Bystander action | Racism. It Stops With Me

Bystander action

Bystander action

Taking action against racism is a powerful statement of support for the person targeted, and it can make the perpetrator think twice about their actions.

Witnessing racism can be uncomfortable, but when bystanders stay silent, it sends the message that racism is acceptable.

Bystanders sometimes don’t respond because they feel awkward, or don’t want to become a target of abuse themselves.

This page helps overcome those barriers by providing useful strategies for taking action and standing up to racism.

When responding, always assess the situation and never put yourself at risk. Your actions don’t need to involve confrontation.

Taking action in public


If you see someone being racially targeted in public, a powerful symbol of support is to go and sit or stand next to them and check if they’re ok. This also sends a message to the perpetrator that their actions are not acceptable.

You can say something to the perpetrator if it feels safe. This doesn’t have to be aggressive – in fact it’s much better if you stay calm. It could be as simple: “Why don’t you leave him/her alone?”

A useful tip is to avoid calling the person racist, because this will only make them defensive, and they’ll probably stop listening to you. Better to criticise the comments, not the person.

Asking open-ended questions is often a good way to make the perpetrator think about their actions. For example:

  • “Why did you say that?”
  • “Why do you think that’s funny?”
  • “What do you mean by that?”

You might also feel comfortable offering your own thoughts or feelings about the person’s actions, such as:

  • “I don’t agree with you”
  • “I don’t think that’s really fair”
  • “I find that pretty offensive”

Allies can be important in public settings. Often, if you speak up others will support you. When a few people come together as strangers to speak against racism, it sends a powerful message for change.


It’s also good to video the incident on your phone if you can. This can help authorities follow up afterwards in case the incident requires further attention. It can help them identify the perpetrator and ensure that appropriate action can be taken in response to their behaviour. If recording the incident is not an option, you could make a few notes afterwards to help remember the details.


This might simply involve telling someone in a position of responsibility. If the incident happens on public transport, you could tell the driver or train guard. If it happens at a public venue, you could tell a security guard or member of staff.

You should always call the police on 000 if you think you or somebody else may be in danger. You can also report behaviour that you think might be a criminal offense by phoning the police on 131 444.

Anyone who experiences racism or discrimination can also make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. You can phone the Commission for advice on 1300 656 419 04 or (02) 9284 9600.

Taking action online

Racism often occurs online, particularly on social media. Perpetrators sometimes feel more emboldened than they would in real-world settings, but the impacts of online racism can be just as real.

If you witness racism on social media or elsewhere online:

  1. It’s often best to ignore the post and consider blocking future posts from the person. It may be better not to engage with them, as they often want you to react in order to start an argument.
  2. In some situations you may feel it is productive to comment. If someone is personally targeted online, offering support can be a powerful statement of solidarity. Sometimes, if the person who has made offensive remarks happens to be a friend, consider letting them know you disagree with what they’ve said. A positive attitude always sets a good example and is likely to prompt a more positive response. Beware of feeding the trolls and getting sucked into an argument.
  3. If the post is on a page you moderate, consider hiding or deleting the comment.
  4. Taking a screenshot of the offensive material and saving it to your computer can be a good idea. It may be useful later if any follow up is needed and the person deletes what they have published.
  5. Most social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have systems for handling complaints about offensive content. Consider alerting the platform, because they can remove the content.
  6. You can also report the content to the office of the Office of the eSafety Commissioner. They can investigate the matter and follow up with the perpetrator.


In social situations

Hearing racist comments in social situations can be awkward – especially if they come from family or friends.

Speaking up to the people closest to you, whether in response to a single incident or an ongoing pattern, is a unique challenge. Social dynamics, and the nature of peoples’ relationships come into play, and these can affect how comfortable we feel about speaking up.

Calling out racism does not need to be confrontational. Here are some ideas about how you can engage with people productively.

  • It’s important to stay calm. Getting angry or emotional will make the situation more difficult. It gives the person a reason to ignore you. Remaining calm will make them far more receptive.
  • It might be more productive to take the person aside for a private conversation, instead of talking to them in front of others. You could tell them that what they said earlier has been bothering you, and you’d like to ask them about it.
  • Don’t accuse the person of being racist because doing so will make them defensive and argumentative. Criticise the comment not the person.
  • Telling the person how their statement impacts you and how it makes you feel can be a non-confrontational way to make your point.
  • You could ask them questions. Sometimes a person may not be aware that what they’ve said is offensive. Asking them to clarify what they mean might help them explore their own ideas in a constructive way.
  • You might want to appeal to their sense of empathy. You could ask, for example, ‘How would you feel if that comment was made about you?’. This is often a better approach than presenting them with facts or figures.
  • It’s very important to listen to their perspective. As abhorrent as their views might seem, if you don’t listen to them they will not listen to you. Learning about their existing views might also provide opportunities for them to reflect and see things from a new perspective.

In the Workplace

People are often unsure about how to respond to racism in the workplace because they worry about how it might affect their relationships with co-workers or their career prospects. Power imbalances can also come into play.

If you feel comfortable talking with a co-worker about racism, this can often be the best approach. Many of the same strategies outlined in the section on addressing racism in social situations(above) can be useful: You should stay calm; consider taking the person aside privately; appeal to their sense of empathy; criticise the comment and not the person; listen to their perspective; and you may want to ask them questions, or tell them how their words have impacted you.    

If you don’t feel comfortable approaching the person directly, most workplaces have systems that can make addressing racism a little easier. These include procedures for dealing with bullying or harassment, which can also be used to deal with racism.

You might also feel comfortable having a quiet conversation with a manager about how the person’s comments have impacted you at work. It may be that your manager is better placed to intervene.

At school or university

Racism in schools or universities provides a unique set of challenges – but schools and universities also provide useful structures and opportunities for addressing racism. It’s often a place where good responses can be modelled in a safe setting.

Peer pressure can contribute to racism in schools, but it can also present part of the solution. Having allies is important, so you should seek them out and make sure you are a good ally to others. Allies might include friends or other students in your year group, school leaders or older students, or teachers.

If you feel comfortable talking to someone about their offensive behaviour, many of the strategies outlined in the section on addressing racism in social situations(above) can be useful: You should stay calm; consider taking the person aside privately; appeal to their sense of empathy; criticise the comment and not the person; listen to their perspective; and you may want to ask them questions, or tell them how their words have impacted you.   

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to them directly, there are other options. You could approach a teacher, explain the situation and ask them for assistance. Many schools have support services for students, and teachers should be able to explain the options available to you.

Talking about racism is part of the curriculum in Australian high schools. If racism has been an issue in your school, lessons dedicated to racism can be a good forum for addressing it.

Some Australian schools even have a designated anti-racism contact officer, and specific systems for reporting racist behaviour. You should find out what systems your school has in place to deal with racism.

Most schools have student leaders, who may be able to offer support or advice. At universities, the student union will be able to direct you to support services.

Many schools and universities also run dedicated anti-racism campaigns, led by students or teachers. Initiating a campaign within your school, or talking to others about creating this kind of campaign, can be a powerful way to tackle racism on a larger scale. A really great example is the anti-racism pledge, where students and teachers sign their names to pledge they will speak out against racism if they ever witness it.

  • There are some excellent resources for students and teachers on the Racism. No Way website, and there’s information about taking the anti-racism pledge.
  • The NSW Department of Education has published a detailed guide to help teachers and principals eliminate racism from their campus.