If you’ve been following the new media crusade against gentrification in Oakland that has swept headlines recently (such as the drum circle at Lake Merritt being reported by a white man, a long standing West Oakland church being fined for being too loud, and the distasteful practice of racial profiling of long time POC Oakland residents via the OPD affiliated site nextdoor.com), you may have noticed that Oakland is finally taking to the media to speak on the crime of gentrification in its midst. After all this time, we’re finally making a stink about the implied racism of gentrification as well as its explicit manifestations. I wholeheartedly support raising awareness as to the decimation of our local culture, and my attention was piqued yesterday when the above flier popped up in my newsfeed. Many people decried it as yet another piece of evidence of racial profiling in Oakland, California, but as a feminist it’s also easy to see that this neighborhood complaint taps into the anti cat calling movement (remember this video?) that was popular in 2014. So what we have here is a unique example of intersectionality and evidence of how racism and feminism can often times be at odds with each other.
The problem with decrying this flyer as inherently racist is that female outcry can respond with legitimate observations such as, “Well, perhaps this woman didn’t feel safe and therefore felt justified in posting this flyer.” Addressing a woman’s safety in her own neighborhood is a sensitive topic, because women of every class and color deserve to feel safe. Often times that safety includes being free from harassment, and the above incident looks a lot like harassment.
While it’s true that street harassment like this can be quite obnoxious, one of the critiques of the above posted anti cat calling video was that it, too, seemed to be racist in nature. In the New York based anti cat calling video, many men of color were depicted as predatory in the short film, disproportionately so when compared to white men. The racial profiling evident in this flyer and the ensuing assumption that she was the intended target of a phone theft is a paranoid extrapolation of the circumstances.
It’s easy to look at the feminist principles of anti cat calling and the current anti gentrification/anti racism sentiments that abound in Oakland and come up with the simple solution that maybe we shouldn’t publicly racially profile people on our blocks. The current trend when talking about gentrification and how locals can adapt to their changing city is an attitude of pandering towards gentrifiers and trying to find common ground so that we can all feel safe here together. It’s true that this woman should have responded with, “No, I’m okay,” and walked away. It’s true that she should have felt safe and empowered when saying that, and the man should have taken her no gracefully and left her alone. It’s true that all residents sentiments of being in present danger should be considered and respected, and we should all work together to live in a community where we get along and feel comfortable with each other. All these things are true. But all these things do not go far enough into the problem.
The fact of the matter is we cannot address this issue so simple mindedly. This issue that clearly touches on both sex and race cannot be swept under the rug or given a band aid that says, “Let’s all get along.” The city of Oakland has a long history of sexual exploitation, a history that can be seen in cultural icons such as Too $hort, Mac Dre, and the movie The Mack. In short, there is a cultural precedent in Oakland that idolizes the sexual subjugation of women, specifically in the trade of prostitution. Anyone who has driven down International Avenue can see evidence of the presence of prostitution in our city. Because Oakland is a port city, prostitution is prevalent, and it is so problematic that in 2013 Al Jazeera covered it. So, whether you’re in a club in Downtown on a Friday night or riding through the East, this clandestine culture of prostitution is influential in the cultural subconscious of Oakland.
Many gentrifiers don’t know this. They move here, and then they are shocked by the way that people interact with them. As a woman who is from here, I have always been aware that there are predatory men out there who look at my ass like rent money. If you’re not from here, these kind of interactions can be jarring and even frightening. Even when the intention of prostitution doesn’t directly impact one’s interactions with men, because pimping and prostitution are so influential on multiple levels – be it the subtleties of treating women like property in the context of a relationship, power dynamics between men and women, the need to appear as a mack at all times – that culture can be evident even in mundane daily interactions or simply approaching someone in the street.
A gentrifier who is unaware of the cultural implications of prostitution in their daily gendered interactions may not know how to adeptly handle this kind of situation. But you also have to wonder: what kind of person moves into a city that is known for its culture of prostitution and willfully remains ignorant of the implied dangers and sets of social norms that come with it? It is the fault of the gentrifier that she decided to take a sexualized interaction and immediately conflate someone’s sexual/romantic approaches with race and therefore violence. The implication of violence in the interaction is what truly belies her ignorance. At the same time, her obvious attitude against black men is embarrassing as a further examination of the role of the black man in macrocosmic sexualized American culture reveals that black men are either hypersexualized and fetishized as sex objects, or they are deemed as bad for corrupting white racial purity (something that inspired the Charleston, S.C. mass shooting at a predominately black Episcopalian church). Again, you have to ask: what kind of asshole moves into a racially mixed neighborhood while still fostering racist attitudes?
At this point, detractors might ask: but why are people so adamant about preserving Oakland culture when it so clearly denigrates women? The answer to that is: well, actually, we’re not trying to preserve the part of Oakland that sexually exploits women. While we do want to preserve the beautiful aspects of our culture, the art, the complexity, and the depth of the Oakland experience, we know that not everything here is perfect or ideal. However, just because there are aspects of this culture that we are not proud of doesn’t mean that it deserves to be utterly eradicated. Oakland is a diverse community with diverse issues, and those issues deserve to be examined and addressed thoughtfully. The prevalence of prostitution, much like the prevalence of drugs, is symptomatic of a larger systemic issue of institutionalized racism and ensuing poverty. These are problems that cannot be covered up or erased or ignored – when ignored, these problems merely move elsewhere and metastasize.
In the spirit of not ignoring the problem, and in the spirit of not merely complaining about a problem in a city to which you just moved but still not actually doing anything about it, MISSSEY (short for Motivating, Inspiring, Suporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth) is an excellent local non profit that works to support young women who have been sexually exploited. Because it’s not enough to know that this is a problem; we need to do something about it. Likewise, learning how to interact with people who come from this culture and knowing how to gracefully talk to someone whose sexual culture and sexual values might be different from yours would behoove everybody in this city. Because in Oakland, it’s okay to walk up to a woman and ask her for her phone number, and it isn’t perceived as street harassment. However, if that’s not okay with you, the correct response is not to racially profile that person, claim that person isn’t from your block, claim that there were implications of violence, and then expect your community to support you when you call the cops or try to get anyone who looks like that off your block. The correct response is to make eye contact, say, “No,” and walk away. The correct response is to realize that you’re experiencing a culture clash, and the end game of this culture clash isn’t to utterly decimate one culture but, rather, to figure out: where is the middle ground when teenage girls in East Oakland are coerced into sexual slavery but white women on Cleveland street cannot be engaged in conversation? There are multiple levels on which this problem can be addressed, and if your contribution to the problem is treating people with humanity regardless of race and commanding respect as a woman so as not to perpetuate a culture of sexual oppression, then that’s good enough for me.
My reaction, however, is to always give the guy a once over, check out his watch, look at his muscles, do a quick psychological examination as to whether or not this guy will get weird with me when he finds out that I, too, am a sexual predator, and then assess the location of the nearest public bathroom if all things are favorable. Hey, I’m a sexually empowered woman, and I run a blog called Fuck Feast, what did you expect.