I Can't Ignore The Obvious Racial Bias of That Hollaback Street Harassment Video (And Other Problematic PSAs)

I truly believe that we’re all in this together. But am I salty that this one video of a white-appearing woman being harassed almost exclusively by black men is the one that went viral? You bet.
Publish date:
October 30, 2014
race, cultural appropriation, PSAs, street harassment, rap, hollaback

PSA. It stands for Public Service Announcement, and though that particular acronym has some stodgy connotations, the PSA is alive and well today in this, the age of the viral video. Anything created with the good intentions of Public Service ought to be celebrated, but what happens when huge swaths of the Public end up suffering as a result? Is that still Service?

In this Rock the Vote video encouraging people to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, rapper Lil’ Jon repurposes his omnipresent hit “Turn Down For What?!” into “Turn Out For What?” as various celebrities boogie and tell the camera what specific issues they’ll be “turning out” to vote for. Fair enough, though the translation and sprit of the original track is why on Earth would I ever turn down?!, so to try to alter that to a sincere inquiry as to what you’re turning out for is a linguistic reach that makes the whole thing not quite land.

But that’s me being nitpicky. The content itself bothers me more: as the clip plays and Lil’ Jon smokes a novelty-sized joint (hey, he’s “turning out” for marijuana legalization), as Lena Dunham introduces herself as “Lil’ Lena” and does the robot, it looks too much like yet another appropriation of hip-hop culture for me to take it seriously.

Rap has historically had to fight for legitimacy in the music world, but it’s a go-to choice when convenient for mainstream white media to use or profit from it.

I tweeted that last night in response to yet another corporate twitter account casually quoting rap lyrics to promote their product in a crass and appropriative way.

With “Turn Out For What,” I tried to be glad that at least Lil’ Jon himself was involved and it wasn’t only the fancy white celebrities um, er… "rapping,” but still -- sigh.

Full disclosure: Lena Dunham’s presence in this particular spot made it even more distasteful to me. Ms. Dunham is a polarizing figure in entertainment and while I’ve never met the woman and one can’t help but salute all that she’s achieved in the industry, I don’t personally connect with her body of work at all and her caricatures of hip-hop stature in this spot read to me as especially egregious.

I understand trying to hit the young demographic and the recognition of a radio hit, but with the wealth of music out there, the use of this song comes off as cutesy and clever and a few other c-words that make me crinkle my nose. How about one of the many rap tracks that have a truly positive message to begin with and are not just about getting turnt at the club?

Or this flawless spot by the Department of Peace wherein celebrities lip-synch to Lesley Gore’s classic “You Don’t Own Me,” urging women to vote to protect our rights. Lena Dunham is in this one too, so good on her for lending her face to multiple worthy causes, and in this one she and a beautifully diverse group of women are sincere and wonderful and entertaining and effective at probably a fraction of the cost of the Rock the Vote hip-hop extravaganza.

Sarah Silverman is another award-winning woman in entertainment that I want to completely and totally applaud for, and yet…OK, look. Part of Ms. Silverman’s shtick is that she says what she wants to and will comedically roast anyone and anything, from rape to Christ. It’s not up to me to say what’s funny or not, but my feeling is that I get what she’s doing so if it personally rubs me the wrong way, that’s on me, not on her.

Then there are the bits of hers that take things a bit further: blackface, as she performed it, is not a choice that I can shrug off quite so easily, and something as shockingly tone deaf as her recent video for the National Women’s Law Center is simply beyond the pale. In service of the Equal Payback Project, the spot shows Sarah glibly choosing from fake penises for a cartoonishly portrayed medical procedure so that she can battle the gender wage gap by “becoming a dude.” This PSA seems like it was made in a vacuum in which the entire trans community does not exist and wherein gender confirmation surgery never happens. As a cis woman, I understand that my disgust over this is clip is viewed through that lens, so let me direct you to s.e. smith’s formidable response here.

The outcry was so great that Ms. Silverman issued this “apology”:

I may be jogging your memories a bit far, but a few years ago on the messy reality program "Basketball Wives," Ms. Evelyn Lozada once incited a fistfight with the declaration that another woman was “a non-motherfucking factor” to her. Profanity aside, this is simply an awful thing to say to someone, so while I wish to endorse neither the ensuing fisticuffs nor the messiness of the program as a whole, I do wish to draw a parallel between what Evelyn and Sarah said. I never even considered your existence is far more insulting than many statements that could seem like more direct verbal blows.

Over the past few days, a video of a woman being street harassed while walking through NYC has been shared and featured on major media platforms seemingly non-stop. I’ve written about street harassment here, and it is a major issue in my life. As strongly as I feel about it and as much as I want the fight against it to get the attention this video is getting, I had to struggle to even get through the clip. Because of the importance of this issue, I actually stifled my immediate anger at this footage of a white-appearing woman being harassed almost exclusively by black men.

Critiques of the racial bias began to pop up in my social media stream, and while it was comforting to know I wasn’t alone in my disgust, some people don’t understand that we can value the cause and the effort while still saying that the result is deeply flawed, so we who critiqued got blowback or brushed off. It’s difficult to have these critiques poo-pooed away with “Well it’s not perfect, but….” Nothing is perfect, and that’s fine. But it didn’t have to be quite this faulty.

Then came these comments wherein Rob Bliss of Rob Bliss Creative, who partnered with popular anti-harassment organization Hollaback to produce the video, admits to editing out the white men, saying in part that “[They] got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera,” also mentioning that footage of white men’s comments was compromised by sirens and other NYC noise. OF COURSE they didn’t plan to single out men of color, but there were incidental technical and sound issues that made their footage unusable.

The worst part is, I get it. I’m no big media firm, but I too have shot and edited my own videos for YouTube and other outlets. What you thought was going to work when you shot it might end up on the (digital, imaginary) cutting room floor, especially when recording outside. It can get unbearably noisy out there; I know what it’s like to walk the streets of New York City. And because I know what it’s like to walk the streets of New York City, I called bullshit on that video immediately. Well, not total bullshit. And there’s the rub.

The intention is good. The struggle is real and those of us who fight need every voice we can singing out in service of equality, privacy, and the right to simply go from Point A to Point B without feeling threatened.

But I don’t see us getting there by singling out black men, which is what Hollaback’s video did. I don’t believe they harbored any malicious intent in making it, and yet, was no one involved neither a person of color nor simply a decent human being (or both) who could’ve alerted them to the clear bias in the final edit before it was released into the world? I don’t want to believe that they just didn’t care, that my own brothers were a “non-motherfucking factor.”

I haven’t ever made a hidden-camera video documenting my own street harassment, though I’ve thought about it many times. The thing that has stopped me is that I have yet to figure out how to accurately and quickly portray the fact that it’s not just one type or race of man doing the hollering, and not just in one neighborhood. It’s extremely important to me to accurately and non-prejudicially represent my harassers, and I only wish that had been as important to the Hollaback/Bliss team.

Again, I truly believe that we’re all in this together. But am I salty that this one video of a white-appearing woman being harassed almost exclusively by black men is the one that went viral? You bet. And then to read a shrugging, dismissive response to the outcry of racist bias?

Hollaback has just released a statement addressing some of the unintended responses to the video, saying, “We regret the unintended racial bias in the editing of the video.” That sentiment is appreciated, but considering that 10 hours of footage was edited to under two minutes, it’s difficult to swallow that the cut they ended up with wasn’t viewed as more problematic before its release.

My brothers have enough to deal with in fearing for their lives on a daily basis. Did they really need this additional villainization? I organize every aspect of my life to minimize street harassment, and yet I would never release a video of my black ass being harassed exclusively by white men (who are not even a marginalized group to begin with), to make a point, however serious and important and major that point may be to me. I can’t justify trampling a chunk of the population in service of my good cause.

These are all good causes. I maintain that it is possible to promote these endeavors and salute the good intentions of these content creators while also critiquing them and gesturing toward the proverbial road to hell. I think we can take these good ideas about good causes and pledge to do better. PLEASE vote in the upcoming Midterm Elections. Please support closing the wage gap and ending street harassment. And please also do what you can to not trample marginalized groups in the pursuit of these worthy endeavors.

They’re not mutually exclusive ideas; I promise.