What would I do if I saw someone being harassed? A story and a guide.

Friday evening on the subway ride home, I witnessed something that made me uncomfortable, and compelled me to step forward.

Was it harassment? Was it a hate crime? Was it any kind of an attack? Not… quite.

Was one human being singled out from the crowd and made to feel like crap for something completely beyond their control?


Was it because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender?

I believe that had something to do with it.

A young mother boarded the train with her two young children. The younger, a toddler, started screaming and kicking. Who knows about what, but as she struggled to calm him, the commuter crowd began expressing their disapproval. We didn’t even make it a complete stop before stares and sighs started erupting all around.

Usually it takes longer, but this particular family was of an ethnicity that, sadly, I believe prompted that much more of a negative response. The child wailed and howled, the mother comforted, commanded, and then begged, while the people huffed and murmured in increasing annoyance and disgust.

I’ve seen scenes like this before, and written about it. What the hell is wrong with these people, I have no idea. The poor woman was obviously distressed, and the child was clearly just being a child. The crowd was even worse than usual, again, I believe due to the fact that the mother and children looked and spoke differently. It was just that much easier, that much more allowable, for the great Americans around me to shit all over them.

I had opened up my trusty PBS Kids app on the iPhone, and was at the ready to save the day, but my plan was foiled by the lack of a connection. We were underground. Dammit.

Luckily I have more than one weapon in my electronic arsenal. Thank goodness Babygirl had insisted on a silly My Little Pony coloring app that doesn’t require internet. Uses up alot of space, but, I was glad to have it. I opened it, made my way across the moving train, and planted myself directly in front of said screaming toddler.

Like magic. Better than ether.

The baby watched, wide-eyed, rapt, silent, as I demonstrated how to pick different colors and designs to style Fluttershy pony. Pink polka-dots! Green stripes! Go crazy!

The baby, as all babies do, mastered the touchscreen painting app in mere seconds. The mother nodded and smiled in weary thanks. The older child wanted to play too, and then the only issue was figuring out how to get the two to take turns, when I didn’t understand or speak their language.

After a few more stops, the crisis was over, and the rest of the train had moved on. The mother sort of waved, said something that sounded like Thanks you, thanks you, and I got it, she was ready for the Pony app to close (It does have the most annoying soundtrack ever).

I understood, and with smiles and good wishes, I moved on too.

But it got me thinking.

What would I do if I saw someone really being harassed?

Sadly, since the election, there’s been an onslaught of hate crimes. Rather than get into the politics of that, I’d like to focus on the practicalities.

What would I do? I’m a five foot two mom and academic. I’m not about to get into it with any skinheads.

Luckily, there’s guides for this, and the most helpful that I have seen is from an artist in France named Maeril. Her step-by-step guide below is great. The whole post has more detail, and actually, she herself sounds pretty cool.

What struck me about this approach, and makes complete sense, is that you don’t engage the attacker at all. You completely ignore them. That sounds safe, and, frankly, way more effective than a shouting match. I can do this.

Take a look, and see what you think:

Hi everyone!
This is an illustrated guide I made as part of my co-admining work at The Middle Eastern Feminist on Facebook! It will be published there shortly.
The technique that is displayed here is a genuine one used in psychology - I forgot the...

Maeril says:

“Some could say: “Yes but you can use that technique for instances of harassment other than Islamophobic attacks!”, and my reply is: Sure! Please do so, it also works for other “types” of harassment of a lone person in a public space!! However I’m focusing on protecting Muslims here, as they have been very specific targets lately, and as a French Middle Eastern woman, I wanted to try and do something to raise awareness on how to help when such things happen before our eyes – that way one cannot say they “didn’t know what to do”! 

I’d like to insist on two things:

1) Do not, in any way, interact with the attacker. You must absolutely ignore them and focus entirely on the person being attacked!

2) Please make sure to always respect the wishes of the person you’re helping: whether they want you to leave quickly afterwards, or not! If you’re in a hurry escort them to a place where someone else can take over – call one of their friends, or one of yours, of if they want to, the police. It all depends on how they feel!”

4 thoughts on “What would I do if I saw someone being harassed? A story and a guide.”

  • Thank you for rescuing that mother from commuter opprobrium! I know exactly what you’re talking about. I also saw this guide, and thought it was brilliant. So much better than direct confrontation. Let’s keep taking care of each other in public spaces.

    • Thanks Lara- and for people like me who didn’t know what “opprobrium” meant, I just looked it up: “public disgrace, harsh censure”. Lara, perfect word for what that young mother was experiencing.

  • really good post!

    On Sun, Nov 13, 2016 at 7:45 PM, generallymedicine wrote:

    > drmoniquetello posted: “Friday evening on the subway ride home, I > witnessed something that made me uncomfortable, and compelled me to step > forward. Was it harassment? Was it a hate crime? Was it any kind of an > attack? Not… quite. Was one human being singled out from the ” >

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