Bystander action

No matter what your position in the La Trobe University community is, you have a role to play in ending disrespectful behaviour and creating an environment free of racism, sexism, homophobia and violence.

Positive impact of bystander action

Research has shown that bystander action is the most effective means of combating racism, sexism and homophobia in our communities. We need you to be a champion for respectful behaviours and challenging them when not appropriate.

Watch a video on bystander action from Western Sydney University.

Be an active bystander

A bystander is anyone who is in some way present in a situation, but is neither the perpetrator nor the victim. In short, we are all bystanders. Active bystanders are people who recognise a problem and decide to intervene in a way that feels safe and appropriate for them. It can be hard for a victim who is being harassed to take action, so our intervention reassures them that they have our support and the behaviour they are experiencing is not acceptable.

It can be hard to know what to do as a bystander, for fear of being hurt or victimised or making matters worse. It is sometimes difficult to speak up against our colleagues and our peers. By doing nothing you are condoning inappropriate language or behaviours and sending a message to the perpetrator that their words or actions are ok. If it feels uncomfortable for you, try to imagine how it feels for the victim or how it might feel for the group being targeted, if they were present.

We encourage you to be brave and stand up against inappropriate behaviours where it is safe to do so. Try some of the bystander tips and language of intervention where appropriate and contribute to a safe, inclusive and respectful environment at La Trobe. Practice makes perfect and like everything else in life, it only get easier when you attempt it a few times.

Bystander tips

Most of us have been in situations at work, at home, in a social setting or in public, when someone says or does something that we feel uncomfortable about but don't know what to do about it. Here are some tips and strategies to enable you to act:

  • Carefully observe the situation, and assess what best to do, only acting if safe to do so.
  • When intervening in a situation always focus on the behaviour, not on calling someone out for being sexist, racist or homophobic.
  • Concentrate on assisting and supporting the victim: by:
    • checking if the person if ok
    • asking them to come and sit with you,
    • taking them away from the offender etc. These type of actions empower and support the individual and send a message to the offender/s that the behaviour is unacceptable
  • If unsafe to act or you have concerns, report the incident to a higher authority or if it's an act of violence or a crime, call the police on 000.

You can get advice or report the incident to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Where appropriate and only if safe, take a photo or video of the incident.

What other things can you do?

  • Make it clear to your friends that you won't be involved in any form of discrimination or bullying.
  • Never stand by and watch or encourage someone who is spreading a message of hate or vilification against anyone or group.
  • Do not harass, tease or spread gossip about others, including on social networks like Facebook.
  • Never forward discriminatory messages or photos that may be offensive or upsetting. If in doubt, don't send.
  • Support the person who is being abused to seek and ask for help. Provide them with information about where they can go to get advice and help.

The language of intervention

First observe and assess the situation to ensure it's safe to act and then try an action that suits the circumstances. Here are some strategies run by Polykala for our adaptive leadership program students:

  • Assume good intent but explain impact

'I know you're just having fun, but that can be offensive to some people, (including me). I realise you think you are only joking, but I have a friend who is……. and these jokes can get very boring.'

Take a respectful rather than a self-righteous approach (Nelson et al 2010 p.22).

  • Make it individual

'Are you sure that's something all women do, or are you just talking about one or two people you know?'

  • Appeal to better instincts

'I know you treat all people well, no matter their background, but do you think you might be generalising a little when you say ….?'
'I'm surprised to hear you say that, because I've always thought of you as someone who is very open-minded.'

Remember that people are complex. What they say in one moment is not necessarily an indication of everything they think. Identify/describe the behaviour rather than label the person. Don't label the person a racist, sexist, homophobic etc.

  • Clarify/ask questions
    • Why do you think it is funny to call him that?
    • Why did you say that?
    • Why do you think that?
    • Could you please repeat that?
    • It makes me a bit uncomfortable to hear that, what did you really mean?

Statements generate resistance, whereas questions generate answers. They offer no target to strike at, no position to attack (Nelson et al 2010 citing Plous 2000 p117).

  • Interrupt or redirect

'Hey, let's not go there….. What did you thing about The Block last night? '

'Do you want to go get a cup of coffee?' (i.e. change the subject)

Non-verbal responses - get up, walk away or show disapproval through body language or facial expressions.

  • Broaden to universal human behaviour

'I am not sure that's a 'gay' thing, I think anyone can be flamboyant, no matter their sexuality.'

'I don't think that's a...thing. I think anyone can be rude, no matter their background.'