Hello vs. Holla? A Letter to the Hollaback Folks – The Feminist Wire

Hello vs. Holla? A Letter to the Hollaback Folks

By Rebecca Wanzo

10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman


Like every woman I know, I’ve been in public places and experienced harassment from male strangers. I remember being in high school and going to a haunted house with girlfriends, and while standing in line, a drunken man in a group asked if he could “touch my titties.” Repeatedly. Perhaps I have what some people experience as “resting bitch face,” but I have constantly been told to smile by men, who think it’s cute and flirtatious. It’s really not.  As a number of women have noted, the demand that women you don’t know should please you by looking or feeling different, OR, that you are actually giving a gift to them by telling them how they should feel when you know nothing about them or their lives, is clearly sexist. If you don’t know this, Mr.-I-Should-Smile-For-You, go up to some man and tell him to smile because, as a man told me just a couple of months ago after I’d had a long, twelve-hour work day, “you’re beautiful and should always smile.” Do that to men for a while and see what happens. Seriously. I dare you.

That said, I’m pretty troubled by the video depicting a woman experiencing harassment walking around in New York for ten hours, and have had a number of debates with friends about it. Obviously, the fact that they edited out all the white men is racist. Even if they say that a diverse group of men harassed her, when they edit all the white men out their primary piece of evidence only attaches the behavior to black and Latino men. This stands in contrast to the powerful video where women tell their stories of harassment on the hollaback website, which reveals that some men believe that women being on the street makes them prey.

That said, I am also really disturbed by the fact that “how you doing” and “have a nice day,” while (most likely) a response to finding her attractive, is on the same level as saying that while following her, the command to smile, “you can’t speak to someone?” and some of the other comments. Some very thoughtful friends talked about the way that very often these ostensibly innocuous greetings are demands that you engage with them when you are minding your own business.  As someone who is primarily introverted and is often in a hurry, or working through something in my head when I’m walking somewhere, I’m not someone who engages with strangers often. And I think it is important to note that most men (I’ll get to this caveat in a minute) are not expected to do so. Male reserve is considered masculine, whereas women are expected to always respond or they are bitches. So I think it is important to think, culturally, about the ways in which women that want to be left alone to their thoughts can be described as rude. Those of you who feel that way should flip the script and think about the ways that intruding on someone who is not inviting interaction is actually the act of incivility.businesswoman on her way to the office

But that said, we should problematize this project because there is no disaggregation here, and I detect real differences in tone in the video. Just as I believe that the demand for engagement with a stranger can be rude, I also believe that someone who says “hello,” “how you doing,” “you look beautiful today,” can be producing a form of polite address, particularly when it is offered without expectation of response. Which is sometimes the case. Sometimes, of course, the tone of address is more aggressive and demanding.

I should also say that I lived in the south for a number of years. People speak there. Men speak to women. Women speak to men. Both might comment on your appearance. And as an African American, I often find that black folks tend to speak to each other in predominantly white spaces, and, as an interesting counterpoint to the claim that only women are pressed by the demand to speak, I also think there are all kinds of complex cultural rules about “speaking” in communities of color. The “how you doin’, my brother,” often has class and heteronormative implications. New York is a place where people often don’t make eye contact, don’t speak to strangers, and go about their business. So it is a different dynamic. But the tone of greeting that I experience from African American men is similar in other regions of the country—both the aggressive one (and this will be the controversial claim to some of my friends) and the one I experience as benign.

And that’s the issue here—do we want to say that all greetings from men on the street are harassment? I will be the first to acknowledge that some women are going to experience more of this than others—where you live matters. And women who read as feminine in ways I do not, as a larger African American woman who does not fit normative beauty standards. We should also acknowledge that people who perform gender in non-normative ways experience routine, horrific harassment. So I want to acknowledge that some people will encounter this more, and I stand in solidarity with those who constantly struggle with this. Street harassment is a serious problem that threatens the psychological and bodily safety of women and others who do not conform to normative gender performance. But I think the refusal to disaggregate the differences between various kinds of greetings we may receive from men feeds into the logic that feminists treat all interactions between men and women as violent.

And let’s go back to the racial framework of this video. I had a conversation with  someone about street harassment last year and she put in this category the food service and grounds workers who say “hi, how you doing” on my campus. If we want to talk about power dynamics, the expectation that the predominantly African American male workers on my campus keep their eyes down, don’t speak to you, and that saying “good morning” and “how you doing” is harassment, aren’t we embracing another set of narratives designed to discipline less powerful people? This expectation can replicate a racist culture where brown men should be silent and invisible in public.

I am deeply concerned with this issue, and to that end, we need to have a serious conversation about what changes we are asking men to make. Are we asking them never to speak to us unless we make eye contact? Or is it important to talk about how we see and treat each other in public spaces, with all the race, class, regional, and sexual politics at stake? There is real value to a continuum argument, that we should see all of these approaches to women in relationship to each other as it illustrates how women’s bodies are treated as public for men. But this argument risks making villains out of men who would never want to cause injury to the women they admire, and see us as part of their community.


382369_4618649229916_2020195067_nRebecca Wanzo is associate professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Associate Director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University. Her book, The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling, was published by SUNY Press in 2009.


  1. Darryl Bloom

    November 4, 2014 at 8:40 am

    I greatly appreciate the nuanced approach to this issue! Communication is incredibly complex and you have brought to the surface interesting questions of regional influences and historical implications along within-group standards.

  2. Nicosia

    November 4, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Thanks for this. Yesterday I posted a comment on my FB page about similar concerns that I have. I am afraid that real feminist issues are being hijacked in the interest of sensationalism and when this happens the discourse becomes so simplistic that it is very troubling.

  3. Kenneth Carroll

    November 4, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Not only a complicated and thoughtful piece Professor Wanzo, but one that reminds us of the possibility of a more beautiful culture when women are not harassed and us men learn how to respectfully celebrate women beyond desire, toward community. The video is dangerous in that it obfuscates the face of misogyny by relying on racist tropes. It ultimately protects racist patriarchy. To the credit of, they did issue a statement acknowledging the failure of the video to include all men. (but they still have it up)

  4. McP

    November 4, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    Good piece.

    I am frustrated by the racism in the video, one that I otherwise found powerful. If the white guys’ audio was unusable, they needed to re-shoot. No excuses. I’ve been harassed by lots of white men (I’m white too), and the message here was that they are not the problem.

    In terms of greetings, it can go either way. Men are taught that they are entitled to our attention (and our bodies), and when men ignore that I’m walking purposefully down the street, not making eye contact and not looking social, “hello” can be invasive. If my facial expression and body language are open, friendly greetings can be fine, so long as the tone is right. I’ve had guys be flirty with me on the street in a way that felt like genuine appreciation, while other guys can make me feel slimed with just “hello.” Tone can change a friendly greeting to the verbal equivalent of being pawed.

    I’m a chatty Midwesterner who likes to talk to lots of people as I go about my day, but when I lived in NYC I understood why people don’t approach each other on the street much. Usually when someone does, they want something. You also need to tune out some of the chaos. In DC the harassment was worse, but in both cities I was on foot all the time, so you just plain deal with more of it.

    I am glad you raise the issue of service workers on your campus. I’m the daughter of a custodian and a “cleaning lady”, so I’m sensitive to how maintenance workers are treated — doubly so after seeing my fellow students ooze contempt for service workers, especially the black food service workers. I would hope that greetings from these workers would be welcome, unless there was a “come on” tone.

    Which reminds me that a Joey Tribbiani-style “How you doin’?” is supposed to be cute (gag!), but the same thing from a black man is potential danger. I challenge other white women to watch for that bias. Always go with your gut if you feel unsafe, but we have to watch for racism skewing our perception.

  5. Irna Landrum

    November 4, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    Thank you so much for articulating some of the nuances I’ve been trying to communicate for the last few days. As a black Southern woman, it would actually make me sad to lose the frequent friendly greetings I get from brothers on the street.

  6. Julian Carrington

    November 4, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    I share your sentiments completely and want to thank you for expressing them so insightfully.

  7. Ariel

    November 4, 2014 at 11:34 pm

    Have you actually SEEN the original, unedited video with a preponderance of badly behaving white men prior to this claim (that “they edited all the white men out”)?

    I would like to view that for myself, if you have a link…

    • Rebecca Wanzo

      November 5, 2014 at 9:47 am

      None of us have seen all the footage except the filmmakers. But the filmmakers say that she was harassed by men of all races and backgrounds, and they also say that “for some reason” neighborhood sounds like construction made the footage unusual. But someone else actually did the work of going through each shot to see where she was, and a huge percentage of the shots are in Harlem. I wrote this piece before I read this piece, but it is incredibly useful in addressing the methodological issues here:

  8. LK Inniss

    November 5, 2014 at 8:15 am

    This is a good read.

    As someone who has been (and continues to be) a victim of harassment by some of my same race male subordinates in the workplace, I can attest to the fact that there are conversations that should be going on about this in communities of color. I was taught to always say hello to people I encounter, especially people of color in the workplace whose jobs may be deemed less prestigious than mine. But what about when those innocuous hellos turn into vile, obscene comments?

    After having complained to supervisors in one instance and gotten no assistance (“he’s such a nice man, I don’t know who to believe”) I have resorted to shutting down all interactions of any sort with many of my same race male subordinates in the workplace. A *very* imperfect solution, for sure, but given the absence of official remedy, it is all that I have left. I can see that the problem is both racial and gender power dynamics of a sort that mainstream solutions cannot or will not address.

    Yes, we need to talk about this.

  9. Katrina

    November 5, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    Thank you for posting this. I was also troubled by that video for some of the same reasons. I was raised that it was polite to greet anyone I passed on the street. Obviously I don’t do it in a crowded area like New York, but in suburban/rural places if I walk by another human being I will acknowledge them. Most return the acknowledgment (a smile and nod, “hello”, etc). Am I guilty of street harassment?
    I certainly have received street harassment (like probably all women) and I know how oppressive it is. But I don’t put someone simply saying “hi” as they walk by into the category of harassment. And it does men a disservice to link what used to be considered “basic civility” (greeting others in public) with aggressively sexual invasions of women’s space.

  10. Chewie

    November 5, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    I find your article very thoughtful. I have had some concerns about this video that I’d like to offer here.

    1. The racialized interactions here are troubling. I’ve heard in different cities people say, “Don’t make eye contact with black people or homeless.” I see this at play in the video. I often watch women walk down the street without inviting attention. Some may not agree with my reading of this girl’s body language, but to me she does not communicate that, and then she ignores any attempt at talking, friendly or unfriendly. Regardless, in LA I encounter black and latino men who are used to being treated as invisible or too dangerous to acknowledge. Many times they view being ignored as part of this behavior. This may not be right and it doesn’t give them license to be aggressive, but it is a reality, one that is ignored in the presentation of this video. Sometimes all it takes to defuse the situation is to look at the other human being and treat them as such (without giving too much or being challenging). It may take speaking firmly yet politely and letting them know there is a boundary or that you’re not interested, not just reacting out of fear of their racialized body. And granted some people will continue to disrespect you, it happens all the time.

    2. However, this video creates a strange fear-driven dynamic. I read comments about the video left by women who claimed a man catcalling was definitely a precursor to rape. This sounds like panic mongering to me. Rape happens and yes I have experienced it. I’ve also experienced many levels of harassment since I was a child. While it is not welcome, I think women need to stop walking down the street presenting themselves as victims and realize they do have some power, especially when other power relations are at play. Being Asian and looking feminine, I’ve seen/heard a lot while walking down the street, minding my own business in a library, whatever. What is in this video does not seem very threatening to me. No one exposes themselves or tries to buy her body or even touches her body. No white men explode into racial slurs. I may be in the wrong by saying this, but I think women need to learn that they are not helpless in many of these everyday interactions–by being strong and clear minded, not posing as martyrs. I’ve heard white women say they moved to different cities because homeless men talked to them. I think of a student article I read while in school about how one homeless person near campus was a major threat that needed to be demolished. What is this about? We need to learn how to handle these situations with open eyes and protect ourselves with level heads, because no matter how many videos are made street harassment will probably still happen.

    3. The reaction to this video has been interesting to me. Most comments seem to fall into men vs. women. I’d like for women to consider how often they harass other women on the street. This happens to me even when I am more covered than the other women. In my opinion, it reinforces the same view of women as sex objects to be slut shamed or consumed.

  11. Chewie

    November 5, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Apologies for writing so much. Something just occurred to me. Based on what I’ve experienced and heard, as well as the comments I’ve read in response to this video, it seems that there are a lot of people who feel threatened by those who do not meet their norm or whom they do not see as peers in any way. I don’t have any statistics to cite off the top of my head, but doesn’t most sexual assault happen at the hands of someone the person knows? Someone outside the norm may seem like a loose cannon, but consider that sexist behavior, sexual assault, and demeaning treatment of women is not really out of the norm. This seems even more the case with those who feel like they have the power to get away with anything. You may assume the grandfather not-too-subtly hitting on you is funny or benign. I’ve known families in which the grandfather or another paternal figure raped most of the women in the family. Of course nobody talked about it in public. I don’t mean to offend or trigger anybody, but I do want to raise the issue. Look at whose bodies have been criminalized, who is oppressed by police and being killed with impunity. Then consider who would be taken at their word by police and who could possibly get away with rape. No you probably won’t see their faces in the news as much as other ones. Then again there are the cops who slow down, follow you in their car, and undress you with their eyes. In the end, you can’t really account for anyone, but you can’t go walking around being scared of everything that moves. Just being aware that you can’t implicitly trust one person over another is a start.

    • sciguy

      November 7, 2014 at 7:36 am

      First time reading this blog, and loved the article. But had to comment because your last two comments were so thoughtful and well-stated. Thank you.