Racist incidents are on the rise: How to be an active witness
Tips for what you can do to help
Earlier this year Dr. Shirley Chau, associate professor in the School of Social Work at UBC Okanagan, was at a supermarket checkout when she noticed a disturbing interaction in the next aisle.
“A white, younger man in another line started yelling towards an older Asian couple: ‘Hey! Do you speak English? Do you speak English?’” she recalls. “The elderly couple was trying to bag their groceries, and this guy kept yelling at them.”
The incident was just one example of the recent surge in anti-Asian harassment, which has risen by up to 700 per cent in major Canadian cities since mid-March of 2020, according to the incident-tracking organization Fight COVID Racism. Dr. Chau, a former crisis worker and co-chair of UBC’s Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence Task Force, quietly steeled herself to intervene.
“I thought, ‘Okay, be prepared to act,’” she said. “I looked around me, making eye contact with the other bystanders, checking my surroundings, making sure I knew who the victims were. I tried to time myself to finish packing my groceries so that I could leave at the same time as them.”
In that moment, Chau became what her colleague Dr. Ishu Ishiyama, associate professor of counselling psychology in the Faculty of Education at UBC, describes as an active witness — someone making a conscious effort to intervene in a racist or discriminatory interaction.
Options for action: you can do more than you might think
In 2000, after experiencing microaggressions firsthand, Dr. Ishiyama developed the A.R.T (Anti-discrimination Response Training) Program, now in use in schools and organizations across North America. The A.R.T. model describes four levels of witnessing: disengagement or “dis-witnessing”, passive witnessing, active witnessing and ethical witnessing that includes social action and activism, including educating others about social justice issues and the importance of breaking the silence and engaging in active witnessing.