Preparing to write this piece, I started with the suggestion that I address current events, such as the wrongful arrest of two men in a Starbucks for the crime of sitting in a Starbucks. Of course, identifying an event for discussion where people of color are treated like garbage in public doesn’t require digging. Here’s an example, here’s another example, and here’s another one. So many of us want to end this violence; so many want to make a difference. What can we do?
That people of color have been treated as second-class citizens, as criminals, and as less than human has been true since Europeans took over the land where the United States exists today. People of color know the truth; they live it every day. White people facing the truth comes in waves. We all know something about the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s. We know about Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus (not all of us know about Claudette Colvin, now only 78 years old, who took action before Rosa Parks). But even in this age of phones recording video and social media sharing the stories, many people consider each of the stories of violence against people of color as isolated incidents. They aren’t. They are a part of a system of oppression many call “whiteness.”
So, the first step for many of us in changing our system of racism is to recognize it is a system. It isn’t just some bad apples. It isn’t isolated incidents with incident-specific explanations. The mistreatment of people of color—and all people who don’t fit whiteness’ defined default—is, as they say, not a “bug” in the design. It’s a feature. It is part of what makes our systems work. It helps to recognize each of these incidents as parts of a larger system when we consider what we might do to work for change.
We want to believe if we saw Rosa Parks (or Claudette Colvin) being told to move to the back of the bus we would’ve stood up and told the racists to leave her alone. But, moving from being a bystander to someone who intervenes when you are a witness to injustice requires preparation. It requires education and practice.
Understanding and correcting our own implicit biases honestly and deeply is an essential step in being of service if you are a witness to injustice. If at any level of your being you think “they must’ve done something wrong if they are being treated badly” because of how someone presents themselves, you will be less likely to get involved. How do you understand and rid yourself of implicit bias? There are many, many resources available online (some to connect you to offline resources). Here are a few: 4 Things We Can Do to Minimize Implicit Bias; Four Tools for Interrupting Implicit Bias; or, How to Fight Your Own Implicit Biases.
Learn about the “bystander effect.” Know that being in a larger group of people will make it less comfortable to get involved if you are a witness. There are tools online and in your community to learn how to overcome this and other obstacles. Googling “bystander intervention” is a good start. Hollaback! offers webinars and their website has excellent, practical resources.
Talking to my friends from marginalized backgrounds confirms what I’ve learned online: one of the most important steps to actively and visibly take a stand against harassment or mistreatment of others in public settings is to make contact with the person who is the target. Follow their lead. Do they want your involvement? Perhaps your involvement might make things worse for them. But making contact, human to human, can make a difference.
Find opportunities to practice intervening. Again, Google and other search engines are our friends. Local nonprofit organizations certainly offer trainings that can help. It’s been my experience that until we risk saying something stupid and actually say something, we will remain silent—and ineffectual. We can’t let our fear of making mistakes prevent us from trying to affect change in ourselves or the wider world. We will make mistakes. But if you see someone being treated badly, don’t be the person who tries to ignore it. If you do not let the person being mistreated know you are on their side, you will be on the side of the perpetrator.
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