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My Street Harassment Story

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I was in D.C. around this time last year for a screening of our TV pilot. We (my now wife and I) drove down from Pittsburgh that day, and made it to town at around five. Since the screening was at 7:30, we had a couple hours to spare, so we stopped somewhere on U Street to grab something to eat, and eventually met up with our homegirl to walk to Busboys and Poets (where the screening was held) together.

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It was a 15-20 minute walk from where we were to Busboys. During the trip, I received a text I needed to reply to, so I slowed my stride and stopped for a few moments. They slowed too, but I told them to keep going and I'd just catch up.

I was done replying a minute or so later. By this time, they were 50 feet ahead of me, totally engrossed in their own conversation. Instead of trying to catch up, I kept my pace and stayed behind them, figuring we were all going to the same place anyway.

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So I watched as these two close friends — one Black, one Afro-Latina; both dressed like women who'd gone to work that day and were attending a screening that evening — walked while talking to each other; laughing and enjoying the weather.

And I watched as they had their conversation interrupted at least three or four times by guys attempting to talk to them.

"Hey sexy ladies" I heard one say.

"Where y'all going? I want to come" said another.

One even started following them. It wasn't a close follow — he was maybe 25 feet behind them, and they probably didn't even know he was there — but he definitely got up from where he was sitting and started walking in their direction when they walked past him.

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And this is when I decided to catch back up to them.

This is just one story about a mundane fall day in D.C. In a vacuum, each of those actions were (relatively) innocuous. Harmless, even. My wife has other stories. One about a time several years ago when a guy spit at her and called her a bitch after she politely declined to give him her number. Another about a time a couple weeks ago when she was in Chicago on a business trip. She was supposed to meet someone at some location, but needed to walk up and down the block a couple times because she had some trouble finding the building. While doing this, a guy followed her around for 10 minutes — turning every time she turned, circling back every time she circled back — until she got scared, walked back to her car, locked the doors, and drove away.

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The term microaggression was created in 1970 by Harvard professor Chester Pierce to describe "social exchanges in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often accidentally, and without intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group." We have no trouble understanding how this is applied in a racial context. Most Black Americans can name instances where a non-Black person did or said something that, in a vacuum, might have been harmless. A woman on the train touching your hair. A coworker asking where the best fried chicken in the city is. A sales clerk asking to see your ID after you hand them a debit card. A cop car following you for a block. Again, in a vacuum, these are not particularly bothersome acts. But a lifetime full of them can be exhausting, demoralizing, even. You also don't know when the microaggression turns major. It's rare. Very rare. But it's happened before. You remember the time the sales clerk asked to see ID on the day you left your driver's license at home, and you had to spend an hour convincing mall security the card you just used to buy a $8 pack of socks is actually yours. You remember the time you were followed for a block…and then stopped…and then forced to get out of your car at gunpoint…and then had your car ransacked…and then found out you fit a description of someone they're looking for…and then watched them leave without as much as an apology. So, you're understandably sensitive to these "innocent" acts.

I've been following the discussion prompted by the video Hollaback! and Rob Bliss Creative created cataloging the 100+ times a woman was harassed while walking through Manhattan. I'm also aware that, as many have pointed out, the video itself has some problematic flaws. Quoting Roxane Gay, "…the racial politics of the video are fucked up. Like, she didn't walk through any white neighborhoods?"

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As fucked up as that was, focusing on the racial politics of the tape instead of what happens on the tape obscures what has been the most disappointing takeaway from all this. It's not the harassment. Although startling to watch on film — especially the guy who follows her for several minutes — I've heard and read enough testimony to know it exists. I already knew it was a real thing. What has surprised and disappointed me are the men who've seen this tape, who've heard women express how unsafe this can make them feel, who are aware of stories like the murder of Mary “Unique” Spears — who was shot and killed by a man after refusing to give him her number — and still say things like "What? We can't holla at chicks anymore?" and "It's a man's nature to approach women. You can't stop nature." and "I bet if it was Idris Elba following her she wouldn't be saying that harassment shit." Basically, women feeling safe and protected —  people who could very well be a friend, a girlfriend, a daughter, a mother, or a sister to one of these men — is less important than the right to say "Hey sexy" every time one walks past.

It's even more disappointing — and mind-boggling — that some of these men, who are very aware of how a barrage of innocent racial microaggressions can affect your entire being, don't see the connection between those and how a daily avalanche of "Hey beautiful. Lemme talk to you." and "Why don't you smile for me?" can add up and create a general sense of danger. There are few analogies more perfect than that one — this is seriously some Fisher-Price, My First Analogy type shit — but they're still unable or unwilling to see it.

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If you are one of those people, and you're reading this equipped with the "So, you're saying I should just never approach a woman?" rebuttal, let me answer that question for you: Yes. I can't speak for everyone, but that's exactly what I'm saying. If you're not trolling — you are, but I'll play along — and you honestly don't know how and when to approach a woman without making her feel unsafe, you shouldn't approach any women until you figure that out. The world will be fine with your (hopefully temporary) removal from the dating game.

And, while you're sitting at home, I suggest you listen to some stories. My wife has some. As does my cousin. You can find others on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and the comments section here. If that doesn't work, ask a friend or family member. Maybe a coworker you're cool with. And, if so inclined, ask me, and I'll tell you about the time I walked behind my wife and our friend for three minutes and became so disturbed by all of the unsolicited attention they received that I jogged to catch up to them because I didn't want to have to fight someone.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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DISCUSSION

This is for the men. Im trying to sort through some things I've been thinking about that this post had me reconsidering.

Backstory: I was on the train a few weeks ago. I was all jeans and tims and a T-shirt on this dress down day. My hat was backwards. At one stop this beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,beautiful, beautiful woman walked on the train. Damnit she was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I looked up and at all of her - objectified her - for two second as she walked by. She noticed and gave a look like she was both scared and disgusted. I may have looked thirsty. She sat on the same side two seats away from me. It is what it is, and I would never even say hello to a random woman on the train (hello pride) so I dove right back into my book. No worries.

The very next stop a drunk man got on and sat at the end of the car. He saw her, got up, and sat next to her. He talked to her. She talked back politely while trying to get into her book. I heard her say don't touch me. The man across from me - with the wedding band - did as well. So did the suited man 10 feet or so away. So did the women seated not to far from her. I considered a lot in those moments…..I considered not saying anything, not my fight. I consider waiting to see if any of the men would say something. I was interested in seeing if the women would speak up. I spoke up. The dude and I got into an argument. I don't argue well (arguments = prelude to a fight) , and I did my best to defuse things, and eventually the dude got up and moved. Before he did he showed his knife. Cautious and concerned I nodded, then I got back into my book. From the corner of my eye I could see the woman - who not too long ago looked at me like I could have been that man - looking at me, for the next two stops. She eventually said thank you. Without looking I nodded and when my stop came I got off the train and went to my meeting. I was a bit annoyed. The episode had me thinking the rest of they day . Some of the questions I asked:

- My life is important to the men and women (ad my lady bird) who depend on my being there and see me as an asset in their lives. I am a human being to them, not a possible threat to their space. What if I died that day for a woman who had not long before looked at me like I was an animal? Would it have been worth it?

- Every argument between men has the potential to become violent. Should I or any man put their lives on the line for women they do not know?

- What does it say that I live in a world where I should respect an unknown woman's space (not even an issue for me) and her autonomy and her fear about my male body (Not a problem her again. I cross the street) while at the same time there is an expectation that I am supposed to be a sentinel, ready to defend her humanity when I am needed?