Street Harassment: What do you do when it is both sexist and racist?
The Location: Somewhere on the east-side of Toronto
The Time: Mid-afternoon
Cast of Characters: Me, walking home from yoga, calm and contemplative
Two teenage boys, both wearing matching backwards baseball caps, Caucasian, riding bikes
Me (thinking): Ok, so what do I need to do today? I have to finish editing that chapter, then I have to do laundry, then…
Teenage Boy 1 (following me): Psst.
Me (thinking): What’s that noise? Weird.
Teenage Boy 2 (following me): Psst. PSSST.
I turn around.
Teenage Boy 1: Hola, senorita.
Me (thinking): Wrong continent, dipshit. (Turn around, keep walking).
Teenage Boy 2: Hey. HEY! (In accented Tagalog) Maganda ka! (Translation: you’re beautiful).
Teenage Boy 1: Kamusta? Kamusta? (How are you?) Hey, I’m talking to you!
Me (thinking): Keep calm. (Walks faster)
Teenage Boy 1: HEY! I want to f*** your brown ass!
Me (swirling and – while holding my yoga mat like a bat – advancing towards them): What did you say?
Teenage Boy 2: Maganda ka!
Me (shouting at the top of my lungs): F*** Y**, you little pieces of sh*t!!! (Goes towards them, swinging my yoga mat).
Teenage Boys 1 and 2 (widens eyes. Stops biking.)
Me: F*** Y**!!!! (Advances towards them, still wielding my yoga mat.)
Teenage Boys 1 and 2 (looks at each other, then pedals away in the opposite direction, quickly. As I continue hurling expletives at them, one of them almost falls out of his bike in his eagerness to leave).
This happened to me three weeks ago. To be perfectly honest, street harassment is so rampant that usually when it occurs, my chest gets tight and tense, but I brush it off because, hey, if I reacted every time it happened, my peace of mind and my day would irrevocably be ruined. While I read with relish the stories of women telling off their harassers in fantastic blogs such as Hollaback Toronto, which sadly posted its last entry in December 2010, and agree wholeheartedly with the call for action made by Stop Street Harassment, which posts alarming stats that show that over 90% of women have experienced some form of street harassment “motivated by gender” by the time they are 19, my standard position is to let it go.
What spurred me out of my inaction was the fact that the disrespect showed to me by these two young men who are likely just beginning to discover the full extent of the power they (think they) wield was both sexualized and racialized. I was annoyed when they started calling me senorita and was disturbed that they kept trying to talk to me using broken Tagalog phrases they probably picked up randomly, but when their taunting used racial and gender identifiers as a way to describe the sexual acts they wanted to do to me, I felt so degraded that I could scream. And scream I did.
Sadly, stories of racist and sexist street harassment are commonplace. In fact, after telling MOTL about this, we both actually just laughed and shrugged our shoulders. It was only until I was debriefing with AABG yesterday that I realized that there was something wrong when our default reaction – when society’s default reaction - is complacency. AABG told me of a harrowing experience a few years ago when a man randomly started following her. He was taunting her and besieging her with sexualized and racialized overtures, making AABG feel threatened and violated. Thankfully, after a few blocks, he stopped.
AABG’s account brings to mind a similar tale that happened to me a few years ago. I was walking along Bay and Bloor, when a tall, thin man started trying to talk to me in bad, pidgin Tagalog. As is my tendency, I ignored him, bowed down my head, and walked away quickly. I sped past him but he followed me for a few blocks and kept talking to me in such an awful manner that I felt obligated to call MOTL at work to let him know what was happening not because I thought that MOTL could do something but because I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone. I then ducked into the Starbucks at Yorkville, after which he left.
So what then was the right response? Yelling and screaming, as I did with the two boys, or walking away? To be clear, the first option isn’t always possible. Heck, the only reason I probably felt that I could yell at those boys was because they were, well, boys. What if it was obvious that they could overpower me, such as what happened to AABG and to me in the second scenario I discussed? What if they took on a more menacing air? What if this happened at night? Though all three cases of harassment occurred during the daytime, theoretically speaking, there were people around, so it wasn’t as though we were alone. (That said, the sad truth was that no one intervened. Street harassment that happens in broad daylight or even at night in a public place isn’t necessarily less dangerous, as this report shows). Should we tell the police? What if the police react in much the same manner as what happened to Jezebel’s Jenna Sauers? In this case, they seemed sympathetic but admitted that there are more onerous cases of crime that they had to deal with, which meant that street harassment fell below their list of priorities.
I don’t have the answer to any of these questions.