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What to do when you witness racism: students of colour speak up


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Have you ever wondered what you should do if you witness racial discrimination?

A spate of racist incidents at university has hit the media lately, with students of colour from Nottingham Trent to UCL facing racism from their colleagues.

Riddi Viswanathan, full-time International Officer at the University of Manchester, describes how she experiences various forms of racism in her daily life: "As an international student from an Asian background, racism and xenophobia are not something new to me. Sometimes, it’s hurtful comments like ‘You immigrants take our jobs’ or calling me the N-word or ‘p*ki’. Sometimes, it boils down to microaggressions like ‘I didn’t know you are from India - your English is so good’".

While racism has always been part and parcel of British society, racists have been emboldened by the result of the Brexit referendum as well as developments in other countries, like Donald Trump's election as President of the USA. The terror attacks in 2017, as well as the growing refugee crisis, have prompted a further surge in racism in the UK. Hate crime rose 29% in 2017, with reports spiking after the Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena and London Bridge terror attacks.

All this is a timely reminder to students that we can play our part in combating racism when we witness it - we should not just stand by as someone else becomes a victim of racism, whether violent or not.

Supporting the victim

One of the most important things a bystander can do when they witness a racist incident is to support the victim.

Guo Sheng, a student activist from Oxford University, points out the importance of taking care of the victim emotionally. "I want the bystanders to show that I’m not alone, that they care," they say. "If they just briefly say to me, 'Are you OK?' that would be so wonderful. When something racist happens to me it is a shock, and I feel like I can't trust anyone on the street - if someone asks if I'm OK, I feel like people care".

Riddi agrees, saying: "I would firstly want the bystander to assure me that it was unjust for me to go through any form of abuse".

Lubaba Khalid, BAME Officer at the University of Westminster Students' Union, also stresses the importance of documenting racist incidents to provide evidence and help the victim make a complaint.

"I found in numerous incidents that I had to deal with that the witnesses do not cooperate and don't seem want to help. This is a an issue because when it comes to incidents, witnesses make the case stronger," she said. "So in a nutshell, it is important that they report the incident or at least support the victim if they are reporting it".

Witnesses to a racist incident can strengthen the victim's case by writing a statement of what happened, or by recording it on video, although Lubaba feels "it is important that it isn't posted on social media or any where until they have spoken to the victim".

However, Fiona, a student activist at Goldsmiths University, cautions that filming and documenting isn't enough. They say: "Instead of gawking or taking out your phone to film, I would expect you to get the aggressor away from me and challenge them. Filming in itself can be useful, but don’t mistake that as being helpful or productive to me as the victim. You’re still just being passive and letting the perpetrator get away with harassing me".

Thai Braddick, a UEA student and LGBT+ Open Place representative on the NUS Black Students' Campaign Committee, agrees. "Often it's minor insult calling and I can deal with that fine, but in a situation with an actual threat of violence it'd be nice for bystanders (especially white ones) to step in or help de-escalate the situation".

Intervening in a racist incident

It seems pretty clear that bystanders should intervene, but if they do, how should they go about it?

Theo, an alumnus of the University of Birmingham, suggests that "if the perpetrator is alone trying to talk to them, calmly moving them away, blocking their path" would be useful, or "if you're alone and there's a few perpetrators, or if you can't approach a perpetrator take a quick pic of the perpetrator, check your surroundings and identify a clear path - start talking to the victim and move them quickly through a safe route".

Where the incident is non-violent, Riddi says that "bystanders could also hold the racists informally to account and explain to them that what they did was wrong." However, where threats of violence are involved, Thai says bystanders should instead "consider the best way to reduce harm to other POC in the vicinity, because feeding the fire generally wouldn't help and instead gives the racist more excuses to be racist. De-escalating and removing that person from the space is better."

If the victim is standing up for themselves, however, Fiona argues that bystanders should follow their lead, even if that means allowing the confrontation to escalate. "If I’m engaging with the aggressor, I would expect people to be backing my corner but letting me lead the situation. I wouldn’t want people to de-escalate on my behalf or tell anyone to 'calm down' because that would be incredibly patronising. If I would want to be violent, then personally I would hate for people to try and stop me from taking justice into my own hands."

Fiona also points out that bystanders should always ask the victim before calling the police, saying: "NEVER call the cops where people of colour are involved (especially Black and/or dark-skinned people of colour) without consent."

What should bystanders take into account?

When it comes to intervening, "safety first" is crucial. Theo stresses the importance of considering "self-safety" and "victim-safety". Self-safety means evaluating your own safety, such as considering if the perpetrator is armed, while victim-safety, according to Theo, is the "need to analyse your strategy such that you don't make things worse for the victim."

White people, in particular, have an important role to play as bystanders. As white people don't experience the racism that people of colour do, this makes it less risky for them to intervene. As such, Fiona says they "expect white people around me to use their privilege to correct and challenge the perpetrator."

Final thoughts

Ultimately, there is no one right way to intervene in a racist incident. Intervention involves making smart judgement calls and understanding both your own safety as well as the needs of the victim. This article provides some general advice, but every racist incident is different, and you should always consider the situation before intervening.

As Theo says, "While we need to think of 'active by-stander' strategies, the idea that there is one thing a by-stander can do, is not only wrong but also careless. You are not bystanding while looking into a bubble where the incident is taking place. You need to evaluate, you need to know yourself in this situation as well as be able to assess the situation and choose from a number of actions".

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