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Right to Be: How to Use Bystander Intervention to Combat Harassment

Lawyers in Pennsylvania are fighting a rule prohibiting them from knowingly harassing or discriminating against others on First Amendment grounds (Reuters). A Florida professor had to appeal to law enforcement for a week before a man was arrested for allegedly shouting the N-word and trying to run over the professor’s son (Miami Herald). Cornell released research findings that people working jobs with frequent sexual harassment, such as in hospitality, become less able to identify when such harassment occurs (Cornell). Israel was forced to withdraw its ambassador to Morocco amidst reports of sexual harassment and exploitation (Al Jazeera). These events of the last month come on the heels of national attention on the harassment faced by Asian people during COVID. For marginalized people, everyday life presents a spectrum of potential violence that the privileged are never forced to consider. To learn what we all can—and must—do to confront this reality, The ARD spoke with Emily May and Jorge Arteaga from Right to Be, the authors of I’ve Got Your Back. Their new book provides a step-by-step layperson’s guide to bystander intervention. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

TAKE ACTION

• Actively intervene when you witness harassment. Attend a free bystander intervention training to prepare.

• Invite others to attend a training with you and share resources on bystander intervention with your community.

Consider: what was the last incident of harassment you witnessed? What happened, how did you feel, and what did you do? What would you have done differently? If you were harassed, what would you want others to have done? 


Q: What is harassment? 

JA: Harassment is any behavior that is unwanted, unwelcome, and makes you feel uncomfortable. It might be verbal, it might be physical, it might be non-physical and non-verbal, like someone following you. Maybe it’s an inappropriate look. 

Harassment is the beginning of a spectrum of violence. When that behavior goes unchecked, it allows it to escalate to worse behavior. Certain jokes become OK against certain communities; then we start to see those communities being attacked. 

EM: A lot of harassment is missed because people don’t experience that form of harassment themselves. Harassment looks so different across communities. There are things in doing this work that I don’t think I would have perceived as harassment before I started. 

So much of our work is about really being clear as to how harassment looks from community to community, how different it is, and helping to support people who don’t share those identities and are coming in as allies. 


Q: What should bystanders to harassment do? 

EM: There are Five D’s of Bystander Intervention. The first one is distract. I’m dropping my cell phone, I’m making a scene, I’m starting a random, unrelated conversation with the person being harassed. Delegate is finding someone else to help. We don’t mean the police; there are a lot of communities that may not feel safer with a police presence. I can delegate to the person next to me: “I’m seeing this, do you see this? Let’s address this together.” 

JA: The next is document. Documentation really brings to light some of the egregious harm that people otherwise would not know is an experience you had to navigate. It also gives the person being harassed a tool—a tool that you should give to them to allow them to choose how it gets shared. 

EM: Delay is a check-in: “Hey, I saw that, are you OK?” Our research with Cornell University shows as little as a knowing glance can actually reduce trauma for people who experience harassment, but not doing or saying anything can actually increase trauma. 

JA: Then we have direct: directly intervening to stop the harassment, creating a boundary but then quickly turning yourself to take care of the person experiencing harassment. It’s not about getting into a back-and-forth; you don’t want to escalate the situation. 

EM: It is counterintuitive that people think that police will solve harassment when the police have a long history of harm and harassment against the same communities that are disproportionately affected by harassment. When it comes to addressing racism, sexism, homophobia, classism—I’ve never seen the government or corporations be particularly effective at dismantling any of those things. But I have seen communities take care of each other in the face of those forms of harm. 

Of all of the communities of identities I hold—the LGBTQ+ community, the Black community, the Latinx community—we don’t have positive experiences with law enforcement. Bystander intervention is a tool to empower people to enact a level of change that doesn’t feel so ambiguous, so much bigger than me, and so impossible that I need to delegate it to policymakers or the police. 

JA: Get trained. We offer training free to the public in a bunch of different areas. There are multiple ways to get involved in this movement of not only ending harassment but building out the humanity of each and everyone one of us. Whether that be a training, deciding to share a story with us, looking up a resource, and sharing it with a friend, you’re making a huge difference. It just takes that first step. 

EM: There’s such a feeling of helplessness when it comes to harassment: that it’s just the price we pay for being a woman, being gay, being a person of color. And it has been for a long time, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We gotta get back to basics and remember who we are and how we take care of each other. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Different marginalized communities face very different forms of harassment. All are unwanted, unwelcome, and uncomfortable behavior centered on these marginalized identities. 

• Anyone can distract, delegate, document, delay, or directly intervene when witnessing harassment.

• Doing nothing when witnessing harassment increases the trauma experienced by the subject of harassment.

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