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Bystanders rarely object to racism: expert

Date

Deborah Gough

Fanny Desaintjores, inset, with the man who abused her aboard the bus.

Fanny Desaintjores, inset, with the man who abused her aboard the bus. Photo: YouTube

Bystanders who witness racist attacks believe the perpetrator will turn on them if they intervene, and laws do not protect victims of racism, a leading expert on racism says.

His comments come after a racist attack on French national Fanny Desaintjores on a Melbourne bus, captured on a smartphone, that saw a bus window smashed.

The video, posted on YouTube, has received international condemnation, and many Australians have commented that they would have intervened in the abusive attack.

But research shows bystanders do not stand up to racism, even when they believe it has occurred, Professor Kevin Dunn says.

Professor Dunn leads the Challenging Racism Project, a national research project based at the University of Western Sydney. He said just 30 per cent of bystanders were prepared to speak out when they heard racism.

He said studies found bystanders were afraid to intervene because they feared violence or vilification would be turned on them. They were worried their actions would be fruitless and were unaware of how to intervene.

He said a large national survey for the project had found 86 per cent believed racism was a problem in Australia and one in 10 identified themselves as having extreme racist views, including that they thought races should be segregated – as mentioned in the video.

"This is a large group of untapped bystanders who could intervene," Professor Dunn said.

He said bystanders often regretted not taking action.

Successful strategies to combat racist perpetrators included comforting a victim either during or after an attack and gathering support from other bystanders.

"Speak to the rest of the crowd," Professor Dunn said.

"Say: 'Does anyone else think that this is out of order?' Try gathering support from other bystanders so that you turn it into a majority view. Make the perpetrator the minority," he said.

"It is best not to inflame the situation and threats of violence are not a good idea. People should not put themselves at risk," he said.

He said racists often believed that their views were widely shared by others in the group.

Professor Dunn said laws failed to prevent racist attacks – particularly attacks motivated by religion – and only when a perpetrator threatened actual violence were police able to intervene using criminal law.

Community psychologist Heather Grindley said it was confronting for Melburnians to see the video but she said it was unlikely to be an isolated case.

‘‘We like to think that these things cannot happen here, but this is not Cronulla, it is Melbourne,’’ Ms Grindley said.

‘‘We don’t have the attitudes of overt racism from 20 or 30 years ago but the undercurrents are still there,’’ she said.

She said ‘‘mob rule’’ where a small group incited violence or anger against others was only possible when others believed there was an element of truth to what the instigators had said.

‘‘There has to be a seed of it in someone’s mind for it to come out,’’ Ms Grindley said.

Ms Grindley said research showed that even when a person said something that was clearly wrong, the next person to speak often questioned their own beliefs before speaking.

Ms Grindley said the graphic nature of the threats, including the use of particular weapons, was shocking.

‘‘That language has to be be in a person’s vocabulary to start with, you don’t dream it up on the spot,’’ she said.

A Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission survey in September found that 15 per cent of reports of racism occurred on public transport.

Professor Dunn said Victoria's laws were ahead of the rest of the nation, although "that is not to say that they are fully adequate".

"I don't think that our laws protect people who are victims of racism."

Professor Dunn is dean of social science and psychology at the University of Western Sydney.

 

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