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What I learned at bystander intervention training

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Monday, June 7, 2021

What I learned at bystander intervention training

Courtesy of

When bystanders confronted harassers, the abuse was more likely to stop, according to a Cornell University study.

I signed up for iHollaback!’s online bystander intervention training course after I saw that video of the brutal attack on an Asian woman walking along a New York City street. You might have seen it too: a slight Asian woman in her 60s, on her way to church. Then a man, walking toward her on the sidewalk, out of nowhere suddenly kicks her in the gut. Once she’s down, he kicks her in the head several times while yelling “You don't belong here!” Then he strolls away, as if he hadn’t just beaten somebody’s grandma in broad daylight on a public street.

That we can watch the attack unfold in real time is thanks to an apartment building’s lobby security camera, pointing through the glass doors to the front of the building where the attack took place. We can also witness what the building’s doormen do: as the woman lies beaten on the sidewalk, one of them walks over and shuts the door. 

Eventually the assailant is arrested. The lobby staff are fired [even though additional reports said the lobby staff later called police]. And the lady becomes one more hate crime statistic in the surge of violent anti-Asian hate crimes linked to the pandemic. It’s a connection driven in large part by former President Trump’s repeated, deliberate references to Covid-19 as the “Chinese flu,” “Kung flu” or “Wuhan flu.”

Last year, overall hate crimes dipped 7 percent, but among Asian-Americans, they skyrocketed 149 percent, according to research done by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Between March 19 and Dec. 31, 2020 — the height of the pandemic — Stop AAPI Hate recorded 2,808 first-person accounts of hate crimes against Asians, ranging from verbal assault to physical attack. Chinese-Americans bore the brunt of it with 40 percent of attacks. Women, the organization found, were two and a half times more likely to get attacked than men. We only have to look to the Atlanta spa shootings to see what layering gender bias atop of ethnic bias looks like in the extreme.

Watching that video, I wondered what I might have done had I been on that sidewalk that day. The attacker was huge and obviously dangerous. I have a loud mouth and a hyper-developed sense of moral justice. But I don’t have that much of a savior complex to risk hospitalization by trying to tackle a huge, dangerous guy from behind. Besides, my health insurance sucks.

Everyone wants to believe they’d rise to the occasion and do something if they saw someone being berated or attacked. That’s the fantasy of being the hero and saving the day. But how do you help without getting pulverized in the process? That’s what I joined iHollaback’s training to find out. A global community of activists working in 15 countries and 20 cities (including Baltimore, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York City and Seattle in the U.S.), iHollaback! has been working to end harassment in all its forms since 2005.

“It does take courage for the first person to do something, but that first person doesn’t have to do everything," Hollaback!’s senior trainer Dax Valdez tells the 2,500 of us who’ve Zoomed in for the training. "It can be something as simple as saying, What’s going on here? Something that’s going to disrupt the situation long enough for other people to step in and take action.” 

Valdez volunteers that he’s no stranger to the sting of the microaggression. He shares a story about being out with friends who jokingly tossed him a Chinese takeout menu and asked him to order dinner for everyone. He’s not Chinese; he’s Filipino-American.  “At the time I didn’t have the language or the skills to speak up and challenge that and say they were wrong,” he says.

That language and those skills are what Valdez is promising to teach us. He wants us to think about bystander intervention not in terms of sweeping, heroic acts like “we’ve seen on television or in the movies,” but smaller actions “to demonstrate we have the back of the person experiencing harassment.”

“It’s the idea that people take care of people when bad things happen,” Valdez says.

Plenty of bad things are happening. To Asian-Americans, yes. But also to Jews, Latinx, LGBTQ+, women and Black people. Every year since Donald Trump began campaigning and then during his presidency, hate crimes have risen exponentially to levels not seen in years, according to the FBI. And many believe the agency’s numbers are actually an underrepresentation since  law enforcement reporting is voluntary, and many crimes themselves go unreported. All of which creates a pretty big niche for those who like to do the right thing to step up and step in.

A L’Oreal/Ipsos study on sexual harassment that surveyed nearly 15,500 people in eight countries, including the U.S., found that among those who reported being harassed in a public place, just 25 percent said that someone had stepped up to intervene. But among those who got help, 79 percent said the intervention improved the situation. Indeed, when bystanders confront harassers, a 2012 Cornell study found, the harassment was more likely to stop.

As Valdez lays it out, we learn that iHollaback! uses five basic strategies — known as the 5 Ds — to squelch harassing behavior. They can be deployed against everything from the joke that's not really funny and to the barrage of verbal slurs. Here’s how to use them.

Distract. The idea here is to divert the harasser’s attention to create an opening for the person being harassed to exit. Valdez recommends dropping something or spilling something. Butting in to compliment shoes or eyewear or asking for directions is another tactic. Valdez’s favorite distraction is to pretend to know the person being harassed. “Establish whatever relationship you want — an uncle, a niece, a friend — and you run up to them and say Hey! I’m so sorry I’m late. We gotta go. Ready?” Hopefully that other person will clue into what you’re doing, and you can escort them out of that situation and get them to safety.”

Delegate. Here, the idea is that you don’t need to act by yourself. Enlist the aid of another bystander: I’m going to create some space between those two. Do you think you could get a manager? “Most people know that harassment is wrong, and they just need to be told what to do,” says Valdez.

Document. Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old who filmed George Floyd’s murder with her cell phone, not only showed the power of documenting events (since without her video, Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction would have been significantly harder to achieve), but she proved that we are all documentary filmmakers with our cell phones.

Valdez recommends filming in landscape mode (sideways) and narrating the situation to provide the date, time, place and context for the video. Then let the person who was harassed decide what to do with the recording. “People like to share their own stories of harassment as a way of healing, or they might not do anything with it at all,” explains Valdez. “We don’t want to put that on our own socials without their consent because then essentially we’re replaying their trauma all over the internet and most of us would not want that for ourselves.”

Delay. This is the lowest stakes form of intervention ... this is something everyone can do,” says Valdez. The delay tactic involves checking with the harassed person to make sure they’re okay after the fact: after the slur is yelled; after the insensitive meme is shared; after the inappropriate joke is told; and after the stereotypical assumption is made. Even just acknowledging that something happened is helpful. “In a world where people who are being harassed are told they’re imagining it or they’re being too sensitive or they need to toughen up, having someone come up and say, I saw that, are you O.K.? that can be deeply validating,” says Valdez. A Cornell/iHollaback study  found that even a “knowing look” had a positive impact. “Delay is super-understated and has lasting impact,” says Valdez.

Direct. This one’s my favorite, to be honest, the one where I envision going all Peggy Carter or Black Widow on a harasser. Even Valdez admits he’s wanted to strike back hard. “My first impulse would be to say something like Dude! You’re being such a jerk! That’s racist! But knowing what I know now, we would want you to directly name the behavior that is racist, but to try to do that in a calm voice.” Good ways to frame that might include: What’s so funny about that joke? You said ABC, I heard XYZ, Is that what you meant? Hey, they look uncomfortable, leave them alone. Or Please stop talking to them like that, it’s inappropriate.

“You’re telling that person what you want them to do and why,” Valdez explains. “Once that boundary is set, engagement with that person is officially over. Then we want to turn our attention to the person who experienced the disrespect and get them to safety.”

Once the training was done, we were all asked which D we were likely to use in a situation. Fifty-one percent chose Distract as their first choice. I can see the allure of knocking over a tower of canned goods to create a disruption in a supermarket or accidentally on purpose spilling some ice water on a harasser berating someone on an airplane. Still, I’m sticking with Direct and Document. That’s what journalists do when we encounter bias. We call it out and then we document it so others know about it too. Thanks to iHollaback, I’ll be ready.

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