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Be an active bystander against racism

The abhorrent racial abuse directed towards English football players following the Euros 2020 final has shone a necessary light on the level of racism present in the UK.

The University of Worcester stands strong against all forms of racism, hatred, discrimination and abuse. We must all work together to stamp out intolerance and build a better world for all.

The University’s Bystander Intervention Programme has seen several hundreds of students trained to spot and intervene in matters of violence or harassment.

Here, Dr Gill Harrop, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, looks at the Bystander Intervention Programme and how we can all become active bystanders against racism.

Beyond Allyship: The Role of Active Bystanders in Tackling Racism – Dr Gill Harrop

The abhorrent racial abuse directed towards English football players Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho following Sunday’s Euro 2021 final shone a necessary light on the level of racism present within the UK. Within minutes of these players missing penalties in the final, dozens of social media posts appeared inciting racial hatred and using derogatory language and images towards the players. Twitter reported that, in the 24 hours following the game, over 1,000 tweets were removed and several accounts suspended for breaching guidelines against racial hatred.  The England manager Gareth Southgate rightly condemned the racist abuse as unforgivable. Indeed, many people viewing the abuse directed at these players fiercely opposed the actions of those spouting racism and were no doubt quick to privately condemn it. In doing so, we take pride in being allies in the fight against racism. But, given the scale of the problem, we have to ask ourselves is simply being an ally enough anymore?

The author Angela Davis famously said “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist”. As an ally against racism, a person can support the struggle for the rights and freedoms of others, but there is no requirement to get involved or to actually DO anything. An ally might quietly support others or disagree with how a group is being treated, without ever actually speaking up or taking action to demonstrate that support. Therefore, while allyship is an excellent start, in order to achieve real change in the fight against racism, we must combine allyship with action to create active bystanders, who are willing to speak up and challenge problematic behaviour each time they encounter it.

Bystanders have a unique role to play when encountering racist behaviour. They are neither the perpetrators, nor the victim on the receiving end of the racism. They are simply a witness, someone who is not part of the situation, who can choose to walk away and not get involved.  However, by deciding to take action and get involved, people become active bystanders, and can make a positive change by noticing when there’s a problem and choosing to intervene.

There are four key steps to being an active bystander:

  1. Notice what is happening around you
  2. Recognise when something is problematic
  3. Take responsibility for doing something
  4. Have the necessary skills to act

One of the biggest challenges that active bystanders face in tackling racism is that the racism may take the form of micro-aggressions, and it may not always be immediately obvious that there is a problem. While the racism directed towards the England football players was very overt and could be easily identified as problematic, Wing et al (2007) suggest that a high proportion of institutional racism manifests itself as micro-aggressions which may not be immediately obvious to bystanders. For example, someone commenting that a black colleague is very articulate may initially sound like a compliment, but the underlying suggestion is that it is surprising that this person is so well-spoken. Wing et al. produced an excellent resource to help identify these racial micro-aggressions and understand why they are problematic (https://sph.umn.edu/site/docs/hewg/microaggressions.pdf) This resource is a great way for allies to gain more information about how to spot micro-aggressions in order to be able to intervene.

Other barriers to being an active bystander may include a fear of retaliation from the perpetrator, lack of confidence or simply being unsure about what to do in a particular situation. However, the beauty of the active bystander role is that there are many ways to do it. You don’t have to run into a situation and call out someone’s behaviour if you don’t feel comfortable doing that. There are plenty of the other options, including offering support to the person on the receiving end of the behaviour, filming a problematic situation on your phone for the victim to use as evidence later, or contacting the police. If the perpetrator of the problematic behaviour is a friend or family member, you could call them out immediately or choose to have a conversation later to tell them that their behaviour was racist and unacceptable. If you see racist comments or images on social media, screenshot them and report them to the online platform. The important thing for active bystanders is not what you choose to do – it’s that you choose to do something.

The University of Worcester Bystander Intervention programme trains students to identify and tackle problematic behaviour, including racism, homophobia and sexual violence. By helping students to identify these, and giving them confidence in their skills to intervene, we aim to create a campus culture where there is a clear message that violence, abuse, racism and bigotry of any sort will not be accepted. Following completion of the UW Bystander Intervention programme. 97.7% of students said they felt confident using intervention strategies in their everyday life and 100% said it has increased the likelihood that they would intervene in problematic situations. The events following the Euro 2020 final suggest that real change needs to happen in relation to how we tackle racism within the UK. The development of a nation of active bystanders, willing to call out racism each time they see it, would surely be an effective and welcome start to that change.

Steps that you can take to be an Active Bystander against racism:

  • Listen – Listen to what people are saying about their experiences of racism.  Ask what you can do to support them. Don’t be offended if someone is not immediately receptive. You should centre the conversation on their needs, rather than make a performance out of your allyship.
  • Challenge – If you encounter people using racist language or imagery, challenge them and call it out.
  • Offer Support – If you see someone on the receiving end of racism, check in with them to see if they are okay. Offer to support them in reporting the racism and offer to provide evidence as a witness if required.
  • Keep Talking – if you know people who have racist views, consider talking to them to discuss the issue and encourage them to rethink their views. Even if this is not successful, it is important to speak up and start the conversation. Keep talking to others about how to be a better ally and how to add action to allyship in order to become active bystanders.
  • Educate yourself – There are many resources online to help educate yourself about racism and micro-aggressions, such as the Anti-Racist Resource Guide
  • Report – Report racist social media posts immediately. Don’t share these images, even to show your disagreement with them, as this could be traumatic and hurtful to others. Details of how to report racist posts to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are shown below:

Facebook – Click the three dots at the top right of the post you would like to report, elect “find support or report post”, click on the appropriate category and follow the rest of the prompts

Instagram – Select the post you wish to report and click the caution sign on the top right of your phone, click on ‘report post’

Twitter – Click on the three dots on the top right of a Tweet, select “it’s abusive or harmful”, click “it directs hate against a protected category…”, then follow the rest of the prompts

If you would like to find out more about the University of Worcester’s Bystander Intervention Programme, please contact Dr Gill Harrop (g.harrop@worc.ac.uk).

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