Monday, November 03, 2014
Whitewashing sexism. posted by Richard SeymourThe feminist organisation Hollaback collaborated with a marketing agency recently to make a viral video. It showed a woman walking through New York streets over a period of ten hours and being repeatedly harassed and in one case actually stalked for five minutes. She does not interact with anyone, respond to anyone, even look at anyone. Nothing she does could possibly be construed except by a sexist as an invitation to holler at her. Even though the women is being secretly filmed and thus has some potential protection, at times she looks genuinely frightened. And that doesn't seem to discourage anyone. So, the behaviour ranges from rude and creepy to downright sinister - and it's real, and it has to be stopped.
Within a short while, some people started to notice the racial valences of the video. The actress was white, whereas almost all the harassment came from black or Latino men. Asked about this, the marketing agency stated that they had edited out harassment from white men because it was "said in passing, or off-camera". But it has also been argued that there was a certain amount of social editing in the making of the clip, inasmuch as most of the shots appear to be from certain areas of New York like Harlem. These editorial decisions are not neutral. The semiotics of such a highly compressed message are incredibly important.
Hollaback are a liberal feminist organisation with anti-racist politics. In an article they produced for Huffington Post earlier this year, two leaders of the organisation cited their own research to demonstrate that sexist harassment is not particular to working class or black men. They decried the dangerous myths about black male sexuality which, they suggest, go back to Birth of a Nation and the Scottsboro Boys. So they are not unaware of the issues now being raised by their critics. To the extent that they authorised the editorial decisions made by the Rob Bliss marketing agency, therefore, they made an ideologically informed choice to racialise this issue - knowing how problematic this is.
The film-makers would be aware, as all advertisers are, of the affect aroused by racial coding. They would know that blackness attracts more hostility, more hate, and more agitation in audiences - particularly white audiences with money and clout. Class coding works in a similar way, with poor, 'low class' people more likely to excite contempt, and thus interest. If the film had been edited to show purely white middle class male harassment, the libidinal economy would have been very different and it is less likely that the video would have gone viral. It also seems likely that the decision to racialise the issue added a certain resonance to Hollaback's campaign for a more forceful policing response to harassment.
It is not of interest whether Hollaback 'intended' any of these effects. Their liberalism may be so 'colour-blind' that they didn't even notice what the marketing agency had done with the video. The effects are what matter, and these are not difficult to decipher.
The problem with this approach, however, is not just that it panders to white middle class racism in order to highlight a real problem. It is that, precisely because in doing so, it works to the advantage of white sexists. Take this guy, Steve Santiagi, one of these fuck-wit 'dating experts' and guides to masculine 'empowerment'. You know the type: if you're a damaged or shy or awkward or gullible male, he will offer you the option of 'manning up' and reclaiming the jouissance which women have stolen. He argues on CNN that the video merely proved that this type of catcalling was the reserve of 'low class' men of a particular 'culture', and used this to defend the majority of decent, classy, upstanding white, middle class sexists who merely want to compliment pretty women, etc.
There is a pattern here. The colour-coding of sexism always works to the advantage of sexists. When people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher attack feminists, they usually claim that feminists focus too much on small, negligible examples of sexism in civilised Western societies and should turn their attention to the barbarians in the East. In so doing, of course, they 'whitewash' the majority of sexist harassment and violence. And I think the video does the same.