Jordan: Like so many of you, I spent most of this weekend watching the protests rage in the United States, and I couldn’t turn away. And then I thought, with no shortage of shame, about times that I have turned away from the smaller things that I might have been able to help with.
Racism isn’t just cops murdering people and assaulting protesters. That’s the horrific, most visible part of the iceberg. Racism is the everyday stuff that some of us probably could stop, but somehow don’t. Most of you have seen it in the street on transit, on a night out in your workplace, in your family, and it can be hard and scary and really uncomfortable to speak up or to stand up.
I’m not accusing you here, or at least if I am, I’m accusing myself because I’ve been there. And that’s how this stuff becomes systemic. And if we’re going to sit there and watch and tweet about how sad we are and how awful it is, the least we can do is try to tackle this stuff on the level that we live at every day.
And most of us don’t really know how to do that. So today, instructions. Tomorrow on this show, we’re going to have a conversation about just how far we will have to go to take on police brutality and injustice. Today we are revisiting a conversation that we had last year about what any of us, and especially those of us with privilege should be doing every day to stop the shit that doesn’t end up on CNN, but creates the stuff that does. So for now, stay safe. Listen and do what you can to help. And we’ll talk more tomorrow.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, and this is the big story. Shakil Choudhury is the author of Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us Versus Them. He’s a cofounder of Anima Leadership, which offers consulting and training around diversity, equity, and inclusion. That includes bystander intervention. Shakil, start by telling me as someone who does this work, what is the climate out there right now?
Shakil: Well, I feel like we’re in a highly polarized time period. This has been, super exacerbated since Obama’s election, and then just went through the roof during the Trump years. And this is all in the context of escalating anxiety since since the 9/11 attacks. So we’ve been living in this for a couple of decades, but we are definitely at an arc I would hope is a climax, but I’m not sure whether that’s actually the case.
Jordan: It’s interesting that you mentioned that you saw this kind of heating up with the election of Barack Obama. Unpack that a little bit for me and tell me what you saw starting in 2008.
Shakil: Well, we saw the rise of the tea party. We saw the rise of people becoming so infuriated, and these were predominantly Republicans, or very far right folks, that basically were so infuriated with the fact that Obama got elected, that quote unquote, they were going to ‘take their country back’. The undertones were so racist in this process. And then it just went on from there, where there were protests and rallies where all these people, predominantly white, almost exclusively white would show up armed to the gills to a protest. Folks of colour can’t do that. You can’t show up at a protest armed. Folks of color are getting shot simply for showing up to a protest and getting arrested for showing up to a protest. So we already started seeing that, and then we started things like the birth certificate, the birther lie that got continued and perpetrated. So we saw this escalation happening and then we saw the tea party really take over the Republican party. And so it started back then and we were seeing it and it was heating up and things were happening.
Jordan: Were we immune from it for a while in Canada, and it’s here now? Or has this always been here too?
Shakil: Oh, it’s always been here. I just think that it’s much more visible now. There’s much more permission now for it to happen. I mean, especially since Trump, it has just become full fledged. This is completely okay.
Jordan: Why do they feel so emboldened?
Shakil: Well, here’s the thing, is that who’s in charge, who is a leader? Leaders with positional power basically act as emotional guides for the group. That’s what all the research says. If the leader stays calm during crisis, it settles the group. If a leader shows some mild anxiety, it signals a group, ‘ah, something’s still wrong, we’ve still got some work to do’. If a leader is totally stressed out constantly or in a constant state of anger, that can damage relationships with group members and between group members.
So researchers believe that leaders are the emotional guide for a group. Well, that’s absolutely true when you hold the highest position of power in the land. And so, for example, to contrast two Republican presidents, George W. Bush, who I was no big fan of. When the 9/11 attacks happened, there was a spike in hate crimes against Muslims and Arab people. Anyone who looked like them. The following week, George W. Bush went into a mosque and said, Islam is the religion of peace and the hate crime rate went right back down. As opposed to Trump who has only escalated and repeatedly attacked almost every minority group that we can think of. And so there is absolutely clear and compelling evidence that links what this particular leader is doing with what is happening across the board. And in fact, research and conversations with white nationalists in Charlottesville, when that whole thing went sideways, and especially when the protester was run over in the car by the white nationalist and all that kind of stuff that happened there. They thought they had lost, they thought, ‘oh man, we gotta go back into the shadows’ until Trump basically saved it for them.
This is from the words of white nationals, former white nationalists themselves. They said he saved it for us. He said, ‘there are good people on both sides’, and all of a sudden our stuff became legitimate, super legitimate. So absolutely, this is something that is happening and has happened because we are at a time of dictators.
We are at a time of authoritarians. It’s very unfortunate, and it sounds like this is very political, because I’m talking about the Republican party, but unless political parties actually look after themselves, and especially those that are on the conservative end, if you don’t look after yourself, the far right knows that you are the inroad.
You are the way to legitimize far right beliefs, extreme right beliefs. And we’re seeing that. And so it’s super important that all political parties look out and say, ‘wait a minute, are we getting extremists, not just in beliefs but in actions that are showing up?’ You’re not like, ‘we disagree politically here and there’, but people who are really pushing for that who are taking it to the street and who are encouraging it on the street and are super close to what’s happening, and they’re just wearing a bit of a foil.
So conservative parties have to be very much on the lookout for that because once that happens, as it is happening across the Western world, then we are in a position where democracy itself is under threat, and that is currently the context that we are in. Democracy is definitely under threat because things are happening that just weren’t okay two decades ago, and they’re okay now.
Jordan: How can people like myself or other people who’d like to think that they would intervene when they see something like this happening, prepare themselves to actually do it and get over that hump?
Shakil: It’s a great question and fundamentally what happens most, for people. And what’s happened for me as well in my past, and still occasionally happens, is that people get frozen.
We are caught off guard, and that fundamentally is the key thing we got to get over, is we just move into into freeze mode. And most people freeze up, don’t know what to say, and then the situations just sort of passed them by. This happen to me like on a subway a number of years ago, where someone made some kind of homophobic comment, they were just in conversation with each other and all of a sudden I got triggered.
And I was like, ‘uh, what should I, should I, how do I…?’, and I was in this kind of state, and then my stop appeared, and I’m like, ‘now I have to get off’. And then I walked home with all this guilt about not knowing how to intervene and not intervening. And so there’s two things that I would start with.
First of all, you’ve got to preload the decision in your head. You’ve just got to preload that you’re going to do something. And the simplest thing that you can do once you preloaded it, is preload, that you’re gonna notice it in some small way. And that’s simply for me, I’m just like, make a sound. ‘Uh oh’, ‘wow’, ‘oh, no way’. Anything like that will bring attention, get your body ready to do something. So the first thing is just simply make a sound. As soon as you make the first sound, your body will actually find its way. You will find the words, you will improvise your way. But usually it’s the frozenness that we’re locked in.
So as soon as you make a sound, someone else will react. The second thing is question it. Which is, someone says something and it sounds like it could be racist. It sounds like it’s stereotyping. It sounds like it could be biased in some way, shape, or form. You don’t have to fill the space, you can just ask a question, ‘what did you mean by that?’ That’s an intervention. What did you mean by that? Get them to explain. Usually people are making some kind of generalization about a group. They’re making a generalization about a person and they’re linking it to a cultural group or a religion or identity. So it’s just like, what did you mean by that?
And then let sounds do the heavy work, let them explain. And usually that in itself catches people cause they have to now start doing something. And the third step of that is often people will follow up with some kind of incredibly large generalization about a group of people.
And so then the next step of that is reflected back to them, which is, ‘so are you suggesting that all Muslims are, that all gay people are, that all Jewish people are.’ So those would be three simple steps. Is simply notice it, make a sound to question it, and then three, uncover it a little bit, reflect the generalization back to them.
Jordan: I feel like some of us at least might be able to find the courage to challenge that in an open conversation with coworkers or just acquaintances or whatever at a party. There’s another type of incident that I want to talk about because it’s something that I think a lot of us have seen is when you’re removed from it, almost like the situation you described on the subway, but you see somebody, not violent but verbally abusive to someone based on the color of their skin or their orientation or how they’re presenting. And that’s where I really struggle because I walked through downtown Toronto all the time and I see situations like that sometimes and you know, they might be half a block away and I’m like, ‘should go over there and find out what’s going on, what am I going to do if I get there?’
This person could turn violent, we’ve all read stories about how these things escalate. And I think that’s something that can freeze a lot of people.
Shakil: So again, preload the decision, right? And you’ll also do an assessment while you’re there. So, for example, because I also ride public transit. I was in a subway car in the evening. There was a young mixed race couple, a white woman, a young man of color, and they were just kind of sitting there and doing their own thing. And this guy, another man of colour, just kind of came and started harassing them, but being super aggressive to the young black male, and I was in the streetcar. And so my first step was I just moved closer. I just moved closer to the situation and made eye contact. Now this guy…
Jordan: Made eye contact with who?
Shakil: Made eye contact with whoever I could make eye contact with, but letting them know that I was there right in the space and then just kind of like noticed it, and because I couldn’t hear what [he] was initially saying, but I felt something was off.
And then I heard sort of aggressive, not just impolite but like racist language starting to come out. And I just made a sound. I was like, ‘No, no’. And so just letting them know that I was in the picture. I’m here. And so I’m now closer. And then, at a certain point, the guy started just kind of getting really aggressive.
And I stepped just in the middle of it and I was just like, ‘dude, you can’t do this.’ It was just simply like, you can’t do this. And once the guy kind of realized that I was there, cause he wasn’t paying attention to me at first. He then moved off, got off at the next subway and I just turned to the people and said. ‘I’m so sorry, you guys okay?’ I can’t tell you that you should always step in, but you can make yourself visible. Your visibility makes a difference. Even standing by or near the person that you feel like is getting the aggression. That’s something you can do. You can just be there and all of a sudden now it’s like, it’s not one on one or two on one. It’s like you’re there with them. They’re not alone now.
Jordan: I feel like sometimes you feel yourself that you have to get in there and play the hero as opposed to just saying something and being there.
Shakil: You don’t have to play the hero. I think that’s the freeze up mode that somehow there’s a right way of doing it.
We have no idea what the right way is. Sometimes just walking into the screen itself, into the visual, will be enough to disrupt it. Sometimes it’s actually having to say something and sometimes, like I did in that moment, I actually had to step in between and that was enough to dissipate it.
And I didn’t know what I was going to do. The guy could have taken a swing. He didn’t. Now that’s the other part I want to put too, is that everyone has a different risk tolerance. Some people are like, ‘there’s no chance I can get hit, that’s going to trigger me and traumatize me’. And other people are like ‘I can take a hit and I’m okay’. I’m not that person.
But everyone has a different risk tolerance as to what they’re going to step into and what their style is. And so a lot of this is also self-awareness work, which is like, ‘what’s your style?’ Some people can just be really good at being in somebody’s face and really standing up, like my partner, Annahid, who also does this work.
She’s really good at just stepping into someone’s face and I’m like, I can’t really do that and I can’t really get aggressive with people. That’s not my style. It’s not my temperament. But she can, she can get really assertive and it can work for her. And so part of it is also a little bit knowing your style.
Now the other part is, this is practice. It’s not something we’ve been taught and like anything, the first few times we’re doing it, whether we’re learning to throw a baseball, whether we’re learning to shoot a basket, whether we’re learning to read or write, everything is awkward and overwhelming.
So one of the things I suggest to people is like, just commit through the awkward stage, meaning that it’s going to feel uncomfortable, you’re going to say the wrong thing. Sometimes it might not work, but the more you do it and the more you do it in small contexts, take those baby steps, which is like say it in the context of your friends, say it in the context of your workplace. Then in a public context, which is a little higher stakes, there is more uncertainty. You may be more able to do that. So I just want to say that there’s a big difference between what’s happening in our personal lives, what’s happening in our professional lives and what’s happening in our public community lives where there are no relationships that are certain, and each of those requires a different kind of intervention.
Jordan: Have you seen the approach, and I mention it cause I’ve seen it on the internet several times, that recommends that you completely ignore the aggressor and you go and just talk to the person who’s being targeted and pretend that person’s not screaming abuse at them or anything and just say, ‘hey, how are you? Have you seen the new Avengers movie?’ And talk to them like you’re an old friend and try to diffuse it that way.
Shakil: Sure you could. That’s a great strategy. Any intervention work, and I love that. I’m going to add that to my list, which is just simply go talk to the person. Go pull them out of the situation whether you know them or not, and just walk them out. You can do that. That’s an intervention. It’s a great intervention. And then sometimes the situation’s happened, it’s happened quickly. And maybe it was too quick for you to be able to intervene, but go in and check in on them.
That’s support. I’m so sorry if you need me to do anything. I saw it, you know, I have a description or whatever it is. If you feel like you need that, I’m totally here for you. Here’s my information or whatever. There’s ways that you can support. And sometimes just going and giving the space for someone to breathe, is often enough. And it’s going, ‘are you alright?’ That can help.
Jordan: What kinds of stuff doesn’t work?
Shakil: Matching aggression with aggression sometimes doesn’t work. So you showed me the video beforehand of the street preacher in the middle of the gay village. And the street preacher was basically telling people, who identify as LGBTQ, ‘they’re doing it wrong, it’s an abomination’. All this kind of stuff. And then it got really aggressive. Members of the community got there and it just kind of spilled out.
Jordan: They were defending their turf.
Shakil: They were totally defending their turf, and rightfully so. Let’s just be really clear. In that kind of situation it’s also an assessment. Like what’s actually happening? We have to realize that that’s not an incidental homophobic comment. That’s not just some random consciously or unconsciously homophobic person. This is actually a very different kind of person. This is somebody who has a belief. And they’re there to proselytize. They’re there on a missionary purpose. So in that kind of context, the intervention of meeting fire with fire, it didn’t work in that context, and often doesn’t. So to me, I don’t know exactly how to work with that, but I’ve seen a couple of things that are really powerful.
One is, that requires a team approach. Like one person can’t intervene there. One person could go and support someone who’s feeling hurt by it, potentially, and that’s, if you’re in that situation, that’s something you could do is go and support. The other thing is that, it was a beautiful intervention that I saw where I think there was a group of people that just started singing around the person who was like doing that kind of really gross, homophobic kind of thing though, that kind of protest. Or they’re just really on a mission. And they started singing a song from Rent. And it was beautiful. And so in essence, why that kind of thing is helpful too, is song and music and that kind of collective intervention is also another way for the community that might be hurt, and their allies [to] also have a vent for their emotions. Because this is just an emotionally heated situation. So when you go ‘fire, fire’ in that kind of situation, you’re kind of playing into the zealots agenda. So on some level, the best thing would be to ignore them, but it’s hard when someone is parked in the middle of your community and spewing hateful stuff.
And so on some level that almost needs a community intervention. I also want to be really clear, I’m not advocating that everyone from a marginalized community context has to now also do all this additional work. I’m just saying that…
Jordan: Don’t hug your hater.
Shakil: Yeah. Unless you can. Unless you have the capacity to, and that’s not an intervention in the moment, that’s a relational thing. And some people have that capacity and I’m like, thank God you’re out there. That’s not me. But thank you, cause that’s also part of the work. Some people are helping shift the most entrenched and most wounded people. I’m like, thank you for doing that. That’s an intervention. I can’t do it. So my thing is always find your role. Find what you can do. Now, the other part about it is that we will still end up letting it go. Sometimes we’re too slow, sometimes we’ll still freeze up. The other part about this is you got to show up with compassion for yourself, and I mean that because this is a longterm game.
If we want to develop these habits, we’re going to be imperfect. We’re going to make mistakes, and if we don’t show up with self-compassion, like, ‘Oh, I blew it’. That part’s okay. I blew it is a good thing. But if we just beat ourselves up like, ‘Oh, I should have…’, that’s not going to help us next time. It’s like, ‘Oh, I should have’. Do that once, and what could I do differently next time?
Make a plan, preload it. But if you just kind of sit there wallowing in your mistake, you are less likely to do it next time. I want to say that self-compassion is part of this work, because otherwise you’re going to do it once or twice, then stop because it’s going to be too scary as opposed to, ‘what did I learn?’
What do I learn about me in that situation? What do I learn about people in that situation? How might I navigate differently? Because there’s no right answer. There are many answers. So the thing is, show up with the ones that you might be able to deliver on.
Jordan: Thanks for this Shakil.
Shakil: You’re welcome.
Jordan: Shakil Choudhury, author of Deep Diversity and co founder of Anima Leadership. If you want to know more, you can find them at animaleadership.com.
That was The Big Story, at least for today, we will be back tomorrow with another conversation, about racism, police brutality and injustice. Until then, if you want to talk to us and please suggest something we should be talking about. If there’s a perspective that we’re missing, I want to hear it. You can find us @thebigstoryFPN on Twitter.
You can email us. And by us, I mean me and Claire, cause we read all of them. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings and we will talk tomorrow.
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