It’s been almost 20 years since that day of my inaction, yet the guilt and shame of the experience has never left me.
A sticky Sydney day, I was sweating it out on a train when a group of drunk tradies began taunting a Chinese couple seated in front of me. It started with the usual vile insults but quickly turned physical with the gang leader slapping the man around the head and pushing him roughly. The couple, distraught and frightened, merely bowed their heads and took it, clutching onto each other’s hands tightly for support.
I’d love to tell you this is the moment I sprung into action, where I shouted out for the abusers to stop, or helped move the couple into a different carriage, but I didn’t.
...I became frozen with fear, unable to move, unable to speak.
Like every other person in that peak-hour carriage, I became frozen with fear, unable to move, unable to speak. I stared at the floor both ashamed of myself yet terrified the abusers would turn on me if I got involved. The abuse stopped when the abusers got off at their station.
Today, I’m a lot older, stronger and infinitely more opinionated and I’d like to think that if I were to witness a similar attack, this time I would act, but would I?
Research shows it’s unlikely, with a VicHealth survey showing that of the 601 people surveyed, one in three reported that they’d witnessed a racist incident within the past year yet almost half did nothing to intervene.
Priscilla Bryce is managing director of All Together Now, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated solely to addressing racism, and says she can understand why so many are reluctant to speak up.
“Research shows that people often remain inactive because they don’t want to be the first person to take action -they’re more likely to assist if someone else initiates a response,” she says.
“But also, people can also remain quiet if they don’t feel safe to speak up or step in, or if they feel unsure of what to do or say to help.”
Here's what you can do
While Bryce doesn’t recommend stepping in personally in an unsafe environment, she says there’s plenty people can do to assist both the person being attacked and in some cases, even the police.
1. Speaking up in a way that isn’t inflammatory to the abuser. “Rather than shout at them that they’re a racist, instead just quietly ask them, ‘Why would you say something like that?” advises Bryce, who adds that making accusations can often send tempers flaring.
2. Sitting next to the person being abused, or helping them move away from the attack. “Whether you’re moving them to another carriage or just speaking with them to distract them, they’ll feel less vulnerable knowing they’ve got some support by their side,” says Bryce.
3. Exchanging contact details with any other witnesses present, which will help assist police with their investigations. “If you report the incident to the police (and you should), having a collective report will make for a stronger case against the perpetrator.”
4. Filming the incident on your phone and giving the footage to the police. “I don’t like such footage being used as sensationalist news stories, but they can be useful because the target of the attack can then use the footage to make a quick case to the Human Rights Commission or to the police,” says Bryce. In some cases, filming the attack can also stop a perpetrator in their tracks.
5. Asking yourself why are people behaving this way and educating yourself. “I always recommend people check out The Challenging Racism Project which is run by the University of Western Sydney, and to download the Everyday Racism app on their phone as a first step,” says Bryce.
“Learning how to support one another is important, but we also need to be asking why it is we behave the way we do in the first place?”
Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice. Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).
Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.