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8 things you can do if you’re witnessing a racist incident

The global COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a rash of anti-Asian, or more specifically anti-Chinese, racist incidents. 

There have been a few recent examples of troubling incidents in B.C., including a 92-year-old Asian man with dementia being pushed out of a convenience store and thrown to the ground, an attack on a TransLink bus, and an Asian woman in downtown Vancouver being punched in the head.

Here are eight things you can do if you have the misfortune of witnessing such a situation. 

1. Call the police

Wherever a racist attack takes place, you can help the victim by calling police. Often incidents occur on public transit, where people from all communities are drawn together.

According to Const. Mike Yake with Transit Police, people riding transit in Metro Vancouver can discretely text 87-77-77 to let dispatch know what’s happening and provide updates.

“There’s no place on our public transit system for violence, obviously, but also racism,” said Yake. “It’s completely inexcusable.”

You can call 911, let a bus driver know or, on SkyTrain, press the yellow strip which will alert system controllers that something’s up.

2. Tell the perpetrator to stop

Yake said everyone will have a different level of confidence when it comes to stepping in, every situation is different and personal safety is priority, so err on the side of caution.

According to Natasha Aruliah, an equity, diversity and inclusion consultant, bystanders should play a role in stopping a racist act in progress, but that role will be different for everyone.

“The first and most obvious [thing you can do] is to directly confront the situation,” said Aruliah, adding that a white male or somebody who looks like the perpetrator is much more likely to be listened to than a person from the same community as the target of the attack.

Aruliah said if someone is making racist comments toward someone else, tell them in a clear, firm, short statement that what they’re doing is wrong.

“Things like ‘Stop it,’ ‘That’s not OK,’  ‘We’re calling the police,’ ” she said, adding that it’s important not to discuss or engage with the racist comments.

3. Discourage the behaviour

If you’re not comfortable single-handedly confronting the person being racist, Aruliah said you can communicate with other witnesses to generate a broader signal of disapproval toward the behaviour. 

She said that people making unchecked comments assume that the silence is approval and that they’re voicing the opinions of others present — if several people express disapproval, it could turn the tide.

4. Support the target

For the victim, the trauma can come not only from the attacker, according to Aruliah, but also from the fact that nobody came to their aid.

Along with previous steps that can be taken, if things look to be escalating, you can join the victim and suggest to them that you leave or get off the bus or SkyTrain together at the next stop, said Aruliah. The show of support is important.

5. Distract the attacker

Many people may not feel comfortable directly calling out racism, confronting the behaviour directly or intervening in a situation that may be quickly escalating to something violent. In that case, Aruliah said a sneaky distraction can be effective.

“We can interrupt the behaviour without necessarily having to put ourselves directly in harm’s way,” she said.

Suggestions for this tack include asking for the time or directions, dropping your papers or spilling your coffee — anything to derail the attacker’s focus on the victim.

6. Record the incident with your phone

“Speaking from an investigational stand point, it’s fantastic for police officers to receive that kind of evidence,” said Yake of people recording incidents on their cellphones.

Aruliah agrees that it can be very useful, but she said it shouldn’t replace a more active role in stopping the racist behaviour.

She said if a group is already intervening, then recording can be helpful.

7. Avoid getting hurt

Yake said police officers are trained to keep a distance and allow plenty of time to react if facing violence in a  confrontational situation.

But he highlights the need for bystanders to be mindful of their own safety.

Aruliah also warned that you never know what sort of violence may take place or whether the perpetrator is armed with a weapon, so trying to subdue the person if the attack becomes physical may not be the best idea.

“What we want, as much as possible, is to have a repertoire of behaviours to respond to let people know the behaviour is not acceptable before it gets to the point that it escalates to physical violence,” she said.

8. Do better next time

For someone who witnesses a racist attack in public and doesn’t do anything, Aruliah said the most important thing is to learn from that experience.

“There is, unfortunately, going to be a next time. We’re not in a place yet where these incidents don’t happen,” she said. “We all have a responsibility to address and to change it.”

Do you have more to add to this story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

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