Public racist attacks and hate violence have dramatically increased during the last year. If you witness harassment, disrespect, or assault, you may feel like you want to intervene and help, but not know what to do. You’re not alone.
Unfortunately, witnessing harm isn’t a rare experience. In fact, it can be pretty common. However, it’s still normal to freeze in the moment. This usually comes from fear—fear that you may be misinterpreting the situation, fear for your own safety, or fear from the memory of a similar situation. You might also be thinking, “Should I do something about it, even though it’s not my business?” or, “Look at all these people here. Someone else will help.” This is known as the bystander effect: the more people (or bystanders) present, the less likely it is that any one person will intervene. The bystander effect can lead to more serious consequences.
It is important to know the potential harms of being a silent witness to crime and harassment. This…
- Leaves the target at risk for more harm
- Sends a message of approval to the attacker
- Can normalize not intervening to other bystanders
Remember, standing up is as much of a choice as staying silent. Taking action makes the community safer. It can also prevent more harmful outcomes, like injury or even death. Your voice has power. Your actions matter. You can lend the victim support and make them feel less alone. This is why people who say something in the face of violence or harm are called “upstanders,” a term coined by Samantha Power that implies active intervention.
Here are the steps to being an active bystander, or upstander:
1. Assess for safety
Remember to consider safety first.
It is important to prioritize your safety and the safety of others. Ask yourself, “Is it safe for me to intervene, or should I call for help?” or, “Will intervening put the target at more risk for harm?” Making this kind of decision is not easy for anyone. It takes a lot of courage to stand up against harassment. Remember, being an upstander involves de-escalating the situation and stepping in BEFORE a situation becomes dangerous. To do this, you must assess the situation so you can intervene in the safest ways possible.
How can you tell whether it’s safe?
Before stepping in, make sure you are aware of your surroundings. A situation may be more dangerous if:
- No one else is around.
- Weapons are involved.
- You are in an enclosed space and can’t escape.
- There are more attackers than bystanders.
- Your safety may also depend on your own identities. For example, someone who is neurodivergent and Black may feel unsafe in situations that feel safer for someone who is white and neurotypical.
Think about ways to make intervening safer:
- There is safety in numbers! Recruit other bystanders to help. Approaching the attacker as a group may make it feel safer for you to intervene.
- Look for help from a person in a position of authority, like a bus driver, teacher, security guard or store manager.
If a situation is not completely safe, it doesn’t mean that you can’t intervene. However, it’s important to be aware of how safe you are and what you can do to make the situation safer.
2. Identify harassment or violence
You may be wondering how you can tell when bystander intervention is needed.
After all, what exactly is harm? What “counts” as violence? These are big questions, and you don’t have to have all the answers! Harm can look different to different people. Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW) adapts the definition used by Impact Justice: “Harm is when the actions of a person (or people) or system(s) [police, hospital, courts, etc.] has a negative impact on a person (or people) that creates unmet needs and obligations. This is often an abuse of power.”
Sometimes, it can be hard to tell. You might wonder, “Is that actually a big deal?” or “Maybe they actually know that person.” Understanding what harassment is and what harm can look like can make it easier to figure out whether to take action in the moment.
Harassment includes a whole range of actions that vary in how extreme they are. Here are some situations that may warrant intervention:
- Someone uses an offensive or disrespectful term (“Chinese virus”) or expresses a racist or hateful opinion (“Go back to where you came from”).
- A person is being followed.
- Someone is acting physically aggressive. This can include getting in the other person’s face, hitting, punching, kicking, coughing or spitting on them, or trying to take their mask off. They may physically get in their way if the other person tries to walk away or leave the space.
- Verbal threats, insults, accusations, cursing someone out, yelling, or using racist/xenophobic slurs.
- Someone continues to misgender someone else or calls a trans person names and slurs.
Pay attention to the person being harassed.
- Facial expressions: Do they look upset, angry, worried, or scared? Do they seem like they are having a hard time controlling their emotions? Someone in distress might close their eyes, stare intently at one thing, or move away as if trying to block out the situation.
- Body language: Are they glancing around, as if they are looking for help or trying to catch someone else’s attention? Are they keeping their eyes down to avoid making eye contact with the harasser? Are they hunched away from the harasser, as if trying to block them out? They also may be trying to move away from the other person, turn their back on them, or keep glancing over their shoulder to see who is following them.
- Verbal cues: They might say something like, “Get away from me!”, “I don’t know you!”, “Leave me alone,” “Please stop,” or “Help.”
- Lack of verbal cues: If you see someone yelling or talking intently at someone else who is completely silent, not looking at them, or has headphones in, they may not know each other. Sometimes, people freeze when they are in a scary situation, or when they have been in a similar situation before and couldn’t do anything about it. This is called the freeze response.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone is in a vulnerable place. If you’re not sure, you can always ask!
Directly ask them if they’re ok or want help, if you feel comfortable. Or you can type or write out, “Are you ok?”, “You good?”, “Do you want help?” or, “Do you know this person?” on your phone or a piece of paper and show it to them.
How you intervene will depend on whether you know the people involved, how safe you feel, what the person targeted feels comfortable with, and more.
In this story from the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, a staff member describes what she did when she and a coworker saw a potentially dangerous situation, but they weren’t sure what to do (or whether something was actually wrong in the first place).
3. Take action
Originally pioneered by Green Dot and later expanded by Hollaback!, the 5 D’s are ways you can stand up against harassment and support the person being attacked. We go over the 5 D’s below, but we encourage you to check out Hollaback!’s Bystander Intervention Training here.
Interrupt the interaction between the attacker and the person targeted. The idea is to engage with the one being attacked while ignoring the attacker. This will help de-escalate the situation.
- Ask for directions.
- Steal the attention of the attacker without engaging them directly. Spill your drink, make a loud noise, or drop something.
- Pretend you know the person being harassed. Say something like, “Oh there you are. I’ve been looking everywhere for you. We should go or we’re going to be late.”
Ask for help from those around you. You can also get help from someone with authority, like a security guard, teacher, bus driver, or manager.
Think before calling 911. Before calling, check in with the person being harassed. Make sure they are okay with this. Getting law enforcement involved can be unsafe for some people (like people who are undocumented). Your goal is to make the person targeted feel as safe as possible. In some situations, however, you may not be able to check in. That’s okay. Just use your best judgment.
Recording the incident can help by providing evidence. It also gives the person being harassed more options for dealing with the incident. Before documenting though, make sure someone else is already helping the person being harassed. If not, use one of the other four D’s first. Keep in mind…
- The purpose of filming is to focus on what’s happening to the person being harassed. Capture details such as slurs, threats, license plates, physical interactions, and landmarks that show the location (like street signs). Look at this tip sheet for more helpful tips when filming as an active bystander
- Ask before sharing. ALWAYS ask the person being targeted what they would like to do with the recording. NEVER use the recording without their permission. It may seem helpful to post images or videos to raise awareness. However, publicizing the event may lead to unwanted attention, re-traumatization, or unwanted interactions with the legal system. Only make videos public with the permission of the person targeted.
Harassment can happen quickly, so you don’t have a chance to intervene as it’s happening. However, the effects are longer lasting. Check in with the person who was harassed. You can ask to sit with them, or if they need company getting to their destination.
If you documented what happened, share the photos or video. The person may not want to see images or videos right then. They also may not know what they want to do with it. Respect what makes them feel safe. Keep the documentation safe and private. Give them your contact information in case they want a copy later.
You may want to confront the attacker directly. This is a bold way to stand up against harassment. However, it is the riskiest way to intervene. First, make sure you and the person being harassed are physically safe. Are there others who are willing to help you intervene? If the attacker becomes violent, will you be able to get away?
If you choose to confront the harasser directly, remember…
- Keep it short and straightforward: “That is not okay,” “Leave them alone,” “That comment is racist.”
- Your ultimate goal is to engage with the person being attacked and deescalate the situation. Do not engage in an extended conversation, debate, or argument. Instead, respond with respect. Using derogatory terms could make the situation worse. Intervene in nonviolent ways when possible. Make sure that you’re centering the person being attacked. Intervening is not about dealing out justice, shaming the attacker, or highlighting your own good actions.
After the situation is over, take a moment to think through what happened and how you reacted. Consider writing down your thoughts. (This can help you process them.)
- If you didn’t intervene, why? What would help you be a better upstander next time?
- Break down what happened. What went well? What can you do better next time?
- Continue to educate yourself on bystander intervention, violence prevention and how to be anti-racist.
- Witnessing harassment can be upsetting. This is especially true if you’ve experienced something similar or see yourself in the person being harassed. Make sure you give yourself room to process what you’ve seen. When you can, talk it through with a friend or journal about it. Take some time to relax and do something that makes you feel good. Try watching a favorite movie, reading, or playing basketball. It’s ok to be upset or have strong feelings about what you saw.
Remember: You are powerful.
In this tweet thread, the writer Vera Papisova describes how she intervened when a student experienced transphobic hate speech on the subway. And even though most interventions will not be as traumatic or painful, the documentation by bystanders played a major role in the conviction of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder.
Your actions matter. You can make a difference.
- iHollaback’s Bystander Intervention Training
- iHollaback (5Ds)
- Learning for Justice
- Don’t be a Bystander: 6 Tips for Responding to Racist Attacks (Video from Barnard Center for Research on Women)
Parents, schoolteachers, or community-based organization interested in free virtual or in-person upstander training workshops in NYC can reach out to our YES Program Coordinator Mx. Heima Sritharan (they/them) at email@example.com to learn more.
Dr. Miranda Loh is a board-certified pediatrician and current adolescent medicine fellow at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She completed her residency at Dell Medical School-The University of Texas at Austin after receiving her medical degree from the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine-University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, TX . She is passionate about providing comprehensive care to adolescents and young adults. Her areas of interest include sexual and reproductive health, nutritional wellness, advocacy, and medical education.