An Open Letter About The Racist Undertones Of That Viral Street Harassment Video

Dear Hollaback & Rob Bliss Creative,

I have watched your collaborative video depicting the menacing street harassment of a young, white woman as she casually walked through the streets of New York. You captured dozens of men making unwarranted comments — some more “innocent” than others — as well as the incredibly uncomfortable actions of a young man who silently followed the woman down the street for an entire five minutes.

At first, the video looked like an obvious display of patriarchy and street harassment in its most evident and outrageous form. Those men had no respect for the personal or emotional space or boundaries of the woman who crossed their path. However, upon closer examination, it seems that your video is also an obvious display of one of the worst and most dated forms of racism: Black savagery and its inherent predatory hunger for White women.

By Mr. Bliss’s, admission, the video was not an accurate depiction of the street harassment that young woman faced while traversing the streets of New York. Young men of every race harassed the young White woman. Yet, the vast majority of the culprits in your piece were non-White, and even more specifically overwhelmingly Black.

It is either you were unaware of how this video would be received, in a nation already plagued by racial tension and fear of Black/minority men. Or there was some desire to play on that White fear in order to further the anti-street harassment agenda. A fear so deeply entrenched in White America’s psyche that it continues to plague the American consciousness through modern images of black male “thuggery,” an only subtle departure from yesteryear’s caricatures that painted Black men as destructive savages and hypersexual animals. I pray the former.

You provided a reason for this “mistake”: the shots and scenes that caught White men in the act were somehow not usable because of sirens in the background or other audio problems. Despite my better judgement that tells me this excuse is absolutely unacceptable because the majority of the video was subtitled due to bad audio quality anyway, I will accept that excuse.

However, since you “mistakenly” distributed a video, absent of White male faces, with menacing, Black men verbally harassing and even stalking an innocent young White woman in public, I thought I’d do you the favor of providing you with a quick but necessary history lesson to give context for this “error.”

During the Radical Reconstruction period (1867-1877), literary culture espoused the belief that Blacks would revert to savagery and criminality in the absence of slavery. That belief was cemented when writer Thomas Nelson Page complained that the “good old darkies”– simple-minded, non-violent enslaved Black people (in his opinion) were being replaced by a “new problem”– freed men of color who would lie, steal, cheat and rape at the drop of a dime. Page popularized images of the Black male savage, and in time that propaganda made its way into scientific journals, newspapers and notable literary works of the time. In 1905, Dixon published his most acclaimed novel, The Clansman, that included a detailed story of the rape of an innocent, virginal White woman by an animalistic, brutish Black man. He described the black man as such, “a being who, left to his own will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no word of love, whose passion, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger.” In the novel, the Black brute sinks his claws into the throat of the soft White woman and devours her. As a result, both the girl and her mother commit suicide. A movie was later created based on the book called “The Death Of A Nation.” If you Google that movie today, you will see that the picture is applauded as a masterpiece and is still rated as a premium, five-star movie in spite of its racist messaging and propaganda.

Thus began the widespread, indisputable belief and fear that black men would victimize and rape White women because of their lustful nature. A belief that spurred fear all throughout the deep south post slavery and led to the lynching of multiple black men.

One of the most gruesome lynching stories took place in 1955, in Mississippi. A 14-year-old Black boy named Emmett Till entered a store where he allegedly flirted with young White woman. A few days later, that young woman’s husband and his half brother abducted Till from his home late and night and took him to a barn where the two men beat the young boy, gouged out one of his eyes and shot him in the head. His body was then dragged behind a pick up truck and disposed in the Tallahatchie River, weighted with a 70lbs cotton gin fan that was tied to the young boy’s neck with barbed wire.

When the body was exhumed, Till’s mutilated face was not at all recognizable by his mother, Mamie Till. To show the world the brutality of the murder, she held an open-casket funeral where tens of thousands showed up to view the boys bloated, body and pictures were published by multiple Black magazines and newspapers. The boy’s killers went to trial, but were acquitted, sparking national outrage that sparked the beginnings of the Civil Right’s Movement.

Emmett Till’s murder galvanized the Civil Rights Movement, not only because it was especially heinous, but because the Black community was absolutely fed up with the then common practice of lynching Black men. A practice that was often justified by White fear of Black men — specifically the fear that Black men were rapists out to devour White female innocence. According to an investigation done by Ida B. Wells, an “anti-lynching crusader,” about one third of Black lynching victims were accused of rape or attempted rape. Those accusations were made with even the slightest of provocation by Black men: a stare that lasted a second too long, a passing glance, or a subtle “flirtatious” gesture. When a black man and a white woman engaged in consensual sexual activity, that act was still categorized as rape and punishable by mob lynching.

Though lynching was later decried as a brutal, inhumane act, Black male integrity was never reclaimed. Matter of fact, White fear of Black men was often exploited for profit by Hollywood and used as a political tool to gain public support. In the popular “Blaxploitation” movies of the ’60s and ’70s, Black men were often characterized as pimps, thugs or rapists. That casting choice remained a constant throughout the ’80s, ’90s and even 2000s with movies and shows like “Superfly,” ‘The Wire,” “Baby Boy,” “Boyz in the Hood” and many, many more where Black men were relegated to roles that supported the narrative of Black savagery.

At this point, though I have accepted the claim that you mistakenly or unintentionally produced and edited a video of mostly Black men harassing a young White woman on the streets of New York City, the choice to do so reveals your blind ignorance. An irredeemable ignorance of the very history which you are attempting to take on with your “international” anti-street harassment campaign. White patriarchy and racism are inextricably tied and must always be scrutinized in order to effectively isolate or tackle either of those issues. Though your intentions may have been laudable, impact is more important than intent. And the racist impact of this video overshadows its original intent to wholly and accurately shed light on the issue of street harassment.

With the help of the video you produced, street harassment in the United States, can now easily be dismissed by white people as an issue of Black male savagery. Yesterday, for example, writer Joyce Carol Oates’ tweeted: “Would be very surprised if women walking alone were harassed in affluent midtown NYC (Fifth Ave, Park Ave.), Washington Square Park etc.” Of course class and race are also so inextricably tied that these affluent NYC neighborhoods which Oates is referring to are often absent of Black men — the biggest threat to female safety and autonomy.

With regard to the Black men who partake in the harassment of women while in public spaces, this video provides them with ample evidence that the anti-street harassment campaign is merely another attempt to diminish, oppress and further subjugate them. So they need not acknowledge the implications of their actions or the impact those actions have on the women who are emotionally, psychologically and even sometimes physically scarred by the burden of being constantly objectified in the streets. They have now, once again, become victims. And I, a Black woman and staunch supporter of the anti-street harassment campaign, have become an enemy in their eyes.

I find myself, once again, a part of the populous who are constantly the biggest losers: the young Black women and girls who remain stranded at the intersection of a race and sex struggle, victimized, silenced and overshadowed by White oppressors and the plight of Black male victims of racism.

The decision to exclude White men from your street harassment video was not a simple mistake. It was an infraction that subliminally preyed on White fear of Black men, while further delegitimizing Black women’s fight to gain the right to freely and safely move through public spaces. Neither of those transgressions are uncomplicated. And both reveal an inability to critically understand the depths of America’s issues of racism and sexism, which makes very clear that your discussion and movement have yet to become inclusive of Black women who are desperate to see change.


Tiffanie Drayton