What if we PRACTICED or REHEARSED what we will say when we witness harassment, threats and injustice?
Denial, Hate, Silence and Shame
This weekend, while traveling for business in Alabama, an African American friend of mine was denied service at a store. She was called a series racial slurs and verbally threatened. “I knew I was in the South, but I thought I’d be safe,” she told me, “because I was in a popular tourist area, and the store was really charming and cute.” Several employees and patrons of the witnessed this behavior and said nothing. She walked out saying nothing, hurt emotionally and spiritually, afraid of being hurt physically.
“Honestly, the closest word I can find to describe how it feels to a white friend, is ‘violated.’ It’s an almost sexual shame. I’ve become more used to separationist/segregationist language recently. But it still feels incredibly shameful.”
An Alabama Problem?
When I heard about the incident I was incensed. Why didn’t anyone speak up?
When I spoke with my friend, she told me that the community she was visiting is experiencing a lot of grief about changing ways of life, and anxiety about perceived ‘outsiders,’ coming into the community. “I represented a threat, an encroachment, a change that is out of their control. I get that.”
But are there stereotypes true? Is everyone White person in Alabama just extra-explicitly racist?
I thought of my friend Eleanor, a white woman who recently moved back to Alabama, her home state. She speaks up about racial justice often on social media. I know her and her family to be inclusive, loving, justice oriented and warm. Surely, she is not the only white person from Alabama to have these traits.
So, I assume that at least one person in the busy store felt uncomfortable with the way my friend was treated. But no one said or did anything. Why?
The answer, I suspect is a combination of the bystander effect and being unprepared.
The bystander effect is a social-psychological theory that says that the more people witness an emergency, the less likely anyone person is to intervene. We believe that someone else will speak up or act and so no one speaks, no one acts. I believe this could have been at play this weekend.
But even more than the bystander effect, I believe that what kept the crowd of people around my friend from speaking up is that we are unprepared.
We often talk about racism as an issue from the past. In well-meaning ways, we respond to stories of injustice by saying, “It’s 2017, how can this still be happening.” Or “Don’t these racists know that we’re not in the 1960s anymore?” We need to stop being surprised by racism and start being prepared to address it when we witness it.
Racism is a real and evolving phenomenon that is not limited by year. But because even good intentioned white people see racism as something that we expect in grainy black and white news footage or history books we are not prepared to speak and act in the present.
It sounds cheesy and awkward, but what if we PRACTICED or REHEARSED what we will say when we witness harassment, threats and injustice? What if we elevated our allyship to an art and were ready to speak the right line or do the right move when we witness injustice?
I’m talking about looking in the mirror and saying them out loud. Or maybe we role-play scenarios with other white friends. Or maybe we journal our practice statements. But what if we made a commitment to actually rehearse what we will say or do when we witness injustice or harassment.
There are a few different categories for how we can intervene: check-ins, direct intervention, distraction, delegation, documentation and delayed intervention. These come from literature about street harassment, but apply well to other kinds of verbal harassment. None of these are the right strategy 100% of the time, they’re all good strategies to have on hand.
Practice saying them out loud. Imagine situations where you may need to use them and imagine yourself saying them. Create phrases in your own words that you can use to intervene, say those out loud.
Check in with the person being targeted:
- “Hey, are you ok?”
- “Are they bothering you?”
- “Do you feel safe?”
- “Would you like me to walk you out to your car?”
- “How can I help?”
- “It seemed like they said some really hurtful things to you back there.”
- “That response didn’t seem fair to me. Would you like me to say something?”
- “Can I sit with you?”
Directly Address the offender:
- “The way that you are talking to her feels disrespectful.”
- “I feel uncomfortable shopping here if you talk to customers of color that way.”
- “As another employee of this company, I feel embarrassed that we would talk to a customer that way.”
- “I don’t feel comfortable with that kind of language.”
- “I’m not sure if you meant it this way or not, but what you just said felt really hurtful.”
- “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I want to stop you before you say anything else that you may regret later/ that will make our guests uncomfortable/ that sounds racist.”
“Innocently” distract the offender mid offense:
- “Sorry to interrupt, do you have the time?”
- Spill your coffee near the incident make a big deal of cleaning it up ask for help.
- Ask the target or the offender about something they are wearing
- Ask for directions.
Not every target wants the police involved but if there is a physical threat it may be appropriate to call 911. ASK.
Ask another bystander to help you intervene:
- “Hey what he just said was really offensive, could you go get the manager?”
- “Did you hear what they just said to him? Would you come with me to check and see if he’s ok?”
- Pull out your phone and take video of the incident in progress.
- Write down the names or identifying details of the offender.
Sometimes our own safety will prevent us from taking direct action. Other times we will freeze.It’s ideal to be able to respond early and prevent or interrupt an incident, but sometimes we can’t or don’t. When an incident is over, there is still time to respond.
- Check in with the target – “I am really sorry that happened, and I’m sorry that I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to do. Can I do anything to help now?”
- “I’m really disappointed in what I just saw. Here’s my contact info if you need any support or witnesses to tell your story.”
- Talk with the offender. “I wanted to say something earlier, but I froze up. I was really uncomfortable with how you spoke with them.”
- Report the offense. Call the manager, customer service, share on social media.