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September 2013

Why Some Black People Don’t Want Me To Discuss Street Harassment

I used to think that it was solely fear of judgment in the White Gaze as to why some Black men and some Black women don’t want me to discuss street harassment. (I get nasty comments, rude emails, direct tweets and subtweets sometimes, though there is also great support from other Black people. Both happens.) Other than atheism and colourism, street harassment is one of the topics that I get the most intraracial pushback on. Instead of discussing the abuse, I’m supposed to indulge it or pretend that it doesn’t happen so that Whites won’t view Black men poorly or as aggressive. This is supposed to be done “for the sake of the race” where often “race” means “cis heterosexual able-bodied Black men 16-40 years old” and no other Black people.

The painful irony here is multi-layered because much is ignored “for the sake of the race.” This ignores the fact that patriarchal masculinity is inherently violent and White men know this well through the violence they’ve inflicted upon Black women and Black men via the powers of the State and individually, for centuries. This form of masculinity that needs dominance to exist is exemplified by most men, especially cis heterosexual ones, regardless of race or class. This ignores the fact that White men also engage in gendered violence like street harassment. When higher socioeconomic class is a factor, these men may also move their harassment to online spaces (i.e. the overwhelming culture of online rape threats and “jokes,” doxxing, DDoS attacks etc.) and workplaces (i.e. sexual harassment and sexual assault). This ignores the fact that hiding gendered abuse to put on a “united” racial front means that Black women and families are destroyed all while pretending to measure up to hegemonic ideals of family that were designed so that Black people would never measure up in the first place. That’s why these ideals are White supremacist and hegemonic. They exist on the idea of White being opposite to Black and “better” than Black. They cannot exist without the dehumanization of Black people via our appearance, speech, behavior, ideologies and culture.

This ignores the fact that the White Gaze is shaped by White supremacy and hypocrisy. It involves ignoring the role of oppression on Black masculinity and pretending that what Black men do is “arbitrarily pathological” where Black women become “traitors” for speaking out on sexism, or actually…speaking out on any oppression among Black people that isn’t specifically the experience of cis heterosexual Black men. The White Gaze means that the same behaviors by White men are ignored or individualized while ones by Black men are hyper-visual and group pathologized. This is why even some White feminists’ White Gaze on Black men allowed them to turn the murder of Trayvon Martin into a space to discuss Black men as rapists of White women (old racist trope used to control and punish Black men), despite most rape being intraracial (except for Indigenous women who are raped mostly by White men, not Indigenous ones). The biggest danger to White women is White men, period. But the White Gaze means White women gladly co-opt my experiences of abuse from Black men as proof of Black men’s threat to White women. It doesn’t really matter if historically White women posed a greater threat to Black men than the reverse (and still often do); they’ll still cling to their “scary Black man” narrative or worse, claim that Black men have more rights and are living better than they are. Finally, what this ignores is the transient nature of the White Gaze. Ultimately no matter how much a Black man achieves and fits into White masculinity and capitalist standards, how his race is perceived doesn’t change. President Obama is proof of this. Most Black men (or people, in general) aren’t gonna earn two Ivy League degrees, be a past social justice advocate, be a law professor, be a published author and have a family just like the Obamas. But even if Black men do, they’ll still be viewed poorly and called “nigger.” Thus, the idea of accepting and being quiet about abuse as a Black woman in order to “prove” to Whites how “good” Black men are is a futile activity. I am destroyed and Black men aren’t held accountable. And they too are destroyed. We cannot live for approval of Whites that shouldn’t be desired and will never come anyway.

But even after thinking about all of this, I realized that there is more. It’s not just fear of the White Gaze that makes some Black people want me silent. It’s what my deconstruction and rejection of street harassment entails. It means I am not silently suffering in abuse and how Black men have come to view me and other Black women is questioned. If Black women are all “Strong Black Women" then wouldn’t street harassment be just fine? Wouldn’t being degraded 10-75 times a week, like I am, roll right off my back? Wouldn’t dealing with this for over twenty years be small potatoes? But it isn’t. And Black men have to come to terms with the fact that Black people as a whole have been impacted by White supremacist constructions of our genders. Black men are supposed to be aggressive, degrading and hyper-masculine to make up for no access to State or capitalist power. Black women are supposed to be unemotional and unfeeling and “used to abuse” to the point that abuse is “flirting.” I’ve had so many street harassment experiences where despite coming from a different direction than the Black man who harassed me and him clearly not knowing my name (and at times asking for it in earshot of the White people), Whites nearby who witnessed the whole scenario immediately assumed (and ask me) if the random man is my lover. In the White Gaze, Black relationships are so dysfunctional that there could be no other explanation as to why a Black man that I don’t know verbally assaults or threatens me. To them, this is our “normal” lover interaction. (And doesn’t help that domestic violence among Whites is ignored or treated as “individual” random cases, while until Rihanna/Chris Brown, Tina Turner/Ike Turner were used as go to “jokes" and examples of domestic violence.)

Since our sexuality is supposed to be inherently “deviant" and for men, deviant and violent, this should be "normal" activity. The problem is it is not. It never was. Thus, internalizing these representations forced upon us after centuries of abuse has made us mistake these lies that are performed as our true reflections as if any identity that deviates from them is no longer authentic. So when I reject street harassment or protest domestic violence or rape, not only am I upsetting the status quo where we are supposed to "perform humanity" for White approval, not live humanly for ourselves, I’m also forcing Black people to critique how we perceive gender constructions themselves. This is uncomfortable, yes. It requires deconstruction that’s painful, exposure that’s embarrassing and rejection of negativity that seems like rejection of Black men themselves. I don’t reject Black men as human; I reject this narrow space where patriarchal hypermasculinity and a quest for dominance to prove manhood (as a salve for lack of State or capital power due to institutional racism) grows and is targeted at who some Black men view should be beneath them; Black women. The core of their thought process on this involves the internalization of White supremacist and patriarchal thinking about race and gender.

I couldn’t ignore street harassment if I wanted to though. Even if I didn’t write. This is something that happens to me 10-75 times a week. For over twenty years. I recently turned 34. This means 22 years of street harassment as it started when I was 12. I am unwilling to pretend that this doesn’t exist to “protect” Black men from the White Gaze. No one Black can be protected from White supremacy this way, especially by enduring intraracial abuse, which is actually internalizing White supremacist thought about Blackness anyway. I am also unwilling to play the role of Strong Black Woman and pretend that 520-3,900 street harassment incidents per year doesn’t affect my emotions, my physical and mental health or my sense of safety. And well, the Black people who want me to shut up about this are gonna have to deal. They’re gonna have to want to be healthy and happy more than wanting to receive White approval. 

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    It was “for the sake of the race” that I spent too long being hesitant about mentioning street harassment in front of...
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