Disclaimer: This post addresses privilege, racism, gender politics, and other issues. It’s based primarily on my own experience, and I didn’t attempt to cover all potential scenarios and angles. I’m sure I left a lot of valid points out, and am hoping people who see my own blind spots will contribute to the conversation with their own writing if they feel moved to.
There’s this sentiment in many feminist circles that if someone feels uncomfortable, it’s likely due to some type of gender discrimination. And often, that’s true. Women for so long have had to deal not only with harassment and sexism, but with other people telling them it’s in their own head.
This is why feminist women’s groups can be so gratifying. Finally you can have the “am I crazy, or is this person being creepy?” discussion with people who support you. We’ve passed around copies of Amanda Hess’ post on “grey rape” and had nuanced, thoughtful discussions, sharing our own experiences without feeling the need to dredge up old memories or justify our clothing, our body language, or our existence. In a world where many of us find ourselves constantly put on the defensive, it’s refreshing.
But this isn’t just about validation. Plenty of women’s circles and groups I’ve been in have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince women that yes, the specific manifestation of non-consensual sex they’d described is rape, and no, it wasn’t their fault. That yes, their employer was harassing them and no, smiling didn’t make it okay or magically shift responsibility from the perpetrator to the target. That they’re not terrible people for reporting it or for not reporting it. That they can get help and things can get better.
I’ve wiped the tears of a woman who was drugged and raped but thought it was her own fault because she’d smoked pot earlier in the day. I’ve made tea for a teenager who thought she led her stalker on and felt bad getting a restraining order because she thought it’d be too mean; this was someone she cared about.
Those justifications seem ridiculous to us but didn’t to those people at the time until they got a reality check from supportive friends. The combination of societal victim-blaming and high degrees of shame and guilt associated with sexual violence create a potent cocktail of self-blame, and as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, meeting with a group of like-minded women can be helpful for recalibrating one’s perception of reality. It can also be incredibly gratifying to be surrounded by people who aren’t trying to discredit your emotions and in fact view your experience through the lens of systemic inequality. Part of yelling and screaming that something wasn’t our fault is because a tiny part of us might believe that maybe it was. Fragmentary recall and difficultly making sense of what happened, among other things, can do that to a person.
But there’s a dark side to this, too, and it has to do with privilege. Almost every feminist group or women’s group I’ve been in has skewed predominantly white and predominantly financially privileged, and I think this really colors the dialogue and what we get from the groups in a way that may not be immediately obvious.
There’s this pervasive feeling in feminist circles that anytime someone feels uncomfortable, she’s being harassed. And there’s a tendency to erase white-on-white harassment from history. But feeling uncomfortable, no how you slice it, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being harassed. A very lonely male friend of mine once sent me an email that initially, instinctively made me feel uncomfortable. After giving it some thought I realized that not only were they not, in my estimation, doing anything creepy, that if anyone was contributing to an unfair power dynamic, it was me.
At some point embracing feminist rhetoric can extend beyond finding a group of supportive people who trust your stories as you tell them instead of invalidating them, which is problematic in and of itself. It can lean women towards a warped view of the world in which one views anything that makes her feel uncomfortable as harassment, and even fixates solely on gender issues while ignoring all other forms of systemic inequality.
What does this look like? It looks like Abby Dawson, a white Kennesaw State University academic advisor, telling black student Kevin Bruce that waiting quietly until an adviser was available was harassment. I, of course, don’t have a mirror into Dawson’s soul…but if someone equates feeling uncomfortable with being harassed, this is what it looks like. And I think it’s worth acknowledging the possibility of white feminist women thinking that they are being “harassed” because they are uncomfortable… and that they’re uncomfortable because they are racist.
But enough about Dawson. Let’s talk about me.
I was walking to a restaurant for an evening of bachelorette party festivities when some rando started yelling something or other at me. This is always an uncomfortable situation, but his funny and charming friend told him to stop, which made it all better. Right?
I mean, who the hell is anyone to yell things at me on the street? Getting all dressed up for a night on the town with my girls–an incredibly rare occurrence, I might add–isn’t an invitation to street harassment. The guy’s friend stepping in fit seamlessly into the “best party ever OMG!” narrative I was trying to create, and I could tell you all about why my very classy non-trashy bachelorette party was better than everyone else’s. I shared the video widely, and then forgot about it.
Until #BlackLivesMatter entered public consciousness, drawing attention to the death of unarmed black men by police officers…something that has been happening for decades but has suddenly gotten a lot more media play because there was video so it was harder to sweep under the rug or accuse people of lying.
The man in my video told his friend that harassing people was never worth it because the consequence could be a violent reaction by the state. I suppose one could argue that institutionalized violence in response to street harassment is unlikely since catcalling is pervasive and it’s not like we’re all calling the cops or waiting around for them to show up, anyway.
But it’s pretty damn hypocritical of me to say that rape jokes aren’t funny but police beating the shit out of black men? Oh, that’s hysterical.
I would like to stop street harassment in part because of the implicit threat of violence. But I don’t think that a heightened threat of violence towards harassers would stop this cycle.
In addition to a long history of police brutality that disproportionately affects people of color, there’s a long history of black men dealing with organized racism and excessive violence for committing the crime of flirting with white women. Perhaps you’ve heard of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year old black teenager who was murdered in Mississippi after allegedly flirting with a white grocery store clerk. The woman’s husband and his half-brother beat Till, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head and threw his body in a river. A grand jury declined to indict the men who did this. Justice was not served. Till was a human being and his life mattered.
Rewriting this narrative so that the female grocery store clerk is a victim of sexual harassment and Till is not a victim would be sickening. Rewriting a narrative so that I’m a victim of catcalling while ignoring police harassment of people of color is kind of missing the point.
Some guy pointing out that his friend could get tear gassed and arrested for harassing a white woman isn’t really funny in that historical context, is it?
I could come up with a convincing excuses for my own self-absorption: feeling a wee bit narcissistic on the day of one’s bachelorette party is hardly inexcusable, right? In reality, I am constantly coming face to face with ways that I manifest my own privilege without even being aware of it—often fighting tooth and nail to defend what I think is mine when it slowly dawns on me that I was once again stuck in my head and ignoring the systemic inequality around me. I like to think I want to confront the ways I contribute to systemic inequality, but I’d be lying if I pretended this is a smooth and seamless transition. In reality, time and again I’ll find myself fighting it kicking and screaming.
So what’s my point? My point is that we need to unpack and deconstruct our own narratives of harassment, or at least acknowledge the possibility in our own minds that we’re not always victims.
I felt so powerless as a kid that it was hugely surprising to me to realize that actions I took had an effect on others–and not always a positive one. Reflection is crucial.
At some point we have to stop blaming our own self-absorption—I have to stop blaming MY own self-absorption, that is—on gaslighting and fear culture and a history of abuse, on patriarchy or rape culture or societal norms that oppress women. We as white women should acknowledge that we have an enormous amount of privilege and take special care to not create narratives that discount intersectionalism and the experience of others.
And we need to find the strength and reflection to analyze our own victim narratives with the same level of fervor and commitment that we use to unpack violence towards women and the many ways it manifests.
Because it really isn’t just about us.