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A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism

In the recent sociological blog debate on racism versus the supposed dawn of “post-racism” in America, we often touched on problems that make talking about racism difficult, if not entirely impossible.  In addition to institutional constraints, there are interpersonal factors that can derail meaningful conversations about race and racism.  In addition to calling attention to these barriers, it is important to make explicit that too few people take on this difficult task.

Responsibility For (Anti-)Racism

In general, too few people consistently assume responsibility for talking about race and racism, and fighting racism more broadly.  That kind of work is presumed to be taken on by activists and leaders of social movements.  But, in particular, the responsibility generally falls in the laps of those victimized by it — in this case, people of color.  As Jason noted in his contribution to the “post-racism” blog debate, racial and ethnic minorities generally face this burden alone.

But, people of color are neither alone in this racist society nor the creators of this system of oppression.  Whites are implicated by virtue of the benefits they receive (i.e., white privilege) from the historical legacy of racism, as well as today.  Eliminating racism, then, is just as much their responsibility, if not more, as it is for people of color.

As I re-watched a few of ABC’s “What Would You Do” social experiments regarding race and racism, I was reminded just how problematic America’s sense of responsibility for racism and anti-racism are.  While too few whites intervene when they witness racist discrimination in stores against (innocent) people of color, many seem quick to intervene to sanction Black people’s criminal behavior but not that of whites (see part 1 and part 2).  (Three young Black men sleeping in their own car got more calls to 911 than did three young white men vandalizing and breaking into someone else’s car.)

A Personal Anecdote

Racist events are plentiful, from small slights to extreme forms of violence.  So, there are too many missed opportunities to confront racism, or at least learn from these events to do things differently in the future.  One such event stands out in my own life.

At the start of my second semester of graduate school, my cohort and I sat through the beginning of our training and preparation to carry out a telephone survey on social attitudes that summer.  In talking through concerns for the project, whether we as  interviewers “talk black” was posed as a potential bias in our interviews.  It felt as though as though a grenade had gone off right in the middle of class, but we continued on ignoring it.  I thought, “was I the only one who heard that?”

This event only became an issue when my colleagues of color and I were overheard joking about the racist comment the following week.  That was brought to the attention of the professor who, out of concern, asked us whether and how to “handle” this.  Three weeks later, we finally devoted an entire two-hour class to discussing the comment about “talking black” — a phrase the professor wrote explicitly on the board to facilitate our conversation.

Of course, five minutes that felt like an eternity passed before anyone broke the thick silence that suffocated the room — it was me, naturally, in which I called attention to that deafening silence.  As the tense conversation carried on, my cohort was divided, with the students of color and anti-racist white students taking issue with the concern about “talking black,” and the rest remaining silent, or speaking up to say they did not see a problem or even recast the comment in their head so that it was not problematic.

The conversation boiled down to whether the commenter said “talking black” or talking black, where the quotation marks became the symbolic boundary between belief that there is a(n inferior) style of English unique to Black Americans and the knowledge that others believe that (but not believing it oneself).  Only a racist person would forgo the quotation marks, for this would reflect their own beliefs.

With the conversation ending with a half-ass apology from the commenter, that one’s upbringing in the Midwest should suffice as an excuse for one’s racist prejudice, we left the room more divided than ever before.  The rest of our department remained curious bystanders, but nothing more came of these events outside of the efforts of students of color to challenge racism in the department and university.

To add insult to injury, later in the semester, my colleagues of color and I overheard some of our classmates complain about the ongoing divisiveness, placing blame on us for not having gotten “over it” yet.  Their simultaneous lack of understanding and lack of sympathy only further fueled the division.  I am happy to say that a great deal has been forgiven, but one can never forget such events.  But, sadly, because little came of it, we saw yet another racist event occur years later.

A Call For Bystander Intervention

I, as others before me, call for a bystander intervention approach to ending racism.  Too often, individuals not directly involved in a dangerous or difficult scenario — or bystanders — simply stand-by and watch without intervening to provide help.  As such, in the case of the prevention of sexual violence (since this “bystander effect” was coined after no one intervened in the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese), advocates have strongly emphasized the need to turn bystanders into potential interveners – “bystander intervention.”  Applied to racism, this means that individuals are called to action to intervene if they witness racist discrimination, bullying, or violence.

However, I push this anti-racist bystander intervention one step further beyond intervening in difficult situations.  Similar to my calls for bystander intervention to prevent sexual violence (i.e., rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment), I stress that our anti-racist work must include a sense that racism is a community issue and, as such, anti-racism is a community responsibility.

Ways To Intervene

A related aspect is noting that racism exists at multiple levels and, as such, there are an infinite number of ways in which we can fight it:

  1. One can intervene when they witness racist discrimination or harassment.  Of course, this depends upon a number of factors that make this easier said than done.  And, no one should intervene in ways that place them at risk for getting hurt.  If it is a scenario of extreme violence, like a racially-motivated hate crime, a safe means of intervening may be to call the police.  If it is an instance of the unfair firing of a Latina coworker, you could approach your supervisor to note that you feel your coworker deserves a second chance.
  2. Challenge racist prejudice.  This can entail calling people out who appear to harbor prejudice toward people of color, or hold misguided stereotypes.  It also means calling out offensive comments that others’ may make about racial and ethnic minorities.
  3. Challenge yourself.  No matter one’s racial or ethnic background, and one’s racial ideology, no one is immune to the pervasive poison of racism.  It is important to also check your own biases and actions.  Do you seek out friends of the same race?  Do you avoid “that part of town”?  Do you do certain things, at least in part, to avoid appearing racist?
  4. Educate yourself.  Unfortunately, most Americans leave formal education knowing little about racism and the history and experiences of people of color beyond obligatory coverage during Black History Month.  To push beyond this, one can take the time to learn more (even from March to January).  Read books about and by people of color.  Go see films on historical and contemporary accounts of the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  Visit museums that feature exhibits on race and ethnicity.  Become comfortable talking about race and racism with the people around you, no matter their race and ethnicity.
  5. Support victims of racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence.  As I wrote the first suggestion, I realized that there are so many concerns that one may have in directly challenging racist actions.  But, there are fewer concerns regarding harm in supporting victims of these actions.  Though your supervisor who unfairly fired your Latina coworker very well could threaten you, as well, you are freer to reach out to your coworker.  See if she wants to talk, needs help finding a new job, or even filing a discrimination or EEO complaint.  Even outside of severe instances of racist acts, you can be a supportive ally by really hearing people out when they reveal their experiences to you (rather than blaming them or encouraging them to think of alternative reasons for those acts).
  6. Challenge racist practices of organizations and institutions.  Though the days of overt racist laws and policies are mostly gone, there are still many — albeit neutral in intention and language — that disproportionately harm people of color.  It is important to challenge these, just as it is to challenge racism at the individual-level.  Maybe you can speak up if your workplace implements a dress-code policy that unfairly targets racial and ethnic minorities.  Take action to prevent the efforts to repeal Affirmative Action and other policies that aim to redress racial inequality.  Educate yourself and others about how new policies or policy change can contribute to racial equality, even if they are not targeted solely toward people of color (e.g., Affordable Care Act).

Concluding Thoughts

Obviously, everyone cannot become leaders of social movements like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or lead deadly anti-racist efforts like abolitionist John Brown or the slain Mississippi civil rights workers.  Most of us are not lifelong activists.

But, there are many opportunities throughout a given day to make a difference, no matter how small.  For, even small acts add up to a big contribution to challenge prejudice and stereotypes, educate oneself and others, end racist discrimination and violence, and promote racial diversity and equality.  Just as we are all implicated in racism, it will take all of us to end it.

Resilience: It Gets Better Because We Make It Better

Hope

Sociologist Tey Meadow‘s recent op-ed at Huffington Post makes an important point.  It is critically important that we acknowledge and address the bullying, harassment, and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and gender non-conforming youth that, in turn, results in their elevated risk for suicidality, mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, among other threats to their health and well-being.  However, it is also of critical importance to acknowledge and celebrate the many ways in which LGBTQ youth are surviving and thriving, embracing their individual and community resiliency.

In the face of tremendous overt hostility and covert neglect, still, most LGBTQ teenagers do not wish to end their lives. The Trevor Project, a national crisis and suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth, has fielded over 200,000 calls since its inception in 2008, calls from youth reaching out for affirmation and support. They survived. Some of them even thrived. Where are their stories?

This call for broadening our focus on the lives and experiences of LGBTQ youth comes after yet another tragic suicide of a queer teenager.  Eric James Borges took his own life last week.  What makes this tragedy more unsettling is that he interned for the Trevor Project, which works to prevent LGBTQ suicides, and created his own “It Gets Bettervideo.  As Meadows makes clear, we must continue to change the current social and political climate that demonizes LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities — this means society at large, as well as in schools, the military, families, places of worship, the medical system, etc.  But, we must not allow bullying, harassment, suicides, isolation, and the other negative aspects of LGBTQ youths’ experiences in a homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic society; we must not allow LGBTQ youth to be equated with suicide and victimization.

LGBTQ Resilience

Advocates and researchers have made great strides in highlighting the hostility LGBTQ youth and adults face in the United States and world wide.  This includes theoretical and empirical developments that help us to understand how prejudice and discrimination create and maintain health disparities, for example, the minority stress paradigm.

One area that needs much more work is resilience among LGBTQ individuals and communities.  Each individual has the capacity for resilience, as defined by Psychology Today:

Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.

Indeed, as health researcher Ron Stall points out in his calls for better understanding resiliency among LGBTQ people, those who live today in our homo/bi/transphobic country maintain some level of resilience.  In his words, given the effect of prejudice, discrimination, and harassment on LGBTQ individuals health and well-being, we could envision a world with the majority of LGBTQ people suffering, abusing drugs, harming themselves and their bodies, and engaging in unsafe behaviors.  Yet, despite elevated risks for mental, physical, and sexual health problems among LGBTQ people compared to heterosexuals and cisgendered people, most LGBTQ people are in good health.  As he explains, there must be, at both the individual and community levels, a great deal of resilience that prevents these homo/bi/transphobic forces from becoming every LGBTQ person’s inevitable reality.

It Does Get Better — We Can And Have To Make It Better

In addition to identifying factors that promote resilience among LGBTQ individuals and for LGBTQ communities, it is necessary to continue to understand and address the social forces that impede on the lives of LGBTQ people.  I, like many others, have supported giving young LGBTQ people a message of hope, for, in the words of Harvey Milk, hope is necessary to carry on through the day when all seems difficult or impossible.  But, we must continue to fight against transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia — we cannot simply hope for the day when it gets better.  We already know that it has gotten better because we have fought to make it better.  Fighting for our rights and our lives is, arguably, one of the strongest forms of resilience because we take an active role in challenging inequality.

Thinking More Critically, Thinking Globally

Another point that I like about Meadow’s op-ed is the emphasis on recognizing the institutional and societal manifestations of oppression faced by LGBTQ people.  Like good sociologists, we must push attention to the bullying and harassment faced by LGBTQ youth to who is doing the bullying and harassment and how society and various institutions condone or promote such behavior.  This includes highlighting the failure of schools to promote acceptance, inclusion, and safety of all of its students, yet also, attending to the actions and attitudes that disparage and demonize LGBTQ people at home, in the government, in religion, and so forth.

A second shift in our attention is to better understand how homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia intersect with other systems of oppression.  Too often, the priorities of LGBTQ communities misses the unique needs and experiences of LGBTQ people who are multiply disadvantaged: women, transpeople, people of color, people experiencing poverty and/or homelessness, people with disabilities, religious minorities, immigrants.  Arguably, the well-being of LGBTQ people is only as strong as its worst-off members — those who are often invisible in society and even in LGBTQ communities.

Third, and finally, I echo calls to reconceptualize LGBTQ rights as human rights.  Such a move forces us to think globally about the lives and experiences of LGBTQ people.  While some places, especially Western nations, are relatively tolerant of LGBTQ people (I use the term “relatively” strongly, here), other countries keep homosexuality on the books as a crime punishable by death and, even if not, such punishments are carried out daily by everyday citizens.  We cannot become complacent with mere “tolerance” in places like the US, Canada, and some counties in Europe while LGBTQ people face severe violence and repression elsewhere.

It gets better… and already has… because we’ve made it better, and will continue to do so.