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Street Harassment Isn't Just About Sexism, It's Also an Issue of Racism

11/12/2014 06:36 GMT | Updated 09/02/2015 10:59 GMT

I was reading Paige Tutt's brilliant blog post about her online dating experiences as a black woman, and how at one point she was extremely fetishized, receiving messages like 'I've never been with a black girl before'. It got me thinking about experiences of street harassment as a woman of colour, and how these encounters can be racialised.

Street harassment: a frequent occurrence for many people, yet always it's always as just as nasty as the last time. Many women experience street harassment on a regular basis, and more and more discussions regarding it are debunking the tired excuse that catcalling is a 'compliment'. Harassment is about power, intimidation and the ensuing shame of the person experiencing it.

Depressingly, like so many others, I've experienced street harassment for as long as I can remember. Walking home from school with my friend in my school uniform at the age of twelve and having two men scream something (too explicit to write) at us from their car. Having your exit from a shop blocked by someone twice your size, who won't let you through until you give him your phone number. Being followed off of the night bus at 1am by a man insisting he just wants to 'talk to me'. But at some point, I started noticing that some of my experiences started to have another dimension added to the typically sexist instances.

When I was sixteen years old, somebody commented on how my skin looked like 'caramel chocolate' and proceeded to lick my arm. Sounds kind of funny? It was scary, humiliating and a gross invasion of personal space. Many people who have endured harassment have been subjected to groping, leering and being grabbed - it's an intimidating situation that makes it clear that to some people, your body is public property for the taking. But this time, it seemed that both race and gender were coming into it. This wasn't just about gender power dynamics; it was about the colour of my skin, as well. Since then, too many times to count I've been dubbed 'exotic', badgered about where I'm 'from' (there is a difference between a person who is genuinely interested in your ethnic background and someone using it as a way to get you to speak to them) and had numerous references to food made about my skin colour. And in the same way that many women are labelled a 'bitch' if they react accordingly or ignore their harassers, a woman of colour might have a racial slur thrown her way if she rejects advances.

In the same way that having quips about your appearance and simple presence in public being yelled at you on the street isn't a compliment, neither is having your 'foreignness' commented on and having your appearance compared to something edible. Yeah, it's creepy and intimidating, but it's also incredibly othering and can make you feel wrongly ashamed about something that is not within your control.

Particular experiences may be unique to me, but similar things happen to so many women of colour from all walks of life.

'I've never been with a (insert race) girl before'

'Do you (insert inaccurate racial stereotype)?'

'I've heard (insert race) girls like to (insert inaccurate racial stereotype)'

Street harassers can go from plain misogynistic to sexist and racist in a second by using oversimplified, insulting and often just plain inaccurate racial stereotypes to harass women, and make sordid, unwanted comments not only on their appearances but on their race and culture. Whilst all women are shamed for merely being women through harassment, women of colour can also be shamed for their race, ethnicity and culture. These sorts of incidents of street harassment need to be acknowledged as not only sexist, but also as a demonstration of racism and prejudice.

Our bodies are not public property. Being labelled 'exotic' is not a compliment. Street harassment is a demonstration of power, and sends women a message that their mere existence in public is licence for taunts and comments. The same goes for women of colour - we deserve to be out, carefree, dressed how we want, and not have our racial identities fetishized.

Sadly, this is only one way in which identity can shape the nature of street harassment. LGBTQ+ people also have their identities used as a weapon in intimidating situations, as do religious minorities. Organisations like anti-street harassment movement 'Hollaback!' acknowledge this, and state that:

'Street harassment can be sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, sizeist and/or classist. It is an expression of the interlocking and overlapping oppressions we face and it functions as a means to silence our voices and "keep us in our place"'
These intersecting oppressions mean that for a huge amount of people, the power dynamics displayed through instances like street harassment have multiple layers of discrimination running through them.