I was having a conversation with my students the other day, and they got me thinking.
As part of Black History Month, I’m giving them a bunch of quotes from black thinkers as their writing prompts, right? The other day, I gave them Desmond Tutu’s “When you are neutral in the face of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
SO many of my students equated bystanders as equal to – or worse than – perpetrators. They were willing to give a pass to people who truly don’t know – or don’t understand – an issue, but if you know something’s going down and you don’t do anything about it, you may as well have been an active participant.
I challenged them about this as hard as I could, asking them whether or not someone who fails to, say, jump in front of a gunman is just as responsible for the deaths of the people he would subsequently kill as the gunman who actually pulled the trigger, or asking about whether I’m responsible for a child’s abuse if I don’t challenge the mother who’s threatening them in the grocery store aisle. While they were all a little uncomfortable at the idea of the INDIVIDUAL stepping into a situation (especially a dangerous one), they all pretty uniformly agreed that if you SEE, but don’t SAY, then you are just as culpable as the perpetrator.
I’m both heartened and a little disturbed by this. I love that they understand the concept of bystanding and have been taught, at least on a conceptual level, that it’s our duty as human beings to stand up for one another. No one admitted to actually DOING this, though, and it got me wondering; is this, perhaps, why so many of the young people I encounter are just so clueless? If they don’t KNOW, then they believe they can’t be held responsible?