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.

Desirability Politics

It’s been a year of writing my dissertation and not updating my blog, but I think I might be able to get one in before the year (/decade?) ends. One of the things I’ve found most interesting my study of sidewalk interactions is a reflection of what the mechanism is, while I have my theoretical framework, that an interaction revolves around participant profile, bias, location and interaction type, I think fundamentally it’s about attraction. Do you want to spend more time with someone? Be closer to them? This is another way of asking whether or not you’re attracted to them. There are other reasons why you might want or need to talk to someone but I keep coming back to attraction because it’s in the word definition. If you feel are leading a fairly frictionless urban walk (you’re not in a rush and are free to go wherever you want,) who do you veer towards and who do you veer away from? There are reasons to talk to someone other than sexual attraction, but I think interest is a form of attraction. Whether you’re attracted to that type of interaction (you say hello and make eye-contact with everyone), that type of person (someone you see every day?).

I’ve been following a twitter discussion on desirability politics which I think is similar. In that cis, white, able-bodied, thin, conventionally attractive people get treated better in the US. Socio-economic status can often be inferred through clothes, accessories and other accoutrements. In my study aspects of desirability politics are noted as well as a measure of proximity. Neither leads to very strong conclusions but more interesting questions.

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.

Safe Streets Map update

Continued from Works In Progress: III

I had a great discussion with the geonerds a couple weeks ago (on my new public twitter account @Brobdingnag). It really helped me to narrow down what kind of map I want to make, and how it is (or isn’t) related to crime. Click the timestamp to see (most of) the discussion:

Like everything, it’s much more political than I expected. As Stephanie May asked ‘Do you want to avoid crime or homeless people?’ Right now I’m more interested in perceived threat (feeling of safety) than actual crime*. The most walkable neighborhoods are going to be higher in crime since high density is correlated with high crime. That said, I still think you can pinpoint particular ‘sketchy’ corners and try to avoid those particular corners or blocks, the kind of things that locals know, and tourists might not. I’m not talking about avoiding whole neighborhoods, just walking down Valencia instead of Mission. I still think the appeal of the map would be that it’s dynamic, it wouldn’t put a permanent bad stamp on a neighborhood or corner.

I made a quick list of potential data sources:

One of the things we talked about was the gendered nature of this perceived safety; that there are places where a man might feel safe enough, and a woman might not. This is related to my street harassment post, there are neighborhoods such that if I was walking around alone at night and got mugged/raped people might first ask ‘what were you doing alone in that neighborhood?’ rather than ‘are you okay?’ It would be interesting to try show the nature of this difference.

Also, some interesting stuff on the street harassment front the other week. Came across this great blogpost on racialized street harassment on the new hairpin spinoff blog The Toast:
Mea Culpa

and got a into an interesting discussion regarding the Jezebel article:
But Where where are you Really from? (again, click the timestamp for more of the discussion):
When is it a compliment and when is it harassment? Sometimes it’s hard to know.

Still trying to figure out the best way to start on this map and the smartest way to approach some of these issues without sounding obtuse or idiotic (and still maintaining the shred of street-cred I may have). I’ve been reading about Feminist Geography (a subject I never really understood until now), particularly Katherine McKittrick and feel I may have found my niche in the field (for the time being).

*I am the first to admit there are controversial and problematic aspects to this map, so many, in fact, that I don’t know where to start. I’d like to address these in a delicate, thoughtful and well-informed fashion, but they are hot-button issues or race/gender and fear. Don’t think I’m not going to deal with the difference between actual and perceived threat, especially given the recent Trayvon Martin verdict. As a black woman I do not think myself exempt from racial profiling, though obviously, it’s complicated. There are affluent white neighborhoods I don’t want to be around at night because people will think I’m a thief in a hoodie, or, depending on what I’m wearing, a prostitute. Saw this really interesting article on Trayvon Martin and perceived threat:
Gender Justice Feminism

Works in Progress III: Crime-Avoidant Walking Directions

The most recent project I’ve been thinking about is a map app that occurred to me while I was walking from Cal Train to BART in San Francisco. I stumbled upon a supremely sketchy block full of vagrants and smelling of urine. Returning back from a trip, everything of value that I owned was in my backpack and I just prayed I wouldn’t get mugged. I wondered to myself if GoogleMaps took crime stats into account when giving walking directions. As a GIS analyst myself it struck me this seemed to me like a fairly do-able project.

A simple google search yielded a number of articles from early 2012 when Microsoft filed a patent for this type of technology. The technology was controversial because a map that avoids crime-ridden areas of most cities seems like a racist map. If the crime data is pin-pointed and updates dynamically I don’t think there should be too much of a problem with racial repercussions, but it’s something to keep thinking about.

I wondered whether or not Microsoft’s mapping software (BingMaps) was now taking weather or crime stats into account. Since the patent is public record, I emailed one of the names on the patent to ask about the patent and see if I could be of any help. He said “I don’t know of any work at Microsoft to exploit this idea. I am not planning to do anything in this area.” I’ll run the idea by my geonerds this week, see if there are any next steps.

San Quentin Avon Walk

My mother is a nurse at San Quentin State Prison. She’s worked there for 4 years but for security reasons I’ve never had the opportunity to visit her there. This weekend a group of San Quentin inmates and staff partnered with Avon for a walk to end Breast Cancer in the San Quentin Yard. This is one of very few opportunities for inmates to interact with civilians. We didn’t really know what to expect going in.

First there were some ground rules: we weren’t allowed to take anything in except our IDs and car-keys. We weren’t to take anything out with us either. When interacting with the ‘men in blue’ the only physical interaction allowed was a handshake. We were also reminded never to run on grounds as the gunmen in the towers were instructed to shoot anyone running. When we walked in and the bars clanged behind us there was no doubt that we were in prison.

In the yard (which my mother can see from her office), men were lifting weights, playing tennis and basketball and generally enjoying what turned out to be a very nice day. It didn’t feel all that different from a very ghetto park, except with more barbed wire, and everyone had on blue (except the other walkers in pink shirts and the guards). As we sat in a back room we were told that there was a delay with the opening ceremony as we were waiting for prisoners to be let out of lockdown.

After meeting the inmates involved in SQ CARES, we took one silent lap around to remember those we’d lost to the cancer. We were told that 5 laps around the baseball field was 1 mile. While we wouldn’t be able to complete the 39 miles because we were only allowed on grounds for a few hours, the inmates would do just that over the 2-day weekend.

As we walked, men began to recognize my mother, their nurse. The first man who walked some laps with us had seen my mother for some back problems he’d been having. My mother told him we had waited for some guys to get let out of their cells, ‘Who was on lockdown?’ she asked. ‘Whites’ he answered. As he said this, I noticed how racialized the yard was. There were maybe a couple hundred men around, the vast majority of whom were African-American. There were a few whites, latinos and Asians but mostly black men socializing with other black men.

After a bit, a man about my age (mid-twenties) asked if he could walk with me. He told me about his favorite music (Tupac) and I tried to keep up with the conversation as he talked about Rap and Hip-Hop artists he liked. I noticed that some of the men in the yard had discmen with headphones in. He said they could borrow cds from the library and he had some friends who had lent him different albums. I noticed that most of the songs he mentioned were popular in the mid-ninties, making me wonder how long he had been incarcerated. But after a few laps I think he realized I was mostly a pretty boring nerd and wandered off to walk with someone else.

Most of the rest of the time I walked with a man named ‘Luke’ who initially asked me for a quote, he was on staff at the San Quentin Newspaper. He walked around with a handheld wordprocessor which he typed with one hand. I learned that had also played Hamlet in a recent play (recorded by KQED). I talked to him for for some time, he was very well versed on current events and had interesting things to say about Barack Obama, Governor Jerry Brown and the state of the American economy. When I told him I was in Computer Science he told be about a project he had been working on. Like any newspaper there were always some articles that were submitted but unpublished. He said he wanted to start a website to put up the articles that couldn’t get published in the newspaper, so that the people could feel like their words weren’t going to waste. I told him a little about HTML and that I would do what I could to help him, though this might not be very much, since I couldn’t exactly come in and get a flash drive from him.

The walk ended with a closing ceremony on a small stage in the middle of the field. There were announcements as we’d reached the $10,000 goal and some prisoners performed a rap they had written about walking to fight breast cancer. The experience was truly unique. I certainly had many moments of anxiety, but unlike my experience in the Afghan refugee camp, I was with my mother. She knew all the guards (who joked with her about her chronic tardiness, CPTime), all the inmates who knew her were happy to see her, and we kept the mood light, in intense environment.

When I got home to my computer, I realized that San Quentin News was already online at but Luke didn’t know because they didn’t have internet access on grounds. While I was online researching San Quentin News I started to look up what these people had done to end up in San Quentin, but I stopped myself. Remembering that the worst thing you do is not the truest thing about you, and that these moments we shared were as true as any others.

Street harassment

I have been wanting to write this post for years, but street harassment is difficult to talk about and I didn’t know quite how to do it right. Part of what makes it so hard to talk about is that the type of harassment I’m talking about is couched in a compliment. In fact the behavior is so ingrained in our culture as a positive message (what I’m talking about is essentially this Michael Jackson Video) that it was difficult to figure out why it bothered me so much. Why did this make me feel so scared and alone when it had no effect (or the opposite effect) on others? If this is harassment, what rights were these people violating? I’ve recently been able to identify it, these people were violating my Right to be Left Alone. As a black woman, walking alone, I do not have to give up my Right to be Left Alone and no one can take it from me. This attention is unwarranted, unwanted and inappropriate, and I’ve been getting it for my entire life (not a #humblebrag).

When I was 9 years old I stopped wearing shorts. Every Saturday, from 1st grade through 5th grade I took piano lessons. My piano teacher lived about 5 miles from my house and my mother worked weekends so every Saturday I would walk 3 or 4 blocks to the bus-stop and take the bus to K’s house. (Just now I actually had to look up how many blocks it was to the bus stop because that walk was so terrifying to me sometimes that I thought it must have been at least 8 or 10 blocks.) The whole trip only took 30 minutes or so but I left myself an hour, sometimes more, and often would show up at my teacher’s house unexpectedly early. It must have started out fine, but at some point it became fraught with peril. One summer day, I wore a pair of roll-up jean shorts and a striped t-shirt to my lesson, on the way I ran into a group of boys. They were just teenagers, talking to me, one of them said they liked my shorts, that I looked cute, etc., I said thanks or and in response two of the boys blocked my way with their arms and feet. ‘Talk to me for a minute,’ they said, ‘Give me your number,’ I tried to decline as politely as I could and explained that I would be late to my lesson. They eventually let me through, but it felt like I held my breath until I was on the bus, I never looked back at them. After that I vowed never to wear shorts. As a child I was convinced it was my fault, but if I could just wear the right thing that no one would bother me. I began to feel like little red riding hood in my maroon hoodie all summer dodging dangerous wolves on my innocent mission to my piano lesson.

While I know that this is a problem for women across the board, a part of pretty much any woman’s coming of age story, I can’t help but think of the parallel to this list of rules for black men that came out recently related to Trayvon Martin. Black girls develop quicker than other girls, (though everyone is developing earlier these days) and I think I am more likely to be assaulted in a black community) so I think it does make sense to talk about it as a racial issue, though I respect the fact that it is also a feminist issue. The list of things black boys shouldn’t do included running in public, if I had made one when I was little, the list of things black girls shouldn’t do might include;
-not wearing shorts (unless you’re looking for a certain kind of attention)
-not buying into the Christina Aguilera induced backless shirt trend of the 90s
-leaving as early as possible in order to avoid groups of teenagers (who sleep in on weekends)
-avoiding groups of men
-wearing headphones and a hood
-walking with others if possible

What’s confusing as an 8 year old, and still confusing to me now, is what the appropriate response is to such a situation. ‘Ignore them’ is probably the most common response to such assaults, but this conflicts with the idea of being polite to strangers. Don’t make eye contact, but if I don’t look them in the face, how do I even know it’s a stranger and not someone I already know? When you learn social mores you learn how to behave in different situations, but this one blurs so many lines. Though they may not have known it, these boys were older than me, so do I treat them like an elder? But they were strangers, do I treat them like the homeless derelict? They were friendly, should I treat them like friends?

If I chose to treat them like a sexual predator I risk offending them, and thus prolonging the interaction some responses include:
‘I’m just giving you a compliment,’
‘Kids these days have no manners’
‘You know you’re allowed to smile, no shame in a smile’
‘Oo, I like em frisky’
You can read experience them yourself in this viral documentary

If, however, I chose to engage with the person and say thank you, or smile, this can be misinterpreted as a tacit approval of the assault, allowing it to continue. What is a 9 year old to do?
As a child I was faced with this quintessential feminist dilemma: What percent of my life is making people happy by being pretty or pleasant?

I’ve always been jealous of people in the summer who could wear less clothes, for years I stuck to my uniform of baggy jeans (or overalls) and oversized t-shirts and sweatshirts. That way no one could say I brought it on myself. Over the years I’ve found that it really doesn’t matter what I’m wearing. I’ve also found that other people are purposefully seeking the attention I dread. I have no solutions, I’m just stating a problem, as clearly as I know how.

For further reading please check out this racialicious article.

Updated 5.24.12 Please read another woman’s story and learn more about International Anti Street Harassment Week

Updated 7.6.12: Noticed this great article on clutch magazine via Black Snob

Updated 7.9.12: Another recent racialicious article on the same subject.

*Given my recent travels you may be wondering what street harassment was like in Kabul. In fact, when I went to Kabul I had a post like this in mind. But it’s difficult to compare the two situations because in Afghanistan I was never walking alone. Because of this I never knew whether peoples’ reactions were because I was black, because I was western, because I was traveling in a group, because I was so tall, or whether their attention was meant for my beautiful blonde companion. That said, I think unlike in the states, the way I would be treated in Afghanistan would really depend on what I was wearing. If I was walking alone and wearing a burqa I think people would likely have left me alone. Though a woman walking alone with a burqa on in Afghanistan is generally thought to be a widow, so they may try to give me their loose change. I can’t really speculate as to what would happen if I was walking alone wearing just a hijab or less, I think this would vary a lot depending on where I was in Afghanistan and what I was doing.


Some new terms I learned this week and where I came across them:

ambiguous independence – this term is used to refer to modern single mothers; while they may not be stuck in the abusive marriages they would have suffered through in the past, they often struggle financially without another breadwinner ; Double X Gabfest, according to Hanna Rosin used by Harvard Sociologist Kathryn Edin.

conspicuous conservation – when people buy things in order to convince their neighbors that they are ‘green’ ; freakonomics podcast

fascinator– an ornamental hat ; the Hairpin

Jute– A member of a Germanic people who invaded England in the 5th Century ; Rudyard Kipling: How the first letter was written

phpht – an interjection to show disagreement or annoyance, also one of very few English words without vowels ; Lifehacker: A Better Strategy for Hangman

piede greco (Greek foot) – when the second toe is longer than the first ; Golden Smith via I’m Revolting, also on 25 Everyday Things You Never Knew Had Names

precocious puberty – when puberty appears earlier than normal;

sibling strife – an extreme form of sibling rivalry, where siblings can’t enjoy each others’ company ; Sibling Rivalry Grows Up via Double X Gabfest

I recently heard of a term for a specific type of agoraphobia that affects African Americans when in predominantly white neighborhoods, any help identifying the word would be greatly appreciated.

Updated 6-4-12: 25 Words that don’t exist in English

Updated 6-7-12: apophenia – seeing meaningless patterns in meaningless data