I learned about street harassment when I was six. The first time it happened, I was walking with my mom through a dusty construction site on our way home from the Al-Khozama Hotel in Riyadh. It was 1986 and we’d been living in Saudi Arabia for several months. As new expats awaiting the installation of our landline, we used the hotel’s phone once a week to call relatives in the Carolinas.
As we walked down Olaya Street, I chattered about my search for the North Star. I was obsessed with finding it whenever we were out at night. When we turned onto our corner, a fair-skinned man with ruddy hair and green eyes sauntered over and tapped my mother’s shoulder.
“Habibti,” he crooned in what I learned to discern as a Syrian accent. I couldn’t understand why this strange man was calling my mom his “darling.” He didn’t know her.
Mom gasped, pulled me close, and uttered, “emshi” (go away!) before quickening her pace. As we raced down the street, I heard the man’s footsteps. After he caught up to us, he blocked our path. He pleaded in accented English, “You are so beautiful, may I know you? I must know your name and phone number.”
My mother shot him a fiery glance, and said, “Leave me and my child alone.” Defeated, the man cursed at us. The only words I could translate were the words for “black” and “bitch.”
The Hollaback anti-street harassment organization represents at NYC Pride 2013. Photo by Bill Heidrich.
As my mom tucked me in, I asked why she acted so mean when the man simply “wanted to know her.” I wanted to know why she grabbed my hand so tightly when he came up to us with friendly words. Smiling at my naiveté, she explained that this man wanted to get to know her “in a Biblical sense” and that sadly, there were some men in the world who didn’t know how to respect women like Daddy did.
Later, I overheard my mom recounting the story to Dad. Outraged that this man would be boorish enough to proposition a woman with her child, she told him about how scary it was to be followed. Mommy spoke about big concepts I didn’t understand yet, like racism and stereotypes about American women being perceived as “loose” — especially Black ones like us.
My mom was a civil rights activist in the sixties and endured verbal and physical abuse for standing up for herself and her community. We were 7,000 miles away from home and she lamented that “walking while being black and a woman” could still result in harassment.
Twenty years later, I had a flashback about the night my mom was harassed shortly after being leered at and catcalled near Washington Square Park. As a grad student at NYU, I walked around the park on a regular basis.
Thrilled to be ending the semester, I took a stroll around the park to soak up sunlight before studying in the library for finals. A few blocks away, a 40-something blond man in a suit stood at the stoop of a brownstone. As I walked by, the man calmly greeted me with a “hello.”
When I looked up, he yelled, “I want to eat your pussy!”
My face contorted into a frown as he laughed. He taunted me by saying it louder, while raising his fingers to his mouth in a “v” formation and flicking his tongue.
Disgusted, I watched as bystanders walked by in silence. I burst into tears as he continued to say vile things about my body and skin. The familiarity of his minimizing gaze reminded me of witnessing my mother’s harassment at a young age.
As I wept, I processed all of my experiences: From catcalls of “dark and lovely” and “brown sugar,” to seeing public masturbation as a teenager in Saudi Arabia, and later as a college student in Italy — I’d had enough of degrading displays of harassment and intimidation.
I yearned to transfer my feelings of shame and humiliation to the perpetrator who deserved them. Even though I participated in anti-street harassment marches in college, my experience in the park was my breakthrough moment. I knew I was going to join the movement to end street harassment in a deeper way, for me, for my mom, and for everyone else who has been targeted because of our race, gender, ability, sexuality, size, and/or class identity. Since that day, I’ve been capturing my experiences, reporting harassment, sharing my stories, and “holla-ing back” ever since.
To me, street harassment feels like a lived example of people with privilege and power trying to “put me in my place” by exoticizing and/or undermining me in public space. From childhood to the present, these assertions of disrespect have ranged from experiences dealing with an white man who felt entitled enough to grab my locs in the Washington, DC metro because he was “curious,” to recently being called “Ms. N***er” on the street by a white man in Oakland.
Street harassment remains a pervasive cultural problem and no community is immune. It’s disturbing how often I hear stories about street harassment that perpetuate the myth that men of color, and specifically Black men, are the most frequent culprits. My personal experience with harassers of various races and studies mapping street harassment demonstrate that it primarily happens in areas with high-population density across socioeconomic and racial lines.
Street harassment has been a frustrating fact of life in every place I’ve lived — from Saudi Arabia to New York, Baltimore to Italy — and that’s unacceptable. I’m committed to taking back our streets and changing the conversation about street harassment because I want to live in a world where “walking while being black and a woman” isn’t a liability.