Day in and day out people move through the world, hoping to get to their location safely. We walk down the street, wait for a train, and read books on the bus. But for many women, getting from point A to point B without being harassed just isn’t an option. Recently, social worker and avid Twitter user Feminista Jones witnessed a young mother who was pushing a stroller being accosted on the street. Jones decided to ask her one simple question: “You OK, sis?”
“I have a very strong presence because of my theater background, my height, and my stature,” explains Jones. “I’ve stood there, I’ve glared at the person that was doing it [harassing], and I’ve recorded police if they were giving people of color a hard time, but this was the first time I actually spoke directly to a woman who was being harassed.”
Those three words blossomed into a social media movement, complete with thousands of tweets, dozens of blog posts, and an eye-opening video, all aimed at amplifying the voices of black women forced to cope with the often overlooked problem of street harassment.
According to a national report sponsored by the advocacy group Stop Street Harassment in which 2,000 respondents were surveyed, people of color experience higher, and more violent, levels of harassment. Two-thirds of respondents overall said they’d been harassed. Forty-eight percent of blacks, 45 percent of Hispanics, and 36 percent of whites had experienced some form of verbal abuse. As for physically aggressive harassment, 38 percent of blacks, 33 percent of Hispanics, and 27 percent of whites had been subjected to it.
“Our voices and our experiences are not always represented within the larger street harassment movement,” Jones says, crediting groups like Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment for raising general awareness about the problem. However, Jones wanted to use the hashtag #YouOkSis to center the conversation around women of color, who often feel their experiences are absent from the wider discussion.
“The voices of black women are very censored. The voices of black women who navigate low-income areas and the voices of black women who experience street harassment from men of all different races were missing,” she says. “I felt that rather than having other people speak for us, we should speak for ourselves.”
Not everyone was on board with the movement. Before #YouOkSis hosted its first Twitter chat last Thursday, a small but vocal group of black men bum-rushed the hashtag, hoping to derail the conversation. They accused Jones of being a CIA operative looking to cause a rift in the black community.
One man called #YouOkSis “another divisive [hashtag] to get a rise out of [black men] for the negro bed wenches social and political benefit,” while another said the movement illustrated how far “black feminists will stoop to prove their hatred for black men.”
The harsh—and sometimes violent—criticism hasn’t stopped Jones.
“It was a very small section, and it was a calculated effort to troll,” she says of the men who attempted to disrupt the hashtag. “Anybody outside of that got it. There were far more brothers who were supportive of what we’re trying to do.”
While it would be nice to get men who harass women to change their behavior, Jones isn’t focusing on them.
“The bottom line is that a lot of the ways in which men have been taught to approach women has been problematic,” she says. “Men are taught to believe that women are perpetually accessible to them, and it’s hard to take no for an answer.” Instead of correcting an aggressive man’s behavior, Jones advises bystanders to redirect their attention to the victim.
Some strategies for those looking to intervene include getting into the line of sight of a harasser so he knows he’s being watched, asking the victim a nonthreatening question—such as inquiring about directions—to let her know she isn’t alone, or causing a disruption that will put the harasser on alert. Because street harassment can quickly turn violent—as with the experience of this woman who was stabbed in San Francisco, or this teen in the U.K. who was hit with a champagne bottle for refusing to dance with a man at a club—Jones says, “we need strategies that will de-escalate the situation and won’t promote further antagonism.”
For many women, street harassment is frightening, annoying, and utterly frustrating. But as Jones points out, “it can all just go away if people stop harassing us.”
Jones plans to continue sharing the stories of women of color through #YouOkSis and teaching her young son how to properly treat women. The movement is already seeing positive results.
“I’ve had a lot of men say #YouOkSis opened their eyes to what women go through, and how they could have stepped up and done something. Some have said they’ll do better,” Jones says of the scores of men positively participating in the hashtag. “So it’s working, and that’s really what we want.”