Being an Active ‘Upstander’ Instead of a Silent Bystander

Being an Active ‘Upstander’ Instead of a Silent Bystander

Recently at a meeting that I attended, I had the opportunity to take an active role as an “upstander.” Before I tell you what happened at the meeting, I want to briefly explain what an upstander is.

When someone witnesses or ignores a prejudiced attack, they can appear to be condoning or reinforcing the behavior and add to the alienation of the targeted individual. Those are typically referred to as bystanders. An upstander, by contrast, is a bystander who recognizes these kinds of events and takes a stand, by interrupting or challenging the situation.

Many times, people ask what they can do to help in the world of DEI. It’s particularly challenging if you are from a dominant group and not normally the subject of microaggressions or alienation. One way to interfere in a positive way is by interrupting the event.

Let’s suppose you are at a meeting where a participant makes a suggestion on how to tackle the issue at hand, and her idea is ignored or glossed over. Another participant makes a similar suggestion, and he is greeted with support and praise. The first participant (the female) might not want to say that she made a similar suggestion just a few minutes earlier.

An upstander who notices the situation could point out that the idea had been floated by her, and now that it has gained momentum, thank her for starting the discussion. Additionally, the upstander could pull her back into the conversation to build on the idea further.

Recognizing contributions and creating opportunities for collaboration and engagement are ways we can disrupt the effect of the slight. It might also make others aware of the slight in the first place. Impact and intent are two different things. Hopefully, the intent was not to ignore the female participant’s suggestion, but the intent doesn’t matter if there is a negative impact.

In the meeting I was attending, I observed a dialogue between two people that concerned me. I am sure that has happened to many of us where we don’t know if we should step in and say something. I wondered what my role in this was. Should I say something? Does my silence say something? The only person I can control in this world is myself. So yes, I had a role to play, and I needed to try to figure out what I could do at the moment.

“How Bystanders Can Shut Down Microaggressions” by By Zara Abrams ( describes six useful tactics:

  1. Plan Ahead—responding to a microaggression can be tricky because it’s not always clear to a bystander whether harm occurred or was intended. It’s crucial to think ahead, practice and rehearse what you’d say when one occurs.
  2. Tailor Your Approach to the Situation—one strategy to disarm the microaggression is by voicing your disapproval of the statement (for example, if it is a racist comment) by saying, “Not OK” or “I don’t agree with what you just said.” Another approach can be to call attention to subtle or “invisible” microaggressions behind the comment. That could take the form of a statement, such as “Not all Asian Americans are good at math,” or a question, such as “Do you have evidence to back that up?” or “Is this person’s race, religion, or identity really relevant to this conversation?” When a micro-aggression appears to be unintentional, a bystander might respond to a hurtful comment or joke by saying, “I know you meant well, but that stereotype is hurtful.”
  3. Speak for Yourself—whichever response you choose should reflect your own perspective and feelings about the microaggression. We shouldn’t presume that other people are offended or hurt by the comment. We should avoid speaking on behalf of others, as that can be seen as a micro-aggression in itself.
  4. Target the Behavior, Not the Person—regardless of the circumstances, bystanders should avoid calling a perpetrator racist or otherwise attacking their character. Instead, target the comment possibly by asking, “What do you mean by that?” or “Are you aware of how that might be interpreted?”
  5. Consider Circling Back—an immediate and public response to a microaggression is a good way to model appropriate behavior for other bystanders, but sometimes a direct approach is not always possible or advisable. Some discussions may be more effective behind closed doors.
  6. Seek Outside Support—in some cases, bystanders may need to solicit outside help, for instance, when micro-aggressions occur repeatedly and other strategies are not effective.

I don’t know if I said the right thing in that meeting but I know that staying silent was not an option. I think I handled it well. Next time, I bet I’ll do better. Important things are not always comfortable and I am ok with that.

So, if you are looking for ways to have an impact and don’t know how to start, start by paying closer attention. When faced with the opportunity to interrupt a micro-aggression of any sort, do so. It’s learning a skill similar to exercising a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Consider the impact of how people are treated and use your power for change.

Katheryn DeClerck is a member of the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors DEI Steering Committee.

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