Despite what some brothers may have you believe, street harassment is not some petty White women’s issue that Black men can dismiss. The horrible murders of Mary Spears, Sakia Gunn, Islan Nettles and many others show the deadly impact it has on Black women’s lives (be they trans or cisgendered.) Here is a harsh reality: Black men are the ones usually perpetuating such violence onto Black women. It is therefore on us to take the issue seriously and to stop it by holding ourselves accountable.
I say these statements not as an outsider who desires to shame and be above other Black men, or compete in some “I’m better to the sisters than you are” contest. That would be patronizing, pointless and undermine the importance of the issue we must confront. My need to speak to this comes from the fact that I was once someone who regularly engaged in street harassment. At the time I did not believe it to be a problem. I felt it was part of “being a man” and “out with da homies,” as Kendrick would say. I did not understand that saying hello to a woman and then demanding some sort of affirmative response back contributed to the lack of safety and trauma Black woman experience in this White supremacist heteropatriarchal world. It was only through being confronted by Black women and taking their criticisms seriously that was I able to learn how dangerous my behavior was.
This learning also revealed to me how men deflect from taking responsibility for sexist practices that make street harassment seem normal. Some of these practices are using the charge of racism to avoid dealing with charges of sexism, claiming that issues such as street harassment aren’t as harmful to the Black community as other forms of violence (and thus, unimportant) and propping up the idea that only “bad men” engage in sexist behavior. I have been guilty of each of these rationalizations and work hard on a daily basis to overcome them. Many of these same rationalizations I saw present in the current conversation within the Black community about street harassment and feel it is important to confront and hopefully illuminate a path for what we as Black men can do to end this violence.
When it comes to complaints about that infamous Hollaback video from Black men in particular, the charge of racism is at times used as a way to deflect accountability. There is a reluctance to recognize that the practice of “hollering” at Black women works to reinforce racism at the personal, interpersonal and structural levels. Demanding non-consensual public intimacy and affirmation does cause sexual as well as racial harm to Black women. It reinforces racist stereotypes about Black women by suggesting that Black women’s bodies are there for consumption due to their bodily “sexualized anatomy” that precludes them from having any agency.
The idea that we even have to convince ourselves as men that street harassment – is a huge problem and needs to be taken seriously – is part of the problem. What is particularly troubling about all these deflections is the lack of trust it shows in Black women’s judgment and opinions. Imagine, as EBONY.com’s own Jamilah Lemieux has pointed out, “If Black men spent hours and hours listening to Black women say that police harassment didn’t exist/was exaggerated/was provoked, I wonder what sort of toll that would take on them.” If Black women were publicly, via social media, town halls, TV and other avenues, questioning the very idea that police brutality is a serious issue that should be on any racial justice agenda, it would be unthinkable. Yet it is what we do every time we question, dismiss and diminish the violence Black woman encounter and when we do so, we are in fact doing something that Black women have never done.
One of the reasons our movements fail is because of dichotomies like these. We (as in Black men) can’t use the racism of white feminism to deflect accountability for the heterosexist, transphobic violence Black woman face. We diminish the harm caused by cat calling when we do this. Fighting to end this practice isn’t some retrograde politically correct word policing that has no basis in fighting to end oppression. Street harassment is real and deadly for Black women. Working to end this issue that routinely harms Black woman is a part of meaningful racial justice organizing.
Moving forward, here are a few things us as Black Men- particularly those of us who are heterosexual, cisgendered – can do to contribute to the movement to end street harassment that Black woman have already been leading on.
1. Trust Black woman & listen to their criticisms of street harassment: This type of trust from Black men, the kind that Black women have been practicing for many years now is what is needed in order to end street harassment. I trust and take seriously Black women and their calling out of sexual, gender and transphobic violence. That’s what allies do. I don’t take their calling out to mean that they want to see me criminalized or locked up. They want to hold me accountable for my hurtful behavior and amend the harm I have done. Such a process of calling out, accountability, taking responsibility for harm caused and making amends, I believe, is just as vital as the work being done to seek justice for Mike Brown and the countless others killed by police. In fact, when we look at much of the activism Black women have done it is largely of the restorative, transformative justice kind. This type of organizing work holds us as Black men accountable but doesn’t resort to calling the police. This also means reading the vast literature Black woman have written on the subject and thinking thru ways to incorporate it’s criticism in one’s daily life.
2. Recognize that all of us, who identify, as Black men can be complicit in street harassment (and not just the “bad” ones): We need to stop believing only “bad men” demand woman’s attention in public without consent and engage in heterosexist behaviors. Much of this reasoning leads to classist and elitist presumptions about who does and does not engage in street harassment or other forms of sexist, heterosexist and transphobic behaviors. Reading one bell hooks or Patricia Hill Collins book does not make one above engaging in behavior that make Black woman unsafe in this world. Calling oneself progressive or conscious doesn’t mean there isn’t critical self work and community work one must engage in to hold ones harmful behavior accountable. The reality is that as men we have been taught to express our desires and affections in sexist and problematic ways. Even if we don’t mean to we can engage in behavior that is “unsolicited attention paid to a stranger (usually a woman) in public that is an intrusion on her time, personal space, and most importantly, safety” which blogger Andre George describes as accessible definition of street harassment.
Recognizing this I believe is key to understanding how harmful sexist behaviors are done by us even when just trying to “be nice” or “say hi” or “pay a compliment”. Such a realization reminds me I am responsible for ending oppression toward Black woman but also actively confronting other Black men not as a crusader, but as a peer who is just as capable of problematic behavior. It also reminds us that it is not some “bad person” out there we have to work with to stop cat calling, but the person we see in the mirror and the men we call friends and family in our community.
3. Confront heterosexist, transphobic behavior when with friends who identify as men engage in it: Rarely do we challenge our own peers about how we talk about women. How often we call women out their names, how we essentialize gender with phrases like “men are like this, woman are like this,” or “it’s just in our nature. All these practices are complicit in street harassment culture. The idea that us as men are entitled to women’s bodies, that we are even entitled to saying who can and can’t present as a woman contributes to these problems. It was this type of belief that fueled the killing of Islan Nettles, as a young Black man’s reaction to feeling he had been “tricked” by her led him to take her life. It is these desires and practices of Black men to uphold heterosexist and transphobic masculinity that drives street harassment and its consequential violence.
4. Engage in public awareness campaigns that address: Consider supporting efforts, such as the powerful campaign by Yummii Thecato highlighting how Black women’s lives are lost to violent acts committed against them by Black men and outlining what Black men need to do to end it. Posting such signs in Black neighborhoods helps create the conversation that is needed, while making it clear this isn’t about criminalization of Black men, but creating a safe environment for women. Also consider reading more about how to stop violence against Black women and posting them online or sharing it directly with other Black men in your circle.
5. Intervene when you see incidents of street harassment: A simply way to step in when you witness street harassment is to say, “You ok, sis?” as the campaign #YouOkSis led by Feminista Jones asks us to do. I think that an important part of doing this work is the willingness to take the lead from Black women; they are not the cause of their harassment and should not be charged with ending it. Organizations like Stop Street Harassment have other examples of helpful interventions. Learn them and share them with other Black men in your circle.
5. Participate in trainings and popular education workshops that address ending violence against Black women: Inform oneself of the multiple facets of street harassment, understand how it connects to all forms of systemic oppression and undermines efforts to fight for racial justice. Many great organizations such as INCITE Woman, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color; Men Can Stop Rape; SOUL, A Long Walk Home; The Audre Lorde Project and many more do such work. Learn how to do those workshops for yourself and conduct them with other Black men. Work to incorporate such workshops in organizations that you are affiliated with like church, school, or even ones sports team, fantasy sports league or video game gathering.