Combating the bystander effect in racist encounters


Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros
Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros

Most people these days would probably agree that racism is simply wrong and those who feel they can discriminate against others because of the way they look or what they wear and believe should probably find a change of perspective.

If you saw a stranger being victimized right in front of you, what exactly would you do about it?

Sure, you could stand up for the victim by giving the victimizer a piece of your mind, but sometimes it’s easier said than done.

Unfortunately, a more common solution is to stare blankly at the situation as it unfolds, stuck in a moment of inaction where you feel there’s nothing that you can do, like driving through a dark road at night and seeing a deer in your headlights at the last second.

Eventually, whether you slam the breaks or keep on driving, it’s road kill either way. So what’s the best decision to make when you’re accelerated into a situation where decisions of morals have to be made?

The bystander effect is a common one, but I think it is something we can work through and overcome.   

One day while I had a rather slow shift at work as a cashier, I witnessed a male Caucasian customer ask a women in a burqa, “You hiding guns under there?” while his girlfriend giggled at his side.

Never had I seen something like that happen in front of me.

A few confrontational words were exchanged between the two but the man went silent after she asked if he had a problem with her.

All the cashiers, including myself, watched silently with shock, unware of what we should do.

I don’t necessarily think any of us were cowards, but as far as I’m concerned, the man should have been kicked out.

I was pissed at us for not doing anything about it because it felt like a situation that should have been handled differently.

But I guess it’s different playing it out in my mind than actually being locked in the moment of disbelief.

The main problem was that no one who witnessed this situation was prepared. I know the store has a zero-discrimination policy, but that doesn’t tell me what the proper steps to take are when discrimination does arise.

I guess it’s a matter of instinct, of standing up for what you believe, but sometimes fear can swallow your words and leave you as inactive as a driver running over a deer.

It’s important to not avoid confrontation; to refuse to allow fear to control your actions. Standing up for what you believe is better than standing by and wishing you could do something.

For those who are able to overcome the bystander effect, handling the situation with the right words is another important element to keep in mind.

When the situation had occurred in front of me I also had anger mixed in with all my other emotions. If I were to have said something, I could have potentially made things a whole lot worse.

This may have been the biggest dilemma for me, but whether or not you think it is your place to get into the situation, doing something about it at the present time can help things out in the long run.

If you let things simmer down on their own or get involved, the problem is still going to be there regardless, so it’s better to make a point of it while you can.

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