By Emily May and Courtney Young
What's the biggest myth about street harassment? That men of color comprise the majority of offenders.
It's a myth as old as this nation: the idea that Black men are more likely to be sexual predators -- especially of white women. Consider D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, that builds an entire narrative on the idea of the black brute. From the Scottsboro boys to Emmitt Till, history as well as popular culture, the justice system and virtually all other facets of American society still hold the deeply entrenched notion of Black men as people to be feared.
But the myth doesn't stop with history. In a recent New York Times article, a White woman living in a mostly Caribbean community (Crown Heights, Brooklyn) gets physically assaulted by a Latino man and wonders if it's her fault, as if moving into a mostly Caribbean community was the city-dwellers equivalent to "asking for it." A few years ago, a woman, also writing for The New York Times, reported on her experience doing aid work in the Congo and hearing repeatedly from other European aid workers that sexual harassment, violence, and rape in those areas "is cultural," instead of, as she duly notes, "a tool of war." The myth that Black and Latino men are innately sexually aggressive is one that extends beyond our national borders.
Yet despite widespread studies showing that gender-based violence happens across socioeconomic lines, and years of organizing to dispel this myth, the notion that men of color are the face of street harassment holds strong, like a virus. Over here at Hollaback!, we've collected over 5,000 stories of street harassment and through listening, we've learned a few things:
1. Where street harassment occurs is not about the race or class of who lives there, it's, first and foremost, about population density. We've been mapping street harassment since 2010: every indicator says that it happens mostly in high density areas. If one out of every 50 men you pass is going to harass you, it will take a lot longer to pass 50 people in a Walmart parking lot than it will on Wall Street (which is one of our highest density harassment areas).
2. Who street harasses has nothing to do with the race of the harassers. Street harassment is a form of sexual violence, and while there is little data on street harassment specifically, studies done on sexual violence has shown that perpetrators of sexual violence fall evenly along race/class lines. We've seen this in action and, as part of our anti-discrimination policy, we've been pulling racial identifiers off posts since 2005, because we know that people will read a story differently if a man of color is doing the harassing vs. a White man. Having pulled thousands of racial identifiers off posts, we can attest that street harassment falls evenly along race and class lines.
3. Last but not least, experiencing street harassment can cause people to release their inner racism. It's goes like this: person gets harassed, person gets scared, POOF! Out comes the racism. It may manifest itself in terms of assumptions and stereotypes, where one incidence is applied to a whole group of people, i.e. "It's Black men doing most of the harassing," or even the more gently phrased but equally annoying, "it must be a cultural thing." No matter what form it takes, it comes from the same crappy place that the harassment came from: a society that's still racist, sexist, and homophobic, despite years of activism. And here's the catch: if we're replacing sexism with racism in our approach to ending street harassment, we're not fixing a damn thing.
The good news is there are tons of community based organizations and non-profits that provide on the ground work towards educating people about street harassment and other forms of violence. For instance, Brooklyn Movement Center and the Harlow Project are elevating the stories of women of color through storytelling, Stop Telling Women to Smile and The Window Sex Project are using art to debunk myths and deepen conversations, and Girls for Gender Equity is training the next generation of young women of color to lead the movement to end sexual harassment on the streets and in the schools. Brooklyn Movement Center and Girls for Gender Equity are also engaging men and boys in these conversation in thoughtful and creative ways.
Want street harassment to end? For those of you directly implicated by the myth, share your stories. We need to hear from you. For others, educate yourselves and your friends. Read through the stories on ihollaback.org to better understand the reality of street harassment, and take a look at this fabulous reading list from Hollaback! Boston. Those who are targeted and those who target come from every background imaginable. Ignoring the myth won't make it go away, but talking truth will.
Emily May is the co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!. Courtney Young is secretary of Hollaback!'s board of directors and founder of Think Young Media Group.