Talking back: race, class and harassment

The now-viral video of a woman being catcalled and harassed as she walks through Manhattan was created by Hollaback (a global movement, started by two NYU graduates, to end street harassment) and Rob Bliss Creative as a statement about harassment and violence against women. But it has been criticised heavily for race and class blindness.

Bliss admitted that most of the white men who had been caught on camera harassing the woman were edited out. Responses to the video included tweets by Joyce Carol Oates, raising concerns that the video permitted more explicit racial stereotyping and excused white affluent men:

The video has been subsequently described as an expression of race and class anxiety, unconsciously producing what Hanna Rosin describes as ‘that icky impression of a white woman under assault by the big bad city’, which seems to have been the most appealing narrative to the producers.

Within Hollaback, race blindness is deliberately instituted and passed off as racial awareness. Hollaback’s Melbourne chapter has an ‘anti-discrimination’ policy asking respondents submitting written accounts of their experience not to mention the ‘attributes’ (that is, race, class, trans status, sexuality or disabilities) of their harassers, so as not to ‘point fingers’ or uphold stereotypes. The policy creates the idea that harassment is a universal and gendered trend, and rules out discussion of the underlying connections to class structures, gentrification, and histories of colonialism, racism and slavery.

To put the history in an Australian context, the protection and veneration of white womanhood and the presumption of violence and threat on the part of Aboriginal men has a long history in the expansion of colonial power in Australia. In 2013, Noongar artist Dianne Jones exhibited What Lies Buried Rises at Linden Centre for Contemporary Art, a collection of work exploring the death in 1837 of Sarah Cook, a white woman living in Noongar Balladong country in Western Australia. Cook was a young white woman living on the frontier, reported to have been raped and killed by two local Aboriginal men. Although the details and the perpetrators of the murder were never confirmed, hundreds of local Noongar men, women and children were killed in retribution by settler authorities over the following years.

It’s not by any means an isolated narrative, and it demonstrates the interwoven collaborations between state power and the individualised racial and gendered anxieties on the frontier that find relevance today in urban spaces. Christina Hanhardt has written that in the United States, post-Stonewall LGBT and feminist movements toward safer spaces in urban areas (‘take back the streets’) commonly align their interests with public policy and policing initiatives to ‘clean up the streets’, further targeting and criminalising marginalised communities. Rob Bliss himself has participated in pro-gentrification campaigns, once producing a video of himself giving a homeless man a makeover to make the statement that, although ‘the homeless are people we ignore every day,’ with a little work they ‘can look like they’re meant for the cover of GQ.’

When the state government introduced Protective Service Officers with extensive powers at train stations across Melbourne, I lived in Coburg and frequently took the Upfield line train from platform 3, Melbourne Central.

I overheard a conversation about the measures between some white commuters in professional dress, taking the Craigieburn line to Broadmeadows. One woman said loudly that she thought the measures could be seen as heavy handed but were actually wonderful, because she had seen some ‘dero guys’ looking afraid and talking in hushed voices about the PSOs at the station, and that made her feel more secure.

When I moved to Footscray earlier this year, the conversations I listened in on became more and more obviously raced and classed: white men travelling home from the football on a Saturday night laughing about watching Black men being arrested at Footscray station, more than one acquaintance who laughed when I mentioned I lived near Highpoint, replying, ‘more like knifepoint, am I right?’

More than that, young white artists and fashion design students were moving to the area, establishing share houses and remarking that they ‘didn’t know’ Footscray was so cool until their friends started living there – a perfect expression of that mix of selective consumption and fearfulness that comes with the deliberate introduction of white affluence to racially diversified and working-class neighbourhoods.

Harassment and violence are insidious. The kinds of violence that are done behind closed doors are often the most dangerous: the violences that can be covered up, manipulated, re-presented and twisted in order to make the victim seem hysterical, unreasonable, at fault and unworthy of protection.

Jill Meagher’s killing by Adrien Bailey, a man unknown to her, has been commemorated with huge community action and sparking the move of the annual Reclaim the Night march in October to Sydney Road, Brunswick for the past two years. This year, the death of Fiona Warzywoda, stabbed by her ex-partner as she was leaving court in Sunshine after obtaining an AVO against him, and the Islamophobic attack on the hijab-wearing Abrar Ahmed and her mother that resulted in a broken arm sparked no such protests

Some forms of violence are recognised as violence, and some are normalised; are, in fact, as Ayesha Siddiqi remarked on Twitter, foundational. Some forms of violence uphold the state and as a result, go virtually unremarked upon. What’s clear is that, rather than refusing to mention race and class, public and social media-based feminist movements to ‘take back the streets’ must take a position on street harassment and violence that also addresses the dynamics of policing, racism and gentrification.

Maddee Clark

Dr Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer, editor and critic living in Naarm on the lands of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people.

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  1. Oh, God. How to get the wrong end of the stick without really trying. I don’t know why they would have been dumb enough to edit the white men out. It makes no sense at all. However, to be sidetracked by that is to miss the point that this is what women put up with day after day, every day in every way as Julia Gillard said in her misogyny speech in the parliament. When I was young I was sneered at, yelled at sworn at, I had men rub themselves up against me in buses and trains and talk about my breasts to other men as if I wasn’t there. Now I’m not young but they still scream obscenities at me out of cars. And, of course, men will say that I must be wearing makeup, perfume, jewellery so I’m asking for attention but that’s not it at all. You know when it started? It started when I was six, when I was not wearing makeup, perfume, jewellery. The man who lived three doors down would sometimes come into the next door neighbour’s yard and this man would look at me over the fence. He didn’t look at me as if I was a little girl, he looked at me as if I was a woman and he would always say the same thing in a soft, insinuating voice so no one else could hear him but me. He would say ‘When you grow up the boys will be around you like bees around honey.’ It made me uncomfortable but I didn’t understand why. I’ve always been glad that there was a fence between us but the point is the same. It was unwanted, inappropriate attention, it was not pleasant and I didn’t like it. Men of any colour who behave this way are disgraceful, ignorant fools and getting into a big conversation about race is just a distraction from the real issue. A woman who can’t walk around a city without being yelled at and sexually harassed is not free and is a second class citizen. That’s the point.

  2. “getting into a big conversation about race is just a distraction from the real issue”, the real issue being the safety of good white women from (racially Othered) strangers

  3. Newsflash, Ms Hildebrand: for those without the privilege of whiteness, race is a pretty significant factor in the sheer volume, violence and other factors associated with street harassment, including whether or not is is even considered violence. Race is not a “distraction” from the real issue, which you might understand if you weren’t so busy having a “what about me” moment to actually absorb what is in this article. Some women are considered historically unrapeable, so the violence against them is not even considered violence. If you do actually care about learning anything more, apart from this article and its links, there is some very easy-to-access stuff on twitter and elsewhere under the hashtag #youoksis, which dissects this “race-blind” racist logic quite effectively. Though I should say what I value about this article is its extension of some of the discussions I have followed in the US under youoksis and some of the work of Robert Reece on why black men have more to fear from white women than the other way around,
    to a discussion of the particular dynamics of white sexual panic and genocide in Australia – work that I have obviously missed but has been there all along: thanks Maddee. Looking forward to more of it.

    Your response, one that actively shouts down attempts from black women and women of colour to express their reality and discomfort with current discussions around street harassment, expresses a contempt for the lived experience of other women. A big conversation about race is CLEARLY what we need to have.

  4. Ouch and apologies for any misgendering – I was trying to get across a broader sense of the racial dynamics of these discussions, when I think what I actually did was squash the genderqueerness in the process. Don’t know how to edit my own comment, so I will just apologise and smack my head against a table instead…

  5. Thanks Liz, very thoughtful.

    I do really resent that when race and class are discussed with regards to violence and harassment I am always forced to also clarify that a) I also experience harassment, have for a long time and b) I don’t like or excuse it.

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