The Importance of Bystanders

I wrote this article a few weeks ago to help me process a hateful incident. In light of Tatyana Hargrove's case and the injustice she faced, I am posting the article on my blog. I choose to stand with her. I choose to speak up for her.

While bystanders could not have helped Tatyana at that moment, we can stand with her now. You can support Tatyana tonight at the Bakersfield Liberty Bell at 6:30 pm or by donating to the GoFundMe setup for her. #justicefortatyana

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On a Saturday in June, my five-year-old had hatred directed at her for the first time. That hatred was made a little less scary thanks to bystanders.

On a Saturday afternoon family grocery outing, I reminded my five-year-old daughter to move out of other people’s way. Five-year-olds like to take up space. The next thing I knew, a stranger told my daughter, “I saw what you did. Don’t do it again.”

Concerned, I apologized and turned to address my five-year-old daughter to determine what had just happened. Had my daughter done something? What was it?

But the woman in the red was not done with my daughter. She looked straight at my five-year-old, not me, and proceeded to cuss out my child. “You’re a little b^^^^. You tried to trip me,” she said before walking away.

A man and woman witnessed the brief incident. The female witness turned to me and said, “That woman was out-of-line.” Those simple words were comforting to my daughter and myself who were in shock.

But the woman in red was not done with my five-year-old. She returned and said, “I am a 62-year-old woman, and I can kick you a**.”  I repeat, she said this to my 5-year-old, not me.

“And she 5 years old. She apologized. It’s done,” I yelled back.

Now the male bystander acted. He pushed his shopping cart between the woman in red and us. He said, “And I am a 72 year-old-man, and this is wrong.”

The bystander’s simple action gave me time to grab my five-year-old, place her in front of me, tell my ten-year-old son to head to the register and leave the grocery store.

This article is not about the crazy woman who may have had mental issues. It is not to brag about my reaction because while I remained calm despite seething emotions, I do wonder if I should have been more mama bear. Instead, this article is about the importance of bystanders.

I am a white middle-class heterosexual woman. I have never experienced this type of hatred despite the fact that I am junior high teacher and the wife of an Army EOD veteran. But people experience hatred and injustice every day. My friend was verbally assaulted in a Target parking lot for proudly displaying a gay pride sticker. Another friend had only heard the word Arabian refer to horses before she was called one after moving to Bakersfield. Another friend wearing his Chevron work vest was questioned by law enforcement because it was strange to see a black man working on Kern County country roads.

Those are my friends whose sexuality, religion or skin color prompted hateful comments and actions. They are not alone. In 2016, Bakersfield resident Balmeet Singh was verbally assaulted by a man who called him a terrorist. Sadly, in his case, no bystander acted. No bystander reassured him that the hateful man was in the wrong. No bystander physically moved to protect him.

When confronted with hate, we might be able to rationalize why an individual is hateful. The woman in red had dementia, other mental problems, drugs, etc. But the true hurt, the true pain is when bystanders do nothing.

Yes, confronting hate may be dangerous. In May 2017, a Portland, Oregon man stabbed three men who defended two teenage girls who were the victims of an anti-Muslim tirade. Two of those men, one an Army veteran, were killed. But not all hate incidents are this dangerous. A kind word to the victim. calming words to diffuse the situation or a simple movement next to the victim is powerful.

In my five-year-old daughter’s case, bystanders spoke up and moved a shopping cart to protect her. They took risks to stand up to hateful comments because it was the right action to take. These two people made a scary event less scary for a little girl.

And for that, I am grateful. If more bystanders take action, if more people speak up, we might have less hate in our world.


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