On Sunday, August 16, three trans women of color, Eden Estrada, Jaslene Whiterose, and Joslyn Flawless, were robbed and physically and verbally assaulted while waiting for their ride in Los Angeles (CNN). As it occurred, onlookers gathered to watch, casually recording the event on their smartphones, some even yelling their own insults. Throughout a 26-minute video of the attack on YouTube, only one person is seen briefly stopping to help. This attack adds to a long list of violence against the transgender community. This year alone, at least 26 transgender or gender non-conforming people were fatally shot or killed by other violent means, which is likely vastly under-reported (HRC). This wave of violence prompted the American Medical Association to declare it an “epidemic” (NYTimes).
In a news conference regarding the incident, city officials quickly admonished the bystanders. Deputy Chief Justin Eisenberg called the lack of intervention “callous” (People). And it is, especially after a nationwide reckoning for racial justice in the LGBTQ+ community. Amid protests and Pride Month this past June, transgender women of color have mobilized to ensure their voices are heard. But when these women needed their community most, they simply watched on passively.
• Know your rights when taking videos and photographs.
• Learn what to do after taking a video of police brutality.
• Identify the right individual and protocol for de-escalating racism in your workplace.
• Reflect: How can I exercise my privilege to be an active bystander during a crisis?
Our society has a deep history of watching injustice unfold from the sidelines. And this goes beyond acts of racial violence. The horrific murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 is a well-known example, where early reports indicated that 38 witnesses heard and ignored her calls for help. This story was greatly exaggerated, but its impact sparked a flurry of studies on how so many people failed to act (read the full story and the publication’s detractions in the NYTimes).
Referred to as the “bystander effect,” their research indicated that the more people witnessing a catastrophic event, the less likely anyone will do anything. Each person thinks someone else will take responsibility (Harvard). Additional research indicates that “in-group favoritism” may prevent bystanders from intervening for someone they don’t identify with, which can bring in various implicit biases (NBC News). You can read more examples of how this has unfolded across other terrible acts of violence on NPR.
But our society also has a history of actively watching the suffering of communities of color. Over 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950 (Equal Justice Initiative), and at least 137 Native Americans were lynched between 1835 and 1964 (VOA News). These murders were often not just public affairs but also popular events; communities would gather together to watch as if it were a fun occasion (Equal Justice Initiative). Oftentimes, organizers would pass out pieces of the victims’ clothing and body parts as souvenirs. Photographers would often be present to capture the event, and postcards with photos of the victims would be offered for sale as collectibles (Equal Justice Initiative). In these cases, too, innocent victims would be subject to torture and murder without community help.
Note how similar this is to the viral videos of recent violence shared effortlessly across social media. With the rise of technology, it’s even more straightforward for the pain and suffering of communities of color to become a public spectacle for eager audiences. Although sharing them can raise awareness, they often do more harm. This is one of many reasons I don’t share these videos in this newsletter – and I encourage you not to do the same. And remember that watching these videos without taking action is still a passive response.
The bystander effect goes beyond public acts of violence. It extends to when we watch our racist family member say something at the dinner table or fail to intervene when we hear a microaggression at work. Whenever we choose not to engage, we make it seem that these actions are tolerable and reinforce white supremacy. It sets the precedent that we are willing to excuse this violence elsewhere, not just from our peers, but our police officers, schools, on social media, and in prisons.
This concept is why more police departments are hosting “duty to intervene” or “active bystander” training, as an effort to make police officers respond in the moment if their peer is exercising excessive force. Read a general overview via Vice and a recent example from the Wilmington Police Department.
Similar efforts to prevent sexual assault have recently been implemented at Uber (Fortune) and universities (NIU, MSU). But these efforts must be aligned with shifting toxic culture internally—and unwind each company or institution’s long history of oppression.
It’s important to note that being an active bystander often takes privilege. Sometimes, we may only be able to watch helplessly. But when you are in a situation where you can exercise that privilege, you must. Do not choose to enjoy the show. Put your body and reputation on the line to protect the victim however you can. And if you can’t, take clear accounts of what happened. This could be by filming an interaction between a victim and the police or noting a microaggression to alert HR. Researchers note that even telling another bystander to do something can pull you and/or them out of apathy and into action (Harvard).
And we need action now more than ever. Remember that without the videos, we may not have known the truth behind the injustices that George Floyd, Keith Lamont Scott, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, or Jacob Blake, among others, suffered. How many stories have gone unreported? How much more suffering will be enjoyed as entertainment? And when will we fight for those further marginalized, like the LGBTQ+ community, with the same strength?
• The “bystander effect” often de-incentivizes individuals in groups from taking action during a crisis.
• Our society has a long history of making suffering a public spectacle.
• To center those most marginalized, we must be active bystanders and exercise whatever privilege we have when we can.