A tactic from the civil rights movement can help fight sexual harassment today

Big steps, and small ones.
Big steps, and small ones.
Image: United States Information Agency
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In recent weeks, as the discussion on sexual harassment has brought systemic patterns of sexism and abuse out into the open, many men appalled by what they’ve learned are wondering what they can do to curtail such behavior.

History offers one suggestion for a small, deceptively simple step people can take to start changing culture: When they hear a sexist or otherwise inappropriate comment, they can signal their displeasure immediately with something as simple as a frown.

Niniane Wang, CEO and founder of  the animation platform Evertoon, brought up the power of frowning a few months ago on the Recode podcast “Too Embarrassed to Ask.” Wang was one of three women who documented the abusive behavior of venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck, who resigned from Binary Capital in June after acknowledging he had “leverage[d] a position of power in exchange for sexual gain.”

Asked about harassment that takes place in front of others, Wang said:

I think that the harasser is aware that they’re doing something they shouldn’t. But often in a group, many of the observers are too shocked to say anything in the moment. And I would encourage for all the people who want to be supportive to make some small negative gesture. Even if it’s just frowning. A long time ago, when the Civil Rights movement started, there was the concept of ‘frown power,’ where you were not willing to say something vocally but you would just frown. And that had a chilling enough effect.

The concept of “frown power” as a tool to combat discrimination dates from the 1940s. It was first publicized by the US civil rights activist Stetson Kennedy, a writer best known for infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. In 1948, while working at the Anti-Defamation League, Kennedy organized billboards and New York City subway ads encouraging people to frown or otherwise visibly express disapproval when confronted with a racist comment, according to an unpublished, self-penned chronology of Kennedy’s life that his biographer Diane Eidson provided to Quartz At Work.

It was a small gesture, aimed at the most basic of social interactions. But amid the social conventions of postwar white America, a frown could be more transgressive than it seemed.

“We think about simply frowning at something as not being much of a response. But in that culture, at that time, it was significant because it was unusual,” Kennedy’s widow Sandra Parks said in an interview. (Kennedy died in 2011.) “He believed, and I think most of us would agree, that when you’re talking with someone, particularly someone that you don’t know very well, we are inclined not to be confrontational. We’re inclined to make no comment when they say or do something that really is offensive to us.”

People want to be accepted and approved of. It’s what makes a frown or a disapproving comment effective—and what makes it so difficult. It can be uncomfortable to disrupt social convention by speaking out or showing disgust at a comment that everyone else seems to be treating as acceptable. But if no one in a comfortable position is willing to accept a little of that discomfort, the standards for what’s considered acceptable are never going to change.

Will frowning alone change the culture of the workplace? No. Just as in the civil rights movement, true cultural shifts come about through risks and sacrifices far greater than simply pulling a face at an opportune moment. But for people feeling paralyzed or unsure where to start, it’s a small first step on a path that can lead to becoming a true advocate for change.