. You know the one that follows a 20-something white woman as she walks around New York City for 10 hours and receives a bunch of commentary and demands from men she doesn’t know. The video is effective. It really does lay bare the amount of annoying, passive aggressive, creepy, presumptuous and pointless shit men on the street say to women who are simply going about their day. Two guys even follow the woman in the video conveying the physical danger that street harassment can lead to. In theory, I’m all for this teaching tool. But I have a couple of issues with it that I can’t ignore. 

The first: About 99 percent of the men bothering the woman in the video are black and Latino.

Until today I avoided pointing that out. Frankly, I was afraid that I was allowing my feelings of race-based shame and the bitter legacy of the Scottsboro Boys to trump the discomfort and fear that this woman clearly feels walking down the street.

But then I saw Hanna Rosin’s piece in Slate. She points out that white men did, in fact, harass the woman in the video. They just didn’t make the cut:

The video is a collaboration between Hollaback!, an anti-street harassment organization, and the marketing agency Rob Bliss Creative. At the end they claim the woman experienced 100-plus incidents of harassment "involving people of all backgrounds." Since that obviously doesn’t show up in the video, Bliss addressed it in a post. He wrote, "We got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera," or was ruined by a siren or other noise. The final product, he writes, "is not a perfect representation of everything that happened." That may be true but if you find yourself editing out all the catcalling white guys, maybe you should try another take.

So as it turns out, the racial politics of this video really are as clueless as the final product suggests. And that is tiresome. Why is it so hard to understand–before a bunch of women of color make this point on the Internet–that by editing out the white guys, you’re telling a dangerous lie of omission and implying that black and brown men are particularly predatory?

Today, Emily May, the founder of Hollaback!, did address the race issue:

Rob Bliss Creative donated time and labor to create this video and support our work. We are grateful for his work and the wide reach that this video has achieved but we feel the need to directly address other responses to the video. First, 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.

I feel her, and I acknowledge that Rob Bliss Creative, the agency that made the video, had creative control. But I am tired of race being the afterthought. I’m sick of being the second or third or 80th woman in the series, the one who has to say, "Yoo hoo, we’re here! You can’t do sexism without racism because the default is always a white, straight woman."

"Intersectionality" is a thing. I wish people would look it up on Wikipedia.

The second issue I have with the video is that it characterizes all of the men’s behavior as the same. So "hello," a demand for gratitude, and following the woman all carry the same weight.

I get it. Street encounters have a cumulative effect. If you’re like me and you’ve had a man throw juice on you, or call you an ugly black bitch with a flat ass, or try to push you in the street when you tell him to stop following you, or asks you at age 11 if you know how to "ride" because you’re bowlegged, dark and pigeon-toed, then unsolicited hellos can be threatening.

But here’s where it gets messy for me: At this age (middle) and in this place (black Brooklyn, mostly), I don’t mind when a man says hello. I detest and ignore "You should smile more," "Can I go?", "Sexy walk, ma," and "Your husband is lucky." But I’m not mad at "Hey beautiful," "Have a blessed day" or "You look nice today." I’m not supposed to say that, I know. Maybe I have sexism Stockholm Syndrome and I’m suffering from silly fantasies of being asked to dance to Luther Vandross by a Don Cheadle clone at the palace ball. But this my lived experience–and that doesn’t always line up with my political beliefs.

As writers including Jamilah Lemieux have amply explained, street harassment is a serious problem. Finding a universal remedy is impossible, and I commend the women and men who are doing this work. But the devil is in the details and this viral video is missing some key details.