Say no to racism: How to intervene when witnessing a racial attack


You are on the train when you overhear a commuter being verbally attacked because of their race. What do you do?

While videos of Australians taking a stand against offensive behaviour have gone viral in recent years, a survey of Victorians shows less than a third of bystanders would say or do something if they witnessed racism.

There are many reasons people do not intervene.

"The most important one is the fear of violence, being targeted yourself as a result of speaking up," said researcher Jacqueline Nelson, who is conducting a study of responses to racism at the University of Technology Sydney.

"Another obstacle is the idea that doing something would not be effective."

Lack of knowledge about how to safely intervene or help the individual targeted also stops witnesses acting.

'Say no to racism'

Bystander intervention training is emerging as a way to equip people with strategies to challenge apparent racism when they come across it on public transport, in the workplace or among family and friends.

Councils in three distinctly multicultural areas of Melbourne are offering the training.

"We want to encourage people to try and engage the person as another good human being and appeal to their better instincts," said Ananth Gopal from the training organisation Polykala.

"Try not to approach people as the enemy, but find some point of connection."

Bystanders are encouraged to ask questions to cool the conversation, or rally other witnesses to demonstrate that racist behaviour is not broadly accepted.

The sessions are being offered in the the cities of Darebin, Moreland and Wynham.

Emily Paddon-Brown is one participant who has witnessed ugly behaviour on trains and hopes bystander training will empower her to act.

"I certainly do feel as a female alone that there is only so much I can do to help, because I need to assess my own safety as well," she said.

The impact of inaction

A victim of racism is more likely to experience psychological or physical harm if no-one helps them.

While bystanders who do nothing can walk away feeling frustrated and helpless, running over and over in their mind what they might have done.

There is also a cost to the community.

"Silence can send the message that bigotry and prejudice are acceptable in our public life," said Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane.

"By speaking out against racism you are making a major difference to changing attitudes and challenging behaviours. It doesn't have to be a big intervention."

The Mayor of Moreland, Meghan Hopper, agreed that bystander intervention training will help get the message out that racism is not acceptable.

"Over a third or our community was born overseas. And 40 per cent of our community speaks a language other than English at home," she said.

"So it is really important that we address some of the problems that might arise."

What action could I take?

  • Comfort the person targeted
  • Confront or disagree with the perpetrator
  • Seek the help of other bystanders
  • Express upset feelings
  • Interrupt or distract the perpetrator
  • Use humour
  • Report the incident to police and give a witness statement
  • Gather evidence - film or take photos of the incident


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