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The bystander effect: Breaking through the fear

Monday 7th November 2016

Find yourself wanting to step in, but end up holding back? Andre Chumko asked victims for their advice on overcoming anxiety when challenging racism in public.

A few months ago on a Wellington night bus, two young Asian men were victims of a racist tirade where nobody intervened.

It was the 11:30pm service from Courtney Place to Eastbourne - the last ride of the night.

The bus was half-full when a middle-aged man turned around to two young guys sitting behind him.

“You guys are playing a joke on us aye? We’re the big joke aye?” the man said, inferring that Asian people were “duping” New Zealanders.

As the abuse ramped up, his victims looked around in bewildered silence.

“Do you know what I mean by kill? Do you know what I mean by … killing you? I wanna fucking kill you. You don’t understand?”

Onlookers sat stunned as the scene unfolded.

Some pretended to check their phones or look out the window, others just watched from a distance in disbelief.

I found myself frozen.

“Do you understand sign language? Can you fucking hear me now? Bang, bang.”

Riddled with feelings of shame and guilt, we knew we’d witnessed racial abuse and not done anything about it. 

The attacks went on in the same uninterrupted manner for the next 20 minutes.

When the perpetrator finally got off the bus, he spat and bashed on the windows where the pair, who looked to be in their late teens, were sitting.

As soon as he was out of sight, other passengers got out of their seats and approached the young men to apologise.

Riddled with feelings of shame and guilt, we knew we’d witnessed racial abuse and not done anything about it. That made us complicit.

Why didn’t anyone step in? Was this a plain case of cowardice, or did we not know how speak up without making ourselves the next target?

The bystander effect is a phenomenon where people do not offer help to a victim when others are present, just like the situation on the bus. The theory is that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that anyone will help.

Over the last five years, 2,655 people have made race-related complaints to the Human Rights Commission. This number makes up a third of their total number of complaints.

While reports show that 19 percent of these complaints were related to racial disharmony in public places, Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy says these statistics are misrepresentative of New Zealand’s reality.

“We know the majority of people who face intolerance do not make formal complaints to us or the NZ Police,” she said.

Dame Susan had a clear message for witnesses of racism or discrimination.

“We urge New Zealanders to not be bystanders but to show the victim he or she is not alone and to show the perpetrator that their behaviour is not acceptable.

“What we do today will decide what kind of country we live in,” she said.

But what about when it is unsafe to step in?

Sarah Sodhi is a 22-year-old Indian New Zealander who studies psychology at Victoria University. She moved to New Zealand from India with her family when she was just five years old.

To this day, she still has flashbacks to one traumatising bus ride home where two girls began putting pieces of rubbish in her hair and making jokes about her ethnicity. Although she was with a friend at the time, they did not realise what was happening.

The taunters laughed as they repeated racial slurs like “Ew, what’s that smell? It smells like a curry fart,” she said.

When Sarah got up to leave the bus and escape her harassers, she realised she was being stalked - this time by two girls of a much bigger build than her. She was adamant they were not from the area.

“They kept looking back at us very smug and menacingly laughing and looking like they were planning on attacking us.”

When the girls stopped and hid in a bush, Sarah began to fear for her safety.

“Luckily my friend's dad was picking us up from the bus stop so we got in the car … Those two girls came back to look for us and were swearing and looking for a fight,” she said.

Sarah believes it is particularly important to speak up if the situation looks unsafe.

“Witnesses should understand that them speaking up is quite important. If they don’t, it’s implying they are fine with what is happening.

“Even saying ‘that’s not okay’ is very supportive for victims and helps them feel less humiliated.

“They should understand how horrible it is for victims and think of what they would want from witnesses if they were in the victim’s shoes,” she said.

Another young woman with similar sentiments to Sarah is Saahib Assad.

Born in Kuwait, Saahib moved to New Zealand when she was only a baby. The 22-year-old currently has a high-profile job in Wellington and likes to pair her headscarf with skinny jeans.

Like Sarah, Saahib still gets upset about her experiences with racism in public.

On a domestic flight in New Zealand three years ago with her sister, a woman sitting in a nearby seat told her partner that she felt uncomfortable being in the presence of a Muslim.

“She wasn’t trying to keep it a secret. The woman made sure that we could hear her,” she said.

Saahib has also been the victim of several racial slurs on buses and trains, and oftentimes leaves her headphones in to ensure she does not hear anything.

It has gotten to a point where she is afraid strangers will lunge at her while she waits for a train.

“I never wait on the edge because one time I saw a video where this woman was pushed. It sounds pretty paranoid but … given the recent attacks I’m generally always looking out.”

Saahib explained how Muslims often rely on witnesses to stand up for them because they fear the reaction they will get if they stand up for themselves.

“People see us as being representatives of a religion with billions of people … maybe I’m the first Muslim they’ve seen publicly.

“I feel like if I was to say something like ‘that’s so mean’ or ‘why would you say that’ then people would automatically see me as the crazy Muslim girl,” she said.

Saahib believes a firm-but-gentle approach can work wonders.

“Approach the person in a way where they can stop without losing faith. Because I feel a lot of this is also people trying to mark their ground or reclaim something.”

She also feels that when it comes to situations on public transport, drivers play a large role in stopping discrimination.

“It is their responsibility to make sure that all the passengers feel safe, it’s not just taking them from point A to point B. You also don’t want to make it a hell for them.

“They don’t know how much influence they have,” she said.

This is fair enough, but what if the driver is the person on the receiving end of the attacks?

Wei Tse told of an incident he witnessed earlier this year where a man on a Wellington bus got his foot accidentally jammed in the door.

Even after a situation of utterly disgusting prejudicial hatred, we, the onlookers, were just as capable of our own prejudice ...

When the Pākehā man proceeded to go on a racist tirade towards the female Māori driver, Wei felt responsible for speaking up as he was the “only person of ethnic descent” on the vehicle.

“He was particularly fond of mentioning how n****** can’t do anything,” he said.

Whilst Wei was confronting the attacker, the man yelled “it’s all that n*****’s fault” and insisted he would “continue to be racist so long as n****** continue to be stupid”.

Hearing these comments, an onslaught of other defenders came to the driver’s defence.

Ensuring the man could not sit down, Wei and one other man stood at the front of the bus while the police were contacted.

The man eventually left on his own accord.

In the aftermath of the attack, Wei says that a woman sitting behind him implied that the attacker’s job and appearance had something to do with his racism.

“Even after a situation of utterly disgusting prejudicial hatred, we, the onlookers, were just as capable of our own prejudice throughout,” he said.

Dr Sylvia Pack, author of Racism in Aotearoa New Zealand: Analysing the talk of Māori and their Pākehā partners, believes bystanders hold a powerful role in confronting public displays of racism.

“Public transport is an ideal place for such people because they can bank on the fact that they will probably never see these people again - the other people who are there. And in a way, they might enjoy the audience.

“But then you can see how if a person in that audience speaks up and says … some sort of objection, it takes away that enjoyable audience factor.

“As soon as [witnesses] don’t say anything that increases the problem. It’s that old quote which says the only thing necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing,” she said.

If your personal safety is compromised by stepping in verbally, Dr. Pack recommends filming the situation on a cell phone or other device and taking it to the police as evidence.

It’s that old quote which says the only thing necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.

“Although surveillance cameras have become ubiquitous … they actually do work. Because as soon as there is a surveillance camera someone is no longer anonymous - their face is available.”

Despite having different views about how you should go about stepping in, one thing was universally agreed upon - don’t be the person who does nothing.  

NZ Bus declined an opportunity to be interviewed for this story.

*Some names have been changed for privacy.

**If you would like to read more about or even share your own story of racial discrimination or injustice in New Zealand, head over to

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