There’s been a lot of buzz in the U.S. recently about male threats of women in public spaces: Anita Sarkeesian (aka “Gamergate”) and the Hollaback video are just two of the biggest examples.
It’s nothing new, unfortunately, and nothing that’s isolated to the United States. Public spaces in most parts of the world are spaces of male privilege and power, and women receive constant reminders of that fact. Sometimes these reminders are “only” verbal; other times, these reminders come with very dire consequences.
No matter the level of the harassment, it needs to stop.
One of the concerns I have with most approaches to ending gender-based harassment, however, is that other forms of social privilege always minimize the potential impact that our strategies could have. I’m talking about ableism, racism, heterocentrism, ciscentrism — things like that.
One of the most profound, and heartbreaking, things about the Hollaback video is that it almost exclusively depicts men of colour perpetrating the harassment against a white woman. This isn’t heartbreaking because it’s completely false — harassment can, and often does, cross racial boundaries — but because American history is rife with a narrative in which men of colour (particularly African-American) are described as hyperviolent, hypersexualized beasts who exist solely to prey on white women.
It’s heartbreaking because, in its efforts to highlight one form of discrimination, this video perpetuates another.
The Hollaback video is just one example of ways in which well-intended campaigns can cause more social drama than expected. The rise of voluntourism, the longstanding history of Western women “saving” women from the East (or Third World, or whatever label is trending at the moment), and boycotting India as a whole until it fixes its rape situation all walk the line — or blatantly cross it — into a patronizing colonial discourse of “We know better” in the name of feminism. None of what I’m saying is new, of course: Great thinkers and activists such as Audre Lorde, Jamaica Kincaid, Chandra T. Mohanty, and Uma Narayan have all been trying to get us Western feminists on board with these ideas for a very long time.
I can’t presume to know my entire audience on Go Girl Travel Network, but I can speak for myself, and to people like me. I’m an American, white, cisgendered, highly educated, and (from a global standpoint) extremely privileged.
When I look at my role in a global feminist movement, I have to be aware of the strengths I can bring to the table as a result of my privilege.
I also have to check my privilege, to use the overused phrase, and be aware of the ways in which my presence and privilege may prevent someone else from utilizing their strengths.
This balance and self-awareness is an integral practice for all of us. The question is, how do we do it? Here are some thoughts:
Step 1: Take a moment to listen.
Listen to the voices around you, and see who’s missing or being excluded.
Is the agency you’re with as a tourist, for example, including multiple voices and representations from the community in which it works? When you’re reading news articles about the high rates of rape in India, are you reading anything that’s written by women who live, work, and advocate there?
When voices are missing or being excluded, say something. Use your privilege — your presence — to ensure that everyone gets a seat at the table.
Step 2: Take a moment to silence yourself.
When you multiple voices are involved in a conversation, it means that everyone needs to take turns.
Remember, too, that not all voices are equal, whether that’s because of privilege (Some voices aren’t equal because they’re not counted.) or because of knowledge (Some voices aren’t equal because they’re outsiders to the situation at hand.).
Going back to the India example: You might have great ideas for ways in which India could take action, but chances are you’re from a country where rape is an equally prevalent problem. So who are you to be trying to fix someone else? If you listen to what someone else has to say, you’ll probably learn something.
Catcalling is just one of the many ways in which women experience social control. Photo by Flickr user helloturkeytoe.
Step 3: Practice walking the fine line between being an advocate and being a problem.
This one is tricky, and it’s a lifelong journey for most of us. Simply put, being an advocate means that you speak alongside someone else. Sometimes you may speak for them; other times, you’re simply a bystander to their words. It can be really hard to tell when you’re supposed to do what, and consequences must be considered.
If I stand up for my friend now, am I strengthening her capacity to speak for herself, or am I robbing her of the same? One guideline to keep in mind is that advocates should never speak for a person unless that person is incapable of doing it themselves.
Step 4: Remember that oppression is overlapping.
Sexism doesn’t exist in a bubble independent of other forms of social control. The misogyny I encounter as a white woman is not the same as is encountered by a Latina woman, even in the same geographic space.
I don’t want to encourage you to play “count the oppressions” with everyone you meet. What I do want, though, is to encourage all of us to be mindful that we can’t simply focus on ending one form of oppression. In order to end sexism, we have to tackle racism, classism, ableism, ciscentrism, and all the other -isms that my word count won’t let me list.
We have to be advocates not simply for women, but for women in all our diverse forms, in order to make any lasting change.
Share your thoughts about being an ally, the feminist movement, and Hollaback’s viral video in the comments below.