By this point most people on the Internet have seen the video of Shoshana B. Roberts getting harassed more than 100 times over the course of 10 hours of walking the streets of New York. If not, watch it now:
First of all, if watching that video doesn’t make you uncomfortable and angry, I don’t want to know you.
Second of all, I’ve worked in online media for many years, so I’m well aware that the comments section is often where the worst of humanity lives, but the some of the response to this video is shocking.
So when misconceptions are as widespread as the ones around this video and the subject of street harassment are I feel like I need to set the record straight for whoever is listening.
The most pervasive comment was some take on “But most of those guys were just saying Hello, they were being nice and she should be happy to receive positive attention.”
As a general rule shouting something out to a stranger walking by you on the street is not how human interactions happen. Conversations do not start by blurting out something(no matter how “nice” or “simple”) at some one you don’t know who is walking past you. Shouting anything to a stranger is threatening behavior. Period.
The assertion that she should have “just smiled” or said “hello” or “thank you” was universally given by men. There is not a single women who advise doing any of those things because all women have experienced what sometimes happens when you do that: sometimes nothing, but sometimes the “perfectly nice” men view that small acknowledgment as an invitation to start following you, talking to you, say wildly obscene things to you. As evidenced by the video, she received men doing all of those things after giving them no response.
Which is what is at the crux of the problem of street harassment. Some men protest that they are “just complimenting” or “saying hello” to women or even that they don’t do it but don’t see the problem with it. But all women (#YesAllWomen) have a story (or several) of a time when they felt unsafe walking down the street.
In a myriad of circumstances: wearing any combination of clothing, during any time of day, in any public place. I have had things shouted at my walking down the sidewalk in the after in the small town I grew up in in Michigan when I was a teenager walking with mom. I’ve had men try to feel me up on crowded trains. I’ve been approached, honked at, propositioned, yelled at, and told “to smile” more times than I can count. And so has every woman I know.
This kind of attention isn’t flattering, it’s frightening.
The fact that this never happens when I’m walking with my husband or any other male speaks volumes as to what’s really behind even these “simple hellos”: ownership and power. If I’m with a man (any man) the assumption is that I’m in some way his property and their comments would be disrespectful to him. I have in fact experienced men apologizing to the man that I was with after a catcall when they didn’t first see that we were together.
It’s been said eloquently before but it bears repeating: women do not walk outside for approval, praise, or comment. They, like all humans walk outside to get from place to place. If another human being isn’t smiling it isn’t your job to command them to smile. I am the boss of my facial expressions.
Other perplexing responses came from many sources, including some women whose views I’ve agreed with on other topics. The main being that the video is racist because the majority of men were minorities and because she appeared to be walking in minority neighborhoods like Harlem. This is frustrating for several reasons: First, the implication is that there are certain places that aren’t appropriate for women to walk, that’s a small slippery slope to saying that a woman in a short skirt is “asking for it.” Secondly, it’s my impression that the video was a document of her normal day and included several neighborhoods in NYC including Midtown. To be clear, as the non-profit Hollaback who commissioned the video mentioned on their site: “Street harassment is a “cultural” thing in the sense that it emerges from a culture of sexism — and unfortunately — that is everyone’s culture.” White men, Black men, Hispanic men, Indian men, Asian men, and more have made women feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
And finally, as if to prove the entire point of the video, Roberts received threats of rape and violence after the video was posted, because it seems that whenever a woman publicly expresses any kind of opinion (or in this case appears in a video online silently walking down the street) that makes her fair game for the worst degradation.
I don’t have an easy to tie up with a ribbon solution, but I think that as misconstrued by some people this video was, it’s a good start. Drawing attention to this issue as non-profits like Hollaback, and Jessica Williams’ reports at “The Daily Show” (and maybe blog posts like this) do, hopefully open the eyes of some men to rethink their behavior and other men to stand up to them when they think that shouting at strangers on the street is complementary.
Very rarely in life do you meet people who truly inspire you to be a better person. Who are kind and generous and talented. Who genuinely want to make the world a better, more beautiful place and then set about trying to make that happen.
Yosra El-Essawy was one of those people.
She died last week after her year-long battle with cancer. The world has lost such a beautiful human being. Someone who not only created so much beautiful art but brought so much love and compassion to everyone she met.
I feel so honored to be among the hundreds (if not thousands) of people mourning this loss because I got, for even a short time, to be her friend and stand near the light that she brought to the world.
Yosra was an amazingly talented painter and a remarkable photographer. She captured love in such a beautiful and honest way, and her talent was recognized on one of the biggest platforms in the world as Beyonce’s official world tour photographer.
When she learned that she had terminal cancer at only 32 years old, she fought it with so much strength, positivity, and gratitude… in the face of what would make most people (myself certainly included) curse their misfortune and become angry and bitter she always ended her posts and updates with #neverforgettosaythankyou.
That love and gratitude that she put out into the world was reflected back at her — she was surrounded by so much love, from her friends and family. One of the most beautiful things to come out of social media is that my Facebook feed is now filled with messages of tribute and love.
After her service this weekend her family posted this on her Facebook page:
At her service yesterday we were reminded of the need to pray for her and to do good deeds in her name. Yosra was deeply moved by acts of kindness. She cared so deeply for others. We know that the greatest gift we could offer her now would be to show that same kindness to others. The next time we each find someone in need, we give a helping hand, a smile, some support. That we go a little further out of our way to do a little something that will make a big difference. And we do it in her name. We turn the love she gave into love we give. We pay it forward, for Yosra. And we #neverforgettosaythankyou.
So for Yosra, in her memory, I plan to find more ways to say thank you for my life, my opportunity, to make the most of my time on earth and to make it better for other people.
I’ve been writing a lot lately, just not here. So here’s a brief update on what sort of Katastrophic Thoughts I’ve been having lately:
Early in September I wrote an article for Fast Company about a study of the language differences in men and women’s performance reviews. It was really popular and I was asked to speak about it on a morning news show in Canada.
That same study led a woman to write a piece for the New York Times (a month later). Disappointingly she took the view that since women are criticized so unfairly, the solution is that they should learn how to take criticism better. I respectfully disagreed and wrote my first every Letter to the Editor. It wasn’t published, but you can read it here:
Tara Mohr’s article about women and criticism touched on some valid points about how women receive “overreactive, shaming and inappropriately personal criticism” disproportionally to men.
But her article – like many others about women in the workplace – drew a discouraging conclusion: that both blatant and unconscious sexism should be dealt with by telling women that they need to change the way they think or behave, rather than those who judge women discriminately and inappropriately.
She says that women need to retrain our minds to expect and accept that distinctive work and innovative thinking will draw critics.
Why not instead retrain people like those 71 managers who critique women’s character rather than their ideas?
Mohr acknowledges that the system is broken, but her solution that women should learn to roll with the punches rather than hold those with biased views accountable is disheartening.
Should both men and women learn to persevere with our great ideas even in the face of criticism? Absolutely. But women shouldn’t have to accept that our ideas won’t be heard because critics are too busy judging the tone of our voice.
Later in September I spoke on a panel about women in leadership in Chicago at the American Society of News Editor’s conference. After, I was interviewed by a grad student at my former college (Columbia College Chicago), here is the article she wrote about the panel. After that panel I was asked to be a member of the U.S. Speaker Program for the State Department, more info on that here.
Many people were inspired by Emma Watson’s speech on feminism at the UN in September, and while many of us have been saying the same things for a while now, it’s encouraging that these ideas are getting such a big platform. But I’ve been frustrated recently that so much that’s written about men and feminism is just about “raising awareness” without any concrete actions while women are met with a barrage of “you need to act this way” rhetoric. So earlier this week I tired to help move the conversation forward by suggesting 5 Practical Things Men Can Do For Gender Equality At Work
I’m also working to start a live chat series around issues of inequality and diversity. Stay tuned for more on that soon.
Finally, since my fiction writing always seems to fall by the wayside I signed up for a 10-week Fiction writing class that started earlier this month. I am still planning Issue #2 of Katastrophic Thoughts (the print edition), but work on it has slowed in the name of short story writing in the last couple of weeks. (issue #1 is still available, btw. Email if you’d like a copy).
More soon. Here’s to a happy, productive and thought provoking fall!