Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Harassment That Wasn't and What It Taught Me about the Interdependence of Misogyny and Racism

I have been experiencing street harassment since I was about 11 years old. As I walked down the street, grown men would make comments about my appearance, ranging from the mild to the crass. Sometimes it was annoying, often times it was frightening. While I was taught such things as to never accept a drink I had not seen poured and to stand up for myself if someone insulted me, no one ever showed me how to deal with unwanted "compliments" that left me feeling violated rather than appreciated.

As I experimented with ways to respond to such unwanted interactions, it was painful to learn that there was no such thing as the correct response. Whether I ignored the comments, challenged them or even attempted to educate with loving intent to the harasser on why his behavior was unwelcomed, I took a big risk in escalating this situation instigated by the simple act of being a woman who dared deigned to enter public space. Nothing I did or failed to do was going to prevent it from happening or ensuring that the encounter remained verbal.  Neither my peace of mind nor safety was in my hands. For all the excuses that people make for street harassment, the simple fact a person can be forced into an undesired interaction with no other option than to bear it is evidence of a power imbalance. The person who is targeted by the harasser has no true recourse.  She's damned if she does, damned if she doesn't.

The only thing that seems to work is collective intervention. That is, when others - men and women alike - rally around the person who is being targeted and communicates to the perpetrator that they won't abide by that behavior. Unfortunately, we are so fearful of becoming targets ourselves, such an intervention is not as common as it should be.

I remain haunted by past experiences of street harassment. As much as I understand intellectually that nothing I could've done would've sufficed, internalized sexism has a tight grip on the spirit. And so oes internalized racism for one of the most haunting experiences of negotiating the politics of the pavement involved the time I wasn't harassed.

Here is that story and what I learned from it.

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