Being the Bystander Who Doesn’t Stand By

At the end of this brilliant call-to-action piece by “Your Fat Friend” over at Medium comes the wonderfully simple yet crucial sentence, “Be the bystander who won’t stand by.” Arriving at this sentence after the whole piece, I was thinking that these are exactly the words that I, and we as a society, need. We need them to remind ourselves that, if you have privilege, being well-intentioned is not enough. Or, in the oft-quoted words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

The piece takes its impulse from a recent incident in which Errol Narvaez was removed from a United flight because his co-passenger complained about being seated next to a fat man and, instead of escorting the complainer to a new seat, the airline employees decided to take Narvaez off the flight entirely. What makes this event extraordinary is not that it happened, but rather that it was reported. As Your Fat Friend points out, fat people face all kinds of pain in the interpersonal encounters that make up their daily lives, but rarely are those moments of embarrassment or outright discrimination deemed newsworthy.

As YFF writes, what makes these encounters especially angering is that “poor treatment is so commonplace, and no one helps. It’s astonishingly rare to see a thin person intervene in the kind of commonplace bullying of fat people that happens. Even rarer to see a non-fat person say something proactively about accepting fat people.” Instead, the person who is the target of the poor treatment is most often left alone to deal with the situation.

Beyond the people who think that fat people “deserve” poor treatment (sadly not a small group), YFF calls out the silent majority of good people who don’t act despite being uncomfortable with what is happening. As YFF notes, “They shrink back, feeling a knot in their stomach as they witness something harsh and unwarranted — something they wouldn’t otherwise tolerate. And what would they even say? And who would back them up? It’s unnerving to witness, and isolating to interrupt.”

Sometimes, in these moments, we fail to act because we are not sure how to judge the situation. Or rather we choose an interpretation of the situation that preserves our belief in a just world. All too often, I think, we put misplaced trust in authority when it is applied to other people. If I had been on that plane with Errol Narvaez without full knowledge of the situation, I might assume there was another reason he was being taken off the flight, despite knowing that sizeism is a very real phenomenon. I might trust the airline’s authority to decide who flies on their planes and who does not, even given the history of airlines like Southwest discriminating against fat people (for a full deconstruction of that case, see Joyce Huff’s piece in The Fat Studies Reader, “Access to the Sky: Airplane Seats and Fat Bodies as Contested Spaces”).

Or we don’t intervene for fear of doing the “wrong” thing. We might worry that speaking up is making it more about our own savior complex than relieving the pain of the person being targeted.

But often, and I venture to say most of the time, we know there is something we could say or do but still fail to act. This is what friends of mine call “ally freeze,” and it’s certainly not limited to incidents of anti-fat discrimination, but rather crops up in any kind of incident in which systematic privilege is manifested in a person being an asshole to someone who is different. Indeed, as I have recently witnessed firsthand, it can be something that happens even within fat-positive spaces when topics like race come up.

A few weeks ago, I went to the first conference in which I was surrounded by fat studies scholars and activists. I was thrilled to finally be in the room with people who didn’t balk at the word “fat” being used as a neutral term or immediately want to put “health” before the dignity of fat people. In the first panel, we heard from a group of activists from Fat Positive Louisville. These folks have worked hard to create an inclusive and empowering activist group. Yet they were also honest about the shortcomings they had discovered in their own organization, and the struggles they had with each other to keep the group together. They had learned some difficult lessons, such as the fact that a trip to the beach may be a fun and empowering group activity for some but completely inaccessible to others with mobility issues. Likewise, co-founder Crystal spoke about how she became increasingly frustrated with white members of the group minimizing intersectional concerns, expecting the people of color in the group to do all the “diversity” outreach, and generally failing to support those members who are black or other PoC.

Hearing this difficult and still very raw conversation about race in fat-positive spaces was both challenging and enlightening, but it did not compare to what followed. Immediately after the floor was opened to questions, a middle-aged white lady started talking, suggesting that they seemed to have many “personal” issues with each other, but what was the role of activism in their group? In response, Prof. E-K. Daufin, also in the audience, reminded us that racism is not a “personal” issue and that putting it that way minimizes the struggles that black people have had. Before she could even finish, the white woman started interrupting her aggressively, claiming that it wasn’t what she said, that she was being misinterpreted, etc. The exchange escalated quickly and terrifyingly, ending with the white woman storming out of the room in a rage as Prof. Daufin stayed calmly seated. As she left, Prof. Daufin told her she could leave and take her white privilege with her, while the white woman yelled back, “And you can just sit on your fat black ass!”

Throughout this encounter, there were uncomfortable murmurs, but no one intervened. After the stunned silence subsided in the wake of the woman storming out, though, we talked about it. A young white woman noted that, in our shock, all the white people in the room had unwittingly done what Crystal had called out her colleagues for–left the person being attacked, the one and only PoC in the audience, to defend herself. We had succumbed to ally freeze. We were bystanders who stood by, even as we were horrified by what had happened. Prof. Daufin, in contrast, was not shocked or surprised, though she reported feeling her heart pounding. She diagnosed our silence as the “misplaced politeness” of white people that she is used to. But if ever there was a way to show us that these issues warrant discussion, both in fat-positive spaces and outside of them, that was the moment. And amid all the wonderful research that was presented at the conference, our collective failure to act in that situation remains the most important lesson I took away.

So how do we work on not just standing by, but intervening? This fabulous column by Kerry Ann Rockquemore in Inside Higher Ed has a lot of helpful insights. First, she reminds us of three important points about what not to do:

  1. Silence communicates tacit approval.
  2. Apologizing to the target afterwards adds insult to injury.
  3. The worst ex post facto response of all is asking the target of a microaggression to fix the problem.

Worse than silence, she argues, is apologizing after the fact; this just tells the person being targeted that you correctly identified the microaggression, but chose to do nothing. And worst of all is asking the target to do the work of responding. Supporting someone being targeted means accepting that fixing the problem is your responsibility, not theirs. And remember, if you, the ally, don’t do something, then likely no one will.

To make the shift into positive action, Rockquefore calls upon a workshop given by Cynthia Ganote, Floyd Cheung, and Tasha Souza to develop proactive “microresistance” rather than simple reactions to microaggressions. In the event of witnessing a microaggression that should be addressed, she gives four steps:

  • Observe: Describe clearly and succinctly what you see happening.
  • Think: State what you think about it.
  • Feel: Express your feelings about the situation.
  • Desire: Assert what you would like to happen.

If at the conference we had followed this advice, we might have said something to that woman like “Your constant interruption of Prof. Daufin (observe) makes us think that you are not respecting her viewpoint as a black woman, and are thus trying to shut her out of the conversation (think). This makes the rest of us uncomfortable and embarrassed (feel), and we would like you to listen to her so that we can have a serious discussion of these important intersectional issues (desire).” If some person on that flight with Errol Narvaez had followed this pattern, they may have also intervened in a similarly effective manner.

Taking this advice is easier said than done, of course. A key reminder Rockquefore gives us is to be patient with ourselves. Changing behavior is not easy; it is much easier to let inertia dictate our silence. But, as she writes, “even a suboptimal effort is still a step forward.” Because people who are the target of various injustices deserve more than your polite silence. They deserve allies who intervene. Bystanders who refuse, with courage and determination, to stand by.

I intend this rebooted blog to be part of that intervention, and I welcome all your feedback, support, and contributions toward that goal.


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