Is That Viral Catcalling Video Racist?

The recent viral sensation exposes very real problems with how men treat women, but some pundits are now claiming that the video's racial politics are problematic.

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Oct 31 2014, 6:53pm

As I often do when I’m told to immediately watch something by people on the internet, I strenuously avoided the elegantly titled “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman.” I knew what it was about, grappled with the theme of the piece (men need to grow up), and felt safe in saying that I completely agreed with its thesis. If you can't understand why women don't want to be barked at by strangers on the sidewalk, then you probably missed a very important day of kindergarten or your dad is Tucker Max.

I’ve witnessed catcalling. It’s a very real, very unfortunate thing that happens every day. Not only does catcalling objectify and dehumanize women, I’m fairly certain it’s one of the least effective means of securing someone’s sexual interest outside of sending unsolicited dick pics or repeatedly phoning her parents at 2 AM to ask what her favorite color is.

Catcalling is like the Mirror Universe version of the romantic comedy “meet-cute.” Instead of awkwardly bumping into your future spouse in the middle of a vintage record shop, you scream “Great rack!” at her while she’s trying to get to Duane Reade for tampons. I don’t think the latter scenario actually works, but if there is a pair of lovers whose first words to each other were “Hey mami, I like the way the pockets of your jeans frame your bum” or some derivative, then I would hate to share a cab with them. I don’t need a video to tell me this, but maybe it’ll work its magic on those who do. It’s already started a conversation on the issue of how men speak to women, and that’s great. What actually got me to finally watch this damn thing is that there are those who seem to believe it’s racist.

On Wednesday, author and cultural critic Roxane Gay took to Twitter to chastise the makers of “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” because of the dearth of white catcallers in the finished product. To Gay (and others) it's problematic that the clip reinforces the notion that minority males are to be feared and loathed, since the vast majority of the predators are black or Latino. Slate’s Hanna Rosin then pounced the same day to chime in with similar thoughts on the matter. Pundits are like your coworkers when the soggy remnants of a lukewarm executive lunch is dumped into the break room on a Thursday afternoon. They waste no time lining up to reheat the leftovers.

Rob Bliss, head of marketing agency Rob Bliss Creative, took to Reddit (the internet's capital of cultural sensitivity and rational thought) to defend his video. His rebuttal consisted of reminding us that white people are a minority in New York City and questioning whether or not there would be an uproar if the vast majority of the catcallers in his video were Russian rather than black and Latino.

What that reading fails to take into account is that the predominant image of Russians in America isn’t that of the unrepentant street hoodlum. "Horseback-riding dictator, heavyset grandma, or elderly fishmonger" is probably a bit closer. I guess I could toss in "well-dressed mob enforcer who always tips well at the bar" too, but as long as you don't stiff them on a gambling debt or accidentally sleep with their girlfriend, you'll be OK running into them at Sbarro.

At this point, I don’t know who I’m supposed to be mad at, what I’m supposed to be mad about, or which nonprofit I’m meant to be giving my money to. I could easily drop back, punt, and toss a few bucks to UNICEF, the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, or Zach Braff's latest Kickstarter, but I don't want to throw my money away. Should I appreciate that this video is shedding light on the problems of gender or be pissed that it's not racially sensitive?

Gay has a point: Most Americans have a hard time balancing more than one aggrieved minority group's concerns at a time. We ask ourselves if it's enough just to be mad about sexism without having to muddy the waters with some idle chit-chat about ethnic minorities being constantly labeled as thugs, shiftless layabouts, and excellent pick-and-roll defenders. Can't we just focus on one thing and get back to the rest later? How to Get Away with Murder is on, and I love that show.

I'd like to be very glib about this issue. That's kind of my thing. I'm like the MLK of DGAF but I also live in a country where unarmed black men are shot by the police for appearing threatening, where a disproportionate amount of prison inmates share similar skin pigmentation. Part of the reason why there's so much fear lingering around ethnic minorities is because we have such a hard time divorcing our perception of those people in real life from the way they are portrayed in film, television, music, and gimmicky one-off web videos. Life is only kind of like New Jack City, in that both New Jack City and real life both contain drug use, crime, and the unassailable laws of gravity. Nino Brown is not a real person. No one could get away with wearing a chain that big without tipping over like the top at the end of Inception or Rob Ford on a Tuesday night. Media portrayals of minorities are powerful. They influence how we look at the world, even if we don't realize it until it's too late.

I shouldn't be surprised that Rob Bliss doesn't get why people of color are disappointed in his work. He's a marketer, not a sociologist. No matter what you think about the appropriateness of catcalling, “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman" is a propaganda film. Yes, it's a propaganda film for a cause I support, but that doesn't make it any less of an appeal to opening pockets. That's why organizations hire this guy. They want him to make videos that people will share; that will convince well-intentioned folks to pony up to assuage their guilt or mollify their fear.

Propaganda is designed to shake you out of your complacency and drive you to direct action. What better way to do that than throwing out a bunch of images of intimidating blacks and Latinos in an urban area? It clearly worked, as the video has almost 24 million views as of the time I'm writing this. It's not explicitly racist, but it's definitely using race as a tool, and that's been a smart rhetorical strategy in the United States for a long time—from Abe Lincoln to Lee Atwater to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Race-based persuasion isn't going away any time soon, not as long as we keep buying into it in droves. 

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