By now you, like 27 million people, have probably seen the video: a woman walking around for 10 hours in New York. It’s a deeply painful video to watch—painful for several reasons.
At one level, the video has provided a media space for women to have mirrored back to us how violent is the world of patriarchy we walk around in everyday. We know this truth in our guts and our bodies and minds, but staring at the evidence like this awakens critically important conversations, processes of grief and anger, and demands for this reality to change.
That said, there is another layer of violence in this video, and it’s racial and classed violence. White men were edited out of the video, and thus the harassment toward “women” (read white woman, not the diverse category that actually is women) is portrayed as violence perpetuated by black and brown men.
The harassment in this video is part of a system of violence toward women. But the racism and classism in this video is part of a system of racialized and classed violence. There is a lot to grieve here, for the video follows a logic of white supremacist hetero-patriarchy that saturates much of our dominant cultural narratives about race and gender.
Here are a few examples we might read alongside this video, to help us unpack the danger of these representations and how they operate:
Consider that when George Zimmerman was on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the jury was made of all women—5 white women and one woman of color.
In the course of Zimmerman’s trial, which really became a trial for Trayvon Martin, the defense put a young, white, blonde-haired woman on the stand to testify that black men had been breaking into houses in her neighborhood. The implication, being, that Trayvon Martin could have been one of these scary black men, and that white women like her needed “protection.” Enter Zimmerman: the patriarchal protector of white womanhood.
It is important to note that Zimmerman himself is actually a light skinned Hispanic man—he’s Peruvian and he also has white privilege. Amidst the complexities of his race and ethnicity, what is clear is that the logics of white supremacy were operating and being manipulated through and through this trial. Blackness was still being made criminal and abject; and I would argue that Zimmerman was implicitly whitened.
The racist logic thus unfolds this way: that Zimmerman read Martin’s black body as a danger was perfectly reasonable. This wasn’t murder, then—this was a well-intended man protecting property and white womanhood!
It is not inconsequential that this logic was sold to a jury of almost all white women.
White women in the U.S. are taught to fear black and brown men. They are taught that men with dark skin are the danger, the ones who will harass them and rape them and the ones who will commit “terror.” How are white women taught this white supremacist ideology? Through news stories. Through the ways in which the crimes of white men are let off the hook or rendered invisible. Through the most commonplace stories circulating in hearts, minds, and unconscious lives.
White women like me are socialized into these images from an early age.
For instance, consider the widely popular and bestselling book (and movie) Twilight. The racial politics unfold this way. The heroic vampire and lead character, Edward, is sparkling white, even “celestial.” So is Bella, his romantic partner. We are frequently reminded of her “paleness” in the text. And, as we might predict by now, the men who almost rape the very pale-skinned Bella (until the white hero rushes in to save her) are described only as “dark” men. And furthermore, Edward’s romantic rival, of course, is the Indigenous Jacob from the “rez”, who is part werewolf.
Not only is Jacob exoticized, but he’s made part-animal. That’s clear colonial fantasy imagery. This love story, which aroused millions of female readers, is saturated through and through with racism, white-settler colonialism, and with the images of white womanhood needing “protection.”
Whether or not white women consciously hold these fears and storylines is not, perhaps, even the most important issue. The issue is that white womanhood in the U.S. context is built upon this intersection of race and gender, which is also classed and written into heteronormative scripts. These scripts are foundational to dominant unconscious processes, material injustice, and widespread systemic violence.
So, return again to the Hollaback video. We do need to talk about street harassment. I am a feminist and I care deeply about this kind of verbal and psychic assault directed daily at women. I do not wish to minimize at all how awful street harassment is or what this woman experienced. But, I do not want to replicate a feminism that does violence to others. And disproportionately representing black and brown men as perpetrators is violence. That white men were edited out of the video is violence.
These racialized representations are interconnected to histories of the lynching of African American men, of current stop and frisk policies and mass incarceration, of the murders of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown.
Furthermore, that white men in positions of power are so often able to hide their violence, sexual harassment, rape, and sexual coercion because of their status as white, wealthy men is a founding economic story of this country.
Consider that for much of U.S. history it was legal for white, classed men to rape—they could rape Indigenous women and men, African American slaves, and their own wives, without such crimes being considered crimes. (Note: it wasn’t until the 1990s that marital rape became a crime in all 50 states.) And upper class men historically have gotten away with violence toward their employees and domestic servants (many of whom are immigrants), given the power differentials of their classed position.
So not only is representing black and brown men as the criminals to fear part of a system of white supremacist violence, the image also dangerously represses the complexity of the deeper, systemic patriarchal violence in this country. The Hollaback video participates in that repression.
But as women-of-color feminisms have already led the way in helping us analyze—from the brilliant work of Kimberle Crenshaw to Hortense Spillers to Andrea Smith—the task of social justice is to press toward a fuller analysis of patriarchy so we might have a fuller, collective transformation.
Kimberly B. George is a creative and academic writer, a writing coach, and an innovator of online learning. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia. | Follow her at @kimberlybgeorge
This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank the Author, Kimberly B. George for her exceptional kindness, words, wisdom, and historical perspective. We are grateful for NewBlackMan (in Exile) and Professor Mark Anthony Neal for his consistent and exceptional curation.