I have a confession to make. It’s pretty embarrassing for a white, twenty-something, liberal-arts-degree holding Washingtonian.
I’m not supposed to be. My mother is rolling in her grave. Having grown up in an immigrant family that feared other immigrants, she made it a point to teach me acceptance and common sense—mostly by telling me that the use of the word “jiggaboo” by my great-aunts was totally wrong. Attending college in central Pennsylvania, I majored in sociology, protested campus rape, and marched with the Black Caucus.
So what happened?
I moved to Mt. Pleasant.
You’ve heard the one about Latino/Hispanic men being macho, sexist, and piggish, right? “Ay, mami,” and all that? It’s largely bullshit, of course, but in my neighborhood, it’s the sad truth. It doesn’t matter how I look or what I’m doing: I get sexually harassed on an almost-daily basis. As I walk to catch a bus or run errands, in broad daylight or after the bars let out, when I’m wearing a tank top and jeans or sweatpants and a hoodie—are you getting the point here? Now, don’t think that I don’t remember the times I’ve been harassed by other races of men. That’s happened, too many times to count. In the other D.C. neighborhoods I’ve lived in (the Hill and Columbia Heights) the harassment was never as pervasive, but it came from all sorts of men. But because for the past three years the harassment has been from a certain type of man, I’ve become scared and angry. And I fucking hate it.
I’m torn, however. I hate a lot of things all at the same time. I hate being harassed. I vaguely hate Latino/Hispanic men, in that illogical, knee-jerk reaction sort of way. And I hate myself for feeling like that. Where does that leave me? What’s more important?
And why is some discrimination more OK than others? Take the people who rage against racism and think nothing of dropping “fag” in everyday conversation. And sexism, I think, is even more OK than picking on gay people. It’s just a part of life. You don’t want to whine about it or call it what it is, lest you be labeled a man-hater.
But launch a debate on immigration? That’s super-cool right now since there are a lot of scared white people who want our borders closed to those dirty Mexicans. It’s even been suggested we shoot them for trying to gain entrance to our precious country. Noncrazies, of course, loathe this sort of talk. And I consider myself noncrazy. So I’m extra-embarrassed that I “hate” the immigrants in my neighborhood. (The neighborhood I’m gentrifying—but, hey, that’s another issue.)
But they’re not acting right! They’re coming in here and disrespecting a good American woman, just because that’s how their culture is? So I’m allowed to hate them, right?
I can’t hate them for any reason connected to their race. That makes me no better than people who say shit like, “Go back to Africa!” I can, however, hate them for the way they disrespect me.
White men don’t do this to me with the same frequency, so when I pass a group of them on the street, I don’t clench my jaw, tense up, and walk faster. But when I pass Latino men, I assume the worst. Black men, too, sometimes, since after Latino men, they harass me the most. Hell, if you’re at all brown, I’m gonna get worried. So I have this conflict every damn day.
Logic wins out in the end, though. I remind myself that it’s absurd to hate an entire race of people based on the behavior of a few—good to remember at moments like that. I tell myself that it’s the behavior I loathe, not the race—and then I get mad all over again with the next “Hey, Mami!”
Because what the fuck is up with street harassment?
That’s what I mean when I say sexism is still sort of OK. Harassment happens constantly, to pretty much all women, no matter what they look like, or wear, or do, and there’s almost no way to stop it. I don’t usually fight back when I’m harassed; I just pretend I can’t hear them and keep walking. Usually that makes them quiet down, though sometimes they get irate that I couldn’t at least be friendly to them. The times I have “fought back”—when I just couldn’t take it anymore—I reach for “shut up” or give someone the finger. Ooh, real tough. And it only makes them angry. I happened to snap like that once at a car full of black men, and they followed me a couple of blocks, catching up with me at the next light to call me a “white bitch.” If you read the log, you’ll note that yes, I’ve been called that twice recently. Perhaps that should be my new nickname?
The armchair sociologist in me knows it’s all about power—that the men who harass are just trying to look tough in front of their friends or assert their dominance. I think that’s probably true in some form, but what I hear is all about sex and shame. Shame on my part, anyway, as I hunch over to hide myself when I hear some jerk tell me what he’d like to do to me. It’s great fun.
And if it’s not about power, is it actually a way for men to try to pick up women? I mean, I highly doubt that a harasser is thinking deeply about the dynamics of the situation or that he expects to get some sort of positive response from hollering at me. So does that shit ever work? I want to meet the woman who married the man who leered at her and said “Daaaaamn!” while she was walking alone late at night. That’d be one hell of a story. As David Cross said about a garbage man using his truck to harass—I’m sorry, attempting to pick up chicks—”I’ll talk to 100 women. Cause hey, maybe that 99th girl likes to fuck on a pile of trash.”
Perhaps street harassment really is just an aggressive form of flirting. It must be to some people, because some men don’t understand how rude, wrong, and frightening harassment is. Some even wish women would return the favor: “Hey, nice package!” Many people do not get that harassment is a serious problem. They think I should be flattered, which I guess…Yeah! Hey, you’re right. A stranger’s, “Girl you are so sexy, come here, hey where are you going,” should definitely be responded to with a feeling of pride in my heart and maybe a blowjob. Apparently I’m wrong to fantasize about punching a harasser in the face. I mean, come on—be appreciative of the men who validate your self-worth for you. It’s just a compliment, right? Calm down, harpy!
Well, I guess I would if I weren’t feeling annoyed, threatened, and scared. The tone of most harassment is very hostile. Sometimes it escalates to full-on yelling. I’ve been grabbed and groped. Even a more innocuous “compliment” is still kind of weird—why are you talking to me out of nowhere? And the carful of men who circled the block to find and yell at me weren’t the first to intimidate me from inside a vehicle. I’ve had men slow down their cars to match the pace of my walking, so that they could lean out the window and—I don’t know, try to convince me to get in? What the fuck? Those guys are hard to ignore. I usually keep it up until I can’t anymore, but I have flipped out and yelled: “Drive your fucking car! GO!” This is usually when I get called a—you guessed it—bitch. Sometimes they call me fat or ugly, too, which makes perfect sense considering I was one hot mama not 10 seconds earlier.
Last year, the Washington City Paper‘s own blog was the site of some discussion on this very topic. Sarah Godfrey wrote a post about an anti-street harassment rally held in early May. And guess what came up? Racism. She was accused of being racist by the organizers, who claimed she was saying that only “Black and Brown people engage in street harassment” and that she was promoting racial tension. See what a touchy subject this is? If you point out the street harassment in particular neighborhoods full of a particular race/ethnicity of men, you’re a racist. But if you make a blanket statement and point out that men in general have been known to harass women—a true fact, sorry guys—then you’re a man-hater. Fucked either way, and so am I. Because I don’t know what to do about this problem, or my anger, or racism.
I’ve only learned that if you can train yourself not to turn your head when you hear a voice, if you can pretend to be deaf, you’ll walk away from most harassment situations unharmed. It’ll continually happen to you, but at least you won’t escalate the situation unintentionally. What the hell kind of advice is that? That’s no comfort, and no solution.
The only thing I can come up with is to make people aware of it. Many times, when I tell a male friend what’s up, he looks at me in amazement, and says, “I had no idea it was that bad.” Well, guess what, dude? It is.