"When you hear someone calling for help, you're supposed to help. This officer failed in the most basic, human sense."
-- Minneapolis Mayor Tim Frey, Facebook post from May 26, 2020
How many of our students are calling for help? Our families? Our colleagues? Our systems? The killing of George Floyd this past May was despicable and predictable. Not only a manifestation of a white supremacist culture that perpetuates violence against our citizens of color, Mr. Floyd’s death was enabled by those who refused to intervene and safely retreated into the role of “innocent bystander”.
Bystander effect is a way to describe the inclination of people to become inactive in high danger situations due to the proximity and presence of other individuals. The theory holds that individuals are less likely to intervene in emergencies when part of a larger group observing the same incident.
Social psychology researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley are credited with the examination and analysis of this social behavior. Their work was inspired by the murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese, witnessed by dozens of nearby New York City apartment dwellers in 1964 over a duration of thirty minutes. Latane and Darley assert that there are two main reasons for the presence of bystander effect -- diffused responsibility and pluralistic ignorance.
When in a large group, the sense of responsibility is perceived to be a collective action which inhibits individuals from initiating a response. Why would I need to step up if there are so many others viewing the same thing? The diffusion of responsibility often leads to no one in the group taking action as individuals wait for others to intervene.
Moreover, though as an individual you may recognize that the emergency situation needs intervention, the lack of action by others makes one question their own interpretation of the situation. Due to this sense of pluralistic ignorance, the individual denies their instincts, taking cues from others which leads to a lack of intervention.
As bystanders, we have helped to create fertile grounds for hostility – an environment in which it is possible to carry out terror in broad daylight without significant unrest or intervention on behalf of the persecuted. Bolstered by the benefit of hindsight and revisionism, the bystander can justify their failure to act and, yet, the inaction can yield tragic consequences. Passivity is a blood relative of privilege and as we examine our own leadership -- our own humanity -- the mere presence of this privileged trait must be eradicated.
As a white, male, educational leader who typifies normative culture I wield significant influence in the trajectory of my community. The daily determinations of what I do or do not address impacts lives. It is with this understanding, therefore, that recognizing conditions that cause harm to students and families of color is no longer sufficient. A lack of action on my part fundamentally equates to indifference...and indifference creates the conditions for further pain, suffering and tragedy.
The visual imagery of the murders of Mr. Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery spawned protests and regenerated the racial liberalism of The Great Awokening. As the crescendo of awareness and call to action for racial equity abates into a dullness aided by the anesthesia of COVID-19 politicization and an unprecedented presidential election, I worry about how bystander effect has taken root with white school leaders and impact our perspective on what lies ahead.
It should be noted that I intentionally name white school leaders as we compose the majority of those within the educational hierarchy. Based on our positionality and traditional power structures, white school leaders are crucial actors in the dismantling of oppressive systems and also most prone to remaining in the mode of bystander.
Adding variants of whiteness into our lexicon is not by itself an anti-bystander action. Acknowledging “I have privilege” is not by itself an anti-bystander action. Adding a #BLM hashtag to your social media handle or strategically placing the works of Love, Kendi and DiAngelo within viewing range of your Zoom square are not by themselves anti-bystander actions. These are merely ways to wrap ourselves in a blanket of racial comfort further cloaking bystander-enabled damage, secure in our wokeness yet unbothered by the frigid reality of our complicity.
How will we as white school leaders demonstrate the endurance and resolve to resist the temptation to safely settle back into a known way of doing things? How will we as white school leaders elevate and center the voices of our students and families of color? How will we as white school leaders, with a looming school funding crisis, allocate the resources to disrupt institutional and structural inequities while increasing opportunities and support for those marginalized by our systems? How will we as white school leaders have the courage and agility to directly redress systemic or site based policies and protocols that kneel on the necks of our Black and Brown students and communities?
As white school leaders, we must accept that racial progress and our comfort cannot exist in tandem. Further, individual witnesses to existential racial emergencies within our systems and communities have opportunities to act; we cannot trust others to initiate direct intervention and ignite collective action. Doing so substantively relegates us to bystanders.