A Complete Guide on How to Help Others During a Racist Attack
Anti-Asian racism has risen—here's what you can do as a bystander.
When Killing Eve star Sandra Oh gave an impassioned speech at a Stop Asian Hate rally in Pittsburgh on Saturday, March 20th, following the shooting rampage in Atlanta that killed six Asian women days before, she posed a challenge to the other attendees: “I will challenge everyone here, if you see something, will you help me? If you see one of our sisters and brothers in need, will you help us?” Both questions were met with resounding yeses.
This challenge is necessary. Anti-Asian hate crimes, many of them COVID-19-related, have seen an alarming 149% increase since the beginning of the pandemic. In the past year alone, there were almost 3,800 self-reported anti-Asian incidents, according to a February report by Stop AAPI Hate, a group dedicated to tracking harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S.
“Harassment is a behavior that is unwelcome and unwanted and makes the person feel uncomfortable,” says Jorge Arteaga, deputy director of Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to fighting harassment—in all forms. He tells HelloGiggles that we have a “spectrum of disrespect” ranging from microaggressions, like assuming that Asian Americans aren’t from the U.S. to extreme atrocious, physical behaviors. According to the same Stop AAPI Hate report, 68.1% of the incidents were verbal assaults, 20.5% shunning, and 11.1% were physical.
Arteaga states that your safety is the number one priority, so intervening when it gets physical isn’t recommended—but you can build a habit of noticing microaggressions and stepping in during other situations. ” When you catch behaviors on the lower end of the spectrum, ones that feel a little safer [to engage with, you can jump in and help]. [This will] build a culture where harassment or disrespect of any kind starts to become unacceptable,” he says.
Unfortunately, bystanders have their own safety concerns and aren’t always equipped with the tools to intervene. In fact, the woe of Noel Quintana, the Filipino American who was slashed with a box cutter from ear to ear on a New York City subway, was that “Nobody came, nobody helped, nobody made a video” even after the perpetrator left. That’s why we talked to experts to find out what bystanders can actually do during and after witnessing harassment.
Use the 5D methodology to intervene.
“The whole methodology itself is centered on taking care of the person being harassed,” says Arteaga of the 5D methodology Hollaback! teaches in their free training. “How do you move from being an inactive bystander to an active bystander? The 5Ds provide you with a quick framework that you can easily access.”
“Distract is creating a distraction to de-escalate the situation,” says Arteaga. “You wanna derail the attention off of the person who is stressing them so they feel safe, then move them away. That’s the whole point of distracting, to give them a way out of the situation.” You can get creative here: You can drop change, spill coffee, walk up to the person and ask for directions, and pretend you know them, among others.
If you don’t feel comfortable stepping in yourself, find someone who is. Look first at your fellow bystanders. “You can say, ‘Hey, you see what’s happening? I’m not so comfortable getting involved right now; do you think you can help me? Maybe you can film this while I get someone else to help,'” Arteaga suggests as an example. You can also look for authority figures in the space you’re in. “If you’re at a bar maybe it’s a bartender or a manager, or if you’re at a store maybe it’s a cashier,” he says.
However, Arteaga cautions on calling the police as sometimes their presence makes the victim feel less safe. “You can call the police if there is extreme harassment and you don’t feel safe or you fear for that other person’s safety. If you can, go up to the person experiencing harm and ask them, ‘Do you want me to call the police?'” he suggests. “You end up putting people at risk inadvertently because you don’t know what the immigration status is or the history with police.” If you do call them, try to stay behind in case the victim needs a witness.
“Creating documentation of the situation and giving it to that person is something low stakes you can do,” Arteaga says. “It allows folks to use this to report harassment. It’s also helpful because sometimes people don’t believe you as people of color.”
In terms of how to record, Arteaga says, “It’s best if you get it from further away because you get full context in the frame of what happened and how many people were there.” A landscape video can capture more details. He also suggests avoiding drawing attention to yourself by pretending you’re using your phone. Also, note the nearest exit so you can leave if you’re noticed.
However, posting on social media without the consent of the victim is discouraged. “Give it to the person who’s experienced harassment because we want them to be in control of how that story gets shared. If they want to report it, we leave it up to them,” Arteaga says. You want to avoid the person potentially reliving the trauma over and over if you share it online.
This isn’t about telling someone off and Arteaga reminds bystanders to be careful. “You don’t wanna escalate the situation, so don’t go into a back and forth with the harasser. Be very matter of fact. Make your statement, create a boundary, and then turn your attention and care for the person experiencing harassment.” In cases of extreme violence or if there are weapons involved, Arteaga says, “Call for help, call 911, then document from a very safe distance.”
“Find a ‘D’ that feels most comfortable for you,” Arteaga continues. “Whatever way you choose to respond is the perfect response for you. It’s not your responsibility to have the perfect response to harassment, it’s the harasser’s responsibility not to harass you.”
“Delay is like a best friend check-in with a person after,” says Arteaga. “We did a study with Cornell University in 2014 and people said that the trauma they experienced because of harassment was significantly reduced when they got as little as a knowing glance from a bystander.”
If you’re at a loss of what to say or how to approach the victim, Hatty Lee, M.S., LMFT, founder of Oak and Stone Therapy and author of Indwell, tells HelloGiggles, “Just speak the truth.” If you felt the incident was disturbing to watch, you can say that. “It doesn’t matter if that person thinks they did something to deserve it. Remind them that it was not okay what the harasser said or did,” she adds. If you have some time, offer to stay for a bit or accompany them to safety. Lee suggests asking questions like, “How are you?” “Are you feeling safe enough to get to where you’re headed?” “Would you like for me to just stand here with you?” and “Do you have somebody to talk this through with?” You can even offer to help the person make the report. “That follow-up is really helpful,” says Lee.
Prepare and practice.
“There might be times that we were a little too late to intervene and we can feel a lot of guilt and shame around that, but we can prepare for these moments,” says Lee. Being equipped with the right training and engaging with bystander resources is a big help.
Lee also suggests that we can prepare mentally. “Even visualizing, rehearsing this mentally can help us to be better prepared for these moments when they occur. A lot of times our nervous system gets hijacked,” she says, and that even with training, we can still freeze.
Be mindful of your identity.
The bystander’s identity also plays into one’s capacity to act. “You want to watch out for how your identity affects how you experience public spaces or are perceived in them,” Arteaga tells HelloGiggles. If the bystander is part of a marginalized community, for instance, there is a legitimate fear that the harasser could turn on them. Additionally, your ability to pick up harassment cues can also depend on your identity and what you’ve experienced before. “You may not be necessarily aware that what they’re experiencing is xenophobic harassment or class-based harassment,” he adds.
“Assess your safety and if you feel comfortable, the next step is noticing what your concerns about intervening are,” Arteaga continues. “Is the concern that as a woman, ‘they might turn on me?’ For white allies, maybe ‘I don’t wanna look like a white savior.’ Acknowledge those concerns so then you can choose which is the best strategy for the situation.”
Be aware of your own triggers.
Remember that it’s normal to feel upset, afraid, and traumatized even as a bystander. “Even if it’s not directed at us, when we are in the presence of something very traumatic happening, it can affect us in very similar ways,” says Lee. “It could trigger very old traumas, very vulnerable and powerless experiences because maybe what you’re seeing is something that you have lived experience with. That could shut us down and make it really difficult for us to do something because we’re feeling suddenly vulnerable even though it’s not about us.”
“It’s totally normal to hesitate because there’s a lot of fear when you’re dealing with angry, racist, xenophobic people,” adds Lee. “You hear news sometimes of people trying to be helpful and then getting hurt or killed. There’s a lot of fear around that. They don’t want to suddenly be a target.”
First things first, do a safety check right after the incident. “Once you do intervene and you know the person is safe, take that extra minute to check in with yourself as well as do another safety assessment,” reminds Arteaga. “Am I going to need someone to walk with me? Maybe I need to grab a cab. Figure out what safety looks like for you.”
Take care of yourself if you witnessed harassment.
Once you’re safe, use grounding techniques to calm you down. Lee suggests using the box breathing technique, listening to music, and then turning to your community for support. “The sooner we put ourselves into community and ask for support, the impacts of the trauma can be decreased. A lot of times when something like that happens, we end up silently suffering in shame. Sharing your story, it’s a very empowering thing to do.”
Arteaga, who has his own toolkit after intervening, adds, “It’s super important to practice that resilience because it’s gonna help you wake up tomorrow and do it all over again.”
The thing to remember is that you don’t need to be a superhero to intervene, says Arteaga. “The smallest action helps because if we don’t show up in those moments where we see our community experiencing harm, essentially what we’re saying is that it’s okay and that behavior does persist,” he says. “It’s not until we collectively take a stand against these types of violence that we’re able to actually bring attention to and stop it.”