Standing Against Racism

Bystanders vs. upstanders.

Posted Jun 07, 2020

“The opposite of a hero is not a villain. It’s a bystander”

-Matt Langdon (Founder of The Hero Construction Company)

A bystander is a person who witnesses a terrible event but does not participate in it, or move to intervene if intervention is necessary. In contrast, upstanders are said to be those who take action.  Unfortunately, the more bystanders there are, the less likely they are to intervene (this is called the bystander effect). The bystander might feel frozen or overwhelmed with uncertainty until another person speaks up or takes action. However, when one person intervenes, others are likely to intervene as well.

We see an example of a bystander effect in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when Stormtroopers, under the leadership of the militant, Kylo Ren, invade Planet Jakku. Kylo Ren then orders the Stormtroopers to execute all villagers.  Although all other Stormtroopers on planet Jakku actively engage in “following orders” and massacring the innocent civilians, one of them, Stormtrooper FN-2187 (later known as Finn) doesn't fire his weapon but does not intervene either, becoming a bystander. 

After the events on Jakku, Finn was going to escape from Stormtroopers but was not planning to join the Rebellion. Seeing the Rebels standing up to the First Order inspired him to take action as well. Many bystanders might be inspired to act when seeing others stand up to injustice. 

In addition to seeing others take action, another factor that can inspire a bystander to stand up to injustice is whether they believe that they are capable of offering help. This means that some people might be so paralyzed by their fear, anger, grief, or distress that they might not believe themselves capable of helping. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed right now, if you are feeling angry, devastated, and afraid, it makes sense that you feel this way. Many people feel the same way, too. Some individuals might be experiencing retraumatization from centuries of intergenerational trauma, especially black individuals. Others might be affected by empathic distress, a sense of grief and shared pain that can arise when we witness the suffering of others. As a result, we might sometimes shut down and avoid any distressing information or news. 

Although taking a break from the news, and taking some time for self care and processing of emotionally upsetting events can be helpful for our mental health, completely avoiding emotionally upsetting events can actually worsen how we feel. In fact, avoidance of our emotions can worsen depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms (PTSD) over time.

Consequently, not participating in the kinds of actions that would be in line with our core values can lead to a sense of moral injury, an important risk factor for developing PTSD. Essentially, moral injury refers to a “betrayal of what is right” in a situation in which an individual might have to partake in an action which is contrary to their core values. Although moral injury is typically thought of as occurring in combat situations, I have seen evidence of civilians experiencing moral injury from ongoing events, including the ongoing social justice violations and systemic racism. In these cases, moral injury can result from inaction in response to these events, often leading the individual to feel a sense of guilt, shame, depression, and hopelessness.

Interestingly, individuals who partake in meaningful steps toward righting the wrong, such as protesting, contacting their local and federal representatives, blogging, and otherwise taking actions to right these wrongs appear to fare better physically and psychologically compared to individuals who do not participate. One possible explanation for this finding is that standing up to injustice can facilitate our sense of meaning making (finding a sense of meaning, a call to duty in the face of a trauma or tragedy), which in turn can not only reduce people’s emotional distress and PTSD symptoms, but can potentially lead to posttraumatic growth

Posttraumatic growth (PTG) refers to a positive change after one’s tragic or traumatic experience, often leading the individual to reevaluate their priorities and life directions. Therefore, participating in protests against racism and abuse of power can help many individuals to honor their core values and change their priorities and commitments into aiding an important cause. Oftentimes, actions like these are beneficial in multiple ways, they are likely to bring forth much needed change against an oppressive system and they can allow individuals to experience a sense of solidarity and posttraumatic growth. 

However, many people might be unable to attend Black Lives Matter protests in person due to the ongoing pandemic, as well as health, safety, disability, or transportation issues. For anyone unable to take action through live protests, there are other ways to engage if you would like to stand up against racism. Actions such as contacting your local representatives, posting on social media, having conversations with friends and family members about the importance of not just being not racist but rather the importance of being anti-racist are just some of the ways that you can take to help others. 

We all have a lot to do and a lot to learn. As a white person, I know I still have a lot to learn and much to read and educate myself about and I am making this commitment as all white people need to do. For all of us, it is important to take care of our emotional health, such as to take a break from the news from time to time, and to also return to learn what we can do to help.

And so, if you are unable to go to protests but would like to help, remember, it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you can do. There is always something you can do to stand up against racism. Some of it might be uncomfortable, such as calling out a friend of a family member about racist terms, behaviors, or beliefs. However, all of it is necessary. “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)