TW: Mentions of sexual assault, rape.
I was a few days behind on the news this Monday due to a blissfully computer-free weekend. (The sun! It was magical!) While catching up, I came across this piece by Erika Anderson for the New York Times, which addresses the author's experience of sexual assault in Crown Heights. Anderson details how a hooded man approached her from behind and grabbed her between the legs before disappearing back into the crowd. Anderson reported the assault and, surprisingly, had a drama-free interaction with an NYPD officer regarding the incident. (He did ask her what she was wearing at the time of the attack, but my standards for the NYPD are so dirt low that I'll chalk that question up to the system rather than this particular officer's sexism).
Anderson's article is laced with the sort of wide-eyed fear that I've often heard from friends first moving to New York. Especially for women, the city can be overwhelming. The absence of simple camaraderie with fellow pedestrians, daily newspaper headlines blaring crime statistics, and intangible evidence that law enforcement will actually keep you safe can make for quite a sense of isolation. And damn, sometimes folks are right. Your fear is validated. Scary things happen here.
But I struggled while reading Anderson's piece, for a couple of reasons. First, let's look at the way she discusses her sexual assault.
Anderson's assault is, as she puts it, "sort of nothing, because it’s something women experience every day." Her quick dismissal first brought a flash of hot anger - how dare she diminish her own and other women's assaults! But as the piece went on, I found myself sort of agreeing with her. Is this really all she's upset about? Someone grabbed her crotch once? My anger quickly turned to an eye-roll. I chalked the whole article up to her naiveté.
Clearly, this reaction was inappropriate. I'm ashamed to even type it out. (Because, for those of you not currently existing in the 21st-century, women shouldn't get eye rolls when they talk about their personal space and safeties being violated. Ok? Ok.) But my reaction begged a question - why did I feel so much defensive boredom when I should have been empathizing with Anderson's story?
As a native New Yorker and a woman, I am of course familiar with Anderson's experience. While I would never take a cab to get home (commuter pride, dammit. Also taxis hate going to Queens), I take all the usual city girl precautions to prevent my rape. I walk in the middle of the street at night, hold my keys between my fingers, pretend to talk on the phone (or to myself), avoid empty subway cars, etc, etc. I've long had a sense of pride about my street smarts. (Of course, my pride is tempered by a deep sadness that my safety is at risk, and requires constant vigilance, because of my various identities. But that's probably too nuanced for a response to a Times article.)
It has taken me years to acknowledge that I experienced sexual assault frequently as a young woman in New York. In truth, I only really started thinking of those experiences as 'assault' within the last couple of months. I've spent way more time talking about street harassment, which is often a more visible form of oppression, than all those times I was touched, watched, groped, and subjected to a variety of entirely illegal sexual behaviors. Those experiences mostly happened on the subway, when I was either alone or in a rush-hour-packed train car. And without witnesses, allies, or any vocabulary to describe the fear and confusion associated with those assaults, I didn't know reporting them was an option. So I forgot about them. Sort of.
After reporting the assault, Anderson pores over crime statistics for her neighborhood, a common pastime of those seeking false reassurance of their well-being in urban centers. She finds that there were 48 misdemeanor sexual assaults (like groping) in her precinct in 2012. 48. This number seems shockingly low. And of course it is. Because there are plenty - hundreds, thousands - of women just like me, who would never even think to report a misdemeanor sexual assault. Because the NYPD, because the lack of evidence, because the street smarts. Because we never learned how.
I think the reason I had a hard time treating Anderson's assault with the gravity it deserves is that my own assaults never led to justice, or really any acknowledgement that a crime had occurred. I developed my arsenal of self-defense mechanisms to guard against the pain of those traumas. Seeing Anderson's story published reminded me of all the silent victims, so many of them less privileged and more damaged than I, whose stories will never receive that kind of public validation and sympathy. And that stings.
Next, let's talk gentrification.
Like any New York Times story worth its salt and repute, this piece does nothing to examine the actual issues underlying the author's narrative. Anderson attempts to bring gentrification and race into the piece. But she does so ineffectively. Anderson, a white woman, confidently asserts that her assailant is Latino, despite only seeing the lower half of his face. Obviously the racial implications here are troubling, to say the least. Additionally, she centers her own experience of gentrification rather than the experiences of longtime Crown Heights residents. There's nothing new about a white person centering their experiences in regard to racial politics. But Anderson's oddly visceral metaphor of "being both the wolf and the lamb" would suggest that she might at least discuss what negative impact she has on her neighborhood, and not only how it makes her feel victimized. But she doesn't. Any mention of her political position in this scenario is basically a restatement of "I'm white, and most of my neighbors aren't." Sophisticated commentary, it isn't.
The experience of street harassment or assault in gentrifying neighborhoods is challenging to analyze. (For a much more nuanced take on the issue, check out Kristy Choi's piece in Bluestockings Magazine discussing her time spent living in Bed-Stuy last summer.) But this article adds insult to gentrified injury by giving only a glancing look to a complicated issue. As much as the Times may feel it's duly covered "transitional areas," this topic warrants more than surface-level discussion in a piece otherwise focused on a sexual assault narrative.
When addressing whether she likes living in Crown Heights, Anderson talks about a number of local activities she enjoys - a writer's group, a trendy bookstore, Prospect Park. To some, it may seem as though she's distancing herself from her "largely Caribbean" neighborhood with this list. It may seem that Anderson is primarily devoting her time in Crown Heights to, well, white people things. And given the tone of her piece, this takeaway is reasonable. Because the only things we learned about Crown Heights from this piece are its crime rate and that there are men we assume to be Latino grabbing women's crotches on the streets. And who'd want to hang out there? It's not that those details are irrelevant or unimportant. But Anderson's is yet another piece that portrays mid-gentrification Brooklyn as a too-dangerous haven for white New Yorkers who were hoping the cost of being trendy would only be learning some Spanish, not dealing with the political impact their presence has on historically non-white communities.
There is a painful conversation to be had at the intersection of gentrification and sexual assault. How do white women safely exist in neighborhoods that historically and presently are, understandably, not all that welcoming to white people? How do we avoid the terrible "asking for it" narrative when discussing the violation of women's bodies in such places? Where is there room for voices of longtime neighborhood residents to discuss their own experiences of gentrification? And how can we take a hard stance against sexual assault in gentrifying neighborhoods while still remaining sensitive to the complicated racial politics at play?
I appreciate Anderson coming forward to talk about her experience, because it shouldn't be the norm that misdemeanor sexual assaults are just the status quo of living in New York for any woman, regardless of race, class or identity. I wish I'd felt that way in high school. But unfortunately, Anderson's unexamined treatment of gentrification means this piece falls short. Instead, it exemplifies the many missteps that are possible when discussing such a fraught, weighty set of issues. Anderson's final claim - "I haven't moved, and I don't plan to" - feels unjustifiably defiant. Who's asking her to stay? Without further interrogation of her place in this neighborhood, her stance is both ignorant and privileged. There are ways for white people to respectfully co-exist in predominantly non-white neighborhoods - as a Queens resident, I've seen this happen my whole life. But doing so requires a little more thoughtfulness than Anderson gives in this piece. And as little as I expect from the Times, I expect more than that.
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