You know that feeling when you have been waiting for something for a while. Not like a sharp wait which cuts through you but a wait which remains there, somewhere submerged in your mind. And you wish that it is responded, to equip one better to deal with situations. Situations which are not imaginary. Situations which occur and you don’t know how to react, what to do finally ending up a guilty conscious of inaction. This training was my answer to that wait. Active Bystanders training organized by Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies (PAX) and Sociology department at Brandeis University facilitated by Quabbin Mediation was worth going to even at the end of my day.
What does being an Active Bystander mean to me?
Someone who is not lost when a situation of discrimination or abuse occurs. Someone who proactively takes action to confront, diffuse or respond back to the situation. As a truth, I have not been one many times in life even though I have wanted to be one every single time the situation arose.
At the very beginning, the training program set up the stage that we have all been ‘target’ as well as ‘harm doer’ to others in our lives. Thus, being any one of them does not make us any ‘good’ or ‘bad’ respectively. Doing harm can be anything, verbal or physical abuse based on a certain identity- of race, caste, gender, sexuality, ability, class or most often intersections of them! This harm is perpetuated intentionally or even unintentionally in the society due to our behavior patterns and privileges. We have also been ‘Bystanders’, probably more than the above two categories in our lives. Being active or passive is a choice though- which depends on our own positionality. Our identities make us privileged or vulnerable to say something or shut up!
The most interesting aspect of the training for me was the categorization of ‘inhibitors’ of active Bystandership. Unless we recognize what stops us to take action- we won’t start taking action. Right?
These inhibitors included a wide range of behaviors including Masks (ignoring that a harm is happening), Who me (Diffusion of responsibility), Confusion (unsure if harm is happening), Fear (Fear of disapproval) and Danger (Possibility of revenge or retaliation against you). Breaking each of these down with examples and brainstorming within small groups was a powerful exercise. Sharing of examples and some honest conversations made me feel that I was ‘part of a flock’ and taking action in certain situations is not always possible. On the other hand, various actions taken by people in difficult situations also gave me a feeling of hope. My small list of things for active Bystanders to do as a take away is as follows:
· Call out or name the problem. If you are afraid to reach out alone, name it aloud to catch other people’s attention. For example, Oh, the lady is crying/ bleeding/ or needs help? This will get somebody’s attention and you will be an active recruiter.
· Recruit allies. Don’t do it alone. Recruit others in the task. Use phrases aloud like; Did you see that? Should we do something? Sometimes designating someone to do something while you do another part of the job is also helpful. For example, ‘You call the police while I attend to the first aid of the victim’. Together we can do more.
· Be the first one to act. This will break the mask. Most of us are empathetic poeple, we just don’t know how to start acting in that way. If you are unsure or in confusion about whether harm is actually intended, ask a follow up question. For example, if you hear a racist or sexist comment at workplace, ask ‘Can you explain why you think so?’ This will let them recheck their stereotypes and give courage to others to speak up as well!
· Reach out to the ‘victim/ target’. Sometimes just asking the target ‘Do you need help?’ can guide us about what to do or clear our confusion that some help is needed.
· Reach out to the ‘harm doer’. Sometimes just going up to the harm doer can startle them and give chance to the target to escape. For example going to someone who’s causing harm and saying, ‘Oh, are you alright. Did that person do something wrong to you for you to behave like this with them?’ Though, this can depend on the context. Approaching the abuser at a scene of domestic violence in South-East Asia might not a good idea! They may not be startled at all!
· Getting your body in-between. This might not be possible (or safe) always but it’s a good idea whenever possible. It does require a lot of courage though.
With these action points, the conversation shifted to courage. Each of us shared moments of courage or the lack of it in pairs! There were plenty of stories shared by participants during the training of denouncing racism, acts of Bystander courage and even what to do when perceived as a harm doer!
With my paired partner, LaQuasia’s permission, I am sharing this beautiful story of courage.
One night, LaQuasia and her friends were out dancing. She saw a girl come out of restroom onto the dance floor. Seeing her alone, a guy approached her and was trying to act funny with her. She seemed visibly distressed and was looking out for her friends who didn’t seem in sight. No one seem to have noticed the distressed girl. LaQuasia, who does not usually like confrontation, gathered all her courage and walked up to the scene. She put her arms around the girl saying, ‘Oh gosh, its so great to see you here. How are you doing?’ She pretended that she knew the girl. There was a look of bewilderment on the face of the girl. Drawing close, LaQuasia whispered in her ear, ‘You needed help right?’ As she understood LaQuasia’s intention, she started weeping out of gratitude. The guy was surprised to see that his target was not alone and stepped back. In this beautiful moment of courage, LaQuasia was able to put her body between the two, preventing further harm to the target.
What struck me about the story was the attitude of ‘inclusive care’ by LaQuasia. She practiced ‘care’ about people other than she closely identified with! This is what builds a community. Just acting as a Bystander may change our lives and others as well. ‘When a person harms another, they change. When a person helps another, they change’ is what we learned from the training. We can choose what to do!
I DO NOT claim that I will do take action every time I witness something happening. I will still have my mask, my fears and my sense of danger. But at least I now have an idea where to start!