This Is Not A Drill: How To Handle Racist Harassment When You Witness It

Having a plan is key.

Having a plan is key.

As reports of racially based harassment have increased over the past week since the election of Trump — even here in my liberal bastion of urban Philadelphia— I have begun to think more critically about what I’ll do if I witness racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic harassment. 

Because standing aside isn’t an option. 

As a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual woman, I’m not likely to be a target of harassment. But I can put my white body between an asshole and the person they are trying to hurt. But there’s one problem: I have a ten-year-old daughter who is often out and about in the world with me. So what would I do if I witnessed harassment and she was with me?

You may have seen this handy guide (made by an artist after Brexit caused racist incidents to spike) about how to help where you don’t engage the harasser, but instead approach the person being harassed and engage them in conversation to help them ignore the harassment. I like this idea, but it doesn’t account for the times when the harassment escalates instead of subsides.

My daughter, my husband, and I talked about it, and we’ve come up with a simple plan. We even practiced it a few times so she will know what to do. Here it is:

• When we see harassment, we tell her we intend to intervene.

• If she doesn’t have her phone with her, we give her ours.

• She then moves away a safe distance and hugs a wall, and waits until we say it’s okay.

• If things get violent, she calls 911.

What we will not do is ask her to record the incident. That action could make her a target.

I reached out to a few friends and asked them if they’ve thought about it. My friend Sarah, a conservative woman who is horrified by Trump, said, “Two of my kids came home from school Wednesday having witnessed or heard about racial intimidation incidents. We absolutely talk about what to do if they see bullying of any kind, but also specifically related to this election. My 11-year-old is particularly worried about her Latino friends and their families. She and her friends are worried that they will have to leave, but I'm heartened because my daughter and her friends are really rallying around them and supporting them.” 

The old narrative was, "Don't do anything to get pulled over, and IF you get pulled over, comply." The new narrative is, "Anyone may attack you because of who you are. Protect yourself and stay alert. Stay in safe places. Don't be alone."


I asked her what she would do if she witnessed, say, someone trying to remove a woman’s hijab. “If I saw that, I would call 911, and [if in a store] go get a store manager so they could activate their security protocol. We haven't really talked to the kids about that specific scenario because we do not have many Muslims here who wear hijabs.”

Of course, these strategies are for the privileged. What about those who could be targeted by harassment? They are making plans too. My friend Uneeka was out with her son and her grandson when a white man in a pickup attempted to run her off the road — one of several race-based incidents with different trucks in her mostly white neighborhood (the police told her it was organized harassment). She and her family have completely changed their routines to protect themselves.

“I have advised my kids not to engage if approached,” she told me. “However, the scariest factor is that we are very cautious about where and when we go places. We are not traveling alone and are prepared to protect ourselves if we are forced to. Stun guns are legal in Pennsylvania. We don’t buy gas at night, females always travel with males.”

It gets worse. “The old narrative was "Don't do anything to get pulled over and IF you get pulled over, comply."  The new narrative is "Anyone may attack you because of who you are. Protect yourself and stay alert. Stay in safe places. Don't be alone.”

“My youngest son always rides his bike around,” she told me. “The other day, about 6 pm, he and a friend rode their bike to our Acme. When I realized what he did, I called his phone. He didn't answer. I FREAKED OUT!! I went and found him and FREAKED out on him. I said, ‘This is not the same place it was on Monday!!! EVERYTHING is different! Everything!’ I told him he can't ride his bike like before because it isn't safe.”

This is our new reality. Have you thought about what you’ll do?

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