Some Uncomfortable Images are True: Problems With the Viral Catcalling Video Backlash

Photo Credit: iHollaback/Rob Bliss
by Omilaju Miranda

A woman pedestrian in New York City is a slow-moving, easily hit target for cat calling, stalking, and physically intrusive behavior from men. On October 28th, the Hollaback organization released a documentary of street harassment, featuring Shoshana Roberts, which reveals the way that men cat call and stalk a woman as she walks through New York City. And the first intellectual written responses to her experience were in defense of black and brown men.

Hanna Rosin asks ‘where are the white catcallers— did Shoshanna not walk through any white neighborhoods?’ and Khadijah Costley White claims that the way the producer edited the video is comparable to the long history of media portrayals of, and legal responses to, the mythic black sexual predator attacking white women.

But this video of Shoshana Roberts walking through New York City for 10 hours is not false. It is not the cinematic presentation of the imagined black transracial rapist from the movie Birth of a Nation nor does it represent the injustice of the Scottsboro Boys’ case or the Central Park Five whose images were splayed throughout the media under the label ‘violent rapists’ even though they were innocent minors. This is a video representing the live, true experience of a woman pedestrian in New York City.

As soon as I saw the video I related to it. I know this experience. ‘But,’ I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s conservative. If I or another black or Latina friend of mine were the target instead this white woman, there would have been two or three instances of guys walking next to us for five minutes, and more than likely one or all of them would have pulled on our arm, put his hand in our hair, or cursed us out when we departed without giving him our name or number’ because while they would like to communicate with Shoshanna, they think they have a right to the time, attention and bodies of me and my brown skinned sisters.

I am a woman, who is black and every day I decide to walk around New York City instead of cab it or drive, I must be brave, because it is not enough for me to dress “modestly” or casually with no makeup and my hair unstyled—if I walk, I have a day of cat calling and possible physical harassment ahead of me.

In the tradition of documentary truth, I saw this video as conservative but authentic—I could share this on facebook and show my friends outside of New York what I go through on most days. When Shoshana Roberts spoke up in an interview to say that along with many of the white guys’ non-aggressive greetings, producers had also edited out all the groping incidents to which she had been subjected, I was convinced that even for a white woman’s experience, the video had exposed street aggressors in the kindest light possible.

Roxane Gay’s response to the video was to tweet out an admonishment to women telling us not to generalize our experiences with some men as a fact for all women. Where were the tweets from feminists, black and Latino community leaders, or artists and intellectuals telling black, Latino, and all men to let women walk down the sidewalk in peace and stop cat calling and harassing us?

In response to Hanna Rosin and Khadijah Costley White’s articles I want to know why, when we women have documented evidence of a way in which we are harassed, do we have to care about the portrayal of the predators? Why is the perspective that this video may contribute to the national conscious negatively regarding black and brown men as dangerous to white women more important than the fact that neither I nor this woman can walk around the business and residential areas of New York City without being verbally harassed and stalked?

Maybe white men are catcalling and yanking on the arms of women pedestrians on the sidewalks of Turtle Bay, Manhattan and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. In Sarasota, FL and Blacksburg, VA, white men in trucks have harassed me with sexually profane intimidations as I walked to school. Because everywhere women go, there will be some type of man who will choose to attempt to assert his power through sexual intimidation or coercion, we know that white men in a variety of settings are sexual predators but this video is about walking around New York City.

And white men catcalling and pulling at us on the street is not what most New York women experience the majority of the time. For New York City, the racial representation of catcalling in this video of Shoshanna Roberts walking around rings true. And when it comes to exposing misogynistic, intrusive behavior, I don’t care about the way these images of Black and Latino men catcalling and stalking link to our national memories of false and unjust representations of innocent or imaginary black men who were not predators. Black and Latino men are not the victims here. Women are the daily victims and hourly survivors of catcalling, verbal aggression, and physical molestation on the sidewalks of New York City.

I, for one, do not care about where the white men are in this video because in 20 years of being a pedestrian in all five boroughs of New York in neighborhoods of every type of socioeconomic and racial composition, I only remember three or four white men who have escalated from smiling and saying “hi” or “I like your look” to demanding my attention on the street—none of them grabbing me— while I can not begin to count the number of black and Latino men who have imposed themselves verbally and physically into my space.

I do care about the absence of a serious video documenting a pecan complexioned or dark chocolate hued woman pedestrian experiencing cat calling and verbal and physical assault in New York—despite the serious discussion forum that she leads, Jessica Williams’ video at its core, is a parody of the tame commentary we receive as women pedestrians. I do care about the fact that we brown-skinned women have been dealing with this harassment for decades and it has gone unchecked until white women decried it, since our intra-community abuse is invisible to the media and white women’s bodies are still seen as worthy of protection in our social and legal culture, while the bodies of women of color are still a canvas for anyone to paint their lust without repercussions. I do care about the number of times I and those I love have been told by women and men close to us that we shouldn’t be bothered by men calling out to us or touching us in the street and if we just dressed more modestly we wouldn’t experience catcalling.

I’ve done the experiment and yes, for a while, in Midtown Manhattan and in my middle class, rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, when I wrapped my head in an African style turban and dressed like a business woman headed to the office or a roomy-clothed school teacher, only men with very respectful greetings approached me. But many of those who asked, still had a problem with me saying “no” to a request for my name or number or my refusal to engage them in conversation. Because doesn’t every brother with a respectful approach deserve a chance?

But I’ve worn the same modest styles as I walked from the subway to schools, churches and masjids in Brownsville and East New York—two of the worst neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and black and Latino men approached me both respectfully and rudely. A woman seeing herself through the eyes of many black and Latino men on the street in economically disadvantaged New York neighborhoods, feels like a piece of meat a person wants to pounce upon. And, in both high and low socioeconomic neighborhoods, they often do “pounce”. In Brooklyn and Manhattan (the Village, Midtown, Upper West Side, and Harlem), I have experienced on more than one occasion strangers grabbing my hands, pulling at my arms, tugging at my blouse, touching my hair or kissing me on the mouth or cheeks to get my attention and yelling “You ain’t all that you “Bitch,” “Dyke”, “Ho” as I walked away having refused to give the guy my name or number.

Conversely, during the nine years that I lived in a racially diverse neighborhood on Staten Island—the whitest borough of New York City—while white men at work and in social situations asked me out, no white guy ever approached me as I walked openly in public.

Are there historical and contemporary reasons of economic and social oppression, and lack of access to positions of mainstream masculine power that have contributed to the development of a culture of catcalling and aggressive physical behavior towards women, amongst some black and Latino men in New York? Of course there are. And from the safety of academic discussion forums and the voting booth I can support all the economic and educational policy changes that will create equal opportunities for black men to become frat house and board room rapists like their white privileged counterparts instead of cat calling sidewalk aggressors. But on a daily walk to work or school, I don’t care about social inequalities predisposing my brethren to harass me. I only care about the fact that men (and the women who defend them) need to understand that they are not entitled to our attention and don’t have a right to touch me or any other woman just because they want to assert their physical prowess and power into our space.

And to all the writers who care more about where the white men are in the Shoshanna Roberts cat calling video than the fact that this aggression must stop, your analysis of this video supports victim negating, sexism, and misogyny. Your writing conveys the message that it is a worse societal offense that the exposure of truth could make people think badly of black men in general than it is that men won’t let women walk to their destinations in peace, and free of stalking and molestation.

Omilaju Miranda (“Omi”) is the founder of Mixed Diversity Reads Children’s Book Review , a nonprofit site, which reviews children’s picture books and YA novels with protagonists across the spectrums of diversity especially those from interracial, transracial, lgbt, gender non-conforming, bilingual, and single parents or who are disabled. Follow @diversekidreads, @Multiracefamily or on Facebook.

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