May and Stark: Recent incidents remind us not to be passive bystanders
We need to be able to count on each other for bystander intervention, they write
Editor’s Note: Emily May is the co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!, a nonprofit that works to fight harassment and offers bystander training webinars and resources. Kio Stark is the author of “When Strangers Meet,” a book about why people should talk to strangers. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors.
When any part of our society gives license to bigotry, we must stand up to it. Decent people all around America have displayed a beautiful outpouring of desire to step up in unprecedented ways to support total strangers who are being actively targeted with hatred, violence, discrimination, and venom.
But the desire to help people from marginalized groups who face harassment or threat isn’t enough. We have to act. Just recently, on a New York subway, a young Muslim woman was reportedly subjected to verbal and physical harassment by three men; according to police, the woman said these men grabbed at her and called her a “terrorist” who should “get out of this country.” Later, on Facebook, she lamented that “so many individuals chose to be bystanders,” rather than intervening or trying to help her.
It’s not a matter of heroics. Following through as a helper isn’t simple, and being an effective and active bystander doesn’t mean swooping in and saving the day. Not only is this an ineffective model, it can also make things worse for the person being harassed, who now in addition to managing the person harassing them, may feel like they have to manage you too.
The key to successful bystander intervention is knowing that you have options and using them. At the anti-harassment organization Hollaback! we call them the 4 Ds of Bystander Intervention.
First, distract. Creating a distraction can help de-escalate the situation by bringing the person doing the harassment “out of the moment.” Examples include asking for the time, dropping your coffee cup, pretending you’re lost – or really, anything. In a scene caught on video, a man witnessing a domestic dispute on the subway decided to walk between the couple while very slowly eating potato chips. It was such an odd scene that it distracted the couple long enough to break their immediate tension and inspired others to show up and intervene further.
Next, delay. Intervention doesn’t always need to happen while the harassment is happening. After the harassment is over, ask the person if they are OK, or if there is anything you can do to help. This one is powerful because it puts control of the situation back into the hands of the person being harassed. It makes them feel less alone, and reduces trauma. In one report submitted to Hollaback!, a man noticed harassment happening, but saw that the victim was already getting support and waited to see if more help was needed. When the incident was over, he told the victim he had been “watching and would’ve intervened if the guy tried to touch [her].”
Or, you can delegate. Ask for a third party to help, there is power in numbers. We’ve heard stories of people finding support in someone else standing near them, or from a transit employee, a teacher, or a manager. In Minneapolis, a bystander stood up for her friend who was being harassed at a bar by a man who had allegedly raped her in the past by reporting the guy to the bouncer.
Finally, there is direct intervention. Calmly let the harasser know that what they are doing is wrong, but do not escalate the situation. The focus of this intervention is to usher the person being harassed to safety. This can be risky and is not always the safest bet for everyone as the harassment can be redirected at the bystander, but there are some people who can do this. For example, when a young man in Chicago overheard someone make a racist remark to a young black woman, he responded directly to the harasser by saying, “I don’t think she needs you telling her what she’s supposed to say.”
Before you decide what strategy to use, you need to trust your instincts and consider: what worries me about intervening in this situation? You may be scared it will escalate, you may be worried you’ll say the wrong thing, or you may be confused about whether what you witnessed was harassment or not. Being honest with yourself here will help you identify what the right solution is for you. For example, if you are worried about escalation, try creating a distraction or asking the person if they are OK. If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, delegate the intervention to someone else.
Remember that your goal is helping the target, not fighting the harasser. Cornell’s International Labor Relations school conducted research and found that as little as a knowing glance shared with the target can reduce the trauma associated with harassment, while the presence of bystanders who do nothing can actually increase the trauma.
And this is a problem. Too often we’re in our own little worlds and we pass by these harassment incidents, doing nothing because we don’t see them in the first place. Being a good bystander is predicated on actually seeing what’s going on in the street and the subway. You can’t intervene if you don’t know what’s going on around you, if you’re not aware, not looking at the people around you. You can’t be an active bystander if you don’t notice what’s going on.
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This matters beyond moments of potential harm. Being aware, and acknowledging the people around you in public binds us together as communities. In a world upside down, we don’t always know if we can trust the police and we don’t always know if we can trust the government. We need to be able to count on each other.