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Aug. 11, 2020

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Be an ‘upstander’ … not a bystander

Tools and resources for taking on hate speech and ‘street harassment’

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
4 Photos
This simple guide to boxing out harassment, by the French artist and blogger Maeril, has been widely shared on social media in the last few months.
This simple guide to boxing out harassment, by the French artist and blogger Maeril, has been widely shared on social media in the last few months. (Art and words by Maeril/English translation by The Middle Eastern Feminist.) Photo Gallery

If you see something, say something.

That’s what we’re told about terrorism or even the hint of terrorism. So ask yourself: When a bully harasses and intimidates a stranger — unleashing a torrent of hatred at someone inhabiting a turban or hijab or the wrong skin color or gender, or who’s maybe smooching someone of the same sex — how far away from terrorism is that?

(Webster’s definition: “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”)

Most of us instinctively look away from trouble. It’s hard not to. But many are warning that an ugly new morning has dawned in America — a time when bigots feel permission to let their feelings fly. (In his smart “Saturday Night Live” monologue on Jan. 21, comedian Aziz Ansari begged all those liberated racists to “go back to pretending!”)

“It seems like it’s OK because we now have this world leader who behaves this way, and was behaving this way before he got elected,” said Carmen McKibbin, local president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “It didn’t prevent him from getting elected.”

Now isn’t the time to recoil in fear. Now is the time to be an “upstander,” not a bystander.

Related story

Doing the right thing can be nuanced, complex: Allies, accomplices, anti-racists present different challenges

“Not doing anything sends a message both to the person who’s being targeted and to the oppressor that this is normal and OK,” said Michelle Polek of the YWCA Clark County. “It is not normal and not OK.”

But, she added, you don’t want to increase the danger for the target, nor for yourself. “We want to send a very clear message — but we want everyone to be safe,” Polek said. Sometimes, speaking out “may not be the safest solution.”

The Columbian reached out for practical advice and resources. What do you do, how do you help, when there’s an outbreak of hate speech nearby?

Four D’s

First, you prepare. Otherwise, soaring adrenalin and decreased brain power may get the better of you. Do what professional first responders do: get rehearsed and ready. According to Hollaback! — a New York City nonprofit that was launched to combat “street harassment” — you’ve got choices. Hollaback! calls them the Four D’s: direct, distract, delegate, delay.

Here’s direct: Vancouver native Jasmine Rucker, an undergraduate and the president of Black People United at Washington State University Vancouver, was standing with her aunt at the checkout line at Wal-Mart in Hazel Dell when a white man started bullying the cashier — because she was wearing a hijab. That’s the traditional head covering worn by Muslim women in public.

Rucker was scared, but her fiery aunt didn’t hesitate to scold the man: “How would you feel if you were just doing your job and somebody started bothering you?” At first the man got even more upset — but eventually he settled down and even apologized, Rucker said.

Even more direct: A friend of Carmen McKibbin’s was alone in a local coffee shop when political news came on TV and a stranger gleefully asked if she’d be watching the presidential inauguration. She said no. The man instantly revved into anger. McKibbin’s friend calmly replied: “I don’t discuss politics with strangers. But I know how to use my pepper spray.”

The hater backed off. McKibbin’s friend reported the incident on Facebook and got a wave of sympathy and support.

These are ideal outcomes of situations that could have gone worse. Direct response can be risky; fighting fire with fire and using powerful labels like racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe, hater, harassment, can provoke even angrier, more outrageous behavior. Just as powerful, without a word being said, is standing by the victim and glaring at the hater. Or whipping out your cellphone and starting to record. Haters who realize their behavior will become permanent record can become humble, indeed.

“There are clear but nonaggressive ways of showing where you stand and who you support,” said Stephanie Barr of the YWCA.


A good illustration of the second D, distract, is a simple, four-panel cartoon by Maeril, a Parisian artist and blogger, that’s popular on social media lately. Maeril’s “What to do if you are witnessing Islamophobic harassment” features a man clenching his fists and screaming at a dark-skinned, hijab-wearing woman on a bus when a white bystander intervenes — in a sly, nonconfrontational way. Here’s a version:

1. Approach and ignore. Approach the person being attacked. Sit down and say hello. Be calm, collected and friendly. Ignore the attacker.

2. Friendly conversation. “How about this weather, huh? Did you see ‘Rogue One’? Isn’t it terrible about Carrie Fisher? Are you headed for the mall? Me too, I’m buying a birthday gift for my mother. I can’t believe she’s turning 85!”

3. Build the safe space. Maintain eye contact and dialog with your new friend. Never acknowledge the attacker. You are strengthening a safe space and derailing the threat. We learned this in school: Nothing deflates most bullies better than no attention and no reaction.

4. Escort if necessary. Ignored and irrelevant, the attacker backs off. Accompany your new friend to a safer place and ask if they’re OK; respect their wishes if they just want to go about their business.

Going public

A blogger named Kat Blaque posted a fascinating story about her internet adventures with an insurance agent named Kenneth. When Blaque posted an admittedly snarky comment about white men’s dislike of “political correctness,” Kenneth — a total stranger — came back at her with both guns blazing.

His hatred was couched in threatening, obscene, sexually and racially violent language. He made death threats.

Blaque stopped engaging. She simply took screen shots of his comments and shared them with her fans. They inundated Kenneth’s employer, New York Life Insurance, not just with complaints but with Kenneth’s own repulsive words. New York Life has a policy against such behavior. An investigation didn’t take long. Kenneth was fired within a day.

And how did Blaque feel when all this was over? “I felt like getting some New York Life Insurance,” she wrote.

— Scott Hewitt

Barr said this model can be effective — and safe for the intervener. “I’m not a big person,” Barr said. “I’m five-foot-one. The strategies that I tend to employ are sideways.”

This one’s even more sideways: A bystander on a subway in New York City saw kicking and punching break out between a woman and a man she said was following her. The bystander stepped in between them — while paying rapt attention to nothing but the potato chips he was munching. It was odd enough to distract the combatants; it bought enough time for others to get involved too. (The video wound up on TV news; New Yorkers hailed “Snack Man” and said his potato chip strategy could bring peace to the Middle East.)

Hollaback! offers other ways to be distracting: Announce you’re lost and need directions. Spill your coffee. Make some other creative commotion. Sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the top of your lungs.

Here’s a combination of direct and distract (with nothing to do with race). A smart friend of this reporter once witnessed a fist fight on Main Street in Vancouver. He instinctively ran forward, yelling, “I just called 911!” It wasn’t true. But the combatants immediately fled in opposite directions.

“The point is, don’t be silent when there’s something you can do,” Barr said. “Assess the situation. Use whatever power you have to say, that’s not OK.”

What you did, who you are

When a thief steals your wallet, the video blogger Jay Smooth says, you don’t chase him down in order to label his character or scold his bad life choices. You want your wallet back. “I don’t care what he is, but I need to hold him accountable for what he did,” Smooth says.

The same is true when it comes to tough conversations about race, he says. In commentaries called “How to Tell Someone they Sound Racist” and “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race,” Smooth urges us to separate “what you did” from “who you are.”

Focus on facts and behavior, not your judgment of someone else’s soul. Rather than provoking guaranteed defensiveness and denial by labeling someone “a racist,” point out that their words or deeds could be taken that way.

Everyone makes mistakes, Smooth says, and everyone carries around thoughts and feelings they’re not proud of — stereotypes and prejudices that are best kept private. Denying they exist is pointless. We need to recognize and grapple with them. But language that allows no middle ground and no forgiveness doesn’t help.

“We deal with race and prejudice with this all-or-nothing, good person/bad person” view, Smooth says. “Either you’re all racist or you’re not racist at all.” Options like that make it hard for us to admit that the reality is somewhere in between, and work on our imperfections, he says.

“The belief you must be perfect in order to be good is an obstacle to being as good as you can be,” he says.

—Scott Hewitt

Get help

If you don’t feel safe stepping in, ask for help. That’s the third D: delegate. Try whatever authority figure is around: bus driver or train conductor, teacher, manager, bouncer. Try enlisting other bystanders. But don’t call police before checking first to make sure that’s what the victim wants, Rowland urged. The unfortunate reality today is that many minorities don’t trust the police.

If the incident is over before you can intervene — if somebody hurls a racist insult and walks away — you can offer sympathy and help making calls. Which brings us to the last D: delay. You want to do the right thing, but you don’t want to get hurt. If you don’t feel safe stepping in immediately — or it’s all over before you know it — step in afterwards. Offer to be an escort. Offer support and sympathy. Ask how else you can help.

The most damaging thing for victims, Barr said, is bystanders who look away and do nothing.

“I have heard from people about the times they were harassed in public and everybody stayed silent. Nobody stood up,” Barr said. “They never forgot that.”

Resources online

• www.facebook.com/BlackLivesMatterVancouverWA

If You Go

Clark County events related to Black History Month

(All events are free, except where noted.)

• What: “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” film screening, followed by a discussion with director Catherine Wigginton Greene.

• When: 5 p.m. Feb. 9.

• Where: Firstenburg Student Commons at Washington State University Vancouver, 14204 N.E. Salmon Creek Ave., Vancouver.


• What: Showing Up for Racial Justice information meeting.

• When: 1:30 p.m. Feb. 11.

• Where: YWCA Clark County, 3609 Main St., Vancouver.


• What: “Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life,” featuring a conversation with visiting author the Rev. David Billings.

• When: 6-8 p.m. Feb. 15.

• Where: Vancouver Heights United Methodist Church, 5701 MacArthur Blvd., Vancouver.


• What: Black History in Action — Past, Present and Future, featuring keynote address by Sky Wilson, live dance and music.

• When: 5 p.m. Feb. 23.

• Where: Firstenburg Student Commons at Washington State University Vancouver, 14204 N.E. Salmon Creek Ave., Vancouver.


• What: “I Am Not Your Negro,” a film about black history and heroes. Based on an unfinished manuscript by novelist James Baldwin.

• When: Opens Feb. 24.

• Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

• Tickets: $9.

• Showing up for Racial Justice PDX: surjpdx.org

• Showing up for Racial Justice Clark County: email surjccwa@gmail.com

• www.ywcaclarkcounty.org

• my.lulac.org/group/599

• studentaffairs.vancouver.wsu.edu/student-diversity