How to speak up when you spot injustice

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This is the third installment of a special four-part feature on turning feminist ideas into action. Read part one to clarify your feminist agenda, and part two to learn how to start a feminist consciousness-raising group. Or, just jump in below!

AUDRE LORDE: When you see something, say something. 

One of my favorite Audre Lorde quotes is about the power of voicing your beliefs. In contending with her cancer diagnosis and reflecting back on her life, she says:

"In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I regretted most were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid?" ("The Transformation of Silence," Sister Outsider)

When it comes to situations involving social justice, holding your tongue can be tempting. How many times have you heard someone make a sexist remark in the office and ignored them, figuring it was none of your business? How many times have you witnessed people of color being harassed, and decided you were better off walking away?

I've certainly ignored men harassing women on the street, out of fear that if I were to step in, I'd become a target. Perhaps this is wise; perhaps it's not. But I know that silence can be insidious. As Lorde also says, "Your silence will not protect you." Keeping your distance or "staying neutral" might protect you in the short-run, but in the long run, turning a blind eye to discrimination only perpetuates the phenomenon.

Because it's so easy to clam up when you see inappropriate behavior, the best way to avoid bystander syndrome is to create a plan. Knowing what you'll say and when you'll say it means that you can go into autopilot if you ever see a person being mistreated. Here's the process that's worked for me:

1. Define your parameters.

First of all, decide under what circumstances you'll intervene. For instance, you could commit to speaking up when you detect discrimination at your company, or when you witness sexual harassment on public transport. Getting more specific, you could even say that you'll chime in the next time you hear your colleagues making gender- or race-influenced remarks when discussing a job candidate. If you know that speaking up could potentially put your job (or safety) at risk, set even clearer boundaries: you'll get involved when you're dealing with colleagues you trust, in workplace situations where you have power. 

2. Decide on A one-liner.

In the heat of the moment, it's so hard to know the right thing to say. My tendency is to be polite, even when the situation doesn't call for it. So instead of relying on my knee-jerk response, I've come up with go-to phrases I can quickly pull out. For sexual harassment on public transport, this could be something like, "Stop touching that woman. That's illegal, and I'm going to report you." For hiring bias, a simple question like, "Did we hold [insert white men] to the same standards when we hired them?" tends to work wonders. 

3. Rehearse the scenario. Say YOUR LINES aloud.

Having a bystander catchphrase isn't much use if you don't feel confident saying it. Spend a few minutes one day imagining a scenario where you have to intervene. Practice saying your one-liner and see how it feels. Picture how other people will react. Evaluate whether you sound confident or nervous. Adjust until you feel 100% comfortable pointing out injustice with the words you've chosen.

4. Ask for an accountability partner.

The next time you successfully speak up, call a partner, co-worker, or friend to celebrate your impact. Sharing your justice-seeking behavior with another person will give you positive reinforcement, making you feel proud and (hopefully!) encouraging you to keep taking the high road.

Audre Lorde, feminist poet and scholar. 

Audre Lorde, feminist poet and scholar. 

Part 4 of this series will be here next Tuesday, October 3. 


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