In the three days since Hollaback’s exposé on New York City’s street harassment epidemic went viral, the video—in which we see men ceaselessly approach a young woman with a hidden microphone and camera as she strolls around the city for 10 hours—has generated a lively conversation. Some men, in their first reaction, questioned the video’s loose definition of the term “harassment”—many arguing that a semi-cordial “good morning” isn’t comparable to stalking a woman for five minutes, as we watch one man do in the video. Then, Wednesday, as the video reached more eyes, some people—including Slate’s Hanna Rosin—noted another potential flaw: Hollaback edited out nearly all the white male catcallers. “The video also unintentionally makes another point,” Rosin writes, “that harassers are mostly black and Latino, and hanging out on the streets in midday in clothes that suggest they are not on their lunch break.”
In a statement explaining the absence of white guys in the video, Rob Bliss of Rob Bliss Creative, the firm that partnered with Hollaback on the video, said, “We got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing or off camera.” I’d bet this is because, as Bliss gets at in his quote, white men, on average, don’t catcall in the same way that men of color do—and oftentimes, as I’ve learned, they don’t do it at all.
That, of course, is not to say that white men don’t have their own predatory nature—one that is expressed in ways unique to their privilege. As we know from countless court cases, it’s not that white men don’t hassle women (or rich white men, as Joyce Carol Oates implied this week in a tone-deaf tweet), it’s that they do it in a different way.
For all men, harassment of women has more to do with establishing power than it does sexual interest; they do it to control space, both public (the very street you both walk on) and personal (a woman’s self-set boundaries). Men of color catcall vocally and visibly on the sidewalk because they have to—not that there’s ever excuse for harassment. They need the “Sexy!” and “Smile!” to create the illusion of dominance in shared public spaces that social constructs and institutional racism have never afforded them control over.
White men, on the other hand, have no use for that sort of catcalling. They marked their territory centuries ago. So, instead, their sexual harassment is less invasive (“in passing,” as Bliss puts it) and harder to recognize—even when it’s staring you in the face. They do it in bars, at parties, on the frat row at your local college campus, in boardrooms, and other places men of color are never privy to, at least not in positions of power. As a biracial woman of color who, despite being half-white, likely “reads” black to many people, I’ve walked into parties thrown by traditionally white fraternities and bars with a diverse crowd, and white guys have gawked at me ever so slightly, engaging with me as they would an exotic animal at a zoo. Particularly when I’m in a group with other women of color, they circle us, giving off cues to dance in a way that suggests it’s nothing more than a social experiment for them; it’s as if they’re wondering, “what’s it really like to dance with a black girl?” And white men harass, sometimes most crudely, online—particularly, as I’ve experienced, when approaching women of color.
When I told my colleagues that I don’t actually think many white men catcall on the street, they disagreed. That brings up the unavoidable role subjectivity plays in all this. To that point, the writer Roxane Gay this week warned against trying to make one person’s experience universal. “Just because the majority of men who harass you are of a certain race or class,” she wrote, “does not make that experience universal.” Over the years I’ve noticed a disproportionate occurrence of men of color hitting on me in public places (like the sidewalk) than I do white men. And that experience, having lived in New Jersey, Syracuse, London, and now NYC, hasn’t changed no matter what street I’m walking on. But my female colleagues—from both rural and urban areas, and of different races—can recall instances of being harassed on the street by white men. The only universal experience I can glean from this week’s conversation about harassment is that all women get it in some form.