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Recently, Zoombombing attempted to rob me of a learning opportunity and peace of mind. I was watching a webinar featuring a panel of four women of color leaders discussing COVID-19 and diversity in higher education. Without warning, pornographic images and offensive language erupted onto the screen. Even as the hosts blocked an inappropriate adult-film image, the Zoom whiteboard suddenly appeared. Someone then tried to slowly scrawl a message on it.

This initial intrusion, which toggled between images and whiteboard scribblings, persisted for about 40 seconds. When it seemed as if the webinar hosts had assumed control of the screen, the cyberterrorists invaded the chat box. The intruders typed misogynistic racial slurs directed toward the black women panelists, who were accomplished executive leaders at their respective institutions. After a full minute of this assault, the hosts eventually removed the offenders and disabled use of the chat function.

The cyberterrorists’ persistence was stunning and aggravating. As a person with multiple minoritized identities, I was exhausted for the rest of the afternoon, as my body was dealing with the invasion that had occurred. I felt like I had been harassed by an unidentifiable gang. Historically, phantom actors have often perpetrated public acts of racism and anti-Semitism while sometimes hiding behind hoods. These Zoombombers brought the terrorizing tactics of hate groups into the live virtual learning space. As a psychologist and diversity educator, I wondered about how the other participants were affected.

Since the pandemic began, Zoombombers have targeted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, prayer groups, synagogues, children’s book readings, dissertation defenses and classrooms. Another popular target includes gatherings and webinars that focus on diversity issues and historically targeted groups, such as Jews and African Americans. In the current pandemic, participants join these virtual spaces expecting safety and community, which, when violated, leaves individuals disoriented, apprehensive and deflated.

Zoom Video Communications has responded by sharing pointers on how to keep uninvited guests out of your virtual event. And some institutions of higher education have now offered guidelines for how faculty members should respond and report these incidents. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has classified such often-coordinated terroristic intrusions as cybercrimes. The systemic responses to preventing Zoombombing are warranted and necessary.

But meeting hosts also need guidance for responding psychologically, emotionally, behaviorally and relationally in real time when such attacks occur. Resisting racism, sexism and other forms of oppression requires intention and planning even in the virtual world. As Zoombombing proliferates, we must be able to respond to the incident and care for the people who have been impacted.

As you prepare to host a virtual event that highlights conversations about diversity, historically minoritized populations or other politically charged topics, take the following into account.

  • Have at least one co-host. You can support one another and coordinate how you will respond. While one person is speaking, the other can monitor the screen and the chat spaces.
  • Plan for the possibility. Before your meeting, talk with your co-hosts about Zoombombing.
  • Practice your responses. Literally, speak out loud the statements you might make to your audience and talk through the steps you will take to address an intrusion. Your brain and body could have a fight, flight or freeze response. Explicit, verbal preparation for the situation is more likely to empower you to be nimble in your responsiveness.

If you experience a disruption in your meeting, here are some tips to consider.

  • Recognize that something is happening that requires your attention. Event hosts could experience what is referred to as the amygdala hijack. In other words, the part of your brain that senses threats and fear could take control and prompt the fight-flight-freeze response. Hosts and participants could experience paralysis, distress and anger, which are appropriate responses to feeling threatened, harassed or violated.
  • Counteract the amygdala hijack by grounding yourself. Grounding will disrupt the fight-flight-freeze response. It helps enable your frontal lobe, which is the area of the brain with the capacity for logical, thoughtful responses. Take deep breaths. Feel the mouse or keyboard under your fingers. Breathe deeply. Feel your feet on the floor. Look up and count three things that you see in the room. Bring your attention to your breath. Listen intently to the sounds around you.
  • Attend to the logistics. Use the safety feature to remove offenders, limit screen sharing and prevent chatting. The Anti-Defamation League also suggests that hosts consider saving data by recording the screen activity, saving chats and capturing screenshots. Those actions could help facilitate the process of filing a report to the proper authorities following the meeting.
  • Address your participants and identify how these incidents may harm people. Explicitly name the racist threats, anti-Semitic terrorism or misogynistic language that invaded your space. Refrain from using avoidant phrases such as “despicable” or “horrendous acts” to describe Zoombombing terrorism and harassment. Rather, use the accurate terminology that reflects the intent and impact of the assault. For example, in the webinar I attended, a nonblack panelist described the use of racist, sexist language directed toward the black women panelists as an attempt to undermine them and detract from their brilliance.
    Some participants may be unaffected. For others, however, the danger enacted by an invisible foe could amount to spirit-murdering, a term coined by legal scholar Patricia Williams to describe the painful wounds inflicted on the souls and psyches of marginalized populations by unjust systems. Hosts should be explicit about how oppressive language and images might contribute to feelings of fear, anxiety, rage, shock, confusion or shame. Participants also might experience physiological reactions such as increased heartbeat, perspiration and clenched muscles. Zoombombing intrusions could also trigger memories of past traumas and stressors. Therefore, it might help to state that these types of responses can be normal.
  • Guide your participants. Invite participants to use grounding techniques to refocus themselves. Try to create an environment for them to express their emotions. If appropriate, offer people an opportunity to process how their bodies responded while also honoring everyone’s choice to leave the meeting in favor of other self- or community-care strategies.

If the event is too large to facilitate a verbal conversation, invite participants to write down their thoughts or feelings either privately or using the chat feature, which can be reactivated. Pausing for participants to immediately externalize their reactions through writing them down could minimize the possibility of their later becoming fixated on experiences of shame, confusion or helplessness.

As a diversity trainer, I am often called upon by clients and colleagues who want to learn how to prevent racism, sexist language, homophobic or transnegative microaggressions, or other discriminatory behaviors. Ideally, we would work toward eliminating such speech and actions. However, much of the work of diversity and inclusion is about effectively addressing the intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational and systemic processes that inhibit equity and justice. Providing real-time guidance and support for surviving and mitigating the effects of systemic oppression in virtual spaces is the next frontier.

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