There are several underlying issues within this letter, which are primarily grounded in unconscious bias and stereotypes that inundate the culture we live in. Before continuing, it’s important to define some terms:
- Unconscious bias: social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside of their own conscious awareness. Stereotypes might seem inconsequential, but become problematic when we automatically associate individuals with certain stereotypes and act in certain (often harmful) ways based on them. Our brains are quick to make these associations, which can result in unconscious bias.
- Microaggression: The everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.
While it might seem harmless to a bystander to stand around staring at or even touching a Black woman’s hair, doing so is actually harmful. Both of these actions are microaggressions, rooted in the stereotype that Black hair is “exotic” and “fascinating” because it is not like hair they have seen. This stereotype assumes a standard of beauty that is not voluminous, fluffy, or curly, and is therefore exotic because it’s so “rare”.
In addition to that, a serious issue in this letter is that of physical touch. While some folks may argue that the co-worker and boss/PI were “just touching hair”, hair is still considered part of a person’s body. And touching anyone, anywhere, without permission is not okay. It disrespects and violates bodily autonomy.
In this case, the Black woman who was violated in this way had also just communicated that she did not want her co-worker to touch her hair. The fact that her boss/PI touched her hair anyway (and immediately after she had communicated her boundaries to her co-worker):
- violates her bodily autonomy,
- disrespects and violates the physical and verbal boundaries that she put in place with her White co-worker,
- asserts his own power and privilege, not only over her but over her White co-worker as well (by assuming that this Black woman’s boundaries do not apply to him), and
- blames her hair for his actions, by being as enticing as candy and simply “too irresistible” to merit any self-restraint (another assertion of power and dominance).
In situations like this, it would be perfectly ok for the person harmed to just walk away—after all, being violated in at least 4 different ways is overwhelming, and this woman had every right to be too emotionally exhausted to respond. Yet she did, by saying that she is “not a petting zoo” and trying to reassert her boundaries. Yet, her boundaries continue to be violated as he continued to touch her hair. His actions are a clear instance of prolonged harassment.
In addition, this woman mentioned that she is “one of only a few black people in [her] department”. Thus, she probably feels alone—when this happened and in general—which makes it more hurtful that no one (including her co-worker who initially asked to touch her hair) came to her defense while she was being violated, and that no one told her boss/PI that he should not treat her this way. This likely makes her feel like she is the problem instead of him, and her sense of belonging to her lab (and department) likely decreases exponentially. For similar reasons, many individuals with marginalized identities choose to leave STEM and/or academia in general. Because the environment is toxic and does not make them feel welcome, valued, or included, and they deserve to be treated with the same respect and value as their White counterparts.
The power dynamics that ground this toxic situation and violation of boundaries are all too prevalent in academic spaces. And the fact that she felt she couldn’t do anything to remove his hands from her body, and that he didn’t realize that he was harming her, suggests that this is likely not the only instance in which he has behaved this way, either to her or someone else. No one deserves to be in this situation, especially someone who is relying on their harasser to advance their degree or for a letter of recommendation.
Situations like this are incredibly sensitive and hard to navigate. Still, the first thing to do is to check in with the person harmed. How is she feeling? What does she need? A bystander, friend, or her co-worker who was present during this situation should check in with her and validate her feelings; this was not her fault and she handled it to the best of her ability. Then, they can ask her whether she wants to talk to someone—a professional? A counselor? An ombudsperson? Does she want to report the situation? Does she want to engage with him and a mediator to do restorative justice? Or something else entirely?
Leaving the decision up to her and providing support for her next steps, while not forcing her into any particular response or action, is likely the best course of action.
Written by Dr. Chrissy Stachl, Founder and CEO of Reflecting Equity.
Dr. Chrissy Stachl (she/ella) is the Founder and CEO of Reflecting Equity. She earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry from UC Berkeley in 2020, and has been leading diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B) efforts for 7 years. She brings her expertise as a scientist, researcher, educator, and teacher to her consulting practice, in order to tailor her approach to enhancing DEI&B efforts to the unique culture and needs of her clients. She recognizes that while she will never experience all the ways in which individuals are marginalized by oppressive social structures, her philosophy enables her to empower those individuals and keep their needs at the forefront of ongoing efforts toward equity, liberation, and justice. https://www.reflectingequity.com/about.
Check out our website at https://www.reflectingequity.com/
Citations and Helpful Resources Provided by the Author: