Gentrification and Street Harassment

I met a man last year who was concerned about gentrification in his neighborhood. He saw rich White people moving into this historically Black neighborhood and was offended that they didn’t want to interact with him, a Black man. They put up spite fences and ignored him when he tried to get their attention. I began to tell him about my work, explaining that if he called to me from his porch I might ignore him too, not because I didn’t respect him or because I meant to change the nature of his neighborhood but because of my experience with street harassment.
When a man, alone on his porch, yells ‘Hello’ at a woman on the street it’s not a neutral or innocuous act. In my experience the man wants something from me, sometimes he’s satisfied with a nod or ‘hello’ back, but most of the time he isn’t. In my experience he wants my name, my phone number, my time, my energy, my approval, all the things men feel emboldened to ask for, and when denied, demand. In fact, this man wanted all these from me too. I gave them willingly, hoping he would spread the word. The word that sometimes women just want to be left alone, and that has to be ok.

Negative City Experience: Gender

One of the most common experiences in a urban area is a negative sidewalk interaction on the basis of gender. Catcalling is a type of street harassment that often involves a man as initiator, in a public space, verbally trying to capture the attention of woman, who he doesn’t previously know, using sexual comments (di Leonardo via Bowman 1993). The male initiators of sidewalk interactions often defend this behavior by arguing that not only is this behavior a polite form of civil discourse but that their comments are complimentary. Campaigns going as far back as the early 20th century show women (and men) trying to fight against this misconception and explain that this behavior is unwanted. While other negative interactions are based on the person being undesirable, catcalling happens when a man wants a woman to know that he finds her desirable.

The experience is common and has been studied by many different types of scholars including feminist geographers who have interrogated the fear of violence and the way this changes the way women move through spaces.

Notes on Attraction, repulsion and desirability

What am I measuring? And why? One of my jokey subtitles for my dissertation was ‘quantifying the oppression olympics.’ You know the ‘oppression olympics‘ that ‘game’ you play with your friends at cocktail parties competing over who has it worse, disabled people or trans people? Black people or Latinx? It’s not a fun or particularly useful game because pain is pain, comparison isn’t usually going to get you to improve your cocktail party or lead to understanding. But exploring the question of which demographic groups are most and least respected in the US seems worthwhile.

Another way of putting this is social desirability. A friend once joked that the most powerful people in America were old rich white men and young attractive women. The term social capital is used to refer to education and other attributes that make people attractive in the economy. Social desirability includes the more attributes that make people attractive in sidewalk interactions, which often happen very quickly. On the nature vs nurture debate, I think social desirability is more nature, since it has a lot to do with what you look like, while social capital is more nurture. While completely subjective ‘attractiveness’ is also completely socially constructed, overtly political, and objective in the sense that you are treating someone else as an object rather than a subject. While it’s true for someone to say ‘I’m just not attracted to black women’ this truth was not achieved in an apolitical media vacuum and OKCupid stats bare this out.

With the recent incel news came this article: Does Anyone Have a Right to Sex. In the article, Amia Srinivasan problematizes sex-positivity which, she argues, covers for misogyny, racism, ableism, transphobia and every other oppressive system under “the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference.” While gay men understand and problematize this phenomenon with thing the webseries ‘What the Flip’. However, writes Srinivasan,” straight people – or should I say, white, able-bodied, cis straight people – aren’t much in the habit of thinking there’s anything wrong with how they have sex.”

Getting In and Out: Who owns black pain?

Some poignant words from Queen Zadie Smith in a recent Harper’s article on the movie Get Out and the painting Open Casket:

Peele has found a concrete metaphor for the ultimate unspoken fear: that to be oppressed is not so much to be hated as obscenely loved. Disgust and passion are intertwined. Our antipathies are simultaneously a record of our desires, our sublimated wishes, our deepest envies. The capacity to give birth or to make food from one’s body; perceived intellectual, physical, or sexual superiority; perceived intimacy with the natural world, animals, and plants; perceived self-sufficiency in a faith or in a community. There are few qualities in others that we cannot transform into a form of fear and loathing in ourselves.



During winter quarter I took a few qualitative courses where I got the opportunity to think a lot about my positionality. Social scientists often talk about positionality; it’s an attempt to think reflexively about the relationship between the researcher and the research. Often this is a chance to take a look at power structures inherent in socio-cultural research and an attempt to take other perspectives into account. Although I am a black woman, and I’m certainly interested in how different demographic groups (like black women) experience the urban landscape, my reflections on positionality have little to do with my identity as a black woman. My unique view with respect to my research hinges on my inner personality and my intense aversion to and skepticism towards strangers. I walk a lot and I really hate it when strangers try to interact with me on the sidewalk. Some people like to interact with others on the street, they see this as a sign of a healthy community, but for me it’s the quickest way to ruin my day.  

I’ve been calling this phenomenon the ‘urban community worldview.’ (please help me come up with a better term, this one sucks) Initially I thought it was an introvert/extrovert thing, that, introverts don’t want to interact with strangers, but it’s more than that. It has to do with how you think of your community and what you think urban settings should feel like.
One thing I noticed is that I feel more comfortable in certain spaces that others. In a space like my home, I feel like people know me and draw conclusions based on what they know of my past behavior, it’s subjective. In other spaces, like sidewalks, I interact with people I don’t know, and their knowledge is based on my context and immediate surroundings, it’s more objective. I’m not using objective to say that it’s more true, in fact I feel rather the opposite way, but objective space is a place where you are judged as an object.

There are other factors I want to research, but like my skin tone and gender there’s not a whole lot I can do about my urban community worldview. When I think about my sample I want to make sure I have people on both sides of the urban community worldview spectrum.

State of the Research I

State of my Research:
Since I started grad school this fall I’ve decided to use this blog to talk about where I’m at in my research. Right now my topic is street transgressions, a term I made up and defined as: any breech of civil inattention with eye contact, gesture or speech. Civil inattention is a fancy sociological term for the way we ignore strangers on the street, how we acknowledge them without fully engaging. Generally one looks at the other from about 8 ft away, without making eye contact, and then looks away, you may look again at closer range. I’m considering any deviation from this to be a street transgression
I initially started using the term street harassment, looking at gender and race based interactions but found the term troubling and problematic for a few reasons.
1) harassment is so negatively charged that it ignores positive experiences that people have with strangers in public
2) harassment is a crime, it criminalizes the ‘harasser,’ something I find counterproductive to my project
3) I want to be as inclusive as possible here; catcalling, stop & frisk policies, pamphleteers, people asking for money, I think all of this contributes to where certain people feel safe (or unsafe) in urban areas.

This topic has been in the news lately, with Hollaback bringing attention to gendered harassment:

and Eric Garner bringing attention to race-based harassment:

Initially I was worried, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as an academic studying urban black problems (being an urban black woman myself). In light of current events I feel a responsibility to the black community to continue my research.
My experiment seeks to use GPS to track where and to whom these street transgressions occur. I’d like to chose a demographic sample and have them track street transgressions on their phones. I hope that this simple data will help us figure out what is going on and how we can make the world feel like a safer place for everyone.

Feminist Style

After hearing about the VIDA Count on the bookriot podcast I’ve been trying to only read books by women this year. This summer I read the Golden Notebook and Americanah. When describing the books to a friend, he asked if I was into ‘alternative storytelling.’ It hadn’t occurred to me until then that neither of the books were conventionally written novels. In fact none of the books I’ve read this year have been. I don’t want to essentialize the sexes, and having only read women this year I don’t have the tools to do so. But it did make me wonder, do women write differently from men?

I’ve simultaneously been preparing for graduate school in geography. I love reading, and have developed lots of technical GIS skills in my recent work but I’ve been worried about writing. One thing that worries me is citation, I want to give credit where it’s due, and fully and truthfully acknowledge that no idea comes from a vacuum. MLA citations don’t seem like enough to me, I don’t want to pretend that these ideas are mine. Not to cite is stealing, but citing seems colonialist and anti-feminist. It doesn’t seem like enough to put someone in a footnote if my name is at the top of the paper.

I recognize that this reaction is gendered, that this false humility is performative. Women have to site sources, they have to give credit or their work won’t be viewed as legitimate. Women and minorities are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome: a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments despite external evidence of their competence. Society values white men in academia, women have to prove themselves with citations and data. In addition, a woman who doesn’t do this is viewed as aggressive and bitchy, whereas the same behavior would be viewed as entrepreneurial in a man.

Nonetheless, I have trouble with the way non-fiction is written these days by both sexes. To me the rubric for blogposts (like this) seems to be personal anecdote followed by study that supports this, then more anecdata followed by more scientific (or often pseudoscientific) data. These blogposts turn into articles and ultimately turn into books. These articles don’t seem to take into account the history of the ideas that preceded them. They pass off others ideas as their own.

What is the best way to honor our ancestors’ ideas, do we use citations, even though they have been used to undermine people int he past? Do we use the power of the internet to link back to the web of papers and ideas? Or do we co-opt the same misogynistic ideology and say these ideas are mine as much as they are yours or anyone else’s?

Strong Black Women are Women Too

Ironically, I’m writing a post decrying ‘angry black women’ because I’m feeling bitter and black tonight. It’s been a tough couple weeks for American Blacks with both Mike Brown and Eric Garner joining the scores of black people killed at the hands of police. On a depressing episode of the Read the hosts tried to keep our spirits up with news of Black Excellence. To support beautiful black women, I went out to buy the new W Magazine with Iman on the cover, but it wasn’t out yet, instead I bought a copy of bitch magazine with an article on ‘the Myth of the Strong Black Woman.’ In it, Tamara Winfrey Harris describes the myth of the sassy no-nonsense ladies, “the cold, overeducated, work obsessed woman” who is “half as likely to marry as white women.”

I just finished reading Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah,’ which lived up to all the hype, as far as I’m concerned. I was excited to hear what my Slate friends had to say on the Audio Book Club (like all podcast listeners I have an imagined relationship with them) and was so disappointed to hear their criticisms. While I loved the book, I think there are many things you can criticize it for. I too felt like the romance was not the strongest part of the book. But The Audio Book Club argued that it wasn’t believable that such a strong female protagonist would do something so weak, selfish and cruel. Emily Bazelon, friend to the blacks was the strongest champion of this opinion. I am so disappointed that these critics, even after reading a book that exposes and challenges these stereotypes, could not get past the idea of the strong black woman. It was unebelievable to them that a woman could be strong in her sense of self, but be ‘weak’ or vulnerable. Haven’t they seen the new stereotype of a woman who has it together in her work life, but can’t get it together in her personal life (have they missed Mindy’s character on the Mindy Project)?

What will it take to convince people to stop thinking of black people as animals? We are strong women, we have to be to withstand the racism and sexism of this culture. Some American blacks come from a line of women who survived the middle passage, who survived the back-breaking work of slavery. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain the same as whites. We are independent and capable, but we aren’t invincible. Strength should not be the only positive attribute a black woman can own, we are sensitive and vulnerable too and this is not weakness, this is powerful, this is what it means to be human.

Updated 10/13/14:

In which other white people on slate have trouble understanding why black people idolize white people (hint: there are a lot more white people in the US to idolize than black ones):

from the Gawker Review of Books Interview of Charles Blow:

First comes the recognition that we are devaluing black and brown bodies. And that that is not even a new phenomenon, that that is an extension of an American phenomenon, in fact it is even a world phenomenon. There is a mountain of social science that ranges from doctors not prescribing pain medication to black kids at the same rate as they do for white kids with similar illnesses to spanking being more prevalent among black boys. When you think about that body, and the violence that it must endure—

Right, like the word Ta-Nehisi Coates’s constantly used in his reparations essay, “plunder.” It’s similar to what he was getting at. I keep thinking about how there is not only always something coming at us, but something being taken from us.

Right. And endurance becomes this ambient thing in your life; it becomes your constant. It is not just to play and grow up and fall in love, but it is to endure. It becomes the paramount motivation in your life. The tragedy when you hear young men say, Oh I never thought I’d be 18 or 21 without going to jail or being in the grave. I’ve heard this too much. If that is being drilled into your mind, what kind of psychological damage does that do to you, and to your relationship to society? And in addition to that, whatever damage is being done, society is amplifying the damage by misconstruing the data and concepts so that we overestimate black crime, we overestimate black hostility, we overestimate black aggression. We ascribe it everything dark and negative. In that kind of hostile milieu of black bodies that have been tortured in a way, in a system that is designed to destroy it, these concepts of black being dangerous and wrong, you can have the unfortunate crossing of those wires and you get shootings. I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know if I’m equipped to answer that.

Maybe not “fix,” but you’re in a very powerful post at the Times. You have a platform every week to talk about whatever you want, or at least what’s topical in the news, do you—

Well, my job is to shine a light. Illuminating and educating as best I can is the tool that I have. Other people have different tools. And hopefully they can use what I do in their advocacy, in their boots-on-the-ground sort of work in neighborhoods, changing minds person to person. Other than that, I’m not sure how it changes.

The Women Reading Upstairs

When I lived in New York, I (think) I came up with an expression: The difference between being lonely and being alone is a good book. I had spent a lot of time lonely but not alone and alone but not lonely and the distinction seemed arbitrary. I was trying to find out how to flip the switch when a friend recommended Atlas Shrugged which I greedily devoured over the next month or so. What I realized was that it had a lot to do with how I felt I was being perceived by others. I felt loneliest when I felt the pity of others. When engrossed in a good book it didn’t matter what others were thinking about me. Recently I read Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs which reminded me of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. The women of Messud and Heller are alone with books. Their worldviews are shaped not just because they were alone, but because of society’s perceptions of their loneliness as women.

Messud and Heller have both been criticized for these characters. Messud gave an interview in Publisher’s Weekly where the interviewer criticized her character’s likeability, a decidedly gendered attack. Heller’s book is on the Wikipedia list for ‘unreliable narrator.’ While I acknowledge that the women had boughts of anger and bitterness, I completely empathized with both of these characters. In fact in response to Messud’s interviewer, I would want to be friends with Nora and Barbara, they’re both whip-smart and well read, I’d love to see Nora’s art or compare biting cultural criticism with Barbara.

I see these women as potential friends but also as cautionary tales. The criticism of the books belies the scorn I would experience from society if I became a woman upstairs. Society only teaches us to measure us in the mirrors of others. Both stories deal with betrayal, but the moral of both of these stories is one of the narcissism of solitude. Of the distortion of individualism that we experience without others:

People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her handwriting was the best thing about her. But about the drip, drip of the long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, “goodness, you’re a quick reader!” when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out…About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.

I kept thinking, as I was telling Didi, that somehow what was in my head—in my memory, in my thoughts—was not being translated fully into the world. I felt as thought three-dimensional people and events were becoming two-dimensional in the telling, and as though they were smaller as well as flatter. that they were just less for being spoken. What was missing was the intense emotion that I felt, which, like water or youth itself, buoyed these small insignificant encounters into all that they meant to me. There they were, shrinking before my eyes; shrinking into words. Anything that can be said, can be said clearly. Anything that cannot be said clearly, cannot be said.

Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs

Women I Admire: Dominique Dawes

As a young black gymnast, Dominique Dawes was my idol. As a child my walls were bare except a big Dominique Dawes poster squished by my bottom bunk, wishing me goodnight and reminding me what excellence could look like.

Like most children I looked for representations of myself, and was lucky enough to live in a place where I could find them. They added the black American girl doll (Addy) during my childhood, I had a great black power library by my house, and a school full of educated and progressive teachers who knew that Black history was American history. I knew of Nadia Comenici of course, and did book reports on Olga Korbut and Mary-Lou Retton (same year I did a report on Josephine Baker) but no one held a candle to ‘Awesome Dawesome’.

Ultimately I was far too tall to be a great gymnast. Even the tallest gymnasts I saw on TV, who seemed to tower above all the others, was Svetlana Khorkina who clocked in at a whopping 5′ 5″. By 5th grade, I was 5′ 7″ Though it took me years to realize it, it just wasn’t meant to be.