Stand Up: A Guide to Bystander Intervention

Last Friday, waiting in a Boston T station with two (white) friends, a middle-aged white woman walked past and told us, “Sit together; don’t trust black people.” Earlier last week, a friend of mine was verbally assaulted because of her race and her gender, explicitly in Trump’s name. Other friends have been called “f**king Muslims,” have had strangers demand to see their “papers,” have been told to “go back to [their] country.” This just covers some of the incidents that have occurred since the election to which I have personal ties.

Sunday night, Trump finally spoke against these types of attacks during his 60 Minutes interview – calling them “terrible” and saying “stop it.” However, in the same portion of the interview, he also claimed he had only heard of “one or two instances” of threats and harassment. Also notable is the fact that his statement on 60 minutes is the only one he has made on the increased attacks thus far (in contrast, he tweeted about the “unfair” protests within 24 hours of winning the election, and – within a week – he had attacked the New York Times on three separate occasions).

Trump believes these incidents are isolated, overhyped by the media, and in no way a reflection of himself or his electorate. There is considerable evidence to the contrary in the form of expert reports from groups that track hate crimes, Trump’s selection of so-called “alt-right” poster-boy Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, and Trump’s own well-documented history of racist actions and remarks. Many of Trump’s supporters have actively tried to distance themselves from the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia that permeated his campaign, insisting they do not share these values.

It’s time to apply some classic writing advice: show, don’t tell.

When you see or hear acts of bigotry or racism, call people out. Disavow it. This applies to people at all points along the political spectrum. Just as it is insufficient for Trump supporters to say they aren’t racist and move on, it is insufficient for those who opposed Trump to put on a safety pin, say, “Don’t blame me; I voted for Hillary,” and consider the job done.

Here are some specific actions we can all take when we encounter bigotry:

1. Call it out: When a friend, family member, co-worker, classmate, or other person in your life says or does something harmful, speak up. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a list of tips for dealing with these situations. Appeal to shared values – “Our family has always taught compassion and respect.” If someone tells you a racist joke, don’t laugh –ask the joke-teller to explain it to you. Ask if he or she believes the stereotypes perpetuated by the joke.

These conversations may be uncomfortable, but they are necessary. It is possible the speaker is not being intentionally hateful; they may not realize the implications of their statements. Even when the speaker is purposefully expressing racist, sexist, homophobic, or other harmful beliefs, it is important to let them know you do not agree.

2. Stand by victims: When you see a person being targeted because of their identity, make it clear you stand with the victim – perhaps literally. If you see someone being harassed, engage the victim in conversation (if it is safe to do so). Remove focus from the attacker. If necessary and/or possible, help the target of the attack get to a safe place or call for help.

Some communities, such as New York City, have started programs to help those in marginalized communities find someone willing to accompany them on their commute. If a program like this exists in your community, sign up. Show those who fear for their safety that you are willing to walk by their side.

3. Film and/or report assaults: In some cases, it may be unsafe or impossible to intervene directly or stop an attack. You may be able to film the assault, creating a record and preserving evidence. However, if the attack is violent or seems like it may become violent, do not prioritize filming over calling the police and getting professional help to the scene.

4. Familiarize yourself with bystander intervention resources and plan your actions in advance: When I was younger, my dad would make me think through potentially dangerous scenarios: what would you do if a robber comes into the house? A stranger approaches you on the street and tries to get you to go into his car? You’re at a party and you no longer feel comfortable or safe?

The same strategy can be used to prepare to be an effective ally or bystander. A wide variety of resources exist to help you learn about effective intervention techniques. By planning your actions in advance, you are less likely to freeze up when you find yourself in a situation that requires action.

When the woman at the T station gave my friends and me her unsolicited and unwanted “advice” last week, none of us were prepared. She was gone before we could react. Next time it happens, I will be ready to stand up and make it clear that this kind of behavior is not acceptable. I hope you’ll stand with me.

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Megan is a 2L at HLS. She is originally from Minnesota and graduated from Louisiana State University with degrees in Psychology and Political Science. She is passionate about women's rights and social equality.

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  • THANK YOU FOR SHARING THIS STORY AND REMINDING ME THAT I NEED TO PRACTICE MY PLAN FOR STANDING UP WHEN I SEE HARASSMENT.

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