When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

As a mixed-race woman, I am overwhelmingly harassed by men of colour. Why are they living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?

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The Independent Online

The squeak of my bicycle pauses - “S’cuse me, are you mixed race?”

I am not in the mood, and have heard this too often. Something about his loping gait puts my guard up right away. “It’s none of your fucking business,” I reply. A little hostile perhaps, but learned, from experience – short and sharp causes the least collateral damage.

“Ah, it’s just you look like you’re mixed-race, you’re so sexy, you got a big ass, yeah, you look like you’re mixed race with your big ass, mmmm, your ass be spreading. Your. Ass. Be. Spread. Like…”

It tumbles out of him: layer upon layer of judgment. His eyes and his words creeping underneath my dress to paw me all over. Leaving dirty fingerprints on my thighs and teeth marks on my stomach. Writing over my body, my evening and my “spreading ass”.

“You’re so sexy,” he concludes. Pride in his eyes at his discovery.

If you identify as female, or ever have, some form of catcalling is probably more familiar to you than your own reflection. The Everyday Sexism Project, which catalogues instances of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, received over 25,000 submissions in 2013. Of these, 525 women reported that they had been masturbated at in public – in parks and on trains.

Documenting harassment like this is important. It validates our experiences and proves that they’re not in fact an everyday occurrence, but part of a bigger pandemic of sexism and objectification. Everything from wolf whistling, to unwanted public masturbation, catcalls and rape only fuel the fervor that women are less and that we exist to satisfy men.

But we shouldn’t just talk about it in terms of gender. We’ve been ignoring something else for far too long.

Being curvaceous and, yes, you guessed it – mixed-race – the demographic to whom I am most attractive often tends to be black men. Especially older black men. Perhaps white men find me intimidating. Or perhaps they are just more likely to buy into the skinny, white, blonde image of what “beauty” is supposed to be.

But I am overwhelmingly harassed by men of colour, and not just in London.

In Ghana I become their chocolate and vanilla swirl fantasy, a British passport, a hot f***k, a double D and a “better-educated-if-more-approachable-white”. Here, I like to hope that the black men who catcall me on the street aren’t just buying into a “if you’re light you’re alright” sense of shadism. But there’s more to it than sex. It’s not just a “vagina-on-legs” thing.

Many feminists getting media space ignore the role of race when it comes to street harassment. Rules are changed to avoid discomfort; no-one with influence wants to be labelled as racist. And we, as women of colour, spend so much time defending black men that any criticisms feel like a step-backwards at best, a betrayal at worst. So we hold our heads high, and ignore the taunts.

I and other activists campaign about the persecution, criminalisation and disempowerment of black men in our society. It’s a massive problem; an infringement on their human rights. But one rung below the disenfranchised Black Brit is usually his Black British girlfriend.

I sometimes try to rationalise this abuse, to figure out why it's happening. When the man stopped me on my bicycle, what did he expect? Is this a normally successful seduction strategy? Was he searching to assert his power over me on a street I thought was mine too, for lack of feeling it anywhere else in society? The empire may be gone, yet racial power struggles continue to plague our society and colonise black male bodies. But could I alleviate the pain caused by a historically racist class system and a vacancy of father figures all with a smile? Or a phone number? Or even a night?

Of course, this is just my experience, and you will never hear me say that sexism is a singularly black phenomena. I have friends who find themselves constantly approached by white British men, others by Turkish men, Australian men or Indian men. But we have to speak in specifics – if there are nuances, we should pick through them.

There is a seemingly un-ending campaign against women, by an extraordinarily huge number of men from all backgrounds. “It’s just part of his culture” doesn’t give you a misogynists-go-free-card to disrespect women. Yet so many people seem to accept this. I don’t want my experiences of street harassment by men of colour to be considered acceptable or even the norm.

I want to believe that black men can be better, not in the minority, but in the majority, because Africans were defining matriarchies and gender equality long before the slave ships came. I expect you to take responsibility for your words and your actions, if not in spite of being black then because you are so, because I expect you to be more than all they tell you you can be.

So don’t say I’m being sensitive, or that I don’t want people to approach me on the street. You know the difference as well as I do…

“S’cuse me, are you mixed race?”

Minus the swagger and the fuck-blink-eyes.

“Uh, yes, I’m half English, half Ghanaian.”

“Cool – [pause] – sorry to approach you in such a superficial way but I felt a bit intimidated to speak my mind and I just thought you looked like, a really lovely person. I’d like to know someone like you. S’cuse me for being forward but, my names James, what’s yours?”

Adapted from "Your Ass Be Spread (and other feminisms)", originally published in HYSTERIA periodical.

HYSTERIA will be launching its sixth issue (Eruption) this Friday at Hackney Attic. It will be a night of performance, poetry and provocation curated by Ama Josephine Budge. To find out more: www.facebook.com/events/1623422681252422/

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