One of the cool things about moving through urban public space is what happens when you cross paths with your fellow humans on the street.
In the mid-1990s, when I first moved to Washington, D.C., I quickly learned to say the requisite “Hey, how you doing?” to passersby. And in my parents’ native Georgetown, Guyana, people I pass invariably issue a crisp, slightly formal, “Good ahhfternoon.” From Europe to Brazil, the connection between strangers can be instant.
Cities can be cold, anonymous places. But these brief, warm encounters connect us to our common humanity.
In “increasingly cosmopolitan” cities that are essentially Southern, like D.C., these customs hark back to a gallant era of terrace-sitting and tipped hats. As a woman, I find that a deft greeting can neutralize people who try to dominate the sidewalk: Lock eyes, add a slightly brusque nod or “Hello,” and march by with a commanding gait. It’s a civil way to hold your ground and tell someone staring at you, “I’m busy, but I see you. Keep it moving.”
Pretending that folks don’t exist seems to have the opposite effect.
So I have mixed feelings about the Hollaback street-harassment video that went viral this week. There’s a clear and unambiguous line between acknowledging your fellow human and harassment. Violating personal space, demanding smiles, kisses, dates, phone numbers, attention and even a woman’s time clearly cross over that threshold. But as Slate’s Hanna Rosin and others have pointed out, we also have to ask why the video went viral. For all the good it did to raise awareness about street harassment, it does so by reifying old stereotypes about black masculinity that do none of us good. That time-tested narrative of the porcelain-skinned damsel in distress threatened by leering, oversexed men of color is why people can’t stop watching the video.
Street harassment, too, is a narrative that must change. The iconic image by Ruth Orkin, “American Girl in Florence,” depicts a woman gliding down an Italian street while men leer and one holds his crotch. Her series of photos was designed to show what it was like to be a woman traveling across Europe in the 1950s.
Street-harassing women is a way to police public space, according to Gabriella Gahlia Modan’s Turf Wars: Discourse, Diversity, and the Politics of Place. City streets have traditionally been macho places. A woman’s “place” is in the home sphere and the suburbs. The leering and catcalling is a way to signal to women that they don’t belong. It’s like a real-life version of #GamerGate.
Today a generation of urban women—of all colors—are breaking those norms. We walk our dogs late at night. We bike to work. We jog in the wee hours with the swagger and entitlement of people who bring home the bacon.
These social changes clearly bring out anxiety in powerful men, and their tool of choice might be, say, criminalizing birth control. In many instances, less-powerful men, for whom work has disappeared, may hang out on street corners during the day and, sometimes, harass women.
My hope is that the video, and conversations around it, raise awareness for all men when they reflect on their interactions with women. But as we continue to write new rules of engagement around how we interact in public, I also hope that our common humanity isn’t lost.
I have a distinct memory of an instance when my then-elementary-school-age son said hello to one of our new neighbors in our “transitional” (read: gentrifying) community, as he had seen us doing countless times before. The neighbor, a white woman, stared him in the face, then wordlessly hurried into her condo building, slamming the fortress doors shut behind her. And my young, brown son looked at me, utterly confused.
I said, “It’s OK. Some people just weren’t raised with the same manners you were.” But the message was sent. It wasn’t the last time. But over time, a detente has been reached. He pretends not to see her. She pretends not to be scared of him.
It reminded me of Questlove’s evocative essay about his own white-woman encounter in an elevator in his building: “Imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement.”
To me it’s not natural for people not to acknowledge each other. But we need a paradigm shift that goes beyond sexually and racially charged assumptions about what is going on in the mind of a perfect stranger. It’s the other lesson we should take away from that video.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.