April 20, 2010

The Context of Harassment

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At last week’s forum in Africana, in light (or shadow) of the recent contentious comments allegedly made by Prof. Grant Farred, English and Africana Studies, I was deeply struck by a few things.

First, the remarkable poise and eloquence of the women who opened and ran the discussion; they are to be thanked.

As someone who was an undergraduate back in the Pleistocene, when profs, TA’s and male graduate students regarded women undergraduates as fair game and used some pretty hefty weapons to attempt to drag us off to their caves (they called it normal courtship), I was moved to note how much more robust the institutional responses are today.

Type “harassment” into the C.U. homepage search engine today and (assuming you spell it correctly) you’ll get to the official University information about policies and procedures. At this website, you will also find a “Resource List for Bias and Discrimination Activity,” as well as a link to the full policy on discrimination, harassment and bias — the mighty “Policy 6.4.”

So, my ultimate question remains from the last week’s forum: Why are we still so afraid to report harassment? It’s not about skin color (although there were some very interesting twists in the color spectrum that night) or genitalia (ditto); it’s about power. Well … duh! As one of the very articulate participants at the forum said: “Who do you hold more responsible? A child who sets a fire? Or a fireman who sets a fire?” This speaks to the question of who we expect to stop harassment.

On the one hand, we now expect those in power to regulate themselves. And they do so now more regularly than they did in the past. In addition, the sex and complexion of those in power have changed. Nevertheless, ask yourself: Whose power and interest lies behind the HR processes that combat harassment? Cornell’s, of course (mark me up for another duh!). All the offices are part of Cornell, their advisors, investigators and reporters are Cornell employees, almost all staff, and many employed within human or employee relations.

The other major light bulb moment that struck me at the forum was this: Back in my caveman college days, there was no Policy 6.4, no harassment advisors or bias teams; we did not expect the institution to protect us, but we were far from defenseless. We regularly exchanged information about profs and TA’s. There was, in fact, an entire wall in a women’s bathroom in Uris Library full of graffiti: “Watch out for Prof X — he’s got a bottle of whiskey in his office and likes to ‘share’ it with women” … “Yeah, just before he ‘shares’ his lap!” … “Is anyone else having trouble with the TA in the class in GS 145 MWF at 11:15?” … “Mr Y gives me the creeps” … “Did he show you the collection of dirty comics he’s ‘researching’?”

This wall is long gone — first painted over, then covered in stainless steel — but it was very creative, if unverifiable and without sanctions — a prototype RateMyProfessors. or an early incarnation of that “report card” that one person called for at the Africana forum. No one expected it to challenge or punish any of the offenders. There were no official investigations. The point was the exchange of information, validation and solidarity among the potential victims.

The very confident woman who added, at the Africana forum, to the comment about pyromaniac and irresponsible firemen, “but we’re not children,” then, was also correct. We need to stand up clearly and unabashedly for our rights to respectful treatment. We can’t always wait for the good firemen to arrive.

Sometimes we can do this by ourselves. In my first weeks in graduate school, a professor hosted a party for all the new grads. We were dancing and he began to grope me. I didn’t feel bad. I stomped on his foot. He howled and protested, “Why did you kick me?”

“Because you groped me.”

“I didn’t grope you.”

“Well, then, I didn’t kick you.” That time, with that prof, it worked: He didn’t bother me again.

But sometimes we can do this by mobilizing official procedures. This same professor was formally charged with sexual harassment some years later and had to leave the university. The point is that professors must be held accountable for their misbehavior and students must be active participants in those investigations.

Students today have all kinds of legal safeguards and institutional procedures at their disposal, but something else has been lost and needs to be retrieved. And this is what makes the courage of women who speak out against harassment at last week’s forum all the more admirable and important. But that is not always the case.

Here’s my observation (and it’s not a pretty one): We too often don’t call sexual or racial harassers out because we have internalized their dismissal of us; we don’t question their power over us. Look at it this way: suppose that, instead of harassing you with names or touches or threats, your offender had flashed you. You’ll feel same sense of outrage and disgust. But, I think, no self-blame. After all, how can you provoke a flasher? What aspects of “context” might excuse flashing? Friends of the flasher might try to persuade you to feel compassion? Indeed, you might actually feel compassion and support rehabilitation rather than punishment.

But the frame of reference is one of unquestionably abnormal and unacceptable, even sick, behavior on the part of the offender, with no judgment visited upon the offended. If you report it, and I suspect you are far more likely to report a one-time flasher than a one-time harasser, you will probably go to the police. The police are not likely to ask you what you were wearing, or whether you misunderstood his flashing.

If our computer is stolen, or if someone flashes us, we know immediately that something wrong has happened. We are angry and disgusted. But: We take action; we report it. Even if we don’t really think that we’ll get the computer back or the flasher found and rehabilitated. How is it that we don’t think about harassment in the same self-confident way?

Kathyrn March is a professor in the departments of Anthropology, Feminist,Gender and Sexuality Studies and Asian Studies. Shee may be contacted at ksm8@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Kathryn S. March