I recently enjoyed my lunch break by picking up books at MLK Library, located in Gallery Place/Chinatown in Northwest DC. A few steps after I left MLK to return to work, an older man walked briskly toward me on the sidewalk, pointing his finger as he approached. “You’re sexy,” he said, continuing to point at me as he passed.
“Stop harassing women,” I said. I didn’t turn around to see his reaction. A young man waking beside me chuckled. I wasn’t laughing. In my work clothes with my books, I immediately felt embarrassed and objectified by what he said.
Immediately, I heard the man begin yelling at me from behind. From the sounds of it, he had stopped on the sidewalk behind me. I didn’t slow to try to catch what he said, but it was clear I was being called a “white bitch”– at least a few times.
The incident shows how street harassment is not an isolated event, or something to be brushed off as “not a big deal.” Instead, it functions within larger (already-operating) contexts of power regarding race, class, sex and gender. As noted by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the intersection(s) of race and gender often (if not always) play an extraordinary role in sexual harassment.
First, what does it mean when a woman is called a “bitch” for responding to street harassment? What does that say about the options women have in responding to harassment? Many women like myself struggle with the Catch-22 of responding versus not responding to vulgar words thrown at them: “Is it best for me to say nothing and feel like a passive victim (note: this is how I often feel when I don’t respond, but this is not true for everyone or every scenario), or is it best to be assertive and be labeled a ‘bitch?’” I often find myself thinking, “Which of these scenarios will ruin my day LESS?”
So what did this harasser accomplish here, at least for me? In “Black Sexual Politics,” feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins argues that ”the term bitch is designed to put women in their place.” By calling me a bitch – a deeply misogynistic term – the harasser put me in “my place” as inferior to, or beneath him, based on my sex. According to Collins, “One sign of a ‘Bitch’s’ power is her manipulation of her own sexuality for her own gain. Bitches control men, or at least try to, using their bodies as weapons.” In other words, my speaking out against this man’s sexual objectification of my body was a threat to him — it represented my denial of his power and control over my sexuality — and explains his injured rebuke. He called me a bitch in order to invalidate my objection to his behavior on the basis that I was, according to definitions by Urban Dictionary, nothing but an “annoying and whiny female.” He was punishing me for speaking out.
This sexism was in place when the harasser first addressed me. In order to have found it acceptable to wag his finger at me and sexualize my body to fellow passersby on the street, he had to have certain feelings about women – specifically about how he had the “right” to judge their bodies publicly, what he was allowed to say to them, and – perhaps most importantly – how they should receive his judgment. (I guess I was supposed to smile graciously and say, “THANKS!”). But for me, his comment wasn’t a “compliment” and it wasn’t harmless – I saw it as coming from a point of male privilege in which he felt entitled to publicly judge, comment on, and sexualize my body. This type of entitlement often extends to forms of physical violence.
But I wasn’t just ANY old bitch – I was a “white” bitch. For this man, my race (or at least what he read as my race) played a role in my bitchiness. Our friends at Urban Dictionary define a “white bitch,” (ie me) as a:
- Woman of caucasian (sic) extraction who thinks she is more atractive (sic) than she is.
- White woman with unwarranted confidence.
Add that little bonus of “white” bitch, and my objection to his sexual harassment was even more invalid because, as the stereotype holds, white bitches are full of themselves and…let’s be honest…not even that hot anyway. “Calm the f*ck down, not-that-hot white bitch!!”
Why did this harasser mention my race? What significance did this have for him? While I don’t share his male privilege, as a white woman, I have white privilege – something he did not. According to Hawley Fogg Davis, “The stereotype of black men as sexual predators, especially of white women, has historically rendered black men the targets of lynching, and other forms of punishment, humiliation, and surveillance.” By calling me a white bitch, was the harasser hinting at this unequal (and unjust) racist history? Was he trying to shift the power dynamic?
It’s hard to come up with a constructive way to respond to street harassment — or at least one that sits right with you (which is all that matters!). So I hate that the response that often makes me feel the most empowered — assertively labeling the behavior as harassment — ended up with me being insulted. For me, calling out street and sexual harassment is a way to give myself voice and break the sexual objectification I am feeling. But for many women, it’s more empowering to not reply at all — a way to not engage with behavior they don’t support. What’s more, each and every incident is different. Bottom line: Street harassment is complex, and so is responding to it.
Why are racial descriptors so commonly (at least in my experience) tagged onto sexist slurs? How does my experience differ for women of color and varying races? What are other ways in which street harassment becomes racialized? How do YOU typically respond to harassment? What response makes YOU feel empowered? Share your thoughts with us in the comments here, and share your stories by submitting to our site. In the meantime, you can find some tips for responding to street harassment here.
The phrase “Stop harassing women!” is an expert-recommended response to catcalling and sexual harassment. To learn more, check out “Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers,” by anti-harassment expert (and friend of CASS!), Martha Langelan. It’s currently in stock at MLK Library.