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How to Help if You See Harassment or Bias on Trail

Posted by Jessi Loerch at Dec 08, 2021 02:01 PM |

Trails should be welcoming and safe for everyone. Here's some ways you can help if you encounter incidents on bias on trail.

By KJ Williams

Washington is home to trails that, from one corner of the state to the other, offer access to thousands of miles of beauty. With such a profusion of outdoor opportunities, why wouldn’t all Washingtonians want to engage in the healthy, exhilarating experience of hiking, camping and enjoying the great outdoors? 

For people of color, however, enjoying the outdoors beyond their immediate community often requires deciding whether the benefits of being outdoors outweigh the risk of a dangerous or unpleasant experience. 

If we want to make outdoor spaces safer and more welcoming for people of color, one way to do that is to step in when you see something happen. If done carefully and thoughtfully, you can help defuse a situation and offer support to a victim.

A young hiker helps an even younger hiker jump across a gap in the rocks at the top of Rattlesnake Ledge.
Everyone should feel comfortable on trail, and sometimes that means we have to help each other out. Photo by Raxit Kagalwala.

Always on the guard

As a Black, queer woman who hikes, I am always concerned about who I might run into on trail. I almost always feel safer hiking in groups. What is my number one fear? Not animals or insects but WHITE PEOPLE! I am constantly on guard. I don’t allow our 10-year-old to scamper ahead for fear of what might be done or said to her before I catch up. It is nerve wrecking, yet the sense of serenity from being outdoors and my need for physical health propels me to continue. 

The first time we went camping, we traveled with friends who are Indigenous. I was unafraid, because they knew exactly what they were doing but also because they were used to interacting with White people on trails. We had an incredible time, so much so that I mistakenly believed that we were safe from White privilege and the harm that comes with it. But we had an interaction that soured the trip on our last night. 

We were a small group of women and children of color walking out of the restroom area back to our campsite. Suddenly an SUV hurtled toward us, forcing us to grab our children and scramble back. The driver threw the SUV in park, jumped out of the car and ignored my friend, who asked why she was driving so fast, and explained the danger. The driver, a White woman, looked at my friend with disdain and went about her business. 

My friend was furious. I was just happy we didn’t get hit and I chalked it up to her being another White person who couldn’t care less about the experience of people of color in relation to her actions. 

The same lady later parked next to our campsite. My friend went to speak to her and the lady responded with anger and defensiveness. Then they both escalated. Oh boy! My body moved before I knew it and I intervened by: 

  1. Using a gentle but firm tone, I asked my friend to calm down and take a breath, reminding her that ultimately it wasn’t worth her energy because the woman exhibited an “I don’t care” attitude by shrugging her shoulders and attempting to ignore my friend. 
  2. Using the same tone with the other woman but speaking with more authority, while encouraging her to leave and move on with her day. 

The other woman apologized before going to her own campsite, but the damage was done. Her first response showed a lack of care, respect and accountability. 

People of color have had to develop survival skills to navigate any space dominated or preferred by White people. The outdoors is no exception. 

A group of youth stand facing away from the camera while wearing packs for an overnight trip.
Photo by Jasper and the Girl Scouts.

How to interrupt bias 

So what can you do if you observe or experience bias, discriminatory or unsafe behavior and language while enjoying the outdoors? Below is a menu of recommendations to get you started: 

Pre-work

Equip yourself with the knowledge and skills needed to interrupt active bias BEFORE it happens. Prioritize learning how to be an active ally and accomplice.  

Develop a deeper understanding of yourself to identify areas of growth and opportunity by:

  • Learn your preferred communication and conflict style. Utilizing this tool can help you understand the five different styles of conflict. Different situations call for varied responses. 
  • Understand your own biases and work to mitigate the influence and impact of them.
  • Engage in activities focused on increasing emotional intelligence and developing courageousness
  • Practice interrupting undesirable language and behaviors with friends and family. Practice often and use scenarios and language that mimic real life. Then reflect. 

A group of people stand silhouetted facing a sunset, many taking photos of the colorful water beyond.
Photo by Zhihao You

Engage

Choose the strategy from below that you think will work for you. You can use one or all of them. 

Learn how to be an active bystander using the steps below adapted from Hollaback’s 5D’s: 

Distract — Draw attention away from victim – specifically when there is a perceived physical threat.

  • Interrupt the biased or microaggressive behavior by asking the victim a question, ie What time is it? Can you direct me to…? Someone needs help, can you come with me? I found your bag and called (insert official here). 
  • If you are interrupting biased or microaggressive language and the situation is otherwise safe, if there is no known or perceived physical threat, use curiosity as an entry point by directing questions to the perpetrator such as “Did I hear you say …” or “Did I understand that…” as well as many other other options

Delegate — Include a third party

  • This does not apply if someone is being physically abused, call 911 immediately and find safety for yourself.
  • Ask loudly, so the perpetrator can hear, if the victim would like the authorities called and ensure that you will remain until they arrive (people of color are often afraid that when authorities arrive, they will be perceived as the perpetrator). 
  • Ask the victim if they would like you to call someone and get their number (use video if possible and show the face of the perpetrator). Explain the situation, ask for help or direct them to send help.
  • If you are in an area with cell service, call park security and ask them to intervene. 
  • Ensure the victim is comfortable with security or police being called BEFORE you make the call.

    Document — Use your phone to record the incident.

    • Provide the victim with the recording and delete it from your phone. Don’t post the recording online, it may cause more damage. Allow them to decide how they want it used. 
    • Write down any identifying information, location, make, model and license plate number of any vehicle, type and color of bike, clothing, shoes and head covering. All this information is important if authorities are called.
    • If you are unable to record, then take pictures; audio is also a good way to capture what was said.
    • Remember that even, though Washington state is a two-party consent state for recording, there is an exception to the law that allows you to record conversations of an emergency nature or that convey threats of bodily harm. 
    • Remember, whatever information you collect should be given to the victim to decide next steps. 

      Delay/Debrief — Wait for the situation to end.

      • Ask the victim if there is any way you can be helpful.
      • Ask if you can share space with them — be aware that for some people this will reignite past trauma, resulting in a response that may sound rude or dismissive. Don’t take it personally.
      • Ask if they would like you to travel a short way with them, and use that time to inquire as to their emotional and physical well-being while extending an offer to help.
      • Center the experience of the victim, not your experience as a bystander or witness.
      • Invite them to walk with you and talk about something not related to the incident first. This can give you both time to process

        Direct — Directly and intentionally engage the perpetrator of bias.

        • “Stop it! We are not okay with your behavior or language.” (Using we unites you with the victim. Be sure you have thought about the risk and are ready to engage with the perpetrator. Be sure to prioritize your safety, while working to find ways to mitigate or stop the behavior.) 
        • “Get away from her/him/them! We do not want to engage with you.”
        • “Your language is disrespectful, biased, hateful etc … and we are no longer going to engage with you.”
        • It is unnecessary to put yourself in physical danger. Use your voice. Name the biased or microaggressive behavior. Speak loudly and with authority. 

        A person wearing a bright red shirt and black leggings stands facing the massive amount of water pouring over Snoqualmie Falls.
        Photo by Megan Callahan. 

        Ultimately, the challenge of intervening or interrupting active bias and microaggressive behavior is a deeply personal one. Many factors need to be considered. If you have a great deal of privilege — such as being a white, male, heterosexual — these identities may better position you to engage in interrupting actions without the fear of harm or social stigma. Still, there may be a cost to you and that is important to consider. For those individuals who claim allyship with people of color, we are calling you to be disrupters focused on changing whatever space you occupy. 

        Access to outdoor space and the freedom and safety to navigate those spaces without fear of harm is the responsibility of all of us — but we are not all treated equally. Therefore, individuals and groups who identify as White are paramount to shifting the paradigm from “White centered” to “people centered”. All people deserve the right to enjoy the benefits of exploring the outdoors without fear of verbal or physical attack. How do we get there? By you and I both skilling up in the areas we find challenging and stepping into the role of disruptor. Who do outdoor spaces belong to? 

        All of us.

        Karine J. Williams (KJ) is CEO and founder of RISE with KJ, LLC (Radical, Insightful, Solutions to Create Equity). Under the RISE umbrella, KJ facilitates the work of diversity, equity and inclusion by working from the inside out to develop the infrastructure necessary for equitable change, sustainability and growth. Prior to launching RISE, KJ was the Diversity Programs Manager for the Washington State Bar Association, overseeing the development and implementation of DEI practices for its 40k+ members. KJ holds a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies from the University of Washington, a Master of Public Administration from Seattle University. KJ has served as a member of the City of Seattle LGBT Commission, University of Washington School of Law Diversity Committee, the Board of Directors for the Initiative for Diversity, and the University of Washington School of Law Gates Scholarship Committee. KJ is an alum and faculty for JustLead Washington’s Equal Justice Community Leadership Academy. KJ has written for Black Women’s Blueprint, For Harriet, American Association for Trial Justice, NWLawyer and NWSidebar. 

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