I had an unusual reaction to the George Floyd video. Maybe my subconscious was trying to insulate me from the graphic images of yet another Black man being brutalized, but I found myself fixated on the eerie normalcy happening outside that tight circle of violence. Buses and cars drive by. People walk down the street. Perhaps the convenience store clerk who called the cops is still serving customers. A crowd gathers.
Then something unexpected happens. Together, witnesses begin to verbally challenge Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin and take video, to the point that another officer steps in front of the increasingly vocal bystanders, presumably to block them from moving closer to Chauvin as he kneels on Floyd’s neck. Darnella Frazier’s cellphone recording, and the social media awareness it has raised, catalyzed both worldwide protests and a measure of belated justice for Floyd.
The first step in countering bystander apathy is taking responsibility rather than letting it fall to others.
Now we need to rinse and repeat. White ally culture — sweeping declarations and rampant hashtagging by its self-identified members notwithstanding — has been wildly ineffective at dismantling the structural and systemic racism that led to Floyd’s death. Allies: The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and so many others also happened on your watch. You must do better.
The kind of action taken by the bystanders to Floyd’s killing is essential if things are ever to change. And that means countering the default human programming and group dynamics that coalesce into a passivity known, fittingly enough, as the bystander effect, or bystander apathy. It is a phenomenon that is particularly damaging when Black individuals are the ones who are in need of help.
Being in the presence of others diminishes the inclination of individuals to respond. In different psychology experiments, the rate between taking action in response to situations like unexplained smoke and injury to a stranger dropped from around 75 percent to more like 10 percent based on whether anyone else was present.
Bystander help is especially rare in medical emergencies, and particularly unlikely if the person suffering is Black. Analyzing 22,000 patients’ data revealed that Black people were less than half as likely to receive support as their white counterparts, who themselves only received such bystander assistance 2.6 percent of the time.
The bystander effect, canonized in Psych 101 curricula, not only explains why people remain silent during an emergency, but even when confronted with lower-stakes situations like bullying (children are not immune), hearing a problematic joke or observing a co-worker being passed over for a promotion because of the color of their skin.
Even researchers who have attempted to debunk the bystander effect admit that “in-group favoritism” may prevent bystanders from intervening for someone who is not “one of their own.” That’s bad news for Black folks, as we have higher rates of life-threatening health problems in our communities and are 2.5 times more likely to have random cops cause one for us.
Bystander apathy happens largely because of a diffusion of responsibility. “Often people hesitate to intervene because they believe someone else will respond,” Erlanger A. Turner, assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, wrote in an email. Other elements include the fact that “people often have difficulties talking about or confronting racism” and that when they think they lack the skills to prevent racist behaviors, “it makes it less likely that they will speak up or intervene to make change.”
Predictably, racial bias among white bystanders is another complicating factor. “They have been fed the narrative that Black people are inferior,” Ebony White, assistant clinical professor in the counseling and family therapy department at Drexel University, wrote in an email. “Therefore, sometimes a bystander won’t intervene because in their mind, in some way, the Black person deserved the outcome.”
White social norms compound all this, Lena Tenney, an active bystander trainer for the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, said in an interview. White American culture can prioritize harmony and eschew social conflict, particularly for women. As a result, they explained, they feel pressure “to keep the peace ... and make sure no one feels bad.”
But when would-be allies choose to maintain the racial status quo instead of “standing up for righteousness,” as my mother would say, they are choosing complicity. As White pointed out, “silence is actively making a choice.”
This is a particularly important point because bystanders “interpret their own silence as dissent, but perpetrators interpret it as agreement,” Tenney noted, so it’s crucial to do more than simply not join in the abuse — particularly since a single person can shift the entire group dynamic. Being an active bystander in lower-stakes situations also increases the likelihood that someone will rise to extreme occasions, according to Tenney.
The first step in countering bystander apathy is taking responsibility rather than letting it fall to others. That means acting in a moment of crisis, but also owning the choice to do nothing by staying silent.
So I want to invite white allies to make better choices, as much as it might go against your biases, culture and human nature. If you want to keep your one Black friend and see another Black POTUS, you’re going to need to do more than just talk about how you voted for the first one.
Instead, you gotta check your privilege (but like for real this time). There are the big ones, such as access to wealth, health and education, not to mention being able to use your local police force as a concierge service. And also the relatively small privileges of people not clutching their purses when you walk by; the luxury of opting out of conversations that feel “too political”; the ability to be seen as an individual; the freedom from needing to have “the talk” with your 8-year-old kid about how to stay safe around police.
An active white bystander will inhabit the truth that all these privileges are not only unearned, but also the direct result of genocide, stolen land, the systematic exploitation of enslaved Africans and, I’d add, U.S. foreign policy and trade agreements.
Next, a real ally will push past that default bystander apathy to take intentional action against everyday acts of racism. Small actions such as saying “Ouch!” when a friend makes a problematic joke or educating a family member about racially coded terms like “thug,” and big ones like protecting Black protesters and resigning from a racist workplace.
Whatever action you take, it should stretch you. When it comes to anti-racism work, being an active bystander will always involve giving something up.
They will also take proactive steps to reduce the cultivation of racism in the first place. Children show racial preferences by preschool; mitigate that by making sure they see positive representations of Black and brown people. Inform yourself and others — don’t ask Black people to do it for you — about the real history of race in America.
Whatever action you take, it should stretch you. When it comes to anti-racism work, being an active bystander will always involve giving something up: personal comfort, money, power, privilege. If it doesn’t cost you anything, it is not enough.
Darnella Frazier’s choice to video George Floyd’s murder is active bystanderism at its finest. She intervened to the degree that she, as a young Black woman, was able to despite the emotional and physical risk, using the tools she had at her disposal. Then, by sharing the video, she invited others to pay it forward with their own actions.
Creating a culture of active bystanders like Frazier — not just allies — is the only way to complete what these and earlier protests have started.