What should I do when I’m walking behind or passing a white woman late at night on the street?

15 Mar

Ever since I started talking to women about street harassment, I’ve tried to be more conscious of my presence as a man in settings where women are often made to feel unsafe. I have become especially conscious of this dynamic when I’m walking around or behind women late at night. A friend of mine once suggested that he crosses the street in these types of situations to avoid making the woman feel uncomfortable (he was Latino). I’ve done this a handful of times since then and will continue to do so, provided I’m not thrown too far off my original route.

But I still have some mixed feelings about this suggestion. For a while now, moments like these have exposed a rift in my mind. On one side of this rift is my militant/anti-racist/black nationalist self. This is the side of me committed to racial justice for all people of color, and especially for black men. It’s the side of me that’s been cultivated since I sat and watched Spike Lee’s Malcolm X with my family when I was 6 or 7 years old. On the other side of the rift is an intersectional feminist attempting to use their position of (male) privilege as a megaphone to help spread the voices of women who are harmed by sexism and misogyny on a daily basis. These overlapping but distinct parts of my consciousness crash into one another whenever a woman reacts fearfully to my presence.

An example of this came one night when I was in college. A group of friends and I – all African-American – were heading back to our dorms after dinner at the dining hall. As we were walking, an Asian woman walked briskly out of another building in front of us with her head down. At first, I wasn’t sure if she was simply lost in thought, or if she was nervous about our presence. I got my answer when one of my friends politely asked “How you doin’?” She jumped as if she had heard gunshots, and walked away from us even faster.

We laughed at the incident. By this point in our lives, we’d come to expect people to be afraid of us, even on the campus we called home for four years. One of my first nights at college, some friends and I headed to a gas station across the street from our dorms for a late-night snack. As one of my friends – a 6’4″, dark-skinned black man – reached for the door handle, an older white woman rushed to the door, locked it, and shook her head “No,” signaling that either they were closed or that she didn’t want us in her store. We laughed then, too.

The militant black side of me views these kinds of incidents as blatant acts of racism. What else could they be? Black men in America are among the most criminalized in the world. Black men are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and make up a disproportionate number of those who are stopped, searched, arrested, and jailed for drug-related offenses, despite studies suggesting that they use and sell drugs at rates remarkably similar to whites. Black men have long been assumed to be criminals or inherently threatening to our society, and are often profiled as such. Throughout history, we’ve often been assumed to be particularly threatening to white (and other non-black) women. Many lynchings in the American South and elsewhere took place after allegations that a black man had “improper relations” with a white woman. This often included criminal acts like rape or harassment, but even sleeping with or flirting with a white woman was sometimes grounds for death.

Today, we – as black men – often find ourselves being shunned and avoided by those who assume that we pose some sort of threat to them. This is especially the case for those of us who must navigate predominantly white/non-black spaces. When a woman crosses the street to avoid us, walks faster as we approach, or rushes to lock their door as we pass by, it reminds us that we’re often viewed as a threat to both society in general and to women in particular, even if we’re middle class, college-educated professionals.

So, should I cross the street when a woman walks past me late at night? My militant side says “No!” After all, I already spend too much time as it is managing the emotions of whites around me to make sure they’re comfortable. For example, black professors around the country must often manage the emotions of whites in the classroom when we discuss issues of white privilege and racism. We must navigate and manage the expectations of whites in college settings, at work, in our neighborhoods, in restaurants and in movie theaters. The stress this causes – known as “racial battle fatigue” – is highly associated with negative health outcomes. In other words, constantly dealing with racism in different settings is literally detrimental to our health. Given how much of a burden this places on the shoulders of black men, I reject the idea that I should have to cross the street to accommodate women’s aversion to black men.

Right?

But the feminist in me sees these events a little differently. A substantial amount of the violence and harassment that women face comes at the hand of boys and men of all races. I like to think of myself as a “nice guy,” despite the fact that many men on the Internet have given the term a bad name. But whether I’m the nicest, most feminist guy on the planet or a misogynistic serial killer – I must ask how any random woman on the street will know that? Many simply see a man. Moreover, domestic violence, sexual assault, street harassment and other forms of violence against women are at chronic levels in our society. You’d be hard pressed to find a woman in this country who hasn’t been verbally or physically abused, harassed, or sexually assaulted by a man somewhere, regardless of race, class, or sexuality. It’s not just black men who do things like this, despite what some may imply. ALL kinds of men harass women, and in those moments, women can’t be sure whether or not I’m one of those men.

Most of the women I’ve talked to have experienced verbal harassment, unwanted touching, or been outright assaulted by men. As feminists have brought attention to this issue over the years, I’ve come to re-evaluate some of my interactions on the street with women.

The woman who jumped as my friend greeted her? Maybe she had recently been harassed or assaulted by men like us. Or maybe she was being racist. Maybe both. I’m less inclined to give the store clerk the benefit of a doubt, as she very well could have just told us they had closed for the night. Store clerk jerks aside, men do pose a substantial threat to women in a variety of ways, and it’s important for us to do what we can to help women feel the same level of comfort that we do when we’re in most public spaces.

So, when a woman – white, black, Asian or otherwise – crosses the street to avoid me, avoids eye contact, or simply tenses up around me, I should acknowledge that she’s doing so as a form of self-preservation. I can empathize with that, as I react the same way when I encounter police officers or security guards. Whatever the circumstances, conversations around street harassment and violence against women aren’t about me, per se, or even about men as a whole. After all, many men aren’t abusers or rapists. But that fact doesn’t help women feel any safer, just as I don’t feel safer around unfamiliar police officers knowing that there are “good cops” out there. Women’s actions in these instances are reactions a perpetual pattern of harassment by men, black or otherwise. Put another way, #notallmen are harassers, rapists, or abusers, but #yesallwomen have experienced these different forms of violence at the hands of men.

So, which side of me is right? The Black Nationalist in me has a point – I shouldn’t have to tap-dance around other’s people’s racism just to make them feel comfortable. And I have a right to exist in public spaces without being criminalized. But as a black man, I also understand what’s it’s like to feel as though you are putting yourself in danger simply for existing in public. The stories of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till and countless other black men remind us that we’re often one bad interaction or misunderstanding away from violence or death. Women experience something similar on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that women and black men should play “Oppression Olympics” when it comes to this subject, or to erase the nuanced ways in which black men and women experience violence in public spaces at the hands of police officers or even one another. And it certainly isn’t to suggest that all women experience violence and brutality in the same ways. Rather, it is to highlight one of the conundrums of trying to support women as they fight back against violence and street harassment while also trying to counter violence against black men.

I know that street harassment isn’t okay, but it’s also not okay to assume a man is dangerous because he’s black. Black men are by no means the only group that engages in this kind of reprehensible behavior, but that fact shouldn’t be used to dismiss the experiences of women across the world.

So, what’s the answer? What should I do when I’m walking behind or passing a woman late at night on the street?

I still have no idea.

This post, written by, David Springer was previously published on Write Where it Hurts, a creative forum for scholars doing deeply personal research, teaching and service. David is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago. His interests include race, ethnicity and gender; assimilation; The Sociology of African-Americans.

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