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How To Support A Scholar Who Has Come Under Attack

Thank A Public Scholar

Academics, can we talk seriously about social media for a moment?  Like much of the rest of the world, we use various social media platforms.  Some of us use it strictly for personal reasons, some exclusively to share our scholarly work and perspective, and others for a mixture of these reasons.  I have witnessed enough attacks on scholars by conservatives, bigots, trolls, and even other academics to conclude that no one is shielded from backlash.  While our academic freedom is generally protected (though, that statement is debatable), we can no longer expect our colleagues, departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations to stand up for us when we come under attack.

The Times (And Attacks) Have Changed

The rules of engagement have changed.  We now live in a time when a 20-year-old college sophomore, who writes for a student newspaper to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges” (see bio at end), can spark a national conservative assault on a tenure-track professor at a different university over a few tweets critiquing racism.  (They believe, however, that they are somehow protecting innocent, uneducated laypeople from the evils of brainy, radical professors in the liberal ivory tower.)

Make her a thing

Indeed, this conservative student reporter did make Dr. Zandria F. Robinson “a thing” — both in the sense of a trend of attacking her, her appearance, her politics, her identity, and her research, and by making her an object of a larger, calculated conservative attack on critical and public scholars.  With a mere tweet to the president of University of Memphis, this student reporter influenced an internal investigation on Dr. Robinson. Though unsuccessful with the first assault, the site along with another conservative college student site launched a second attack that caught the attention of national conservative media.

Hasson2

In essence, conservatives found success in launching a national assault on the scholarship and character of Dr. Saida Grundy, and were using the formula a second time on Dr. Robinson.  They got their first taste of blood in not only dragging Dr. Grundy’s name and reputation through the mud, but also in influencing her university’s president to issue a statement essentially calling her a racist for critiquing racism.  U Memphis never formally sanctioned or criticized Dr. Robinson, but their vague tweet disclosing her departure from the university is suspect — perhaps a passive way of quieting the conservatives who demanded her termination.  (Fortunately, Dr. Robison had the last word.)

Memphis Tweet

I was pleasantly surprised to see Dr. Robinson’s new academic home, Rhodes College, issued a statement to the press that not only sung her praises but affirmed her expertise and scholarship.

Dr. Robinson was hired for a faculty position in the Rhodes Anthropology & Sociology Department that calls for expertise in particular areas, specifically gender studies and social movements. Her expertise in these areas, her extensive understanding of the complex problems of race in American society, her deep roots in the Memphis area, and many years of successful teaching experience, made her an attractive candidate for the position…Dr. Robinson has an extensive and impressive body of scholarship that provides clarity and context to the sound bite world of social media. This situation ultimately shines a light on Rhodes as a place where intellectual engagement and the exchange of ideas are among our highest priorities.

For once, this wasn’t a passive commitment to tolerate a controversial scholar’s academic freedom; this was a proactive statement to say, “she knows what she’s talking about, so please take several seats.”

But, I worry Rhodes may be an outlier here.  And, I am not entirely optimistic Rhodes would defend every scholar who comes under attack.  Though I have been informally supported at my own institution, I’m not confident that I would be defended if donors threatened to withhold their financial support if I weren’t fired.  Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, an expert on academic institutions, penned an excellent essay that substantiates my doubt:

What I really wanted to point out is how yet again we have an example of how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.  In this age of affective economies of attention, weak ties can turn a mild grievance into something that feels like political action. In this moment we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters… Basically, the scale of current media is so beyond anything academia can grasp that those with agendas get a leg up on pulling the levers of universities’ inherent conservativism.

Simply put, academia is behind the times.  And, there’s far too much academic cowardice, rather than academic bravery, to entrust our protection to our universities.  Controversy — the very thing that academic freedom is designed to protect us against (professionally) — is feared rather than embraced.  What’s worse is that these attacks coincide with, or have even been made possible by, the decline of labor rights and protections for academics.  Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield argued this in an insightful essay, Canaries in the Coal Mine? Saida Grundy, Zandria F. Robinson, and Why Calls for their Firing are a Problem for Everyone”:

As more institutions adopt a market-based model where students are consumers, teaching is pushed off onto poorly paid adjunct professors, and administrative bloat runs rampant, the conditions that tenure track faculty have enjoyed—and that have allowed us to do our best work—are becoming increasingly weaker. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has moved to weaken tenure at state colleges and universities (with predictably bad results as noted faculty leave the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for less hostile climates). In this type of environment, it’s not really a wonder that faculty are at risk not for their scholarship, or their teaching, but because they made public statements that generated outcry and controversy.

And:

Like other employees in an increasingly neoliberal environment, academics are facing growing job insecurity and precariousness that stands to weaken and minimize the ways our jobs should allow us to contribute to understanding a changing society. If, as I suspect, Grundy and Robinson are just early indicators of what’s to come for all of us, then we should all be very concerned.

In this context, besides the real professional risks, we are also largely on our own to weather trolls, harassment, rape threats, death threats, and hate mail.  And, that goes for those who are relatively uncensored and those who think they maintain their public presence the “right” way.  Indeed, you don’t even have to engage the public outside of your classroom to find yourself under attack.

But, let’s be clear: the pattern of attacks on scholars appears to suggest that people of color, women, and other scholars of marginalized backgrounds are most vulnerable to these attacks.  Women of color who publicly write about racism and white privilege seem to be overrepresented among the targets of these witch hunts for critical and public scholars.  Academia continues to change around us.  We can no longer bury our heads in the sand, telling ourselves our only goal is to “publish or perish.”  There may not be a decent job left within which we can publish on the topics of our own interests and passions.

Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack

I have come across a fair amount of advice for targets of online (and off-line) harassment, and even offered my own.  See Dr. Rebecca Schuman’s reflections on dealing with trolls, “Me & My Trolls: A Love Story” and “The Thickness of My Skin.” And, Joshunda Sanders’s, “Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama.” Also, see the science about online trolls [video], and a cute musical response to trolls [video].

But, I have not seen any advice for others to support scholars who come under attack.  So, with what little experience I have, I’m proposing my own approach.  In my proposed strategy, I draw from bystander intervention work, primarily used to prevent sexual violence and support victims of such violence.  In the recent past, I created a report for a local rape crisis center/domestic violence shelter on existing bystander intervention curricula [PDF].  I wrote about bystander intervention for sexual violence when I blogged for the Kinsey Institute.  And, I have written about using bystander intervention to fight racism and support victims of racism — a blog post that has been used as a major theme for an anti-racist group in Tennessee.  I hesitate to claim expertise here, but I have referenced or heavily used the bystander intervention model enough to feel comfortable using it here.

Briefly, the bystander intervention model calls for others who are present for some problem or emergency situation to intervene in some way.  The language of “bystanders” comes from the concept of the bystander effect, wherein witnesses to some crisis are less and less likely to intervene with more and more witnesses present.  If you are the only bystander present, you are quite likely to help if possible; if you are one of one hundred people, the odds are extremely slim that you’ll do anything besides mind your business.  Bystander intervention explicitly counters this tendency, instead demanding that bystanders intervene in whatever way possible.  And, for social problems like sexual violence and racism, this approach conceptualizes of the problem as a community’s responsibility.  To eliminate sexual violence, we are all responsible for fighting rape culture: challenging sexist jokes and comments; challenging victim-blaming; teaching and practicing sexual consent; intervening when we see sexual violence occurring; demanding justice for victims of sexual violence; and, so forth.

I want to apply bystander intervention, then, to supporting scholars who are targeted by bigots, trolls, conservatives, and hostile colleagues.  First, we must conceptualize such attacks as a larger problem, one which affects all of us in some way, and which we are all responsible for addressing. A culmination of factors — the absence of academic freedom policies that reflect the existence and scholars’ use of social media, the decline of labor rights and protections in academia, ongoing conservative attacks on higher education (even tenure) — have produced an increasingly easy route to target and then take down public and critical scholars.  And, these forces exist within the larger intersections of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression, thus making marginalized scholars the most vulnerable to attack and the subsequent inaction of academic institutions and organizations.

As a social problem (at least among academics), it is thus our responsibility as a broad academic community to counter these attacks and support the victims of these attacks.  This community responsibility exists at multiple levels, ranging from small acts to large policy changes.

Source: Dahlberg, L.L., & Krug, E.G. (2002). Violence – a global public health problem. In: E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, & R. Lozano (Eds.), World Report on Violence and Health (pp. 3-21). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

Source: Dahlberg, Linda, and Etienne Krug. 2002. ” Violence – A Global Public Health Problem.”  Pp. 3-21 in World Report on Violence and Health, edited by E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, and R. Lozano. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

A Bystander Intervention Approach To Support Attacked Scholars

We could adapt the above social-ecological model to fit academia, which should include the following levels: individual; department; university; discipline; and, the profession.  Below, I offer specific ways to support scholars who are attacked, drawing from my own experiences and suggestions offered by colleagues on Twitter and Facebook (including those who have been subjected to attacks themselves).  Please, offer additional suggestions in the comments section.

Individual-Level Strategies

  • Assume that the targeted scholar is already aware of the attack against them.  While well-intentioned, “hey did you see this awful thing about you!” can do more harm than good, potentially re-triggering their negative response to the attack.  I also recommend not tagging the targeted scholar on social media if and when you share links from the attack or stories about the attack.  Unlike social media platforms such as Twitter, we have a choice over who we connect with on Facebook; don’t threaten one’s safe space/chosen community by bringing in the external attacks.
  • Offer to take over keeping up with what is written about the targeted scholar so that they do not have to.  Only inform them of positive responses and anything else that seems important; don’t let them know about the negative responses.
  • Make an informed decision about whether to point out the attack to others.  On the one hand, raising awareness and calling others to arms is useful to prevent a situation in which the attacked scholars is on her own to defend and support herself.  We certainly can stand to be more aware of these attacks, to whom they are happening, and why they occur.  But, on the other hand, you might empower the attackers more by giving their attack more attention and readership.  In some cases, simply not feeding a troll could be effective in containing the situation.
  • If you decide to raise awareness about an attack, be mindful that some colleagues (especially department colleagues and administrators at the targeted scholar’s institution) may be prompted to act in a way that harms the targeted scholar.  You don’t want to be responsible for initiating professional consequences against the targeted scholar in your effort to support them.
  • If you see that a colleague has come under attack, simply ask what they need and extend an offer of support.  At a minimum, this is a reminder to the attacked scholar that they are not alone.  I can say, from personal experience, sitting alone with only nasty and bigoted comments from strangers can feel very isolating; if the attacks are persistent, one might even begin to question whether their attackers’ claims are true.
  • Say something more helpful or useful than “you must be doing something right!”  Weathering an attack is already psychologically taxing enough; asking the targeted scholar to trick their mind into seeing the attacks and threats as a compliment isn’t helpful in the moment.  It’s hard to appreciate the supposed badge of honor that is digging deep into your skin and drawing blood.
  • Don’t say “just ignore it” or “just turn off the computer.”  We live in an age where our online interactions are a real part of our lives.  It’s not as simple as pretending the attack doesn’t exist when you turn the computer off.  And, the professional consequences are real.
  • Counter the attack with supportive notes and messages.  Express your appreciation of the scholars’ efforts and their bravery for being a public voice.  Start a campaign to encourage other friends and colleagues to send the targeted scholar kind notes and thanks.  Or, take a moment to thank them using the #ThankAPublicScholar hashtag on Twitter.
  • If you have been subjected to an attack in the past, reach out to an attacked scholar to let them know you have gone through it and that they are not alone.  Offer advice for the best ways to weather the attack.
  • Defend the attacked scholar.  This can be as small as reporting offensive content from their attackers on social media or as big as writing your own blog post or op-ed to affirm the targeted scholar.  Take screen shots of offensive comments as evidence.  Fight the attackers’ ignorance with research if they get the targeted scholars’ words/scholarship twisted.  If you can stomach it, contribute to the comments section to say you agree with, or at least appreciate, the scholars’ writing.  (Note: These efforts may open you up to being attacked, too.  I’m still blocking trolls who are giving me grief on Twitter for defending Dr. Zandria F. Robinson.  And, there’s foolishness.)
  • If an attacked scholar is harmed professionally — whether as minor as public sanctioning or as severe as termination — hold the institution accountable for protecting academic freedom.  Start a petition.  Employ the advice and services of AAUP and other professional organizations.  Perhaps suggest that the targeted scholar seek legal counsel, and help them raise money if they cannot afford to.
  • Challenge colleagues’ comments that blame attacked scholars for their own attacks.  I have seen and heard scholars rationalize recent attacks, attributing blame to the targets because they used social media in a certain way, spoke/wrote in a certain tone, failed to give broader context and offer citations within the limits of a 140-character tweet, and so on.  “They knew the risks!”  I’ve even seen discussions that offer no sympathy for targets because they weren’t really engaging in public scholarship — just “popping off.”  These sentiments suggest that there is a right way and a wrong way to engage the public. Even scholars who write more extensive op-eds, explicitly backed by research, have come under attack.  As I argued in the previous section, these attacks reflect calculated assaults on higher education, liberalism, people of color, and women; and, we are all increasingly vulnerable as higher education becomes more corporatized and relies heavily on a poorly paid pool of adjunct laborers.  If we conclude that the only safe way to avoid being targeted is to stop engaging the public and delete our social media accounts, we are deluding ourselves into thinking that silence will protect us.  We do too little to make academia accessible, anyhow; we would only be making matters worse if we self-silence.

Department and University Level Strategies

  • If the targeted scholar is receiving death threats, threats of sexual violence, and/or hate mail, contact campus (and perhaps local) police to investigate and offer a police escort.  You or the police should take over checking your colleagues’ mail and answering their phone.  Even if you don’t agree with their actions or comments, there is no excuse for leaving them vulnerable to physical, mental, or sexual violence.
  • When a colleague has come under attack, fight fire with fire — pressure your department and/or university to issue a public statement defending your colleague and affirming their expertise and valueDo not take Boston University’s approach, which suggested they tolerate Dr. Saida Grundy’s academic freedom, and also called her a racist and a bigot — in a statement that “denounces” her “racially charged tweets.”  It would have been better for BU to say nothing at all because it only fueled her attackers’ taste for blood.  DO take Rhodes College’s approach, which clarified Dr. Zandria F. Robinson’s expertise, affirmed that her tweets and blog posts are backed by her expertise, and explicitly stated her value to the institution.
  • When people from outside of the university target a professor and demand their termination (or worse), do not readily accept their claims at face value.  Use your critical skills as a scholar to assess the significance, source, and validity of these claims.  I recommend being particularly suspicious of claims that a (minority) professor has somehow harmed a privileged group (e.g., whites, men, heterosexuals, middle-class and wealthy people).  Stand firm in the distinction between public statements backed by research, especially that are critical of the status quo and inequality, and proclamations based solely on personal opinion.  Remember that the public isn’t necessarily ready to hear what scholars have to say — and that’s no reason to panic.  (How often do we encounter our own students’ [and even colleagues’] discomfort when we challenge their worldviews?)
  • Demand that your university and, if relevant, your department, establish guidelines for academic freedom that reflect today’s forms of public scholarship and means of communicating with the public.  Drawn on existing AAUP materials on academic freedom and social media.  To be clear, I am suggesting that academic freedom policies include explicit protections for scholars’ use of social media, among other forms of engaging the public — not setting limits on what is considered “responsible” social media use like University of Kansas’s controversial policy.  The major problem with KU’s policy is a stipulation that social media use that “is contrary to the best interests of the employer” may be grounds for termination.  As universities have come more corporatized, it seems the quickest way to have a professor sanctioned or fired is to threaten the university’s bank account (i.e., donors’ financial contributions).  In this vein, think about who has the most means to donate to a university; people of color (among other marginalized groups) will never have the same level of power to pressure a university to sanction/fire a controversial white professor.  So, the power of the purse in academia will always loom larger for marginalized scholars.
  • Related to the point above, demand that the university institute a formal means of lodging complains of inappropriate or offensive use of social media or other engagements with the public.  (There is no reason why a university president should be taking requests from students, with a known agenda to target presumably liberal professors, to investigate one of their faculty — especially via Twitter.)  Just as any internal offense (such as sexual harassment, academic dishonesty) must be officially reported before any action is taken, external charges, if investigated and acted upon, should first be formally reported with proper evidence.
  • Pressure your university to employ lawyers who will aggressively fight on behalf of scholars’ academic freedom.  (Several academics have speculated that BU’s public statement about sanction of Dr. Grundy was written by cowardly lawyers who looked to protect the university, not her.)
  • Demand that your department and/or university value community service (not just academic service) and public scholarship.  Here, I explicitly mean that these efforts count in hiring, tenure, promotion, and pay raises.  When university administrators praise or even demand public service, hold them accountable for actually counting and rewarding these efforts — and matching these rewards with professional protections against any backlash.
  • Challenge the academic culture that demands that you “keep your head down” and “keep your mouth shut.”  Question the implicit assumption underlying this advice that scholars, particularly at the junior level, will be reckless and irresponsible with regard to department and university politics, and engaging with the public.  In light of the few rewards and great risks entailed in serving the community and engaging the public, these efforts should be rewarded, not punished or kept quiet.
  • If you work in a graduate department, advocate for explicitly discussing academic freedom and public scholarship with graduate students — perhaps make these discussions a regular part of a professional seminar, preparing future faculty programs, or some other form of mandatory professional socialization.  Also, discuss the changing nature of higher education: the decline of tenure-track positions, the increase in student debt, the decline in state funding, and the corporatization of universities.
  • Train your graduate students how to effectively and safely use social media and work with the media.
  • Rather than attempt to “beat the activist” out of your graduate students, recognize that activism or, at least a desire to make a difference, is what drives many people into graduate school and academia (especially those from marginalized backgrounds).  Find ways to harness this passion in your graduate students’ careers.

Discipline And Profession Level Strategies

  • Demand that your professional organizations, especially those to which you pay dues, actively defend scholars who come under attack.  This can entail issuing public statements and press releases in their defense, offering financial support and help finding new employment for those who are unexpectedly fired, and offering access to legal counsel if necessary.   (Sociologists, as far as I know, ASA only intervenes when scholars have been fired by their universities — and, even then, it may not be to defend them.  The rest of us are on our own.)
  • Create resources to support and build community among public scholars.
  • Host conferences on academic freedom, public scholarship, and intellectual activism, with at least some focus on the inherent risks of engaging the public.
  • Host conference workshops on using social media and working with the media.
  • Work to reverse the adjunctification of higher education.
  • Demand that your local and state politicians stop making efforts to undermine academic freedom (including tenure), and start making more efforts to protect it.

UPDATE [7-9-2015, 4:27pm EST]: I have been informed of two additional resources that are relevant to this post.  One is a map of threats to academic freedom and other barriers in academia in the US: “Scholars Under Attack.”  Another is a well-written essay by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, “‘Who Do You Think You Are?’: When Marginality Meets Academic Microcelebrity.”

April Is Sexual Assault Awareness Month – Are We Aware Yet?

saam

Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.

There is still a little over a week left in April – Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).  This is our annual 30-day-long recognition of a problem that affects far too many people, especially girls and women: sexual violence.  The primary goals of the month is to raise awareness about sexual violence and, ultimately, eliminate it all together.

With nearly forty years of anti-sexual violence activism — are we aware yet?  Unfortunately, not so much.

What Is Sexual Violence?

An important starting point for raising awareness about sexual violence is to define it.  A major focus of sexual violence prevention is on sexual assault, which is typically defined as any sexual contact with a person without their consent, through coercion, or by force.

Because of inconsistent definitions in the law, especially from state to state, non-consensual sex is sometimes referred to as rape.  Some distinguish rape from sexual assault to include any non-consensual sexual acts that involve penetration.

While these distinctions are important, at least for legal purposes, they are not inclusive of other unwanted sexual acts.  So, advocates have pushed for recognition of the full range of such acts under the broad umbrella of sexual violence.  This broader category includes:

Attention to sexual violence, as a broad class of non-consensual sexual acts, also allows for attention to victims who are often overlooked, including boys and men.

The Basis Of Sexual Violence

Next, it is important to understand what sexual violence is based upon.  Sexual violence is an expression of power.  It is a tool that is used to physical, mentally, and/or emotionally control another person.  It is not an expression of sexual desire.

In understanding sexual violence this way, the myths that someone simply goes over board, gets carried away, or that their hormones got out of control are dispelled.

Beyond Individuals

By “power,” I am referring primarily to the social hierarchies, which place members of our society either at a high or low status.  Most attention has been paid to sexual violence as an expression of sexism.  In particular, women are afforded lower status and less power in society than men.  There are various things that some men do to further limit women’s status or disempower them, or even take advantage of them, including sexual violence.

So, it is important to look beyond what, on the surface, appears to be a private, individual act of sexual violence.  For example, the seemingly personal acts of acquaintance rape  and spousal rape are fundamentally political because they serve as an express of sexism.  But, sexual violence may also be based on other systems of oppression, including racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ageism, ableism, and fatphobia.

Sexual Violence And Oppression

But, sexual violence is not merely an expression of one or more of these systems of inequality.  It is also influenced and justified by them.  For example, sexism includes the rigid control of women’s bodies and sexualities, the sexual objectification of girls and women, and so forth.  This creates a dynamic where girls and women are vulnerable to sexual violence, and in which some men feel entitled to women’s bodies.

When women are victimized, the act is justified by stereotyping men as naturally oversexed and women as asexual, or by blaming the victim.  Alternatively, others may turn a blind eye, or even deny that it occurred.

Also, sexual violence actually reinforces these systems of oppression.  Again, using the example of sexism, women’s subordinate status to men, and constrained opportunities and well-being are partly the artifact of sexual violence.  Some reports suggest 1 in 4 women are survivors of rape or sexual assault, and, thereafter are at risk for facing various health problems.  Even more women live in fear that they may be victimized (or revictimized).

Sexual Violence As A Social Problem

Reflecting the systematic component of oppression, sexual violence is not a random occurrence.  And, all members of society do not share an equal chance of being victimized.  Women make up 90 percent of survivors of sexual violence.  In addition, there is evidence that repeat perpetrators of sexual violence account for most acts of sexual assault and rape.

Sexual violence, then, reflects a society-wide problem.  Further, some social organizations and institutions play a role, either by 1) ignoring such acts, 2) failing to support survivors and protect victims from further harm, 3) failing to punish perpetrators, 4) condoning these acts, and/or 5) facilitating sexual violence.  For example, colleges and universities have been criticized for (unintentionally) creating space for rampant sexual violence on campuses.  Recently, more and more schools have come under fire for doing too little in response to sexual violence, or even discouraging reports of victimization.

Culturally, how we talk about sexual violence (or not) contributes to the problem.  Too often, in everyday conversations, the media, pop culture, and so forth, jokes are made about rape and sexual assault, victims are blamed for their own victimization, and perpetrators are excused for actions.  In fact, many have argued that we live in a rape culture because sexual violence and the cultural norms that condone it are so pervasive.

Another facet to this is the harassment and bullying that survivors face for reporting their victimization, and their and allies’ public anti-sexual violence activism.  In other words, some victims and allies who speak out face a backlash, which aims to silence them.  A strong effort is made to keep sexual violence invisible, or at least seem like isolated, random, private acts.

Sexual Violence Prevention As A Community Responsibility

Because sexual violence is such a huge, widespread problem, no one person can stop it alone.  That is why many anti-sexual violence advocates are pushing for bystander intervention – a call for others to fight against sexual violence.  This includes:

  1. Intervening when sexual violence occurs if it is safe to do soFor example, this can mean alerting a teacher if your friend confides in you that she is being molested by her uncle (and she agrees to have you tell the teacher).  Or, making sure your friend, who is very drunk, gets home to his own bed after a party.  Or, letting your coworker know that whistling at women on the street is a form of harassment and encourage him to stop.
  2. Supporting victims and survivors of violence.  One of the most important things to do is ensure them that you hear them and believe them.  (Unfortunately, they may be doubted by others, and face the broader victim-blaming norms in society.)  Ask them how you can help them.  And, ask them whether they wish to report their victimization (e.g., to the police).  It is okay to encourage them to pursue either support for themselves or punishment for the perpetrator, but ultimately they can choose not to and you should respect that.
  3. Challenging victim-blaming and other aspects of our rape culture.  For example, speak up when you hear rape jokes or “slut-shaming.”  Or, write to media outlets or politicians who perpetuate these problems.  Or, join an anti-sexual violence campaign or organization.  Participate in your own or the nearest college’s Take Back the Night rally and other anti-sexual violence events.
  4. Educate yourself and others.  For example, help to raise awareness about what sexual violence is, how it is a society-wide problem, and what we can all do to prevent it.  Have frank, yet age-appropriate conversations with your children, students, or other young people about consent.
  5. Break the silence about sexual violence.  This goes for allies and, if they feel safe and comfortable, survivors of sexual violence.  This means bringing up the subject when opportunities arise, or even making those opportunities happen.  My own approach is to blog and cover sexual violence in the courses I teach.  While it may be difficult in some ways, I find that men who are allies to survivors can have great impact in speaking up about sexual violence.

Indeed, we are not there yet in having a good understanding of sexual violence and why it persists.  But, hopefully, we will at least be closer by next year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month!  And, of course, our collective efforts should not be limited to the month of April.

Additional Resources

A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism

In the recent sociological blog debate on racism versus the supposed dawn of “post-racism” in America, we often touched on problems that make talking about racism difficult, if not entirely impossible.  In addition to institutional constraints, there are interpersonal factors that can derail meaningful conversations about race and racism.  In addition to calling attention to these barriers, it is important to make explicit that too few people take on this difficult task.

Responsibility For (Anti-)Racism

In general, too few people consistently assume responsibility for talking about race and racism, and fighting racism more broadly.  That kind of work is presumed to be taken on by activists and leaders of social movements.  But, in particular, the responsibility generally falls in the laps of those victimized by it — in this case, people of color.  As Jason noted in his contribution to the “post-racism” blog debate, racial and ethnic minorities generally face this burden alone.

But, people of color are neither alone in this racist society nor the creators of this system of oppression.  Whites are implicated by virtue of the benefits they receive (i.e., white privilege) from the historical legacy of racism, as well as today.  Eliminating racism, then, is just as much their responsibility, if not more, as it is for people of color.

As I re-watched a few of ABC’s “What Would You Do” social experiments regarding race and racism, I was reminded just how problematic America’s sense of responsibility for racism and anti-racism are.  While too few whites intervene when they witness racist discrimination in stores against (innocent) people of color, many seem quick to intervene to sanction Black people’s criminal behavior but not that of whites (see part 1 and part 2).  (Three young Black men sleeping in their own car got more calls to 911 than did three young white men vandalizing and breaking into someone else’s car.)

A Personal Anecdote

Racist events are plentiful, from small slights to extreme forms of violence.  So, there are too many missed opportunities to confront racism, or at least learn from these events to do things differently in the future.  One such event stands out in my own life.

At the start of my second semester of graduate school, my cohort and I sat through the beginning of our training and preparation to carry out a telephone survey on social attitudes that summer.  In talking through concerns for the project, whether we as  interviewers “talk black” was posed as a potential bias in our interviews.  It felt as though as though a grenade had gone off right in the middle of class, but we continued on ignoring it.  I thought, “was I the only one who heard that?”

This event only became an issue when my colleagues of color and I were overheard joking about the racist comment the following week.  That was brought to the attention of the professor who, out of concern, asked us whether and how to “handle” this.  Three weeks later, we finally devoted an entire two-hour class to discussing the comment about “talking black” — a phrase the professor wrote explicitly on the board to facilitate our conversation.

Of course, five minutes that felt like an eternity passed before anyone broke the thick silence that suffocated the room — it was me, naturally, in which I called attention to that deafening silence.  As the tense conversation carried on, my cohort was divided, with the students of color and anti-racist white students taking issue with the concern about “talking black,” and the rest remaining silent, or speaking up to say they did not see a problem or even recast the comment in their head so that it was not problematic.

The conversation boiled down to whether the commenter said “talking black” or talking black, where the quotation marks became the symbolic boundary between belief that there is a(n inferior) style of English unique to Black Americans and the knowledge that others believe that (but not believing it oneself).  Only a racist person would forgo the quotation marks, for this would reflect their own beliefs.

With the conversation ending with a half-ass apology from the commenter, that one’s upbringing in the Midwest should suffice as an excuse for one’s racist prejudice, we left the room more divided than ever before.  The rest of our department remained curious bystanders, but nothing more came of these events outside of the efforts of students of color to challenge racism in the department and university.

To add insult to injury, later in the semester, my colleagues of color and I overheard some of our classmates complain about the ongoing divisiveness, placing blame on us for not having gotten “over it” yet.  Their simultaneous lack of understanding and lack of sympathy only further fueled the division.  I am happy to say that a great deal has been forgiven, but one can never forget such events.  But, sadly, because little came of it, we saw yet another racist event occur years later.

A Call For Bystander Intervention

I, as others before me, call for a bystander intervention approach to ending racism.  Too often, individuals not directly involved in a dangerous or difficult scenario — or bystanders — simply stand-by and watch without intervening to provide help.  As such, in the case of the prevention of sexual violence (since this “bystander effect” was coined after no one intervened in the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese), advocates have strongly emphasized the need to turn bystanders into potential interveners – “bystander intervention.”  Applied to racism, this means that individuals are called to action to intervene if they witness racist discrimination, bullying, or violence.

However, I push this anti-racist bystander intervention one step further beyond intervening in difficult situations.  Similar to my calls for bystander intervention to prevent sexual violence (i.e., rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment), I stress that our anti-racist work must include a sense that racism is a community issue and, as such, anti-racism is a community responsibility.

Ways To Intervene

A related aspect is noting that racism exists at multiple levels and, as such, there are an infinite number of ways in which we can fight it:

  1. One can intervene when they witness racist discrimination or harassment.  Of course, this depends upon a number of factors that make this easier said than done.  And, no one should intervene in ways that place them at risk for getting hurt.  If it is a scenario of extreme violence, like a racially-motivated hate crime, a safe means of intervening may be to call the police.  If it is an instance of the unfair firing of a Latina coworker, you could approach your supervisor to note that you feel your coworker deserves a second chance.
  2. Challenge racist prejudice.  This can entail calling people out who appear to harbor prejudice toward people of color, or hold misguided stereotypes.  It also means calling out offensive comments that others’ may make about racial and ethnic minorities.
  3. Challenge yourself.  No matter one’s racial or ethnic background, and one’s racial ideology, no one is immune to the pervasive poison of racism.  It is important to also check your own biases and actions.  Do you seek out friends of the same race?  Do you avoid “that part of town”?  Do you do certain things, at least in part, to avoid appearing racist?
  4. Educate yourself.  Unfortunately, most Americans leave formal education knowing little about racism and the history and experiences of people of color beyond obligatory coverage during Black History Month.  To push beyond this, one can take the time to learn more (even from March to January).  Read books about and by people of color.  Go see films on historical and contemporary accounts of the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  Visit museums that feature exhibits on race and ethnicity.  Become comfortable talking about race and racism with the people around you, no matter their race and ethnicity.
  5. Support victims of racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence.  As I wrote the first suggestion, I realized that there are so many concerns that one may have in directly challenging racist actions.  But, there are fewer concerns regarding harm in supporting victims of these actions.  Though your supervisor who unfairly fired your Latina coworker very well could threaten you, as well, you are freer to reach out to your coworker.  See if she wants to talk, needs help finding a new job, or even filing a discrimination or EEO complaint.  Even outside of severe instances of racist acts, you can be a supportive ally by really hearing people out when they reveal their experiences to you (rather than blaming them or encouraging them to think of alternative reasons for those acts).
  6. Challenge racist practices of organizations and institutions.  Though the days of overt racist laws and policies are mostly gone, there are still many — albeit neutral in intention and language — that disproportionately harm people of color.  It is important to challenge these, just as it is to challenge racism at the individual-level.  Maybe you can speak up if your workplace implements a dress-code policy that unfairly targets racial and ethnic minorities.  Take action to prevent the efforts to repeal Affirmative Action and other policies that aim to redress racial inequality.  Educate yourself and others about how new policies or policy change can contribute to racial equality, even if they are not targeted solely toward people of color (e.g., Affordable Care Act).

Concluding Thoughts

Obviously, everyone cannot become leaders of social movements like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or lead deadly anti-racist efforts like abolitionist John Brown or the slain Mississippi civil rights workers.  Most of us are not lifelong activists.

But, there are many opportunities throughout a given day to make a difference, no matter how small.  For, even small acts add up to a big contribution to challenge prejudice and stereotypes, educate oneself and others, end racist discrimination and violence, and promote racial diversity and equality.  Just as we are all implicated in racism, it will take all of us to end it.

Preventing Sexual Violence And Supporting Survivors Is A Community Responsibility

The title of this post sums up the position that many have taken in efforts to prevent sexual violence (e.g., rape, sexual assault, incest, stalking, sexual harassment) and to support survivors of violence.  Such a stance goes against two problematic positions, one hostile and one supportive to survivors of violence.

  1. Hostile Victim-Blaming: Unfortunately, many people lay blame for sexual violence in the hands of victims of violence themselves.  Violent acts, such as sexual assault, are seen as incidents that are preventable simply by changing one’s behavior, interactions with others, appearance, and mentality.  First, survivors of violence, especially women, face the dilemma of providing proof that they have been victimized.  Second, if they are believed, they must provide enough evidence to convince others that such violence was not somehow the result of being sexually promiscuous, dressing in revealing clothing, giving “mixed signals” in interactions (sexual and non-sexual) with one’s attacker, drinking too much, and so forth.
  2. Supportive Victim-Blaming: Indeed, many are concerned with eliminating sexual violence for good.  But, efforts to prevent violence, like the above, center on the victims of violence themselves.  As an online op-ed at Ebony magazine points out, too much sexual violence prevention work provides potential and past victims of violence suggestions to protect themselves: don’t walk alone at night in unfamiliar places, tell a friend where you are going, watch your drinks at parties, don’t go home with strangers.  While this position differs from the above in its concern for survivors of violence, it too lays responsibility for sexual violence on the victims themselves.

Sexual Violence As A Social Problem

With estimates denoting that 17-25 percent of women and 3 percent of men are survivors of violence (experiencing sexual violence at least once in their lifetimes), it is undeniable that a substantial portion of the US population is directly or indirectly affected by violence.  The numbers alone point to a larger, systemic problem that cannot be reduced to the individual motivations and actions of every instance of sexual violence.  Yet, there are many other social factors that contribute to making sexual violence a standard component of our social world, as well.

  • Myths and stereotypes: One barrier to acknowledging and addressing sexual violence and supporting victims of violence is the inaccurate, and sometimes offensive, “information” that pervades our culture regarding gender, sex, sexuality, and violence.  Sexual violence myths include assuming all victims are women, attacked by a lone stranger (a man) in a ski mask lurking in the bushes.  But, stereotypes outside of sexual violence also contribute to a false understanding of sexual violence: men with uncontrollable sexual appetites (“they can’t help themselves“), women who have or should have little interest in sex, strong and aggressive men and weak and passive women, LGBT people as sexual aggressors, etc.
  • Exclusive focus on victims: Even in prevention advocacy and research, we place so much attention on survivors of violence — who are they, what happened to them, how many are there.  Despite extreme underreporting of sexual violence because of stereotypes, the feeling that no one will believe you, fear of retaliation by one’s attacker, and so forth, we have some sense of the demographics of survivors of violence.  But, we know little about perpetrators of sexual violence, with most information coming from reports about those who have been convicted of sexual violence.  One important fact, surprising to some, is that most perpetrators of sexual violence are not men lurking in bushes at night, nor are they otherwise innocent men who got carried away once in sexual activity; perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders (of both sexual violence and non-sexual crimes) and often know the person they attack.
  • Misplaced responsibility: Too often, potential and past victims of sexual violence are burdened with the responsibility for such violence and any efforts to prevent violence.  We, as a society, generally fail to place such responsibility on the perpetrators of sexual violence.  And, when we do, we narrowly focus on them, while ignoring others’ responsibilities to prevent sexual violence and to support survivors.  Many advocates and researchers are beginning to promote the notion of bystander intervention, which calls upon others who witness violence to intervene.  And, while we must push to never see another case where bystanders stand idly by as someone is attacked, our efforts to encourage bystander intervention also include promoting ways to change the culture that condones sexual violence: challenging gender stereotypes and gender socialization in general; teaching about sexual violence; teaching about sexual violence as expressions of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, xenophobia, ableism, and so on.
  • Exclusive focus on gender: Another barrier to comprehensively understanding sexual violence is focusing exclusively on the role of gender: men rape women.  What is missing from this narrow analysis, besides overlooking male survivors of violence, is attention to the ways that sexual violence intersects with race and ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, class, body size and shape, age, nativity, and ability.  Attending to these systems of oppression does not mean only documenting demographic characteristics of the survivors and perpetrators of violence.  It also means assessing how sexual violence may operate as manifestations of these systems of power, for sexual violence itself is an expression of power over another person.  For example, in many countries, lesbian, bisexual, and queer women are raped by men in an effort to “cure” them of their sexual orientation.
  • Ignoring the role of society: Given the pervasive problem of sexual violence in society, many advocates and academics have argued for thinking about sexual violence more broadly.  As noted above, we too often lay blame on individuals, especially survivors of violence, while ignoring the roles that communities, social institutions, and culture play.  Some have pointed out that we live in a culture that normalizes sexual violence — we live in a “rape culture.”  Various institutions, like colleges, the military, and the medical system, are implicated in their failure to prevent sexual violence, support survivors of violence, and punish perpetrators of violence.  Some have argued that these institutions are structured in ways that make sexual violence invisible and potentially even promote violence.

Indeed, given the complexity and multiple layers and dimensions of the problem of sexual violence, it seems like a tall task to take on.  But, in order to protect everyone from sexual violence and to support survivors of violence, we must address every aspect of the problem.  We can no longer leave the responsibility to prevent sexual violence exclusively in the hands of potential and past victims of violence.