Information for Witnesses

One of the main challenges for targets of racism to report their experience to authorities is proving it took place.

Many people will feel discouraged to report an incident when they know the whole process will depend on the institution they are reporting the discriminatory act to believing their testimony.

This is why it is essential that witnesses identify themselves to the target at the time the incident takes place and agree to provide a written or oral statement in support of any action the target might choose to take. Not only will this encourage the target to take action, but it might also be essential in helping them get redress.

For example, in cases that involve a crime, such as vilification, a person will only be convicted when it is believed beyond reasonable doubt that they committed the criminal act. As a witness, your testimony and any evidence that you collected during the incident (such as a photo, video or audio recording) can strongly support the target’s case. For example, video evidence enabled the conviction of white supremacists who perpetrated racially-motivated crimes in Charlottesville in the USA.

Besides supporting the target and making yourself available to them, there are other actions you can take as a witness to help challenge racism.

Speaking up against racism

It can be difficult to talk to people who have a different opinion to you about racism – particularly if you feel strongly about your beliefs. Our tip for avoiding an argument is to never call somebody a racist. If you do this, the person will become defensive and not listen to anything else you say. Instead, you should tell them that you disagree with what they have said, and explain why. You should only criticise the comment, not the person.

The Challenging Racism Project (CRP) provides a series of videos about how to speak up when you witness racism. CRP also provides a list of actions you can consider taking when you witness racism:

  • Confronting or disagreeing with the perpetrator
  • Calling it “racism” or “discrimination” (if it is safe or productive to do so)
  • Interrupting or distracting perpetrator
  • Comforting the person(s) targeted
  • Expressing upset feelings
  • Seeking assistance from friend, teacher, manager, coach etc.
  • Reporting the incident to authorities

Ask an open-ended question

If you feel that your attempt to challenge the perpetrator is turning into an argument, stop and take a breath. If you become emotional it will be more difficult for you to respond, so it is best to try and stay calm. Continue the conversation by asking the person an open-ended question, like:

  •  “why do you think that?”
  •  “why do you think that’s funny?”
  •  “why did you say that?”

Sharing how you feel about what they have said may also help:

  •  “It makes me uncomfortable to hear that, what did you really mean?”
  •  “That comment offended me, why did you say that?”
  •  “I always considered you to be a fair-minded person, why do you think that‘s funny?”

You may be able to use their response to continue the conversation constructively because their answer might reveal that their prejudice is based on an assumption or incorrect fact that you can put right.

Stay safe!

You must always stay safe (emotionally and physically). If the person responds with an aggressive or angry answer, it might feel safer to nod and finish the conversation quickly. While you cannot change the way this person thinks on the spot, they may go away and self-analyse their comment later. Try not to become discouraged, because some people will take longer than others to understand the impacts of racism. It may also be useful for you to ‘debrief’ about these situations with like-minded people so you can better prepare for them in the future.

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