One of the ways racial inequity is maintained is through behavior.  The behaviors consist of acts of: exclusion, disrespect, collusion, threats and violence.  When a person enacts such behavior, and that behavior goes unchallenged, the status quo of racial inequity is reinforced.  The perpetrators are also emboldened. A key dynamic in all of this situation is the impact of bystander behavior.  Bystanders are anyone who is not committing the act, but is present when it occurs.  Of special importance is that fact that, when an individual or a group of people perpetrate these actions, and the bystanders do nothing in response, the perpetrators are reinforced.  Silence on the part of bystanders is interpreted by the perpetrators as support or tacit agreement. If nothing else, the perpetrators conclude that the bystanders will not interfere with the actions of the perpetrators.  This dynamic demonstrates that it is impossible for bystanders to remain neutral.  The behavior of bystanders either reinforces the perpetrators or it counters them.

Confrontation is a loaded word for many people.  It is associated with scenes of yelling or even violence.  While these acts can and do accompany confrontation, the Latin origin of the word simply means to face something directly.  That can be done in a wide variety of ways, from facial expressions of disapproval to dismissive laughter.  What matters most is that there is a response that signals disagreement.

The goal of confronting racial aggression is to break this cycle of support for the racial hierarchy.  In most cases the person committing the act of aggression does not change his or her attitude.  What does change is that they are faced with evidence that their actions will not go unchallenged by other whites.  This information undermines their assumption that their actions will receive support, or silent acceptance by other whites.  While it may not cause them to cease these actions, it does inform them that they cannot count on the level of support that they would like.

Another purpose that is served by confronting racial aggression is that of informing white bystanders that there are whites who will oppose racial aggression.  Whites who do confront provide a clear example of how to confront racial aggression for other whites, who heretofore have either not been unaware of how prevalent racially aggression behavior is, or who lack the confidence to speak up.  The longer-range goal is to create a critical mass of whites who will stand up against racially aggressive acts.  As that group of whites gets larger, those who want to act inflict racial aggression find themselves becoming increasingly outnumbered.  At some point, the perpetrators realize that there is a price they will have to pay, in terms of social isolation and loss of influence, if they continue that behavior.  This becomes an inhibitor – something that was not present when bystanders could be counted on to either join in or remain silent.

I find it is important to acknowledge that we are unlikely to know how to respond when we first witness an act of racial aggression.  Our reaction is most likely to be that of shock and immobilization.  This is a pattern of mammals.  When mammals encounter a new and threatening situation, they tend to flee or freeze.  Some few do fight, but even typically aggressive animals freeze or flee the first time they encounter a new threatening action.  This fact is the reason why navies prepare sailors to  deal with fires on board ships, and why pilots are rigorously drilled to respond to every possible emergency that may occur while flying.  People are unlikely to think of the best response if they are trying to innovate in the midst of a threatening event.  Practicing a repertoire of actions is essential in nuclear power plants, submarines, operating rooms and aircraft cockpits.

Given this dynamic, it is important to develop a repertoire of responses to acts of racial aggression.   The first time you encounter one that surprises you, expect to be either clumbsy or immobilized.  That is to be expected.  The good news is that afterward, you can analyze what happened and figure out a number of possible responses.  The next time you encounter that behavior or similar behavior, you will have available to you a number of responses that you have already practiced.

Yes, I say practiced.  Practice, via role plays, is very important.  The act of practicing builds the neuro pathways in our body that then becomes a habit.  It comes immediately to mind when the situation occurs.  We immediately see options and we focus on what to do rather than on our feelings of discomfort at being in an unpleasant situation.  The fear may not disappear, but having options enables us to focus on something other than our fear.

I have conducted workshops for whites where we practiced responses to past or expected situations of racial aggression.  While people are initially hesitant, they quickly begin to gain confidence as we do the role plays.  They experience themselves doing things that surprise the perpetrators.  They experience the perpetrators being surprised and silenced. Of key importance, is the fact that the effective counters to the perpetrator’s behavior can be simple and non-escalating.  Asking questions is an effective way to change the tempo and the tension.  Making statements, such as “I don’t support what you are saying” is also a way to demonstrate a lack of support for the perpetrator.

The following are examples of actions and statements that let the perpetrators and the other bystanders know that you do not support or acquiesce to the racially aggressive actions:

Ask a question

  • What is your rationale for doing this?”

  • “I am curious, how is this funny for you?”

  • “What are you trying to accomplish?”

  • “Are you assuming that I agree with what you are saying?”

Make a statement of your personal feeling

  • I don’t support what you are doing here.”

  • “I don’t see how this is funny.”

  • “I don’t think this action fits with our policies, mission, etc.”

  • “I am uncomfortable with hearing this.”

Make a statement of intent

  • I am going to bring this up at our next meeting.”

  • “If you continue telling these jokes, I will not attend these gatherings anymore.”

  • “You cannot count on me to support this.”

  • “I expect that (name of someone not present) will join me in opposing this.”

  • “Your actions are going to damage our organization’s reputation.”

  • “I am going to speak to the manager about this.”

  • “I will not do business here anymore.”

Speak to, or call out, the bystanders

  • Tom, what do you think of this?”

  • “Nancy, is this something you support?”

  • “Let’s go talk to (someone influential who is not present) about this and let them know we want them to join us in taking action against this aggression.”

  • “Meet with bystanders later and organize what to do next time to counter the aggression.”

Speak to the BIPOC person who is the target of the aggression

  • “I cannot stop this right now, but I sure do not agree with what they are doing to you.”

  • “Let’s go somewhere else. What is happening here is not acceptable.”

  • “These people are wrong. I stand with you.”

  • Meeting after the incident: “Here are some things I am willing to do. Are there other things you would like me to do?”

  • Meeting after the incident: “I am going to meet with these others who I think are allies. Here are my thoughts about what we might do collectively.  What would you like to see us do?”

The last thing to keep in mind is that we have options about where and when to respond.  If the person doing the racially aggressive behavior is our boss or someone in official authority, it might be risky to confront them in the moment and in that setting.  In that case, we can focus on seeking out the bystanders afterward and finding out if they feel similar to us.  If we build a network of others who feel as we do, we can develop strategies to mitigate what the boss does.  We can identify, through our networks, other bosses who manage units where this behavior does not happen.  If we have trusting relationships with other key power holders in the organization, we can inform them about what is happening.  If they are peers with our boss, they can be alert for situations where our boss does this when they are present.  If they confront our boss, it will be much less risky for them.

In addition to choosing where to confront the racially aggressive behavior,  we have choices about when to do so.  If we judge that other white bystanders are not ready to speak up, we can approach them after the event and talk with them.  One of the ways we confront the racially aggressive actions is to ask bystanders how they felt about what occurred.  This is not an action that tries to get them to do anything.  It simply confronts them with a question about their values.  Do they agree with what occurred?  If they do not, and they were simply immobilized in shock, we can them move on to discuss possible ways to respond if that occurs again.  This approach is supportive and non-persuasive.  It simply asks them if what they witnessed accords with their values.  If it does not,  they are then faced with a moral challenge to act.  No persuasion is needed on our part.  They white  bystander may choose to do nothing, but they are now aware that their true values (of security) are much higher than their espoused values of fairness or equity.  This too, destabilizesd the status quo.  Whites now have the discomfort of knowing that their silence means complicity.

In summary here is a list of the options about whom to engage and the settingss you can choose to do so.

Options of Whom to Engage

  • We can engage the perpetrator directly

  • We engage the white bystanders

  • We can engage/organize other influential whites who are not present at the time of the aggression, (i.e., people who have influence or power over the perpetrator)

  • We can offer support or resources to whomever is targeted by the aggression. In some cases the target of the aggressive behavior is a white person who supports BIPOC people.

Choosing When and Where to Engage

  • We can engage the perpetrator immediately and publicly

  • We can engage the perpetrator later and in private

  • We can engage the bystanders immediately and publicly

  • We can engage the bystanders later and in private

  • We can engage the bystanders as a group

  • We can engage the bystanders individually and in private

  • We can offer support to the targeted BIPOC person/s immediately and publicly

  • We can offer support to the targeted BIPOC person/s later and in private

In closing, I want to say that I have found that the act of developing a repertoire of responses to racially aggressive behavior is very impowering.  Our upbringing seldom prepares us to confront conflict at all.  Racial aggression is often a very tense event.  Learning to handle it is very empowering.  The more you learn, the more your confidence  grows.  At some point, you have a large enough repertoire that you have at least a few things you can do, even if you encounter an entirely new situation.  Of even more importance, you also know that any situation can be “redeemed” the next time you encounter it.  You know that you will come back prepared and that is what keeps you confidant.  You know you will learn something useful from every encounter.

You also experience that perpetrators are usually not that sophisticated.  Like most bullies, they have to rely on the fact that they can usually get without anyone confronting them.  They don’t tend to have very extensive repertories.  Also, once they sense that you are impacting the bystanders in ways that they are not, they begin to lose confidence.  As you gain confidence, you also impact other whites who see your example.  They begin to see what is possible for them too.  Remember too, that each of these little steps is also a withdraw of support from the status quo of racial inequity.  Each step takes removes another level of support.  While these steps may not be very visible, over time they change the valence of support.  They also eventually create an atmosphere that results in new policies and practices that make acts of racial aggression illegitimate and risky.

** Much of the content in this article stems from a handout that Bobbie O’Connor and I created in a workshop in 2017