Black Man, My Man, Listen!
“I have accepted you, taken you back. Embraced you, empathized with your pitiful plight, because I know they have used and abused you. I have tried to cease with my lamentations and taking your faults, your shortcomings in stride, made you a part of me… Black man? my man? I vowed to help sustain you, me, us, but…never…no not like this. This wasn’t the way at all…Black man, my man listen! Have we no more in common than before? Have we nothing at all but our name? And even that is not ours.” – Gail Stokes, Black Man, My Man, Listen! The Black Woman, An Anthology. Edited by Toni Cade Bambara.
We may all not have gotten here at the same time, to this place of pause against the actions of Hollaback! but bottom line is we’re here now—again. At yet another critical juncture when Black Women’s Blueprint is preparing its statement to the U.N. in Geneva this very week to denounce police rapes and sexual harassment as human rights violations against Black women across this nation, across generations by white slavers, white militia, roving gangs in white hoodies and burning crosses, Night Watchmen and “leatherheads” who policed the early 19th century streets, who policed the woods and policed who we could look at, act like, live like; and more recently in Oklahoma City, officer Holtsclaw discovered this past summer, who sexually assaulted approximately 13 Black women and counting. Black women are interrupted. Having just returned home after days with Historically Black Colleges and Universities for the sake of gender-justice—to end misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, again, we must interrupt our work. We’re here along with countless women of color who’ve raised their voices these past weeks in collective outcry in defense of you Black man, and for ourselves, for all of us.
Surveillance-Style Video Documentation
If you haven’t heard, Black man, there is a surveillance video. You’ve been documented surveillance-video style and reconstructed as quintessential predator. There is video which documents a white woman repeatedly harassed on the streets by you, and parallels are being drawn between her experience and the experiences of men and boys of color with police officers, because an attack is an attack is an attack and harassment is harassment.
Black man, there is a surveillance video. This Hollaback! video by focusing on the experiences of one white female, misrepresents and narrows the discussion about who you are, your experiences and yours and my life. This man Rob Bliss, the video producer, explained on reddit that “we got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera.” Narratives are powerful tools in informing, inspiring and shaping people’s opinions about race, gender and violence. Hollaback! and its selective editing paints the issue as one of white women’s safety in black men’s space. It reinforces hierarchies based on race and gender and other identities. It reinforces hierarchies we should both and all be working to dismantle. It overlooks the fact that all women are not similarly situated, and neither are all men nor gender non-conforming persons.
There is a woman in this video, who actually is harassed again and again, and that part is triggering, and we don’t seek to discount her experience, the woman Hollaback! selected to demonstrate how harassment plays out in these New York City streets. We are not here to deify nor demonize others. Our strategy is neither naïve nor opportunistic. Our suspicion runs deep for historical reasons. We are not casting anyone aside.
Unpacking the Brute Caricature
Black man, in this video, the representations are again crystallized, they edit out all but your face, your face and your words actually harassing again and again and that too is triggering. It harkens back to a deadly era where white men intentionally used propaganda to frame Black men as “brutes” and black “bucks”, and a time when slaveholders associated African Americans with crime as part of their justification for the institution. The “brute” caricature portrayed Black men as predators who target helpless victims, and in particular white women. The terrible crime most often mentioned in connection with the black “brute” was rape. Black man, remember the “brute” stereotype and the death sentence it carried was to send you and us a clear message: Do not register to vote. Do not apply for a white man’s job. Do not complain publicly. Do not organize. Do not talk to white women. The brute caricature gained in popularity whenever Blacks, and especially Black men, pushed for social equality. This organization, Hollaback! and the video’s embodiment of the dominant paradigm around race, victims and predators is astounding. The use of the “Masters Tools” is staggering. Black man, the narrow lens through which Hollaback! frames this issue, this very real issue, is both harmful and irresponsible. The video itself is violent. The video itself is a weapon which lives in a layer of systemic violence and its creators have already prospered off of it.
Black man, we need to demand a dismantling of these systems block by block.
Hind-Sight Is 20/20
How did so many of us racial justice and gender-justice activists, scholars and leaders of girls’ rights organizations and even donors within this movement capitulate to the idea that Hollaback! is expert in the practice of eradicating street harassment, a form of violence experienced by women across a variety of identities and practiced by harm-doers of a variety of identities. We have always considered this appropriation of “urban slang” and vernacular to name an organization, which is not community-based, Hollaback! problematic. How were so many of us, silent until now, seduced by the marketing and corporate glitz of this “international” organization whose goal we’ve always known did not include shattering racist stereotypes? Is it because Hollaback! evoked to some degree this notion of “multi-cultural” action against sexual harassment? However now, it has cemented its identity as gravely lacking in anti-racist analysis. Upon closer examination, it has always positioned its approach implicitly within a market-place style capitalist philosophy, more so than a framework which demands we put people and justice over profits. Hollaback! and its seductive consumeristic market-place approach to social justice blind-sided many of us.
We got caught in the thicket of hope and the reasoning—that we had made strides along racial lines, that the work was finished by our foresisters—Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan among others still with us, to denounce the mainstream women’s movement as one with a weak-will towards racial justice. It is not finished. We are being asked to build new strategies to hold ourselves even within social-justice movements accountable. This does not mean that we need to speak for each other and we do not insist that each must know and speak of one-another’s lived experiences, but simply practice ethical principles and wise politics. For us this conversation is not about inclusion. We don’t ask Hollaback! to speak for us. To assume that they can, when they don’t live in our skin, is dangerous.
Who Told You Anybody Wants To Hear From You? You Ain’t Nothing But A Black Woman!
Even in the movement we are all subject to racialized invisibility. This video, the process of its production and the process of its editing reaffirms that no matter what our status, we are all potential objects of racist abuse. hattie gossett’s truth-seeking statement in This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color, when she says “who told you anybody wants to hear from you? you ain’t nothing but a black woman!” resonates with us now more than ever.
Black man, do you want to hear from us? When will we sit and talk? If they won’t listen to us as Black women, will you? The practice of liberation demands we prop up the humanity of all of us, me and you including those of us who are lesbians, gay, transgender, bisexual and other gender non-conforming people. Are you down for that—the rejection of patriarchy and its derivatives—sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other vile conditions in America, and vile conditions between us?
Here is the opportunity to shift the tide. We must do better, if we are to survive. How do we account for your absence in this conversation? Courageous engagement with issues beyond those that only benefit Black brothers is necessary especially here and now, because the video concerns you and us all. Black man, can we build more vibrant anti-violence communities bonded by political ideals and political struggles past and present. Black man, we want to talk with you and communicate on a gut-level, about this mutual crisis.
Black Man, Let Me Talk To You
Even as it appropriates our language, Hollaback! leaves out Black women and women of color’s experiences altogether and the different ways we experience violence in public spheres. It leaves out the ways in which violence in the form of harassment exists at structural and personal levels. It completely dismisses the notion that to be effectively addressed, sexual harassment must be tackled at various interlocking levels and with a race analysis, not rendering us either invisible or predatory, not silencing us, or those most marginalized by racist, patriarchal appropriation of public and personal assets, like body, expression, language and neighborhood streets.
We can engage Hollaback! in conversation about how Black women and other women of color experience sexual harassment, but we believe we’d be wasting time, because Black man, street harassment on our streets is something you and I, we need to address together. Street harassment is a manifestation of patriarchy’s power, the same racist patriarchal power that has its foot on your neck. The catcalling, grabbing and stalking are blatant examples of how under patriarchy, some are able to control spaces and bodies while asserting dominance. For us, Black women, street harassment is a daily reminder that we are different, that we continue to be property, that we will not be protected by respectability, that we are less worthy of respect, that you insist we occupy a particular place within the context of sex, gender and gender identity in an already racist society. We are reminded that we can’t walk half a block without being told to fix our face and grin. Brother, we cannot walk down the street without being propositioned for sex, or called a “thot”, our paths blocked not by a common oppressor, but by our own kin demanding we acquiescence.
Black man, my man, listen. The gender-justice movement must also be a racial justice one about you and me, and all of us. The failure of mainstream organizations to construct the discussion to highlight non-dominant narratives underscores this. Will you reflect all our narratives with me? Organizations are choosing to comfortably ignore the fact that the frequency and ways that women experience harassment varies widely among women of different races, socio-economic class, abilities and sexuality. By allowing this video to become public, Hollaback! is sending out a clear message about which victims will be recognized and which men will be held accountable.
Black man, please respond. Seriously, tell Hollaback! they got it so wrong, and that they need to step back.
Hollaback needs to step back. This concept of stepping back isn’t new to folks who talk about things like privilege on a regular basis. Stepping back means acknowledging that one has privilege and then stepping back to allow those with less privilege or opportunity to step up and speak and now that we have spoken, again and again, at this point, Black man, it’s your turn.