Race and Street Harassment — A tricky situation

Disclaimer : This is a difficult issue, and I’m sure this post is going to upset some people.  I’m open to criticism, but please take it in good faith that I am trying to address this issue openly and start conversations, not attack anyone’s race or culture.

It happened again today.  On my way to work this morning, I heard, "Hey baby.  Good morning, gorgeous."  I don’t appreciate this type of street harassment, so I just kept walking and ignored the man.  "Hello?  Hello??   Come on, baby!" he persisted as I walked away, never making eye contact.  Nothing unusual about this situation, it happens all the time.  But then he turned to his friend and made a loud remark to the effect that white women are too stuck up to pay attention to black men.  Basically, he (a black man) accused me (a white woman) of being racist for ignoring his harassment.

I’ve heard remarks like this before, and it really, really frustrates me.  I had similar experiences numerous times when I lived in Mexico.  A man would harass me on the street (or in a club, in a restaurant, etc), and I would ignore him or politely turn him down.  "What, you don’t like Mexicans?"  I often heard.  Or, "too stuck up to pay attention, gringa?  Think you’re too good for me?"  I even had a man try to grope me on the dance floor, physically restrain me when I tried to walk away, and continuously try to kiss me against my will, all the while accusing me of being stuck up and racist for trying to reject him.

I understand that in some cases, white women are stuck up, or may respond differently to harassment depending on the race of the harasser.  I don’t deny that men of color sometimes feel condescended to by white women, and that this is a legitimate frustration.  I also know that Mexican men have a long history of being exotified, objectified, and rejected etc by visiting American women, and that this is also a legitimate frustration.  But I have the same response to all harassment without regard to the race or nationality of the harasser — keep walking, ignore them, don’t make eye contact.  To be accused of being racist while ignoring inappropriate comments on the street is really hurtful, and makes me feel like I have to somehow explain myself or justify my decision not to engage with harassers. 

Do folks have suggestions for how to deal with this type of accusation?  Any insight to the ways that men occasionally use race and guilt as an excuse to perpetrate sexual harassment?  Insights into what kind of anger is behind these accusations so that I can better sympathize with harassers’ concerns, even if they’re not true in my case?

And please, know that I am NOT trying to say that only men of color harass.  I’ve been harassed by men of all colors.  I’ve been harassed by homeless men and men in business suits.  I’ve been harassed by men in dozens of countries on four continents.  In this post, I am trying to address the difficulties that arise when I’m harassed by some men of color, which adds a layer of discomfort for me because by ignoring or rejecting their advances, I am sometimes made to feel like I am rejecting them BECAUSE of their race, which is absolutely NOT the case.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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