Harassment: The Unsung Diversity Problem

I guess I never really thought about harassment in a diversity context. But then I read “10 Things That Street #Harassment Is, In Case You Really Don’t Think It’s Important” by Soraya Chemaly, and it changed my mind, big time.

It’s not that I haven’t been harassed. I have. I’m reasonably cute, I have breasts and I’m black. In some places that’s a recipe for disaster, a triple disaster, in fact. I’ve been importuned on the street, while visiting foreign countries, on jobs. But see, I’m what they call a ball buster. What I get is often what I give.

For instance, many years and a good 10 pounds ago, I was visiting an old boyfriend’s home in Spain. I often went for morning walks while he took care of family business in a bid to exercise, see where he grew up and absorb a little culture. Two mornings in a row, two strange men whistled and cat-called at me in Spanish. The third morning I changed my route, but I was either unlucky or they were waiting for me because they found me again, right outside my boyfriend’s house. They attempted to corner me against the gate, but I’d stopped for a drink and had a big 24-ounce orange pop from McDonald’s in my hand. Not for long. I let that motor scooter fly like it had wings, and then I cussed them out in Spanish.

Perhaps luckily for me my ex came charging out and they ran. He chastised me for taking chances with my safety, for taking on two men who were so much bigger than me. He was right. They could have hurt me had he not been there to deter them. But I was also right when I stood up for myself. I have the right to defend myself against tyranny, even if it’s only an incident on a street.

I use the word tyranny deliberately. In her article Chemaly says, “We all experience harassment differently because of the ways that race, class, ability and sexuality intersect. I understand why many people don’t like universalist arguments based on gender because we cannot modularize these parts of our identities. It’s not that harassment might be racialized, it’s that by its very nature it is racialized. The same mechanism that informs sexism informs racism, homophobia, transphobia and more. They are mutually dependent ways of oppressing people.”

Consider that. It’s deep — harassment as a form of oppression. When you think about it, it’s not a big leap from one idea to the next. When I read the tweets Chemaly compiled, it shook me up. I sat there, reading and shaking my head at the unprovoked abuse women — and men — have to endure, and for which there is often no punishment. Worse, some of the harassment — and the condoning of the harassment — depicted came from authority figures, police officers and such.

I’ve heard many stories from people I know and from strangers where they were being harassed — again, men too — and when they told the powers that be, they weren’t taken seriously. They were told they were overreacting, or to think carefully before acting because the repercussions might not end favorably — for them.

That is sad. It’s also dangerous. It tells the oppressors they have free license to dole out mistreatment without fear of reprisal. And since power is often at the root of harassment, getting a free pass is like pouring gas on a fire.

In matters of diversity and inclusion it is often best to take a conciliatory approach, to look for the win-win. But in matters of harassment I advocate a hard line. Whether it’s a threat to your personal safety or verbal abuse, in the workplace employees have a right to expect to be safe, and to have their concerns over their safety and well-being taken seriously. Period. And when someone has tried every reasonable alternative to stop the abuse and been thwarted, short of physical violence or some other outlandish disruption — it’s subjective, I admit — they should not be punished for defending themselves.

You have to teach people how to treat you, and sometimes the lessons won’t be pretty. But we all need to learn, right?