(In)visibilised: on race and sexual harassment

I learnt about street harassment when I was four. The day it happened, I was at the shops with my dad, and had lost him amongst the aisles in the supermarket. After frantically searching for him for a few minutes, I decided to bite the bullet and try venturing home myself, thinking that I would probably get into trouble if I didn’t. As I was crossing the road to our house, a male stranger beckoned to me. “Where are you going, girl? Where’s your mummy?” was what I kept hearing over and over as I ran the last two hundred metres back home, as fast as I could.

Since then, I have had more experiences with harassment than I can remember. The times I’ve been followed walking home; the times I’ve been catcalled and shouted at on the street or by men out of cars; the times I’ve experienced unwanted physical contact in crowded concerts and bars. Every female-bodied person I’ve spoken to has encountered harassment at least once in their lives, with the majority experiencing it multiple times. This is a common thread.

For many women, the reality of sexual harassment is chilling. According to a survey undertaken by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2012, one in three women have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15. And one-quarter of these women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace for the past five years.

When a woman appears in public, the mere presence of her body leads certain men to believe that they are entitled to voice their opinion about her, simply because she’s agreed to show up. Sometimes, this entitlement leads to further encroaching of personal boundaries, which results in assault.

But what if experiences of sexual harassment aren’t universal?

By now, most people would have seen the viral “10 Hours Walking in NYC” video released by Rob Bliss Creative, in collaboration with anti-sexual violence organisation Hollaback. It shows a young 20-something white woman walking the streets of New York City for what was presumably 10 hours, and the 108 incidents of harassment that followed.

The responses to the video have been mixed: from approval to disgust and back again. What stands out have been the race and class blindness which has been addressed here and here, with Maddee Clark in Overland superbly applying them in Australia’s context. That the video presented mostly black and brown men as harassers reinforces the age-old stereotype that it is men of colour who primarily perpetuate violence against women—particularly white women—which has been a trope going back to colonial times, and which leads to the criminalisation of men of colour today.

However, what about the racialised sexual harassment that women of colour face?

Racialised sexual harassment is the way non-white women are uniquely harassed in ways that combines both their race and gender. Historically, racist stereotypes of women of colour abound: of the submissive, obedient East Asian woman, of the promiscuous, aggressive Black woman, of the repressed Arab and South Asian women who need to be liberated, of the man-crazed and sensual Latina woman, and more. These thought patterns, combined with economic inequalities and less institutional power, result in making women of colour more vulnerable to harassment.

Recently, a video of “pick-up artist” Julien Blanc giving a seminar on how to pick up Japanese women was widely circulated online. It recorded him telling attendees that, as white men, they could “do whatever they want” to Japanese women (in this instance, grabbing women’s heads and thrusting them towards their crotch) and they’d comply. This is indicative of sexual attitudes not only towards women in particular, but women of a certain ethnicity. The online dating private messages collected on the “Creepy White Guys” Tumblr pages showing the unique ways non-white women are objectified, insulted and harassed are also demonstrative of this. Further, the myth of the ‘unrapeable’ Black woman—supposedly hypersexual to the point that they are always sexually available—is often used to slot Black women into the “bad girl” category by default.

In Australia, Aboriginal women are looked at differently in sexual violence situations, when questions about moral conduct and myths about promiscuity are regularly used to undermine their credibility, fuelled by stereotypes of un-sophistication, vengefulness and moral corruptness.

And for transgender and queer women of colour, the threat of violence—whether domestic or on the street—is further intensified, as in the case of Mayang Prasetyo.

As a woman of colour, racialised sexual harassment happens often. They include mail-order bride jokes and stereotypical put-on East Asian accents in pubs, screams of “Ni Hao!”, “love you long time” and “China/Japan?” on the street and out of cars, and “Where are you from” and “You’re pretty for an Asian girl” as pick-up lines, on top of overtly racist insults I receive when advances are rejected.

At the moment, most resources and support networks in relation to sexual harassment and assault are created by and structured to accommodate white women, which puts up barriers to discourage women of colour from accessing them in the mainstream. Moreover, many of our statistics are broken down by gender and age and appear to ignore race. This dearth of information leads to limited knowledge as to how prevalent sexual harassment and assault specifically affect women of colour, and helps to sustain the dominant paradigm.

It is dangerous to generalise experiences about sexual harassment as one universal account, especially when it is experienced differently by people of different identities and settings. In order to have a realistic conversation about sexual harassment, we need to get to a place where every single story matters, or stories will get subsumed into the central narrative, with those deviating from that classified as exceptions.

If feminism is meant to include intersections of identity, then discussions surrounding race, gender presentation/identity and class need to be broached in the wider conversation on sexual harassment and rape culture. In Flavia Dzodan’s words, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.”

Image: GabPRR

Cher Tan is a freelance writer writing mostly on race, gender, politics and culture. Her work has been published in a number of online and print publications, some of which include Overland, Kill Your Darlings, and New Matilda. She is also a contributor with Peril Magazine. She lives in Adelaide. Follow her on Twitter @mxcreant

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One Comment

  • Ms Murasaki commented on December 19, 2014 Reply

    Has the world gone mad? How is trying to help a 4 year old child find their mother “street harassment”? Last time I checked that was called being a decent human being. You should also try thinking like one too.

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