Why We Can’t Ignore Racist Speech and Actions

Last week an activist friend of mine was discussing the actions of a white supremacy group in her town on her Facebook feed. Another person, whom I don’t know, commented that at a recent progressive organizational meeting they had determined that the best way to address white supremacy groups and people was to ignore them. While this progressive group may have their reasons for ignoring racist actions and groups – I didn’t get to hear the group’s reasons – the psychology of genocide and the bystander effect suggests that ignoring and remaining silent about racist speech and actions is not only misguided, but detrimental to the cause of antiracism.

Ervin Staub, a psychologist who has spent his career studying influences that lead to active and passive bystandership, perpetration of violence, and altruism, affirms the power of bystanders, those who witness the speech or action and are in a position to help. In “The Psychology of Bystanders, Perpetrators, and Heroic Helpers,” Staub states: “[Passive bystanders] encourage perpetrators, who often interpret silence as support for their policies” (Staub, 2003, p. 309). In States of Denial, Stanley Cohen (2001), a sociologist applying the psychological processes of the bystander effect and denial to the impact of knowing about human rights abuses and suffering, concurs, “Most victims and perpetrators take passivity as evidence of support and encouragement” (p. 144). Both Staub and Cohen affirm that the silence of bystanders may have many causes, including fear, but that bystander passivity and silence is interpreted by perpetrators as support.

So that time that someone made a prejudiced comment, and I didn’t say anything? (I had my list of reasons: it didn’t seem polite; I had just met the person; I was appalled and at a loss about how to address it, etc. It certainly was not because I agreed.)  My silence probably made that person think that I supported that sentiment.

What’s more, both perpetrators and bystanders learn and change as a result of their own actions. So the person who made the uncontested comment is likely to continue – or even increase – their prejudicial comments because of the interpretation of my silence as support and encouragement. I, too, am likely to learn from my own passivity, making it more likely that I will not stand up for others.

In situations with suffering victims, Staub states the following:

Passivity in the face of others’ suffering makes it difficult to remain in internal opposition to the perpetrators and feel empathy for the victims. To reduce their own feelings of empathic distress and guilt, passive bystanders will distance themselves from victims. . .. Just-world thinking will lead them to see victims as deserving their fate, and to devalue them. (Staub, 2003, pp. 305-6)

So passive bystanders themselves change over time to justify their inaction.

Of course, bystanders greatly affect one another as well. Sword and Zimbardo explain two key points of why people often don’t help others in contexts of visible suffering: pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility. Pluralistic ignorance is based on our tendency to look to others to see how they are interpreting a situation and then base our actions on theirs. If others seem to not be responding, we tend to question whether an emergency is actually taking place. As Staub (2003) states, “Whether or not one person verbally defines the meaning of seeming emergency as an emergency greatly affects the response of other bystanders. . ..When bystanders remain passive, they substantially reduce the likelihood that other bystanders will respond” (p. 309). So one bystander is affected by what another bystander says or doesn’t say, does or doesn’t do.

The other reason why people often don’t help people in obvious need is diffusion of responsibility, the assumption that someone will do something so one’s sense of personal responsibility diffuses to others. In the Kitty Genovese case, the 1964 murder of a woman where there were 38 witnesses and none intervened that inspired social psychologists to study the bystander effect, diffusion of responsibility helps to explain why 38 people heard her screams yet each thought someone else would intervene. This is what leads many to believe that there’s danger, rather than safety, in numbers.

For those of you interested in reading a good piece that summarizes research on the bystander effect in a very readable way, check out We Are All Bystanders, where you’ll learn more about Ervin Staub’s work in Rwanda, schools, and Los Angeles (with the police department shortly after the Rodney King beating). This piece even reports that research suggests that those who know about the influences of the bystander effect are less susceptible to its effects. So learning more about the bystander effect and how to combat pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility can help us to be better active bystanders.

The good news is that bystanders have power to affect others’ actions for good as well. In “The Psychology of Bystanders, Perpetrators, and Heroic Helpers,” Staub (2003) demonstrates the power of bystanders to affect positive action, drawing on historical examples from genocidal and other situations. Here are just a few examples Staub notes, all from the Holocaust: Danish support for Jews influenced some German officials, who delayed deportation orders, allowing a rescue effort for 7,000 Danish Jews; the heroic efforts of the inhabitants of Le Chambon, who saved several thousand refugees, influenced members of the Vichy police, who notified the village of impending raids; the words and deeds of the Le Chambon village doctor, who was tried and executed, influenced a German major who persuaded a higher officer to not retaliate against the village (pp. 309-310).

So once we do take action as bystanders, it makes it easier for others to intervene, our courage inspiring courage in others.

As Staub reminds us, “Hitler’s attitude also indicates the potential power of bystanders. He and his fellow Nazis were greatly concerned about the reactions of the population to their early anti-Jewish actions, and they were both surprised and emboldened by the lack of adverse reactions” (p. 309). I don’t know about you, but I’m sickened by the emboldening of racist and white supremacist behavior in our society.

Let’s speak out against racist and white supremacist speech and action, lest our silence be taken for support.


Cohen, S. (2001). States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. MA: Polity Press.

Staub, E. (2003). “The Psychology of Bystanders, Perpetrators, and Heroic Helpers.” In The Psychology of Good and Evil: Why Children, Adults, and Groups Help and Harm Others. NY: Cambridge. (Staub’s website includes many of his works and is a wonderful resource. I highly recommend it.)

2 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Ignore Racist Speech and Actions

  1. Three Pieces of Wisdom from My Father.

    My Dad was a WW2 Veteran and spoke little about the war. But he did let me know that he who devalues my fellow man is my enemy and he who helps him up is my friend.

    He also told me that one of the reasons for freedom of speech in the First Amendment was defensive. It is in the best interest of society that jerks self-identify, they will take advantage of the opportunity.

    Finally prejudice, based on prejudge is the ultimate sign of a lack of intelligence.

    Great blog


    1. Hi Mark!

      Thanks for sharing your father’s wisdom! I agree with your father that prejudging may be the ultimate sign of lack of intelligence, but it can also be based on ignorance. (For example, students may prejudge because they’ve been taught that’s right, either by direct instruction or by following the example of role models.) In any case, I don’t think telling a prejudiced person that their prejudice is a sign of lack of intelligence will motivate that person to be more open-minded. I wish it would. Do you have any ideas about what might motivate a prejudiced person to become more open-minded?

      Thanks so much for commenting and your kind words about the blog. I hope you’re thriving!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s