Bystander anti-racism: The challenge of speaking up

| October 31, 2016

A small team at CQU recently undertook an online research project looking at everyday racism and have now published their results. Craig Hackett has more.

This study explored the experience of bystanders who witness racism or prejudice in everyday situations. Participants were invited to share their experience by completing an online journal, telling us about the racism they witnessed and how they responded to it.

Thirty one participants (F=24, M=7) provided fifty first-hand accounts of everyday racism. The most common form of racism witnessed was stereotyping (i.e. where a group of people was linked to a particularly negative trait or behaviour). Unlike prior research, it was found that both overt and subtle expressions of racism were witnessed in similar levels, and both were similarly difficult to challenge.

Participants also reported seeing events which seemed to blur the boundaries based on the traditional conceptualization of overt and subtle racism. Overt racism has traditionally been defined as using foul or highly derogatory names such as boong, yelling or haranguing people with insults like ‘go back to where you came from’, and physical threats or attacks (Nelson et al., 2010).

Interestingly, these forms of direct confrontation, insult or assault on an immediate victim were not seen in this study (with the exception of one event in which the insult was shouted from a distance). More common were events which, whilst considered overt in that they were unambiguously racist, were expressed in ways that have more traditionally been associated with subtle expressions of racism (e.g. stereotyping).

Subtle expressions of racism are typically evasive and often involve strategies to deny, evade or camouflage racist intent. For example, a common strategy is to couch racism in terms of national unity or national belonging. This form of expression of racism has traditionally been seen as more difficult for bystanders to challenge, as doing so often creates social discomfort in drawing attention to the unpleasantness.

Interestingly, most participants found challenging all forms of expression of the racism they witnessed very difficult. The majority either did not attempt to intervene at all, stopped after making an initial attempt or felt unsuccessful. Participants reported several reasons for not responding, including: doubt about their ability to make a difference; that confrontation did not fit their personality type; and seeing silence as a positive response.

Participants who did attempt to speak up had limited success. The different ways that participants tried to intervene included challenging the racism by countering with a fact; offering a counter perspective (.i.e. a different way of thinking about things) and challenging with an action (e.g. reporting the other person to their supervisor). Unlike prior research, we found that countering with facts was not successful.

A central finding of this research was that the major constraint on responding for bystanders was feeling that responding would not make a difference, and this was also a trigger for stopping a response that wasn’t going very well. Interventions that help bystanders overcome feeling that they cannot make a difference may be important in promoting bystander antiracism, and sharing the successes of bystander anti-racism may be one helpful strategy.

The findings of this study may be used to guide future research and also help inform design of more effective intervention models and strategies to promote bystander anti-racism.

Hopefully this may also help raise community awareness of the problem of racism and the importance of speaking up.



  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    November 2, 2016 at 11:15 pm


    Thank you for this blog. It asks the question but what does it tell us? Racism is all around us and manifests itself in many, often subtle ways. We grow up acquiring memes from our parents, friends, teachers as well as the media, etc. Is it always negative? I don’t think so. Many people believe that Germans are hard-working; that Asians work harder at school to get better marks; that Americans are loud and unsubtle and that we are adventurous, fun-loving and anti establishment. It does not require much thought to discredit these fallacies when we meet people of those nationalities. Those of us who dwell on the negatives of racism surely tend to be those who have a low opinion of themselves and take that out on others. It is easier to denigrate a group than to analyse and improve ourselves. Racism occurs in all areas of society from university down so is not based only on education. I truly believe that it cannot occur in those of us who are content in their own bodies – they see the flaws in the memes concerned and dismiss them. Can we eliminate racism? No, I don’t think so. This is how our leaders can so easily take us into wars and conflict. It is too deeply inculcated into the cultures of nearly everyone. However, we can minimize the hatred and abuse associated with it with education and understanding of other cultures.

    • Craig Hackett

      Craig Hackett

      November 19, 2016 at 3:02 am

      Racism – A matter of Life and Death (only for some)?

      Racism is unequivocally harmful, there is substantial research evidence to support this. However, you need look no further than the troubling difference in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. A very recent report commissioned by the federal government revealed that interpersonal racism is creating an institutional barrier to Indigenous people seeking help, with potentially fatal outcomes for vulnerable Australians (link below). The research findings summarised above are based on thematic analysis of a relatively small sample, and as with all research (particularly with qualitative method) care is needed in making generalisations. However, the themes identified were quite conclusive in the sample. Most bystanders did not speak up because they feel doing so simply won't make any difference, and overcoming this perception may be key in encouraging people to challenge racism in situ. You can find the link to the report at our page: