Health and Wellness

5 things you can do in the moment if you witness racial harassment

TOPSHOT - Sally Sha holds up a sign during a Stop Asian Hate rally at Discovery Green in downtown Houston, Texas on March 20, 2021. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)
MARK FELIX | AFP | Getty Images

In the past year, there has been an increase in hate crimes and violence targeting members of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, in part due to racist rhetoric used to describe Covid-19.

According to a recent report from Stop AAPI Hate, which documented anti-Asian hate incidents during the pandemic, the majority of discrimination such as verbal harassment, shunning and physical assault occurs in businesses. That is followed by public sidewalks and streets.

Wondering what you can do if you witness racial harassment or violence in public? There are specific tactics that bystanders and witnesses can use to take care of people who are experiencing harassment while it's happening, says Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback, a global organization aimed at ending harassment in all of its forms, which hosts free trainings for bystander interventions.

"The fundamentals of bystander intervention are that it's not about saving the day or even exposing this human rights abuse for what it is," May says. Rather, there are things you can do to reduce the trauma that the person being harassed experiences, she says.

Here are five strategies that can help in the moment.


"Create a distraction to deescalate the situation," May says. For example, you could do something that creates a disruption, like spill a drink or drop your personal items. While it might seem random, it "allows the person doing the harassing to second guess themselves and allows the person being harassed to get out of the situation," she says.

Another way to distract is to simply start a conversation with the person being harassed about something totally unrelated (for example, ask for directions or the time), which takes the attention off of the person doing the harassing, May says. "What that does is helps to build safe space between you and the person being harassed," she says.


Find help from someone in a position of authority, or ask someone nearby if they can seek out someone to intervene, May suggests. This could be a manager, security guard, front desk person or flight attendant, for example.

Many people assume that they should delegate to the police in times of crisis, May says. "We advise that before you contact the police, you check in with the person being harassed first," she says. "That's because many folks, including people from communities of color, immigrants and trans folks, may not feel safer with police presence."


Recording an incident can be very useful, but it's important to assess your own safety and make sure that the person being harassed is already being helped before you take out your phone to record, May says.

"Give that footage directly to the person being harassed," May says, so that they can decide what to do with it. "You want the person who experienced that harassment to be in choice, not just to have their moment of trauma plastered on the nightly news without their consent."


Wait and check in with the person who was harassed to make sure that they are okay, May says. "In moments where you don't speak the same language as the other person, just going to stand next to them to show them that you're with them and that you are going to make sure that they are safe, can be a powerful move."


The last option is to directly create a boundary, by telling the person harassing to stop, and then turning your attention back to the person being harassed, May says. "Don't get into a back-and-forth with the person doing the harassing," which can escalate the incident, she says. "Don't make it about them."

Some examples of direct things you can say include: "That's inappropriate," "leave them alone" or "that's racist."

With all of these ways to intervene, it's important to trust your own instincts, and make sure that you and the person being harassed are physically safe, May says.

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