This is a fairly long post, so I split it into two parts. I ask however, that you not respond to either of them unless you have read both. There are nuances to both parts that I think are pretty essential to one another. Because this is dealing with some heavy and possibly delicate areas of theory, I’m pretty terrified of some of it being lost.
Earlier, I participated in a bait thread on a friend’s wall that made the statement: All men who do not stop street harassment, are complicit in it. Many of us came onto the thread to agree with this statement, until someone jumped in to accuse all of us of being racist. The argument was that it is not always safe for certain men to speak up in certain circumstances. I agreed that this was true, but argues that that didn’t change their complicity. The responder then accused me of having said that all men are culpable always.
I will concede that perhaps a clarification could have been added specifying that this was referring specifically to gendered street harassment, and not other forms of hate speech that may get thrown about on the streets. While all forms of harassment on the street are bad and should be talked about, there is something unique about gendered harassment in that many people are not convinced it is a bad thing. Many respond to concerns about it saying that “It’s meant as a compliment. I wish people would yell nice things at me walking down the street.” (For the purposes of this post, when I refer to street harassment, I am specifically taking about this gendered type and not all forms of hate speech spoken on the street. )
I am aware that as a white person I have white privilege. I am aware that I am complicit in racism and that I have privilege-blinders on which can make me miss when something I say is racist. I am aware and conscious of the fact that intent is not the same thing as result.
But seriously!? Saying that black men also participate in street harassment and that it is not only a white men issue; Saying that men get the choice of whether or not to participate whereas non-women don’t*; Saying that complicit doesn’t mean the same thing as culpable and that even when there are legitimate issues regarding not being able to say something directly to the perpetrators of street harassment because of safety related to the intersections of racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc that while staying silent is the appropriate choice it still props up systemic sexism; is I’m pretty sure not racist.
I’m not saying that there are never power dynamics at play that make it unsafe for men of colour to take direct action against cat callers, but the whole point of intersectional thinking is acknowledging that different systems are self-reinforcing – what I mean is: while racism provides the impetus to stay silent, the silence still gets read by both the victim of harassment and the harassers as a type of support. Even if the person being silent didn’t intend any support.
The choice to participate may not be an easy one, and there are times when the choice is one that isn’t just about whether or not to say something but also having to weight the consequences of saying something. What I mean by having the choice versus not, is that a non-man walking down the street who gets cat-called, has no option to not participate. Part of the victimization is in fact having the decision of whether or not to engage with someone is taken away from them. The interaction is forced on them, and their only choice is in how to respond to it and not whether or not to respond.
While choosing not to directly confront street harassers when the demographics suggest that doing so could be dangerous, might be the right choice, it is still one that is afforded to men and not to the women and non-men on the receiving end. I specifically mean that the person on the receiving end of the other person’s harassment, doesn’t have the same option you do to stay safe. . You have the option to keep yourself safe, and while it may the right choice in that moment to do so, it is important to understand that having that option is in itself a type of privilege, even while the issues influencing the choice are NOT. It is not an ethical choice because their is no ethical option since each option ends with someone getting hurt.
It’s the same way that we say: All cis people are complicit in transantagonism; All straight people are complicit in homoantagonism; All white people are complicit in racism; All abled people are complicit in ableism – unless they are actively fighting it. All men are complicit in sexism in the same way. A person being not-privileged in one area doesn’t negate all their privilege in other areas. It does mean that there are times when their oppression on one axis makes it unsafe in situ to address a different oppression in which they are privileged and that is understandable, but that doesn’t mean that that act of oppression wasn’t reinforced because of their silence.
Moreover, it doesn’t mean that they lose all responsibility to fight against the oppression they are complicit in. They have a responsibility to address sexism in their own communities, with their own friends, and really whenever it is possible to do so without risking safety.
Similarly, it is unfair to claim that it is always unsafe. While yes a black man risks more extreme confrontation if confronting a strange white man, if he is with white men who are his friends and don’t have direct power over him, then the risk of saying “Dude, that’s not cool” may be negligible compared to the harm done to the victim of harassment. I say may, because of course there are exceptions, however since street harassment is a manifestation of toxic masculinity and the need to appear as more manly when being witnessed by other men – having other men react negatively to the act reinforces the idea that it is unacceptable in a way that women pointing that out will not.
It’s not a matter of whether or not you will succeed. Addressing and trying to stop street harassment doesn’t have to look like physical violence. In fact physical violence could itself be a manifestation of toxic masculinity. We are talking about a specific situations where Man A street harasses Woman A and Man B is a witness. The street harassment here is verbal with no indication of threat of physical harm. Just the most cut and dried version of this scenario. Chances are that even if you say something, that it won’t stop the guy from doing it again, but it may stop him from doing it again while YOU are around. Now if every one of his other friends also says “Dude, not cool.” Then suddenly he is surrounded by people who are judging his actions as being unacceptable. It creates enough social pressure to change.
If every time a man cat calls a woman, he faced disgusted looks from the other men around him, the number of men who do this would go down dramatically. Instead, what we have now is a situation where any group of men together cat-call women together, in part because they think the other expects it of them. Silence, both verbal and in body language, in that situation is support, since the presumption of support already exists.
It’s also important that even as we remember the influence of racism in these situations with regards to a given person’s ability to intervene in the case of street harassment, it is also important to remember that it can also already be in play with regards to the victims. The person being street harassed could just as easily be a black person as well. Black women face high levels of street harassment, much of which can include a racial component as much as a sexist one. A black woman walking down the street not only has to deal with the way men believe they are entitled to women’s bodies, but also with the way white people act as though we are entitled to black people’s bodies.
When we are talking about intersectional politics, the focus is often on the ways that multiple areas of oppression can reinforce one another – the ways in which racism reinforces sexism so that black women end up dealing with more bullshit along both lines – more racism than black men, more sexism than white women. Sometimes we also address the ways in which one form of oppression can make it difficult to stand up for another. The fear of being the victim of racism making a black man not address sexism. The fear of being the victim of transantagonism making a white trans woman not address racism, or ableism at work. These are understandable situations and staying safe when you are at serious risk is forgivable. What isn’t talked about is that even while these situations are forgivable and understandable and even what we would ourselves encourage to be done in those situations – they still play a role in reinforcing those areas of oppression.
Imagine that I am the only woman in a room full of white men. I am a multiply disabled, poor, queer woman with a wife who I am sponsoring for citizenship who also falls on the oppressed side of many axes. The men in the room are all immigration officers who are all handling my wife’s case or police officers. The men start making anti-black racist jokes.
As a white person it is my responsibility to speak out against racism. However, as the only woman in the room, this creates a risk for me. As the only queer person in the room, I am at risk. As the only disabled person in the room, I am at risk. Because they are handling my wife’s immigration file, my actions may also create consequences for her. Do I address the racism? Addressing the racism is the right thing to do, but I also have a responsibility to protect my wife. Speaking out could mean that I prejudice them towards her case meaning she is deported and faces the risk of death. I may be unable to speak out safely. This level of danger is understandable, and there are many who might forgive me for not speaking out. HOWEVER, this doesn’t mean that in not speaking out that I didn’t prop up white supremacy and systemic racism. While speaking out could single me out in their minds as a person over whom they have power, by not speaking out I become another white face in the crowd standing silent in the face of racism. If a black person were in the room they would have no way of knowing that if things were to get worse, that I wouldn’t stand by silently in that situation. They have no way of knowing that I am staying silent because I too fear for my safety in other ways. They would see me as unsafe, and in a way, rightly so.
It means that I still have a responsibility to call out the racism that did occur in other ways. Writing a post drawing attention to the situation and naming names, after I am in a safe place or after I no longer have to worry about it affecting my immigration case. Talking to other white people about how that situation was wrong and making sure that in other circumstances I call out the same acts. Reporting them anonymously to HR, or other governing bodies in order to make it clear that racism is unacceptable. Perhaps approaching the men individually after the fact to discuss how their actions were problematic, thereby avoiding the risk that comes from addressing men as a group.
Now returning to the original OP under discussion: All men are complicit in street harassment unless they try to stop it.
Yes, there are circumstances where a black man may be unable to speak out directly to the street harassers while it is happening. Moreover, there are ethical considerations regarding whether a black man ever has a responsibility to put himself at risk over the well-being of a white woman considering the ways in which white women are complicit in racism. Were I the victim of said harassment at the time, I could even understand that he couldn’t in the moment speak out. I might even encourage him not to if made aware of why he is hesitating. I would never want or encourage a black man to risk his own safety for mine. But at the same time, I am not in a position to assume that he is not speaking out only because he is black and the men harassing me are white. I cannot assume that if things were to escalate and the men harassing me were to start trying to assault me, that he would step in and stop it. That he wouldn’t perhaps join them. That he wouldn’t harass me himself later on. Similarly the men harassing me, have no way of knowing that the black man staying silent about their harassment disagrees with what they are doing. In that moment, they are all men.
The victim of cat-calling will not always be white either. Black women are cat-called as well, and in many circumstances even more aggressively than white women. Moreover, if they are being harassed by white men, then they are dealing with the additional burden of racism. What is the responsibility in that case?
When acts of abuse are committed because they are forced as a way to prevent yourself from being a victim of abuse, those acts may be understandable and the person in question may not bear the blame or rather most of the blame, but the act of abuse still took place. If I were to have a person hold a gun to my head and tell me to punch someone, and I do so to avoid being shot, it is ridiculous to arrest me for assault. But it is also ridiculous to pretend that the punch didn’t happen. It is also ridiculous to say that the person who was punched didn’t get hurt.
The person on the receiving end has no responsibility to forgive the person who hurt them. Even if they do forgive, they have no responsibility to treat them as safe. They still bear the consequences of that hurt, even if they can understand why it happened. The decision of how to respond to the person who hurt them in light of the extenuating circumstances, is still the victim’s choice. Even if they choose to completely forgive the situation in light of the extenuating circumstances, it still doesn’t mean that the hurt didn’t happen. Pretending that it didn’t doesn’t help anyone, neither the victim who received the hurt, or the victim who gave the hurt.
This is what I mean that complicit does not mean culpable. Culpability refers to levels of blame, while complicity refers to levels of influence. Just because you are not to blame for the influence you had, doesn’t change the fact that there was an influence.
So how do we decide when someone is in the wrong for not speaking up? How do we decide when being privileged in one way is more or less relevant than being oppressed in another?
These are difficult questions and the truth is that there is no universal answer. Some people will try to argue that different areas of oppression carry greater or lower levels of risk and so carry a larger weight of responsibility. I both agree and disagree with this statement, or more specifically I believe it is a matter of “yes, but it depends.” Others will argue that we shouldn’t play oppression Olympics, and once again it is a matter of “yes, but it depends” again.
Continuing with the theme of the post which sparked this discussion: Let’s examine the interplay of racism and sexism.
Imagine we have a situation between a Black Man (“MoC” for short) and a White Woman (“WW” for short).
Without knowing any other details of the circumstances, we already have two examples of power dynamics: The WW’s white privilege over the MoC. The MoC’s male privilege over the WW. .
In any given situation she can’t help being a white person interacting in some way with a black person, with all of its inherent dynamics. At the same time however, he can’t help being a man interacting with a woman and all of those inherent power dynamics.
Now imagine MoC is cat-calling WW.
On the surface we can reduce this to a simple case of male privilege influencing a man’s interactions with a woman. However, even here there are interactions coming over from both axes of oppression.
Racism plays a role in how the WW may interpret the harassment, perhaps as being read as more aggressive or threatening, causing her to respond in a similarly more aggressive way.
If they are in a predominantly white neighborhood, his act of cat calling could attract the attention of her neighbors, who in turn may turn violent towards him. She might call the police who might similarly be inclined towards fatal levels of violence towards him.
The knowledge that her white privilege means that she is more likely to be believed in the event of any kind of interaction may make her feel perversely safer, despite the fact that he is harassing her.
However, in a case where she doesn’t respond and simply ignores it, the MoC might be once again be influenced by sexism, namely toxic masculinity. Perhaps her rejection of his advances comes on the heels of his being embarrassed in front of other men by a woman with other areas of power over him. Perhaps a boss? His hurt feelings are focused by systemic sexism and patriarchy to be considered shameful and a loss of power. He feels the need to reinforce and prove his masculinity by demonstrating his power over WW. Maybe even the feeling of powerlessness is enhanced by the fact that she has power over him because of his subjugation from racism. It might encourage him to step up his harassment of her, maybe even follow her. Perhaps he is with other men around whom he feels the need to demonstrate his dominance and masculinity.
This act of aggression and violence scares her. Once again, systemic racism might make her read the situation as riskier than she otherwise might have with a white man doing the harassment. Regardless, she is being harassed and feels scared, and for good reason. Perhaps she pulls out a gun and shoots him.
Now, a woman feeling afraid because of harassment is not wrong or even unusual. Harassment is an act of violence and it is not unusual for it to escalate further to something more dangerous. If she has been a victim of abuse or sexual assault in the past, the act of street harassment might trigger those memories, it might mirror psychological abuse she went through, since it IS a form of psychological abuse.
However, if she responded more violently, more aggressively, and more fatally than she otherwise would have if the harasser was white, then the death lies at the feet of her own racism.
Now let’s flip this whole situation on its face.
The act of cat-calling wasn’t actually cat-calling.
Perhaps MoC was actually a technician working in the area because of a major accident involving a car accident and a collision with an electrical line. He is there to turn off the electricity so that a spark from the downed line doesn’t ignite the leaking fuel. Or maybe he is there to shut off the gas because there is a gas leak further up the neighbourhood. (Seriously, why did my brain jump to the most complicated scenario first?)
He was actually just saying hello as she passed by because he was nervous about being a black man working in a predominantly white neighborhood where a series of crimes had recently taken place. He was nervous because he knew that systemic racism would make him stand out, and draw suspicion even though he was supposed to be there. He says hello in part to make it clear that he is friendly and not a threat.
WW was walking down the street, and felt nervous about MoC who seemed out of place in her neighborhood. She was already thinking of the string of crimes that had taken place in the neighborhood. In her mind she has already associated him with criminality. When he says hello, she doesn’t see his fear but instead she interprets his face as being leering. “Hello” turns into “Helloooooo”. Maybe she has also been dealing with harassment the whole way home and is already wound tight when this man seemingly imposes himself on her by forcing her to acknowledge him. Perhaps she had reported something at work or to the police but wasn’t believed because of systemic sexism. Perhaps the crimes in the neighborhood were specifically targeting women.
In response to her fear, she picks up her pace and quickly turns down a street she wouldn’t normally go. Unfortunately, that means she is walking directly to the scene of the accident, or maybe to where the gas leak is. The man notices that she is headed towards danger and chases after her, trying to get her attention to warn her.
She sees him following her and yelling at her. She doesn’t even process what he is saying. At this point she is convinced that he is stalking her. That she is in danger. She pulls out a gun and without even giving him a chance to finish saying what he was saying, she shoots him.
He did nothing wrong. He was the victim of her racism. But the effects of her racism were enhanced by the systemic sexism she was also a victim of. It doesn’t excuse her racism. It doesn’t excuse the fact that she killed someone, even though his being male in a world of male privilege added to the perception of aggression and gave him the perception of having power over her. She should go to jail and be punished for his murder, but also society should address the systemic sexism that creates a situations where a man talking to you on the street can be threatening, even when the words themselves seem inoffensive.
While not the situation in the case described here, the fact is that there are times when the words used in street harassment can appear inoffensive, even complimentary, but carry overtones of threat in them. Those tones are not the result of imagination or being over-sensitive. We need to address how systemic racism can affect our perceptions of the danger levels of a given situation, but we also need to address how superficially innocent seeming interactions can still be threatening.
The problem is that either of these scenarios is entirely plausible and have happened. Many situations fall somewhere in between with both influences in plenty evidence on both sides. In this situation, the black man ended up dead both times, and so it can be tempting to say that racism played the more important role. However, the reverse is also frequently true. It just as easily could have been the woman who is killed as a result of the influence of toxic masculinity escalating violence further. In the bottom circumstance as well, the woman could have been so scared by what she read as an aggressive attack from a man, that she could have run headlong into danger and died.
Even without either situation ending up in this extreme, those same influences will come into play when talking just about a man of colour talking to a white woman. He is likely larger and stronger than her, giving him power. She is more likely to be believed in the case of accusing him of violence, because systemic racism will already prejudice people to believe him to be criminalistics, giving her power over him. However, systemic sexism means that only 3% of accused rapists ever see the inside of a courtroom, and only something like 1% ever see jail time, giving him an element of power over her. Ultimately it is a crapshoot which systemic prejudice will influence a jury more, and there is no way to make universally applicable rule or statement about who carries the greater risk in any given situation.
Instead of spending time trying to figure out whether your more oppressed and therefore less responsible to stop an act of oppression on an axis on which you are privileged, instead everyone should take responsibility for their own privilege and keep it in mind. This means that a white woman being harassed who sees another man staying silent and the man happens to be visibly black (or disabled, or queer, or trans, etc.) then yes, she should keep in mind that it is possible the person not saying something is also afraid. The man in question however, should also keep in mind that she has no responsibility to see him as safe if he doesn’t say anything. After all, if the tables were turned, wouldn’t he hope that she would say something, and wouldn’t she also bear the responsibility of not doing so?
It’s important to remember as well that this is specifically in relation to theory and how we thing about things. The fact that someone is complacent in something doesn’t necessarily mean that they should change their actions. I’m not saying that a black man who chooses to protect himself from the effects of racism by staying silent when faced with an instance of street harassment should be punished in some way or forced to turn in their feminist ally card. It’s not about that. This is the real world and there are real world consequences to actions and sometimes it is not possible to be represent the ideal that we strive for. No. The point of this is to make us all think. Think about our own personal responsibility in all the various oppressions that intersect with one another. To become aware and a witness to the times when our privilege gives us the options to stay safe at the cost of someone else – so that you don’t end up a bystander. If you can’t be a hero, Be A Witness. Don’t close your eyes and wash your hands of it. That’s the first big hurdle to making a difference.
It’s important, in developing our understanding of social justice and the interplay of different types of oppression, that we have these discussions. We need to address how there are times when people, like white women, will choose loyalty to their race over their own gendered interested. A perfect example of this is the recent US election where many white women voted for Trump because of their inherent racism, while ignoring the myriad of ways in which he is bad for them as women. But these discussions are also extremely difficult because of these selfsame influences.