How you can be an active bystander against casual racism

By Olivia Montes

Lifestyle Editor 

 These past several months, the United States has witnessed multiple attacks on the Black American community, including the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Walter White at the hands of police; the police-related shooting and hospitalization of Jacob Blake; and the death of Quawan Charles after the report of his disappearance just this month. 

Alongside these and several other injustices during that time, the U.S. has also witnessed another rise — that of a mass response calling for accountability for the perpetrators of these crimes and widespread change for further protections for Black Americans across the U.S.. 

According to a collective report from The New York Times on Jun. 6, in collaboration with polls from Civis Analysis, Kaiser Family Foundation, National Opinion Research Center, and Pew Research Center, a total of over 500,000 people have participated in Black Lives Matter and similar protests since May 26, turning out at over 550 places nationwide. 

During these protests, individuals with different backgrounds and creeds joined together to make this and several other racial injustices, known to the eyes of both the country and the world, for promoting justice. This included calling for the removal of Confederate statues and other symbols, or to condemn systemic racism within multiple national institutions, ranging from the criminal justice system to sports leagues to multi-billion-dollar corporations. 

However, while this is a step forward in the direction towards enacting permanent change within the country, there are still many who believe that there needs to be more — more action, more cooperation, more response — towards achieving justice for all Americans, regardless of their racial identities. 

According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 34% of individuals believe this increase in support for racial equality has led to major changes in how most citizens think about these issues, while 42% believe in only minor change and 24% claim no change. 

According to Vox reporter Anna North, one significant factor determining this skepticism is how, despite many people’s attitudes, beliefs, or ideals, contributing to the fight for equality is no longer just about being not racist, but against racism itself. 

“[Being antiracist] requires an understanding of history — an understanding that racial disparities in America have their roots, not in some failing by people of color but in policies that serve to prop up white supremacy,” North said on Jun. 3.

“Anti-racism is understanding how years of federal, state, and local policies have placed communities of color in the crises they face today, and calling those policies out for what they are: racist,” she said. 

While protesting is one method of demonstrating your anti-racist stance, becoming an active bystander, or standing up against irregular acts of racism, can also help in not only further preventing this culture of silence against racist or discriminatory actions and behaviors.

Here are a few methods as to how you can mold yourself into an active bystander— and ultimately help to further shape a more inclusive, knowing future for all. 

Know the differences between being an “ally” and a “bystander.”

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as other movements such as the fourth wave feminist and LGTBQ+ rights social movements, there has also been a rise of terms regarding the support along the supporters of these social campaigns, including “ally” and “active bystander.”  

The ideas behind an ally, or someone who, despite having a privileged background, advocates for social change for the oppressed.  

“Being an ally means using your own privilege to lift up voices that don’t experience the same kind of privileges,” Today reporter Leila Roker said. “The more you listen and stay informed on the issues of racial disparity, the more knowledgeable you can be on how to help.” 

On the other end of the spectrum, an “active bystander” is defined as one who, upon witnessing an act of discrimination and/or racism, blatantly calls out those offenders for their ignorance and lack of respect. 

In contrast, while an ally’s privilege assists in providing an additional pillar towards helping to leverage a movement into being recognized, the role of an active bystander is based in acting and reacting, in fighting against and viewing this tolerant culture as being unacceptable and necessary to change. 

While maintaining your allyship is important, becoming an active bystander, with its titular emphasis on taking action, not only allows for people to adopt a new outline for how to behave appropriately in an evolving world but also helps further educate those around you to be better in the future.  

“After all, we can’t just ignore the real racial disparities in policing, the criminal justice system, health, wealth, housing, and nearly every other aspect of American life until everyone is ready to talk about these issues openly,” Vox reporter German Lopez said in 2018. “And the work of reducing racial bias can’t fall solely on people of color. White Americans need to work within their own communities to combat prejudice.” 

Know when — and how — to intervene. 

When it comes to going through with these responsive actions, however, more often than not, we often retreat within ourselves when facing the possibility of escalating a conversation into a confrontation.

This is called the “bystander effect” is when “no one in a group of witnesses chooses to disrupt a problematic event,” as explained by counselor Thomas Vance to The New York Times reporter Ruth Terry. 

This silencing of oneself creates this unreliable expectation to and dependence on forcing others to speak up and right a wrong without giving a second thought as to how those actions, behaviors, or comments impact those they’re targeting.

To combat this, know how and when to actively confront and combat those whose gestures both consciously and subconsciously hint towards promoting and permitting racist thinking, and gain the confidence and strength to stand up for those around you — and do it regularly — without fear of repercussion. 

“Active bystanders should strive to intervene early and often,” Terry said. “That said, there is no statute of limitations on stepping up.” 

Make sure to do something. 

When it comes to reacting to these situations, after cementing a permanent way of interpreting these circumstances, the next step is to act on those urges. 

Effective tactics include combating a confrontational statement with a “compliment,” in which you respond to a comment by reversing it to benefit yourself and those around you; or the method of the “three D’s” — direct the person to address what just happened; distract them with a diversion; or delegate a confrontation with the perpetrators, either alone or with the enlisted help of others around you.

Whichever method you choose, make sure you at least choose one, to give those the support they need and encourage others to stand up on a regular basis. 

“Doing [these steps] can help to de-escalate a situation and give the person on the receiving end of the behavior a chance to exit the scene,” Terry said. “The idea is to just do something,whatever that may be.”

It will take a lot of practice — and a lot of patience. 

It is difficult to be an active bystander 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it will often leave you exhausted. 

Consistently recognizing the injustices going on around you, whether it be in on the news, on social media, or in your daily routine can be frustrating, as it seems that nothing is changing in terms of how we interact with others of different identities. 

However, all these feelings are normal; it is hard to consistently engage in a wide range of education opportunities, open discussions, in-person protests, and so forth; and it is difficult to dive downward into how these realities deeply affect those around them — but it is also a sign you are on the correct path towards greater understanding. 

“The fatigue that we all feel is real and it is normal,” Terry said. “[But] if you’re uncomfortable and exhausted, it means you’re headed in the right direction.” 

There’s no guarantee that each confrontation we face as an active bystander will result in success, and there is a chance that you might make mistakes in your efforts, regardless of how good your intentions may be. 

But what is important is that we continue to use those less-thansuccessful experiences to build upon our skills, more specifically our “moral courage muscles” — a term explained by active bystander coordinator Beryl Domingo as means of establishing resilience towards evoking justice and calling for change — and thus present a plan for how you can improve in and for the sake of the future. 

“It will take a lot of empathy — not just for one conversation but many, many conversations in several settings over possibly many years,” Lopez said. “It won’t be easy, but if we want to address some people’s deeply entrenched racial attitudes, it may be the only way.”

Featured Photo caption: In a cultural and social climate torn between accepting and resisting change, becoming an active bystander can help further support in providing equality and justice for all. Photo Courtesy of Leonhard Schonstein.

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