'Even If You Don't Like It, You're Supposed to Appear That You Do'

Writer and activist Feminista Jones talks about street harassment against black women and the #YouOKsis campaign.

Amr Nabil/AP

A recent survey found that 65 percent of women in the U.S. had experienced street harassment, with almost a quarter of all women being approached and sexually touched on the street. That's a startling figure—all the more so because street harassment is rarely discussed as a policy issue.

Social worker, activist, and writer Feminista Jones has been working to change that. In June, she tweeted about her own experience intervening in an incident of street harassment in New York. Another user, @BlackGirlDanger suggested turning the phrase she’d used to check in with the woman—“You okay, sis?”—into a hashtag campaign designed to raise awareness and encourage people to ask victims of harassment if they are okay or need help." In addition to her writing, Jones has been speaking on the issue at venues like Netroots. I talked to her by phone about her work, street harassment, race, and remedies. This interview has been condensed and edited.

You talked about experiencing street harassment since you were about 11, and many other women talk about it as a constant problem. As a guy, I think I have just about literally never seen a woman harassed on the street. Have you ever heard other men say that? How is it possible for this to be such a problem for so many people while it's invisible to others?

I'm pretty sure you have witnessed it, but you may not have recognized it as street harassment. We have been socialized to believe that interactions between men and women are about men being predators and women being prey. We're so used to seeing these dynamics where a man is approaching a woman, and is being somewhat insistent about it, and we see women kind of smiling. Women have been socialized to believe the same thing, that you're supposed to be nice to a guy who's doing this, and even if you don't like it, you're supposed to appear that you do.

So what you may have seen is a guy walking alongside a woman and talking, and you may have seen her smiling, but for all you know he may be saying some really aggressive things to her, but you didn't hear it because you walked right by.

Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment (SSH), has said that street harassment cuts across economic classes and races. You've talked especially about the experiences of black women. Why do you feel that's necessary? What are the particular problems that black women face with street harassment?

SSH has really tried to amplify the movement all around the world. But the movement still continues to be focused on white women, often opposite men of color or black men. Sometimes it gets into, These savage black men are preying on precious white women. That narrative in the United States has gotten many black men jailed and killed. I wanted to focus on black women's experiences with [harassment] from anyone. It could be white men, Asian men, women—I've talked about being harassed by two lesbian women. But I wanted to center our voices, because I feel like black women's voices are not always amplified. And I feel it's my responsibility to do that.

In what ways do you feel that black women are particularly vulnerable?

We've been talking about the perception that black women can't really be harmed, that we don't experience pain, that our feelings can't be hurt. There is a historical perspective for this idea that black women are able to endure more pain and suffering. Part of that is that people need us to be that way—they need for us to not feel as much pain, so that they can make use of us. For example, black women were experimented on gynecologically. That's how gynecology came about. The father of gynecology, [Marion Sims,] experimented on one particular slave more than 30 times without anesthesia, the slave Anarcha, and he justified it by saying that black enslaved women don't experience the same kind of pain as white women.

We also see examples of it with black women who have been domestics: They can work 16 or 18 hours a day for other people, they can leave their children behind, they're used to it, this is what they do. And this idea of the strong black women, we can take anything that comes at us, we can still do it with a smile on our faces.

We have not been given the opportunity to express the pain that we feel. What happens when we're walking down the street is that people will harass us and see us as being both women and also black, and they understand that nobody gives a shit about us. The police won't help us. A lot of our men won't stick up for us, unfortunately. People know this. We are the women who they can take these things out on. They can sexually harass us, they can rape us, and who's going to believe the word of a black woman? I've had conversations with white women who have said, "I've had guys say, 'Hey sexy' to me, and that's as far as it's gone. But I've seen black women get harassed, and it's worse. It's been, 'Hey bitch', and grabbing, and I just don't understand why black women get it worse than we do." It's because they know that nobody is going to stick up for black women.

You don't see the police as a remedy?

Not at all. Police street-harass us too. They rape us, they abuse us. Particularly if you appear to be a sex worker or you are a sex worker. Many have reported that police will threaten them with arrest unless they perform sex acts for them. A lot of women have reported that they have been sex-harassed by police officers. I had a police officer try to talk to me in a flirtatious way with a hand on his gun. And I'm saying, "You need to do your job and stop trying to holler at me," and he sort of smirks it off. But he has his hand on his gun, which is holstered at his waist. No, that's not intimidating at all.

I approached the New York Police Department last year, and I said, "What can be done about street harassment?" They're like, "What are you talking about?" I said, "When we're walking down the street, and these men are saying really vile and nasty things to us, what kind of protection do we have?" The basic answer was "nothing." It's just verbal, you have to ignore it, they're not breaking any laws. Now if they were to follow you for several blocks, you could report to the police officer that someone has been following you, but then he could also say that he was just going the same way. If it's the same guy doing it two days in a row, you could say it's a repeated action ….

They were giving all these qualifiers. I explained that we walk down the street and five or 10 men will say these nasty, horrible things to us. The guy said, "You should try wearing headphones." I said, "That's the best you can do?" And he said, "We can't arrest people for speaking."

A lot of times when police see black men and black women interacting, they assume it's a domestic dispute. A woman can be yelling, "Leave me the fuck alone!" and it's read as, oh this woman is having trouble with her boyfriend. It's not read as, she may be having an issue. If a white woman is in a black neighborhood and yells at a black man, "Leave me the fuck alone!" and the police are around, they'll come up and ask, "Is everything all right?" But with us they won't do that.

How can you change this?

What I'm trying to do with #YouOkSis—because I am a social worker, and I do a lot of de-escalation in crisis situations on a daily basis, and one of the things we learn is how to intervene in situations so as not to exacerbate them. My idea is focusing on putting yourself in the space. Because there are times when we do see stuff, we do walk by, we see people cat-calling other people. In that moment, if you see that the victim looks uncomfortable, you can easily just go to that human being and say, "Are you okay?"

Some people say that that can be problematic for men. Some men said to me, if I go up to a woman who is being street-harassed by a man and I ask her if she's okay, the other guy may perceive that as me moving in on his territory. And I said, you're absolutely right. So you can ask her for the time. “Do you know where there's a CVS or a Starbucks around?”

And just by putting yourself in that space, you make the harasser aware that somebody is watching, that somebody is paying attention, that someone is conscious. I did it. I witnessed a guy harassing a young mother pushing a stroller. I eventually asked her, "Are you okay, sis?" I said "sis" because she was black, and that's how I talk to black women. And she looked so relieved, in that quick flash, that someone came and said something.