On Being a Woman of Color Leader in Hollaback & the Viral Video: A Note from Co-Director Mel Keller

I want to personally respond to this whole viral street harassment video incident not just as a leader in the global Hollaback! and anti-street harassment movement or as an activist in our city, but specifically as a woman of color.  If you haven’t watched the video in question, you can do so here.
A few things to address first:

We at Hollaback! Baltimore acknowledge that the viral video plays on racist stereotypes of men of color as sexual predators and we do not support that depiction at all.  We are grateful, however, that it sparked a conversation of unprecedented magnitude about street harassment and also, intersections of racism and sexism.  Our friends over at Hollaback! Boston wrote a statement which aligns with our thoughts here, too.

 

The conversation that has developed about racism and sexism has been especially intense for me for a few important reasons: I am a woman of color; I am an activist and I am part of Hollaback!  I racially identify as mixed and know that I’m perceived as ambiguous.  I move through the world with constant questions from complete strangers about my family’s genealogical make-up and am met with shock and disbelief if I do take the time to indulge in answering them.  Being biracial has not only affected the way I experience street harassment, but it has complicated my sense of identity.  I, like many other mixed folks, struggle with not feeling White enough or “of color” enough to confidently claim or feel accepted by any ethnic community.  My mother is Korean and my father is White; and I have never once experienced street harassment specifically targeting the fact that I’m East Asian.

 

My physical racial ambiguity has resulted in an onslaught of slurs and awful harassment meant to target women from other communities of color.  Thus, I share similar experiences of racism with many Black and Brown women because the microaggressions and discrimination I receive does not rely on how I identify myself, it relies on whatever someone else thinks I am, my ascribed racial identity, and that has run the gamut of identities of color.  It’s made me interrogate my connection to my Korean heritage and my White-ness, and has had me questioning how “Korean” or “White” or anything I really believe myself to be.

 

I’ve read and received loads of criticisms of Hollaback! as a result of the viral video.  I’m going to be honest: many address the organization in a way that assumes it’s run by White women.  Any assumptions that either the Baltimore chapter or Hollaback! as a whole is run by White women are false.  These assumptions White-wash my identity and those of my fellow badass women of color who are part of chapters around the globe.  They invisibilize my role in Baltimore and the anti-street harassment movement as a whole.

 

I can’t help but marinate on why this particular video went viral.  The answer lies in the perspective that is offered — more people can empathize with a White women being harassed than a woman of color.  Who even controls how many views a video gets?  If I could, I would make damn sure the organization Girls for Gender Equity NYC’s youth-produced documentary focus[ing] on women of colors’ experiences with street harassment and men of colors’ ideas about and intentions behind the behavior” made in 2009 would go viral — but it didn’t and still hasn’t.  Racism is woven into the fabric of our society and institutions and the media is no exception to that fact.

 

Do we so quickly forget that women of color have been organizing and fighting to end street harassment for as long as it’s been happening?  Feminista Jones created the #YouOKSis hashtag campaign in July of this year to specifically discuss Black women’s experiences and called on Black men to be good bystanders.  Hollaback! Advisory Board Member Jamia Wilson wrote this article about street harassment as a Black woman living in the Middle East.  Mikki Kendall also organized the hashtag campaign #NotJustHello to address the myth that street harassment is just a greeting, and in doing so amplified voices of women of color.

 

Women of color leaders in Hollaback! have done really great work, as well.  Someone who has made a great positive impact on my racial analysis and development as an activist is Debjani Roy, Deputy Director of Hollaback! NYC.  She wrote this article about the murder of Mary “Unique” Spears by her street harasser discussing the real threat of violence, specifically for women of color.  She also spearheaded the creation of the #HarassmentIs publication exploring identity and its relation to street harassment.  Rebecca Faria, Director of Hollaback! Halifax is a Twitter superstar (you can follow her @HollabackHRM) and a local activist powerhouse in her own right.  She is the recipient of the Bronze Award for Best Activist in Halifax and inspires me to be more creative with the righteous spoken word poetry she writes and performs.  Check out her poem “Umbrellas”, which is all about street harassment.  Alicia Wallace, Director of Hollaback! Bahamas, is another wonderful leader in our movement who is currently working on “HERassment Stories: An Experiential Documentary” about the reality of street harassment in The Bahamas.  She continues to support, engage with and challenge me to be a better activist against gender-based violence and racial justice.

 

The White feminist voices who are so quick and loud to call out racism in this video never once asked me or my fellow women or color leaders how we are doing in light of all this.  We were never asked what our thoughts are.  Did the world forget that we’re here?  I understand that White allies can’t grasp what it’s like to watch that video and see people who look like you portrayed in such a way.  Is it understandable that the emotional connection I have to that video may require some more time and self-care to work through before being articulate?  To me, the White-washing of our leadership and the complete lack of involvement of us, women of color — the demographic that everyone is trying to speak for and on behalf of —  is reflective of the exact institutional racism that is being critiqued in the video.

 

Here in Baltimore, we put serious effort into being inclusive of all experiences, especially those of the most marginalized communities.  I’m working to translate materials so we can offer all of our info and the Safer Spaces Campaign training session in both English and Spanish.  We’re members of the city’s Transgender Response Team and help plan the Transgender Day of Remembrance each year, which memorializes the lives of trans folks we’ve lost; and just this year, two trans women of color were killed in a span of 6 weeks in Baltimore: Kandy Hall and Mia Henderson.  We participate in trainings and events put on by Baltimore Racial Justice Action to engage in dialogue with community members about what racial justice in Baltimore looks like.  We’ve also worked with artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh of Stop Telling Women To Smile to facilitate a Baltimore-specific portrait series, which concluded with local women of color activists, like our friend and former Stop Street Harassment correspondent Brittany Oliver and my portraits wheat-pasted all over the city.

 

I feel immersed in women of color activism against gender-based violence and to hear that Hollaback! doesn’t support or acknowledge the issues of women of color feels like a rejection of our own existence and voices within the organization.  It also brings up personal insecurities I have had about being mixed race.  The straddling of different worlds by not feeling White enough, but not feeling “of color” enough either, has totally been on my mind as my identity, life experience and perspective go unacknowledged.

 

If you don’t want to promote that viral video, then don’t.  Link instead to the video by Girls for Gender Equity that I posted earlier.  Read, share and participate in the #YouOKSis and #NotJustHello hashtags.  Reference the articles mentioned above written by women of color activists, like Debjani Roy, to widen the conversation about street harassment and help us be louder.  The mainstream media will be slow to integrate our voices, so it’s up to us to do exactly that whenever we have the opportunity.

 

The video’s popularity reminds me that White supremacy and White privilege are so real and so insidious.  The hush surrounding the experiences of women of color (that we’ve been shouting about for years) has me feeling like there is almost nothing we can do to compete with the inherent platform and humanity that White folks have and folks of color, especially women of color, just don’t.  I’m also harshly reminded that intersectionality is a concept everyone needs to work on — check out the harsh words some Black men had regarding the #YouOKSis hashtag campaign; it clearly prioritizes racism over sexism.  I can’t separate my Brown-ness from my woman-ness, so how does that analysis serve people like me?  Dr. Brittney Cooper, or Professor Crunk, of the Crunk Feminist Collective has the best response to this phenomenon:

“…I don’t think it’s an un-Black feminist move to say that I’m bothered by the street harassment of any woman, white women included. That is in part because I know that for brothers brazen enough to harass white women and their protected femininities on the street, my God what won’t they do to cis and trans women of color, whose womanhood is structurally devalued?

 …I been waiting on brothers to use this moment, this moment where sisters are now outnumbering them in the Ferguson street activism for instance, to build coalition with black women around the ways that we, too, are not allowed to occupy public space unharrassed. I have been waiting on the thinkpieces where brothers acknowledge that a lot of dudes who look like them were complicit in the criminalizing of Black men because they followed and catcalled this woman. I was waiting for the thinkpieces where those progressive enlightened brothers said some shit like, ‘Yeah, we won’t allow the obvious racism of this video to excuse the problematic sexism and misogyny that it highlights…”

Share your thoughts and ideas with me and the rest of the radical Hollaback! Baltimore team.  Moments like these show us that we ALL must be vigilant about the various privileges we have and remember our shared humanity and connections to others.  When we’re fighting against the criminalization of Black men and boys, we cannot forget or de-prioritize the violence that Black women endure.  When we fight for our right to feel safe in public spaces, we cannot forget the vast difference between what not feeling safe is to a trans woman of color versus a White woman.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives” – Audre Lorde

This is a wake-up call for us to strengthen our ties with each other as we fight all forms of oppression.  The hilarious and powerful hashtag campaign created by a true Black male ally Elon James White called #DudesGreetingDudes is just one example of how this is possible.  Let’s build each other up and fight the patriarchy, racism, capitalism and all these oppressive forces together because we can’t succeed alone.

 

Now watch this video of one of my favorite spoken word artists Staceyann Chin telling us exactly how All Oppression Is Connected”.

14 responses to “On Being a Woman of Color Leader in Hollaback & the Viral Video: A Note from Co-Director Mel Keller

  1. Beautifully written yet sad at the same time bc it’s SO TRUE!!!! I have not seen the video and do not wish to. I go through shit ever day and walk around like a ghost always on guard bc I know it’s coming. Looks, comments, hollering, something. They don’t care about us bc we are of color. It’s been so normalized for us women of color. They don’t care until it’s a white woman bc “it’s so wrong” simply bc they are privileged and white. SPEECHLESS ABOUT THE OUTCRY. WHAT ABOUT US….. WE GO MISSING. RAPED. MURDERED AND U HERE NOTHING. NO COVERAGE. NO ARTICLES. JUST ANOTHER black/ brown child/ girl. Gone. That shit needs to go viral. TRANS FOLK TRAGEDY- SHOULD BE VIRAL. WE ARE SIMPLY NOT WHITE=NOT IMPORTANT.

  2. I think Hollaback! does have a white feminism problem but it’s not because of any of its members or chapters. I think it’s because the public image of Hollback! is white and privileged, and the video made it worse. Why don’t more women of color give TV interviews for HB instead of it always being May – especially interviews with big media. And rather than using the donations generated by the racist video to promote/make Hollaback! videos, I think Hollaback! should give the money to orgs. that are fighting against racial profiling – which is essentially what the video did. If HB is genuinely interested in some restorative justice around the issues raised by their sponsoring of the video, HB will do something selfless. What I DON’T want is for HB to make its own videos. HB should promote the videos already made by women of color, give the money without strings to women of color filmmakers, and donate to anti-racial profiling orgs. Those kinds of actions would go a lot further toward making amends.

    I’m sorry that the backlash from the video has landed disproportionately on women of color in HB, and on the woman who was featured in the video, and on men of color who were disproportionately identified in the video as street harassers.

    It’s not fair for women of color who are in HB to be erased, I agree 100%; but that erasure was happening before this video, by HB’s public image.

    It’s also not fair for HB to benefit from the video. I’m pretty disappointed that HB is keeping the donations.

    HB has a lot of amazing activists and is doing some good work but that’s being overshadowed by what appears to be leadership that is more focused on fixing HB’s image than on repairing the harm the video caused to communities of color and to the movement against street harassment. HB probably doesn’t have a huge race problem overall but I think it has a serious leadership problem.

    1. “It’s not fair for women of color who are in HB to be erased, I agree 100%; but that erasure was happening before this video, by HB’s public image.”

      Yessss..

      Instead of people on different sides of this discussion seeing this as an opportunity to attack, disregard, and question the motive of each-others ideas (actually questioning motives can be good/productive)–I think we should look at this as a teaching opportunity and a moment to sit back in awe of the power, complexity and invisible ubiquitous of racism/sexism.

      For one, not all of the criticism directed at HB was coming from white feminist. Maybe because I’m a black feminist and I’m locked into more black feminist social media networks; the majority of criticisms I saw directed at HB were coming from black feminists. One could assert that HB leadership is committing erasure of black women by overlooking the concerns/criticisms coming from black women about this subject. So instead of pointing fingers I choose to sit back and learn from this moment.

      I think HBs harshest critic would agree they weren’t CONSCIOUSLY being racist by typecasting men of color as predators in an video with the intentions of raising consciousness surrounding a significant symptom of sexism. But because racism is so deeply inculcated into our culture, people actively focused on combating symptoms of oppression, operate in it unknowingly. They lacked a black feminist trans inclusive perspective on the production of this video more than likely due to the lack of black feminist in the HB network which is more shaped by a legacy of segregation than anyones conscious decision to exclude.

      HB was unaware of the fact that their moniker can be interpreted as appropriative because like most mainstream organizations they are predominately white managed and operated (correct me if I’m wrong–but their public image leaves me to believe this). And even if they are not, their management is lacking a rigorous black feminist analysis–would bell hooks have signed off on that video? Laverne Cox? MHP?

      These aren’t reasons to discredit the validity of calling attention to street harassment or challenge the veracity of HB’s intent to protect all women–but it is a reminder for us all to continue the ongoing interrogation of our most deeply seated biases which may not scream loudly but subtly influence our actions that can have an impact; intentional or not.

      1. So I basically just half of what Mel said..

        “Moments like these show us that we ALL must be vigilant about the various privileges we have and remember our shared humanity and connections to others. When we’re fighting against the criminalization of Black men and boys, we cannot forget or de-prioritize the violence that Black women endure. When we fight for our right to feel safe in public spaces, we cannot forget the vast difference between what not feeling safe is to a trans woman of color versus a White woman.”

        I’m just glad this conversation is being had–the challenge will be being productive with it.

  3. Get it straight: No one person speaks for all others who may have the same color skin/ religious persuasion/ etc. I opersonally will be looking to see what,if anything that guy who edited out the whiteguy catcalls has to say. I cannot, though, imagine a scenario where that’s ok.

  4. Its good that you wrote this, because judging by the “motherships” website, and the viral video I understand why people are whitewashing your leadership. This was an enlightening piece to read, but for Professor Crunk who was waiting on thinkpieces written by black men, just tell her to check out the piece written on VerySmartBrothas by Damon Young
    http://verysmartbrothas.com/my-street-harassment-story/

    I notice a huge problem when I talk to many black men and black women and that is those entrenched in their viewpoint refuse to engage the other or notice when there are actual areas to build upon the unity. As long as civility is lacking, you are going to have black men believing street harassment is a myth and black women who believe brothers are wanna-be patriarchs. Its disgusting.

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