Last Wednesday was an average Wednesday. I wrote an article for Arthur, I did readings for class, and ate breakfast. I stepped out of my house and was making my way to the bus to go to class.
At the corner of Reid St and Charlotte St, I paused for the traffic signal to change. As I waited cars were passing. One car slowed as it passed me and the window rolled down. A man (young, white, affluent) leaned his torso out of the window.
He shouted at me: “Hey! What Subway do you work at?”
I stood confused for a moment. Had he gotten me confused for someone else? I don’t work at Subway so why would he…
He disappeared back into the window amidst triumphant and malicious laughter from the other men in the vehicle. Their car sped away while I was left on the street corner drawing the stares of strangers.
My blood started to boil as the nuances of that phrase started to hit me. I continued to walk to the bus stop and broke down the layers of the offensive question.
It had offended me to my core and I turned my analysis inwards as to what was making me so angry. Was it the violent intrusion on my walk to the bus? Was it the fact that I was the object of malicious derision? Was it the assumption that my occupation was a fast food employee?
I could not help but make the connection that this comment was racially based. I happened to be wearing a headscarf that morning, which would index to bigots an Orientalism that could be connected to an Islamic heritage. This heritage must then have been connected to the Subway sandwich franchise where many people (and perhaps especially women) of colour work.
The comment represents an intersection of gender, race, and class-based bigotry crafted into a single question meant to humiliate me.
I think back on all of the other instances of street harassment I’ve experienced and this was the first moment I’ve heard a comment that draws on race and class. In past, comments I have received were aggressive comments addressing my gender, sexuality, and presentation. Comments that in effect have established that public spaces are not safe for someone like me.
A recent Internet campaign has focused on documenting the outfits, appearance, and stories of victims of street harassment. Victims post photos of what they were wearing at the time of harassment as well as a story about the experience. Through this comparative record some connections can be made about the nature of street harassment and the comments themselves. I offer this article as a contribution to this record. May this article stand as evidence of the racial, sexist, and classist bigotry that pervades our society and unfortunately our city.
I have many privileges and I only experience the hatred that my specific appearance affords. I sympathize with, but do not share the experience of black people of colour, Indigenous groups, marginalized gender identities (nonbinary, transgender, and others), and all other oppressed groups that I am not part of. We all struggle together under an oppressive colonial patriarchy that tolerates aggression towards minority groups.
For anyone reading this that has participated in or stood by while street harassment took place, I implore you to read the accounts of victims of street harassment and understand that your words have a larger impact on our perception of safety in public.
What may be a performance for peers on your part is an act of aggression on minority groups and works to make us feel unwelcome and unsafe.