On the sideline with my good intentions…

One last post about privilege.

In a situation of discrimination or inequality there are four roles that you can play. You can be the target, you can be the perpetrator, you can be a bystander or you can be a leader.

Privilege often times helps us find our way into the wrong role.

I used to do workshops in the fall for college freshmen about gender violence as part of the college orientation experience. Gender violence is not 100% male on female, but it is pretty close. When I would start talking about gender violence and sharing statistics and showing them pictures, these guys would generally get kind of angry with me. They would say things like “I don’t understand why you are showing us this stuff, I would never do anything like that.”

My response was always the same… “Awesome. But will you do anything about it?

If we take a look at the diagram above in thinking about gender violence, the targets are predominately female and the perpetrators are predominately male. And those tend to be the only groups that we pay any attention to. We talk about how horrible the perpetrators are, and how we could never do anything like that. Or, we criticize the targets for doing things to deserve what happened.

Conveniently leaving ourselves out of the conversation. Standing in the corner. With our good intentions. Doing nothing.

We bystanders tend to be pretty good at making sure that people know we are one of the good ones though.

Several years ago I attended a leadership retreat for the organization that I worked for. About 200 of us spent a couple of days talking about our business and the future and how we could be more competitive. Toward the end of the retreat there was an open forum for people to direct ideas and questions to the senior leaders. One of my peers, and one of the only African American attendees asked about diversity. He mentioned that customer demographics were changing drastically and wondered if we were doing anything to capitalize on that. After a brief discussion about opportunities related to diversity and inclusion, we broke for lunch. I tracked down my peer that had raised the topic and thanked him for bringing it up, letting him know that I was completely on board.

He was not impressed. He told me that I should have mentioned it if I was so “on board,” and that he was probably just going to be pigeon-holed as the diversity guy after having brought it to the floor at this event. I was floored and walking away from the exchange I came to the realization that he was probably a huge racist and just would never be happy with anything that I did because I am white.

You have probably already figured this out, but I am an idiot.

And I am pretty sure there is a reason that I have never forgotten this particular demonstration of my idiocy. I wanted him to know that I was one of the “good ones”…that I had the right intentions, I just did not want to take any actual risk.

Not many of us aspire to be bystanders, but we do a whole lot of it.

Who provides leadership on gender violence? Who forms advocacy groups and volunteer programs and hotlines? Mostly women. Not 100% women, but close. The vast majority of men are bystanders regarding gender violence…and we leave those men completely out of the conversation.

And here is the thing about bystanders. They are part of the problem.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

-Desmond Tutu

Bystanders might be good at not doing stuff that they are not supposed to be doing. Bystanders are not dropping hatecrimes on people, they are not running around spewing a bunch of vile stuff. The bystander problem is a problem of omission…it is the stuff that they are not doing that is the problem.

They know better. They are just not acting accordingly.

What would you do if you walked in on some blatant discrimination?

While we focus all of our attention on the perpetrators and/or victims, most of the real opportunity for change is with the bystanders…because that is where the numbers are.

We are in desperate need of leadership and I think that a fundamental component of leadership today is advocating on behalf of others. That is how you move from a bystander to a leader, you advocate on behalf of someone else. Standing up for yourself and your point of view is fine, but this is a different thing.

This is a male employee holding the organization he works for accountable on gender pay gaps.

This is a white employee challenging the organization that they work for to make serious and focused investments in diversity and inclusion.

This is a straight employee advocating on behalf of same sex benefits at work.

You do not have to start a non-profit organization or lead a march to be a leader. You can be creative and you should find something that allows you to use your gifts…the important thing is that you do something.

The future depends on it.

How much bystanding do you to?

How could you do a little less? What is one thing that you could do to advocate on behalf of someone else where you see inequality?

Be good to each other.

  1. Susan Harris


    You have hit the mark with this series on privilege – at least for me – and successfully created the opportunity for me to examine my experiences. Today provides some direction on action to go with the unsettling look in the mirror. So thanks.

  2. Rick Ladd

    Great post, Joe. Everyone tends to be a bystander in some situations, even crazy-ass activists (like I was back in the 60s & 70s), when they don’t fully understand what’s going on.

    I was going to confess to not having read your other posts on privilege and blather on about white privilege, then decided to open up a new tab and read them. I was hoping you would hit on privilege in its myriad forms and I was not disappointed.

    You’ve reminded me of a story regarding my own idiocy about a quarter century ago, which I’m going to write about in my blog. Suffice it to say it involves a very subtle exhibition of racism that wsa pointed out to me by an Asian friend. I was aware enough to recognize exactly what I had done, but it took her to point it out . . . and it wasn’t hateful; just wrong because of the lens I had viewed something through – my own privileged lens. đŸ™‚

    I was fortunate enough to get a good education on white privilege, male privilege, etc. when I was in my early twenties. One thing I have learned is it’s a lifelong battle to root out the mental artifacts of privileges that are deeply rooted in our culture and our institutions. They show up in interesting ways.

    Almost 10 years ago, my wife and I became adoptive parents of a child from the People’s Republic of China. Through my involvement with the adoption community, especially from becoming friends with many adult international adoptees, I learned of another form of privilege I was the beneficiary of. It is neatly wrapped up in numerous other privileges, e.g. racism, sexism, and cultural chauvinism, and requires constant vigilance to ensure one is being the best parent possible.

    So, if I can now circle back to your premise, I agree wholeheartedly doing nothing in the face of obvious wrong is tantamount to committing the wrong oneself. The difficulty for many, I suspect (and which you have alluded to through acknowledging your own, early attitudes), is in recognizing the position of privilege many of us find ourselves in.

    We have a lot of educating to do, eh?

  3. On Being an Idiot! « Systems Savvy

    […] before and likely never would have discovered otherwise. She was enthusiastic about this particular post so, naturally, I had to take a […]

  4. Being a bystander and silent onlooker is being part of the problem that has inflicted Finland « Migrant Tales

    […] an interesting blog entry by Joe Gerstandt  that sheds light on how a social ill like gender violence has not been challenged seriously enough […]

  5. Emily

    I try to do as little as possible, but I have indeed been a bystander when I should not have been. Thank you for this wonderful series; I agree completely and respect your efforts to bring more light to this difficult subject.

contact       brand management by venn market strategies