Thursday, August 13, 2009

Off the Map – Power on the Street

By Stacey Chan, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

“Ching chong!” A truck barrels past me, the driver settling back into his seat through his open window. Huh?! I’m snatched out of hazy thoughts as I continue my walk to work. Déjà vu.

Every day I walk to and from work, and just about every day I face some form of street harassment. Whether it be receiving ogling looks, lewd comments, or being ching-chonged, I’ve come to expect it. It has become an undeniable part of my experience as a woman of color.

In the opportunity mapping group, we use quantitative data to construct an index of neighborhood opportunity and overlay this with race and income compositions. I started to think about walking the streets of the map, and I realized that many times, in neighborhoods of rich or poor opportunity, I don’t feel safe. It’s not something that is caught in the data, nor is it an indicator of economic opportunity as we study it in our maps, but it is a matter of power disenfranchisement that occurs everywhere.

Street harassment is an exchange of power where one person attempts to dominate over another, sometimes non-verbally, verbally, or physically. Victims and harassers can be of any gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or physical ability/disability. My experience incorporates the facts that I identify and present as a woman, I am young, and I am of Asian descent. My harassers have been of many different races, ethnicities, ages, and class groups.

Street harassment strips a victim of respect and sense of freedom in a public space. First, I got scared. …Then angry. …Then puzzled. What do I do? How do I reclaim my place on the street? How can I feel safe and free in the public space that we share, even in the face of being harassed? What about group campaigns? Who would we choose as an audience? How would we do our work through a critical lens?

Harassment is an issue that incorporates many aspects of social identity, and its solution must reflect its complexity. It’s not in the data, it’s not on the map, but it’s there and violates the opportunity for everyone to enjoy public space equally. I don’t know the solution, but I keep my head up, walk briskly and never slow down. I reply politely to hello’s, and respond “that’s disgusting” when appropriate. In these small ways, I try to take some control of the exchange. While it may not be a systemic solution or the right solution, it’s my way of keeping my place on the street.

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