God bless you, ma.
I've stopped on the way home at the corner store that sells oversize Smart Water for cheap. I am tired, making mental to-do lists, ready to peel off the worn-in black yoga pants and white slip-on sneakers I've been traipsing around in all day. This street benediction -- God bless you, ma -- is delivered slow and syrupy, as if to drive home the point that some divine power took a little extra time when he made me. That I'm special.
But I'm not special: I just happen to be a black girl living in New York City.
And when you're a female who calls the Rotten Apple home, God bless you, mami; How you doing today?; Hi, Beautiful; Can I talk to you? are all-too-familiar verses in the city's unofficial anthem. Welcome to New York, where catcalls float through the air like birdsong. Like millions of women in busy cities where the population regularly brushes up against one another, actress Shoshana B. Roberts knows the words to this often-unwelcome track too.
She's at the center of a now-viral video that documents what it's like to be subjected daily to those unsolicited shout-outs -- from the casual to the grotesquely sexually charged. The filmmaker reportedly captured more than "100 instances of verbal street harassment" by perpetrators "of all backgrounds," as Roberts walked the city sidewalks over the course of 10 hours.
But the filmmaker's decision to focus solely on Roberts, who is white, and her harassment at the hands of black and Latino men -- the catcalling white men were edited out -- has sparked a justifiable backlash. So now, when we should be having an honest discussion about the dangers of this kind of harassment for all women, we're talking about race.
As Slate writer Hanna Rosin pointed out, the namesake for the Rob Bliss marketing agency explained away the video's racial imbalance, writing, “We got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera,” or was ruined by a siren or other noise.
A few of Roberts' encounters are truly disturbing -- one man silently follows Roberts her several blocks -- the kind that force you early on to construct your invisible armor, to master your bitchy screw face.
This kind of behavior crosses racial lines. Failing to acknowledge that, as the Hollaback! video does, creates room to demonize and even criminalize black and Latino men, a chilling dynamic that harks back to Jim Crow.
If Roberts had been joined on her journey by women of all complexions who clearly share this experience, it might have gone a long way in more accurately representing that street harassment doesn't discriminate. Women are entitled to walk the streets lost in their own reveries, their thoughts, without ever having to stop and wish you a "good morning" if we don't want to. Without having the few inches of personal space we carve out violated.
Ultimately, this discussion shouldn't be about race -- it's about respect.
To learn more about hidden bias, including gender discrimination, head over to LookDifferent.org.