Can ‘Bystander Intervention Training’ Stop Hate Crimes?

Demonstrators hold signs during an AAPI Rally Against Hate in New York on March 21, 2021. Photo: Amir Hamja/Bloomberg via Getty Images

New Yorkers were horrified last week when a man assaulted a 65-year-old Filipino woman outside a Hell’s Kitchen apartment building, kicking her repeatedly in the head as police say he shouted anti-Asian hate slurs. The surveillance footage from the building spread rapidly online because it captured two cruelties: the violence itself, and the inaction of three men watching it from inside the lobby. One of them closed the door, leaving the woman writhing alone on the sidewalk.

After outrage on social media, the door staff was suspended; in a news conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio called their lack of intervention for the woman, identified as Vilma Kai, “absolutely unacceptable.” He also addressed the latter with an increasingly familiar term: bystander intervention training, also sometimes called “upstander training.” “That type of training is crucial,” he said. “We do want to make sure as many people as possible get that.”

Such courses have been promoted often in recent weeks alongside a surge of violent attacks on Asians in the city, encouraged by other city officials and promoted by Asian American Pacific Islander activists on social media. Hollaback!, a New York nonprofit, reports that 45,000 people have registered for their free online bystander intervention classes since the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16, compared to the approximately 16,000 people they trained the entire previous year. The city government’s Commission on Human Rights says enrollment has risen, too, for their weekly classes in Mandarin, Korean, and English, and they have increased sessions offered to meet demand.

“I think now, we all realize we have to show up for each other. We have to do more,” said Hollaback! co-founder and executive director Emily May. “Bystander intervention tools work because they’re simply guidance on how people can take care of people.”

Bystander intervention is a strategy that teaches onlookers to insert themselves both indirectly and directly into harassment incidents, overriding the common instinct to feel frozen or unsure in such situations. It’s tailored to verbal and nonviolent scenarios, such as a person using hate speech or following someone down the street, and it’s not a new school of thought: A version of bystander intervention for sexual assault prevention has been taught on college campuses since 2006. The name itself references the “bystander effect,” the social psychological theory that individuals are less likely to intervene in a crisis when other people are present, studied after the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, which was reported at the time to have been witnessed by 38 people who did not intervene but was later proven to be false.

Hollaback!’s “5 D’s” method, which they debuted in 2012, is the most widely used in New York, including in the city’s Commission on Human Rights classes. Its tactics: “Distract” (pretending to know the person being harassed, dropping a drink near the harasser, etc.), “Delegate” (asking a nearby authority figure for help), “Delay” (checking in with the harassed person afterward), “Direct” (verbally confronting the harasser), and “Document” (recording video of the incident). Hollaback! classes particularly encourage the indirect options: in the Zoom class I attended, instructor Erika Dautruche joked that theater students and dramatic personalities often favor the “distract” strategy because it can include improvisational acting and disorienting bursts of public singing. For whatever it suggests about my fellow pupils, they overwhelmingly preferred the “distract” choice in a mid-class poll.

“One of the leading misconceptions is that bystander intervention always requires you directly telling the person doing the harassing to stop. That’s certainly one strategy, but there are others,” said May. “It’s not about strapping on your superhero spandex and swooping down to save the day. It’s about helping in a way that feels safe and comfortable.”

Since March 2020, Hollaback! has also offered sessions focused specifically on intervening in anti-Asian harassment situations. These classes, held in partnership with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, include educational segments on the racism and xenophobia AAPI communities have historically faced in America and testimonials from Asian people on hate speech and aggressions they’ve experienced. These classes also use the 5 D’s.

Carmelyn P. Malalis, chair and commissioner of the city Commission on Human Rights, said that the goal of bystander training is to build new “muscle memory” for when harassment occurs.

“We want to make sure that we are arming people in New York City with tools that they can use, so when they see something happen, they’re not thinking ‘What can I do?’ or, ten minutes after the fact, ‘What should I have done?’” she said.

Malalis said she once used the “distract” tactic herself on the subway, about 15 years ago, to success. “I saw a woman being harassed by someone on the train, and people were just staring, frozen and feeling uncomfortable. Out of nowhere, I started singing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ as loudly as I could,” she said. “As ridiculous as it was, it had the intended effect of startling the person who was harassing the woman. They walked away and then I was able to go to the woman and ask if she was okay.”

Research has supported bystander intervention as effective: In a 2012 study, analysts at the Worker Institute at Cornell University found that when a bystander confronted a harasser, the harassment was more likely to end. (The study was conducted in partnership with Hollaback!.)

But as bystander intervention training becomes more popular in New York, some AAPI leaders are wary of putting too much credence in it. Rachel Hu, an organizer for ANSWER Coalition, a group that has staged protests against anti-Asian violence and China-bashing political rhetoric, said leaders such as de Blasio’s encouragement of citizen training can deflect from their own responsibilities.

“Bystander intervention is helpful in terms of a short-term solution, but it just isn’t enough to get to the scale of the problem,” said Hu. “There are bigger systems to hold accountable and bigger fish to fry. Where’s the money from the mayor’s office to fund Asian organizations on the ground that can actually reach our communities?”

Dr. Joel Dimsdale, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego who has studied the bystander effect, cautioned against believing such intervention strategies can deescalate violence, as de Blasio’s promotion of the training after Monday’s attack could be interpreted as doing.

“One of my concerns is that the circumstances vary enormously. If you take that horrible attack, it was extraordinarily violent. On the other extreme is harassment with words,” he said. “It seems to me that bystander intervention programs may do better with the latter than the former, but I think teaching people to speak up sounds plausible and reasonable.”

Dr. Katherine Fox-Glassman, a lecturer at Columbia University who has taught cognitive psychology and risk perception, said that bystander intervention training’s practice scenarios can be beneficial in making racial hate more relatable for people who haven’t experienced it personally.

“Things that are psychologically closer to us, we tend to take more seriously and be more likely to act on,” she said. “Psychologically distant concepts tend to inspire more ‘why?’ questions, while psychologically close concepts are more likely to inspire ‘how?’ questions. Asking ‘why should I stand up against racism and hate?’ will get an abstract answer that’s likely compelling, but not as likely to lead to specific actions. But asking ‘how can I help protect a person who is being verbally or physically attacked?’ gives us a clear path to action.”

Still, in these intimidating times, proponents of bystander intervention training are optimistic about its potential.

“We’ve always had anti-Asian American sentiment in this country, but we’ve never seen such a tremendous response from our allies and the Asian American community itself,” said May. “We’re going to figure this out, we’re going to get trained, and we’re going to make sure that we build a world where our friends, our neighbors, and our elders aren’t being harassed and attacked just for being Asian.”

Can ‘Bystander Intervention Training’ Stop Hate Crimes?