WItnessing Racism: what to do as a bystander


Welcome to our Responding to Racism Blog. In this article we are discussing the effects of racism with the main focus on its impact on mental health.

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Witnessing public racist harassment, hate-motivated incidents or violence can be a disturbing experience. Witnesses may feel frozen, mute, and unsure of how to react. Research shows there are two main reasons why people do not act in these situations: they may be either afraid of becoming a target themselves or they simply do not know what to say or do. Moreover, contrary to common expectations, larger numbers of bystanders decrease the likelihood that someone will step forward and help a victim. This happens due to the diffusion of responsibility: when onlookers see no reaction from the public, they believe others will know better how to help, and they feel uncertain about helping while others are watching.

We should, however, not give-in to the bystander effect: the sense that since no one else is doing anything, you might as well not, either. Ignorance or lack of reaction can be interpreted as acceptance by the perpetrators, the public and the victims. It can encourage a climate of violence as hateful behaviour can become normalised and accepted.

In order not to contribute to this normalising of hostility, bystanders need to be aware of how to stand up to racism and intervene at a time when people need it most, both on an individual and a community level. Intervening not only means reacting in the moment to a potentially violent situation, but also challenging and changing the cultural norms that make racism acceptable and make victims feel alone and isolated. Supporting someone who is being harassed can help demonstrate to others that they also have the power to make our communities safer.

Bystander Intervention

There are many ways to support a person who is threatened or attacked in public because of their real or perceived ethnicity, religious background or any other identity. There is no standard or perfect reaction as the situations can differ depending on a place, time, context and people involved. However, there are some general suggestions and tips you can follow while witnessing racism. Below we compiled a list of useful techniques, DOs and DON’Ts, based on various models of bystander intervention, such as the IDEAS Bystander Intervention Techniques ModelThe Five Ds of Bystander Intervention or the Civil Courage Model

A single action, no matter how big or small, can change the situation and make a big difference for the targetted person.


Bystander intervention is when one person chooses to speak up, step in or engage others to help when witnessing potentially dangerous situations.

Bystander Intervention Tips

  • PREPARE. Imagine a possible situation, how you would react and what you would like others to do if you were a victim. Decide on a strategy you would use to help you make a quicker decision in a real situation.
  • ACT. Never ignore the situation. Lack of action communicates approval, can be interpreted as acceptance and encourage normalising racism. You can react during or after the incident. A single action, no matter how big or small, can change the situation and make a big difference for the victim.
  • THINK SAFETY FIRST. Keep your own and others safety intact should always be the priority. Examine your surroundings and assess the situation before intervening.
  • STAY CALM. Don’t engage in any kind of verbal abuse or violence/physical force directly with the perpetrator, as this can make them aggressive and escalate the situation. A ‘non-complementary behaviour’ psychological concept suggests that if someone greets us with kindness, you are likely to respond the same way rather than responding with further aggression that could escalate the conflict. 
  • ADDRESS THE BEHAVIOUR, or language used, not the person. (i.e. instead of calling them racist, ask, ‘Why would you say something like that?”). Accusing another person of being racist automatically puts them on the defense, shutting down and ending the conversation.
  • SHOW THAT YOU CARE Believe them, don’t belittle their experience. Small acts of kindness such as aproviding a listening ear, a follow up phone call, condemning the act of racism publicly (if applicable) can make a difference.

Artist Marie-Shirine Yener developed a comic strip guide to illustrate how to intervene if you see Islamophobic verbal harassment in public. The guide can be applied to any hate-fuelled public incident. The comic was inspired by a ‘non-complementary behaviour’ psychological concept.

The author suggests the following:

Bystander Intervention Techniques

  • DISTRACT. If you don’t feel safe being direct, you can distract or interrupt the attacker. Distraction is an indirect approach to intervention that involves engaging with the person who’s being harassed, not the aggressor, to de-escalate the situation. Distraction means making noise, swearing, talking loudly on your phone, ‘accidentally’ spilling a drink or doing anything that’s designed to create commotion and attention. You can also ask a random question not related to situation i.e. about the time or directions. This can help to take the attention away from the harassment and is going to lead the conversation in a different direction.
  • DELEGATE AND ALERT AUTHORITIES. If you don’t feel safe, delegation is another technique you can use. It involves notifying a third party, usually an authority figure, who may be in a better position to respond. On public transport, contact a conductor or bus driver; in a shop or entertainment facility, a cashier or a manager, bar staff or security guard; in school, a teacher. You can ask such a person to call the police or you can contact the Gardaí yourself. Whenever possible, communicate with the victim before calling in police as they might have had negative experiences in the past and may not want to report. In any circumstance, make sure that the victim is safe before doing anything else and then check to see what they’re most comfortable with.
  • ENGAGE PEERSTry approaching other people and ask them to also the victim with you. It is helpful to address other bystanders directly and individually i.e. using words ‘Excuse me, you in the red jumper, can you help?’.Individual approaches make people more likely to help as it minimises the diffusion of responsibility.

  • MAKE YOUR PRESENCE AS A WITNESS KNOWN. If you are too scared to say something, if possible, make eye contact with the person being harassed and ask them if they want support. You can move near the person being harassed or if it’s safe doing so, create distance or a barrier between the person being harassed and the attacker.

  • DOCUMENT THE INCIDENT. Taking photos or filming the incident on your phone and giving the footage to the police can be useful because the targeted person can then use the footage as evidence and confirm their statement with the police or WRC. It can also be used to raise awareness on racism in our society. In some cases, filming the attack can even stop a perpetrator. Keep a safe distance and take a video of landmarks such as street signs, bus numbers, and save the date and time. Don’t put the video online without the permission of the harassed person. It could cause a lot of harm. Being harassed or attacked is already a disempowering, traumatising experience. Using an image or footage of a person being victimised without their consent can make the person feel even more powerless. If the documentation goes viral, it can lead to further victimization and an unwanted level of exposure.

  • DELAY. Intervention doesn’t always need to happen while someone is being harassed. It can take a place after the incident. Check if the harassed person is ok and if they need anything else. Try offering a concrete help: a glass of water, assistance with getting composed, contacting a friend or finding transport home. If the person was injured as a result of an attack support them in finding the nearest doctor, or, if trained, provide First Aid. Do not call the police if the victim didn’t ask for it.

  • ACT AS A WITNESS to support the police with their investigation. If the Gardaí were called for, provide them with a description of the perpetrators’ escape route, face, physique, clothes, sex, age and any other noticeable features. You can exchange contact details with other witnesses. Having a collective report will make for a stronger case against the perpetrator and can help police with their investigation.

  • REPORT RACISM. Report what you witnessed to iReport.ie. Tell the victim about it, but don’t presume that the victim will make a report. This will ensure that there is a record of the incident, help us understand the scope of racism in Ireland and support devising relevant actions to address it. Remember, unreported racism stays invisible.
  • DIRECT INTERVENTION means confronting the harasser directly. This intervention technique is the riskiest as there is a possibility of escalation or the perpetrator redirecting their aggression towards you; therefore, it should always be approached with caution. Always assess the situation, evaluate your safety, and the aggressor. Ask the perpetrators to stop harassing the person or say, ‘that’s not ok’, ‘why are you saying that?’. Use non-aggressive, but strong tone. If one person reacts, others are likely to follow. Once people intervene, the perpetrators understand that their action sparks protest instead of indifference or even silent support.

What helps people to intervene when they witness racism?

Research carried out by the Bystander Anti-Racism Project of the Western Sydney University identified the following enablers to bystander anti-racism.

  • Knowledge of what constitutes racism
  • Awareness of harm caused by racism
  • Perception of responsibility to intervene
  • Perceived ability to intervene
  • Desire to educate a perpetrator
  • Emotional responses to racism: empathy, expressing anger, disapproval etc.
  • Self-affirmation
  • Anti-racist social norms.

Bystander Intervention Infographics



Speak Up on SPIN is a brand new content series by SPIN 1038 that aims to tackle important issues that exist in Irish society.

Speak Up on Spin: Racism is the first topic of the series developed in partnership with INAR, which brings a new informative video each week to educate the audience on different types of racism that occur every day, opening up real conversations to affect positive change.  

Bystanders is the fourth video of the series which focuses on what you should do when you witness or experience racism.

Responding to Racism Blog

This article is part of INAR's Responding to Racism blog based on the Responding to Racism Guide: How to Report Racism and Where to Find Help. Articles collected in this blog aim to provide practical information and guidance on how to report and respond to racist incidents in Ireland. Articles range from information about what racism is, why and how to report it, to information on where to report racism depending on what actually happened, to bystander intervention techniques, responding to racism in a community and supports available to victims.

The longer-term goal is to develop these articles as a part of the national one-stop-shop online resource on reporting and responding to racism, easily available to anyone affected by racism in Ireland. We hope that the provided information will encourage readers to report racism and inspire them to re-think their role in addressing it.