Photo Credit: Mid-Willamette Valley Fire School. Photo by BLM Oregon

Editor’s note: FAC Net is committed to having conversations around inequity in community resilience and wildfire adaptation. This blog is part of a series of introductory ideas and resources related to various parts of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work. For more DEI related blog posts, please visit the links at the bottom of this page.

Twenty years ago, I was standing in line for the bathroom at a movie theater. In front of me, there were two white women chatting animatedly. Then, I saw an African American woman come out of one of the stalls. One of the women in front of me said, loudly, “I would not go in that one,” while grabbing the other woman’s shoulder to stop her from taking a step forward. The African American woman looked down and quickly walked away. I hesitated for a second, then, went around the two women and entered the stall. To this day, I cringe when I remember that moment and wish I had said something. But I didn’t.

While I was not the target of this racist and hurtful remark, I stood by and said nothing. I was a bystander. Most of us have been in a situation like this, witnessing a humiliating or offensive remark (or “joke”) that degrades an individual or a group because of an aspect of their social identity: their race, age, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, nationality and so on.

We remain silent because we are in shock and disbelief about what we heard and/or witnessed. We don’t want to make things worse. Or we are working on a response; meanwhile, the appropriate reaction time passes us by. These situations can happen at home, at work, with friends or strangers. They can happen in any professional field, and fire practitioners are no exception.

Active Bystanders, Active Self

Today, I understand that we can be active bystanders, interjecting a skilled and appropriate response in real time and/or with a fitting follow-up. Bystanders have choices to act or not. Active bystanders do the former. They act during such interactions and do so effectively. It is important to note that active bystanders are guided by the intentions to deepen the learning for everyone involved, to ensure that the relationships of all involved are protected, and that everyone can walk away from the encounter with their integrity intact. There are two implicit acknowledgements in this stance: That we all can make mistakes and that we are also capable of growing and learning from those mistakes. Within this growth mindset, active bystanders see an initiator (rather than a perpetrator) and meet that individual where they are in their learning. The intent is then not to accuse or shame them, but to learn, together, while standing up for the targeted individual.

Similarly, an active self is an individual who has been the target of a harassing, sexist or racist remark and is prepared, skilled and empowered to respond. The active self responds in a way that protects their integrity while also addressing the remark effectively.

As an immigrant to this country I am often asked where I am from when someone hears my accent. This question is usually presented as a means of connecting or making small talk but can be a trigger remark for someone who is continually questioned when a part of their identity is revealed. After 30+ years of living in the U.S., and struggling to become a citizen, that comment has become exhausting to hear. Being identified as “not from here” is painful. I am from here. This is my home!

These days, the question arrives as a reminder of the subordinate status assigned to immigrants from Latin America who are being criminalized and suffering unimaginable abuse at the hands of immigration officials. Questions about my accent are anything but “small talk” for me. Thus, the difference between intent and impact. The intent in asking is often benign. Yet people who make those comments can learn to be more aware that their impact can be hurtful.

Re-directing the Conversation

This exchange happens so much that I now have a go-to phrase, and re-direct the conversation to help the initiator see the unintended, and sometimes painful, impact of what seems an innocuous question. It goes something like: “I welcome a time when my accent evokes a different kind of question: ‘Are you a new American?’ or ‘Where did you immigrate from’? By re-framing the question, we are able to begin our conversation on equal ground as immigrants to this country.


Photo credit: Jeffrey Munoz

Below, I share other go-to phrases that could be used in response to common derogatory messages. I encourage you to use them or come up with your own if you find yourself in a relevant situation:

  • If you hear, “I don’t see your color” an active bystander or active self could respond, “That expression stops us from talking about how difficult it can be to live in this country while black;” or “I want you to see me and my [part of your identity]. I am very proud of it.”
  • To the phrase, “You are so articulate,” usually directed to people of color or young people, you can say, “Why should that be surprising?” or “Why is that worth pointing out?”
  • If someone questions your personal identity or how you identify, you could reply, “I am curious, what makes you say that?”

Responding with questions can be an effective tool for the active bystander. It gives the initiator the space to reflect on what just happened and re-phrase their interjection, while buying you time to take a deep breath.

In other situations, leveraging your relationship with the initiator or their own identity can be useful. Last October, during a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX), a woman from Mexico shared the following scenario: When she and a group of her female peers arrived at a fire training event, a man welcomed them by exclaiming: “The cooks have arrived!” In this situation, it could be eye-opening to leverage the initiator’s own identity as a spouse, brother or a father by asking, “Would you want your wife, sister or daughters to be welcomed anywhere like that?” If you know the initiator more closely, you could also leverage your relationship and say something like, “Whoa friend, I have never heard you say something like that! I am sure you didn’t mean it the way it came out!”

Men and boys are also impacted by sexism. The expressions “Don’t be such a girl,” or “Man up!” are comments that are intended to shame those who show vulnerability or don’t fit traditional masculine qualities that society has normalized. Shaming comments like these represent an instance when a more robust response is necessary (see the 3-step rubric below). It is up to all of us to point at these damaging remarks, as they create toxic work and home environments.

Being an active bystander can be as simple as following these three steps:

1. Name it

Articulate what you heard and/or how you feel about it. For example, you could say:

“What you just said is cruel and demeaning to both men and women.”

“I don’t appreciate that kind of comment.”

2. Claim it

Establish your standards/your organizational values related to that kind of behavior. For example:

“In this office or within this group/organization, we don’t tolerate that kind of behavior.”

“In this household, we are kind to one another.”

3. Change it

Ask for a change or action, by saying something like:

“Please apologize.”

“Please don’t say that again.”

Finally, if you are ever the initiator and someone offers you constructive feedback, remember, we all make these mistakes and we can learn from them. Think about how it took courage for that person to come to you and consider their feedback a gift, and an opportunity for growth. Put your embarrassment or pride aside and say, “Thank you for your feedback. I am sorry and will do better in the future.”

Active Bystander Summary:

  1. Re-direct the conversation
  2. Have your go-to phrase(s)
  3. Leverage the identity of the initiator (as a brother, father, friend, etc.)
  4. Leverage the relationship you have with the initiator
  5. Give the person the opportunity to think about what they said by asking a reflective question
  6. Use humor, but only if you are adept at it

maria Estrada-headshot Credit Charles Uibel.jpg

Maria Estrada graduated from Virginia Tech in 2001 and received her Ph.D. from the University of Utah in Education, Culture and Society. She is associate director of the Global Diversity Equity and Inclusion team at The Nature Conservancy (TNC). In her role, she helps TNC build strong relationships of trust and mutuality, internally and externally, to reach the diversity of partners needed to assure that both nature and people thrive. This work involves building capacity to partner with communities and working on equity and inclusion aspects of conservation.

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