A recent post over on Womanist Musings reminded me of something I have been meaning to write about. The post is essentially about how white, radical feminists are blind to other womens’ realities. They declare the world to be one way, based on their experiences, and expect all people to act accordingly.
It is infuriating when people erase or deny your life experience and feelings.
The most frustrating thing about my mother is that she will never concede to having done anything wrong – ever. She has her version of events and that is all there is. My sister and I could stand in front of her with video and forty two eyewitnesses – including Honest Abe, Gandhi, and Moses – and she still would not veer from her version of events.
My mother and I have a tenuous relationship based on occasional emails and a visit every four or five years. My sister hasn’t spoken to her since 1999. It is impossible to have a good relationship with someone who denies your reality. It is impossible to work with someone who remains willfully ignorant in order to protect themselves from the fact that they are not perfect.
We all see the world through the lens of our own experience. But that doesn’t mean that we dismiss all other experiences. When somebody tells you that they experience the world differently, your response should not be, “That is not how I experience the world and therefore you are wrong.” Your response should be, “I believe you. Now how is it that we can experience life so differently?”
There is a growing campaign out there against street harassment. And I must confess to you that I have been snarky and dismissive of it at times. The only people I feel harassed by on the street are those adolescent activists hired by Greenpeace and HRC. (No I am not going to stop and listen to your spiel or give you money, especially not you HRC.)
When I saw this video of Emily May, Executive Director of Hollaback!, I was just annoyed. To me it sounded like she wants the whole world to be like the little town she grew up in. When she talked about wanting everyone to be able to say hi to each other without feeling threatened, I thought she was describing some provincial, waspy universe of horror.
Still, I kept reading things and talking to my friends about it. It soon became clear to me that other people are experiencing street harassment much differently than I am. It isn’t just our interpretations. It isn’t their imaginations. They are getting harassed more and more threateningly.
A while back, there was an article in the Washingtonian. It was one of those feel good stories about a downtrodden boy trying to make good. When he was on the streets, the boy
learned the rules of street life: Never put your hands on a white woman. Never hit a young girl. Never shoot a kid. Never steal from your own family.
If he did all that, he was told, he’d stay alive.
I don’t think those instructions were about moral judgment. They were more a judgment on what crimes people would pay attention to and which ones wouldn’t be pursued. Some women are targets in ways that some of us are not.
Native American women are twice as likely to get raped. Hundreds of First Nations women have gone missing with hardly any effort to find out what happened. Even after a decade of tireless activists bringing the Juarez femicides into the international spotlight, the murders of those women are still not being properly investigated. But you can bet your ass that if some young, middle class, blond girl goes missing her face will be a fixture on the 24 hour news cycle.
There’s a hierarchy out there, and the further down it you are, the more danger you are in. To quote criminologist Steven Egger,
The greatest similarity I found among all serial killers, not just the killers of prostitutes, is the vulnerability of the victim. In almost all cases, we’re talking about a victim who is available, who is from a powerless group of society and who tends not to have a lot of prestige.
So is it really a big surprise that I don’t experience the streets the same as other people? Of course, I don’t. Race, class, and age all factor in with how free people feel to interact with me or to try and intimidate me. There is a power relationship there. Few are going to harass someone who they perceive to have power over them in some way – whether that is the physical power to kick their ass or the power of being the kind of victim that cops are likely to pay attention to.
So, women, I believe you. I believe that street harassment is reducing your quality of life, that the constant reminder of those power relations grinds down on you, that it is important to you to make it stop. And I support you.
I don’t understand your experiences exactly. I’m unlikely to make this an issue that I devote a lot of my time and energies to. And I definitely cannot support criminalizing the behavior and adding to the hideous issues we have with the prison industrial complex. But you will get no more snarkiness and eye rolling from me. And I’ll be keeping my eye out for you on the streets.
You would be amazed how different the world can look if you are just willing to believe people. And if you can’t even be bothered to do that, then you have a lot of nerve expecting people to have anything to do with you.
P.S. The image above comes from this post about Street Harassment of Black Women