#YouShouldKnow: to be or not to be, a bystander

By Cori Magsby / Opinions Editor 

BEING THE BYSTANDER: Cartoon students wonder what to do as a bystander. Illustration by senior Caroline Johnson.

We have all had this happen to us: You know, that awkward moment when a friend, teacher or peer says something that raises a question? That controversial opinionated thought or idea that leaves your jaw gaping. We stop and wonder if we should call out that friend, interrupt the discussion to bring up what was previously said or even say/do anything. Should we turn to the nearest Person of Color (POC) or minority friend and complain about what we have just heard and witnessed?

In moments like these we must ask ourselves these key, but very critical, questions: “Is it enough to be an ally in some cases and a bystander in others? When do we find our voices and stand for what is right?” 

A bystander is a term used to describe a person who is “present at an event or incident but does not take part” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This is a simple definition of an easy task, right? Wrong. In both academic and work settings, voicing your opinion and concern when you disagree with a statement can take a lot of courage, but think of it like this: your intervention can help the situation tremendously.

Picture yourself sitting in class discussing a controversial book, with political views that are often associated with a specific group of people. The classroom setting is one of the most dreadful places for this scenario to play out, and many sit in fear, waiting for it to happen. Uncertain what may be said, everyone tip-toes around the opinion that could lead down a spiral to “a house divided” or maybe even losing a few friends. Then, it happens. You hear a word, phrase, or sentence that causes your senses to tingle and your stomach to churn. At this moment, when you hear the controversial statement, here are  a few options that you could respond with:

  1. Say nothing! Maybe everyone didn’t hear it and you shouldn’t make a big deal out of it.
  2. Begin to loudly berate that person and use harsh language. 
  3. Calmly point out what they said, why it is inappropriate, and use the incident as a teaching moment. 

If your first response is usually number one, we have a lot of work to do. Harpeth Hall not only teaches us to be confident leaders but also to be people who take charge in creating an equitable environment. So in other words, be sure of yourself. You heard that person right, and now it is time to call them out on it. If they had the right to say such a controversial statement, you should have the right to calmly tell them why they are wrong and how their opinion hurts others.

For those of you who responded with the second statement, I see your confidence! However, you don’t have to use targeted language to get your point across. Your purpose in intervening is to address the problem, state what the effects of your classmate’s actions are to other minority groups and suggest ways in the future they can go about expressing their opinion. You’re not trying to bash anyone, so address how discomforting their words may be to others in a respectful manner. 

If your go-to response is usually the third option, I applaud you. You not only are showing allyship beyond compare but you are also speaking up for both yourself and others. Although sitting idly and not intervening can be easier, speaking up in a setting where you aren’t always obligated to do so can be more impactful. 

Okay, so here’s what we have learned: being a bystander is not a supportive position to take. If you are looking to be an ally, or even support your minority friend, do it! There’s no harm in disagreeing with a friend, stepping into a conversation that is harmful to someone else or even de-escalating a tough situation. Whether around many or few people, saying something gives a helping hand to the next person and could even help you in the future. As noted by the outspoken and famous James Baldwin, American essayist, playwright, novelist and voice of the American civil rights movement, “Not everything that is faced can be changed but NOTHING can be changed if it is not faced.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: