Vol. #18 April 2021
Leaders Not Bystanders
What does it mean to stand up to injustice in everyday situations? What would it mean if for our collective health and well-being if we always stood up for each other? There are times when it is clear that something needs to be done, but we are not always clear on what or how. Recent news reports of bystander apathy in the face of growing anti-Asian violence and verbal attacks are an indication that we can and must do more.

According to Stop AAPI Hate, there have been 67 reported hate crimes and incidents of discrimination against people of Asian descent in Massachusetts, and over 3,700 nationwide.[1] We know that for every incident reported, there are many more that go unreported and even unnoticed by all but the victim.  These statistics include an older adult in Medford who was pushed to ground and called a racial slur in front of a crowded playground. As she sat on the curb with a tissue to her bleeding head, nobody stopped to help or even ask if she was OK.[2] We all saw the reports of an older Asian woman being violently attacked on a New York City street while two doormen casually closed and locked the door without helping. As disturbing as bystander apathy is, we have the power to change that narrative in our community.

MetroWest communities have invested a lot in teaching our youth how to be “upstanders” instead of “bystanders” when they witness teasing and bullying. Unfortunately, this is not an issue that ends with childhood. As adults, we have an obligation to model positive behavior and create community norms of acceptance, dignity and to celebrate the diversity of all our neighbors. We can treat others with respect and stand up when we witness hate. This does not always, or even usually, mean confronting the attacker. Assess safety for yourself and those around you before deciding how to act. Supporting the targeted person, even in small ways, is often the safest and most impactful way to intervene. When you are unsure of what to do, extending a small kindness is a way to start- a tissue, water or words of support can mean a lot.

Some tips from Stop AAPI Hate on ways you can help if you witness discrimination or violence are[3]:

  1. Take Action: Approach the targeted person, introduce yourself, and offer support.
  2. Actively Listen: Ask before taking any actions and respect the targeted person’s wishes. Monitor the situation if needed.
  3. Ignore Attacker: Using your discretion, attempt to calm the situation by using your voice, body language, or distractions.
  4. Accompany: If the situation escalates, invite the targeted person to join you in leaving.
  5. Offer Emotional Support: Help the targeted person by asking how they’re feeling. Assist them in figuring out what they want to do next.

Intervening when the incident is not public but more interpersonal, like someone in your social circle making an insensitive or racist comment or joke is equally important. The same principles and imperative to intervene apply. Calling it out and checking in with others who heard the comment to offer support are all ways to promote a healthy, accepting environment. Healthy and inclusive communities are created by deliberate and consistent attention to the large and small ways that groups or individuals are excluded or made to feel unsafe. If they are called out every time by all of us, we can build a community where we all belong and thrive together.

We know that discrimination against the Asian-American community did not start with the first case of COVID. Like discrimination and violence towards too many others in America, it has deep roots and a long history. It also has serious health consequences including anxiety, depression and sleep problems reported among those who are targets.[4] Hate crimes and discrimination not only tear apart our communities but make us all less safe and far less healthy. Racism and inequity are public health issues that we can all, in small ways and large, work towards eliminating.


[1] Stop AAPI Hate. 2020-2021 National Report. https://stopaapihate.org/2020-2021-national-report/
[2] Leung, S. (April 17, 2021). Elderly Asian Americans are living in fear as assaults, confrontations soar. Boston Globe. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/04/17/metro/elderly-asian-americans-are-living-fear-assaults-confrontations-soar-retiree-worries-if-people-beat-me-i-can-die-right-away/
[4] Abrams, Z. (2021). The Mental Health Impact of Asian-American Racism. American Psychological Association. The mental health impact of anti-Asian racism (apa.org)
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