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Commentary :: Education : Human Rights : Race
It's Information
18 Aug 2012
Walking into a situation where you find yourself being harassed for discriminatory purposes, whatever they may be, can be difficult to contend with to say the least. It can feel as though you've been thrust into a situation you have no control over, and that you have become a victim with very few choices or positions of power. It may feel like suddenly the lights to rhyme and reason have been switched off and you're in the dark as to why things have become as they have. I once had a conversation with an NAACP lawyer specializing in helping victims of discrimination regarding this. She said that, unfortunately, most people just give up, leaving the situations knowing no other way out.
With the way harassment based on discrimination and prejudice is carried out today, the feeling there is no way out is even sharper. There really is no legislation that has been passed to address today's subtle forms of harassing people, be it in the work place, school, a club, a religious organization or wherever it may occur. This can make it very difficult to prove without evidence. Previously, it was blatant harassment and when people didn't like someone, whether it was race, gender, lifestyle, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, etc, they would be pretty obvious about using harassment to get of of them from wherever it was the person happened to be. Laws were passed to try and prevent this.

There are other reasons for harassment outside of forcing a person out of a situation as in instances of gender harassment where typically women are harassed, if not to get them to leave a situation, then to coerce them, through means of harassment, to engage in sexually related activity in one way or another, they don't wish to engage in. With children, sometimes they do it just to pick on other children for attention or to not stand out by not participating, etc.

Whatever the reasons, a feeling of helplessness on the part of the target of the harassment is pretty common, often leading to sense of defeat and of having to succumb. What most people don't realize is that in these situations there are things that they can do about the harassment and that powerlessness, though a common feeling, may not be the actual case. Once something happens to demonstrate that, the person can begin to find ways to fight back more easily and gain a sense of confidence as they do so. It can take them from feeling slightly broken to feeling stronger than ever and learning about themselves in ways they never imagined they could through pushing themselves beyond limits they previously believed were impossible to surpass.

People often misguidedly feel the only way to fight back is if they could get the same level of influence and get together a group of people to do the same thing back to their harassers. Or they feel violence is the way – no doubt a manifestation of all the stress and emotional turmoil.

But there are better and more effective ways. There are ways to not only get them to stop the harassment of yourself, but to get them to stop harassing others and to see why they shouldn't do it in the first place. When you use the tactics they use in terms of harassing them back, there is the chance you will get will end up getting into the very trouble they never did, and therefore hand them a victory. Through violence the chance is even greater, and, due to your inability to control your emotions and the consequences you face as a result of that, they win again. In both situations you could end up being extricated from the situation, when they stay. If that happens they automatically win – period. You lost.

I went through harassment myself while at the University of Connecticut's Landscape Architecture degree program, and it happened continually over three years. I felt powerless to stop it and confused, at first especially. I didn't know what to do, as there was no way I was going to quit, but it seemed I was in a no win situation. Not only were classmates of mine involved, which would have been much easier to deal with, but certain professors were also. This meant their word over mine would be much stronger in their favor than if I were dealing with classmates solely.

But eventually I learned their weakest spot – and by chance the weakest spot of any harassers, that's information. Information is one of the strongest forms of power in the world today and can make strong nations tremble. Exposing the dirty laundry of people in positions of power, for example, as long as it's legal, is a very powerful thing.

I learned this myself at the University of Connecticut. Throughout the whole thing when the professors in question were egging on classmates and participating in the behavior themselves it was always made clear by the professors involved, that all the harassment had to remain secret. There was really nothing else they were scared of, other than being found out for what and who they really were. If I quit out of frustration – perfect they wanted me out. If I became so overwhelmed that my GPA dropped enough that I couldn't maintain a high enough GPA to remain in the program as there was a requirement, then they won – perfect for them. If I snapped and reacted out of anger – wonderful for them as I would get kicked out and I would look like a crazy nutcase to boot - they'd win. The one thing they didn't want known was what they themselves were doing.

When I told one of the people that, at times participated in the harassment, that, up until that point, I believed participated because they didn't want to get harassed themselves, etc, that I planned to make a formal complaint within the school and perhaps sue in court, that person went from admitting they had seen it, to trying everything they could think of to get me not to.

As word spread my harassers became scared, the behavior in the classroom started to shift, and instead of a feeling like I was on the defensive most of the time, trying to anticipate and react, my harassers were suddenly changing their tactics and behaving worried, nervous and scared. Just the thought I would expose them and that things could become public made them tremble. It was information they didn't want people learning about, and that I could share.

When in an institutional situation the most powerful ally a person experiencing harassment has on their side is information. Not brute force or the ability to harass back. The right information can turn the tables and even can get harassers to change their behavior and even stop, if it's the right information and it's used correctly. It is definitely inspiring and helps return a feeling of pride and confidence to watch what happens when such information enters the picture.

Empires are built and fall based on information – that is its power. So can it be for people experiencing harassment. The thing is to gather the right information by keeping documentation and copies, recording audio evidence, video and photo evidence, witnesses and more. Whatever legal means you can find is like a professional weightlifter being able to successfully lift another measure of weight in their pursuit of becoming stronger, or the marathon runner being able to run a little further a littler faster. These are the things you need to push past, win and succeed at in order to break out of the confining bars of harassment.

I did it. I learned how to anticipate what my harassers would do, use it effectively and gather information, and, in the end, though they tried mightily to produce a different outcome, my harassers were forced to watch me collect my diploma on graduation day in 2006. Plus, I got to see their reaction and desire not to look at me holding it, this has already happened and I’ve proven it can happen. It was information that made it possible, not brute strength, or harassing them back, just the right information and the strategic and prudent application of it. For people going through it I can honestly say harassment is something people can overcome, it takes a few things to do it and the collecting and gathering of the right information is one of them. If you are going through harassment good luck and my prayers are with you, and remember you too can do it!

To read about my inspiration for this article go to
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