Is Complaining About Street Sexual Harassment Racist?

Three years before anti-street-sexual-harassment group Hollaback! released its controversial video — in which a white woman walks New York and receives more than 100 catcalls in one day — the women-of-color-led group Girls for Equality produced a similar one. One of these videos has 33 million views. The other, fewer than 30,000. “I mean is everyone only paying attention because there’s a white woman in Hollaback’s video?” Crunk Feminist Collective’s Brittney Cooper asked yesterday. If it does take a white woman appearing to be victimized by black and Latino men to get people to care about street sexual harassment — which happens everywhere, to women of all races, at the hands of men of all races — that’s depressing. One small silver lining is that the backlash was loud and swift, yielding a much more interesting conversation that included race and class.

Hollaback! was immediately slammed for editing white catcallers out of their video — the reason, the group explained, was that “a lot of what they said was in passing” or off-camera or drowned out by sirens. (Put differently: Men of all races catcall, but white men don’t get caught.) By the end of the week, Hollaback!’s vague mission of “engaging legislators” with the problem of street sexual harassment had escalated to a New York Times “Room for Debate” feature: “Should current laws dealing with harassment be strengthened to include catcalling”?

But the racial optics of the viral video meant that this criminalization debate had troubling implications. Being a black man in New York City already means you will be treated like a criminal. Are catcalls so bad that white women want to add them to the list of nonviolent reasons these men are disproportionately (and often violently) harassed by the police?

Still, one video doesn’t tell us how street sexual harassment breaks down by race or class or geography. And the Hollaback! app — which tracks and maps users’ reports of street sexual harassment — doesn’t collect data on race, either. (That would be racist, the creators said.) But it does reveal that most of the smartphone-enabled reports come out of gentrifying neighborhoods in lower Manhattan and West Brooklyn. This appears to confirm what the video’s optics suggested: The people most loudly complaining about catcalls are the ones most insulated from more serious problems of racial profiling and economic inequality.

After all, getting catcalled in a gentrifying neighborhood isn’t just a reminder that because someone is young and female her body is up for grabs (besides, that happens in subtler ways all the time). It foremost means being forced to acknowledge some of the people who lived there in a time before gut renovations and organic bodegas and speakeasies. A gentrifier like me can always move back to the quiet, catcall-free suburbs; the guy who hangs outside my subway stop all day probably can’t. So when he tells me I look beautiful today, I say “thank you” instead of tattling on an app. It’s never led to an escalation that made me uncomfortable and, as a result, I’ve been hesitant to complain about catcalls as an issue.

But that may not be true for all women — especially the victims of street harassment not represented by Hollaback!’s narrow take. If men are “brazen enough to harass white women and their protected femininities on the street,” Cooper wrote, “what won’t they do to cis and trans women of color, whose womanhood is structurally devalued?” For trans women of color, street sexual harassment is often a matter of life and death. It’s their safety and comfort that gets lost when we allow street sexual harassment to be cast as a threat to white gentrifiers. And it’s their harassment I risk condoning when I opt to rank the injustices of the world rather than confront a universal one, in spite of my guilt and discomfort. “We ain’t fighting for a world in which brothers get to be patriarchs,” Cooper wrote. “That’s not what my anti-racist analysis will be used in the service of.”

Is Complaining About Catcalling Racist?