CBC Forum

When should you intervene when you see discrimination?

CBC's Marketplace has conducted a months-long investigation examining how racial and cultural bias affects how we're treated and how we treat one another, including why we intervene (and sometimes don't) to defend a stranger. When should you intervene when you see discrimination?

Marketplace conducts months-long investigation about racial and cultural bias

What would you do if you witnessed an Islamophobic confrontation on the street? Would you intervene to support a stranger? (CBC)

CBC's Marketplace has conducted a months-long investigation examining how racial and cultural bias affects how we're treated and how we treat one another, including why we intervene (and sometimes don't) to defend a stranger. 

The program tested to see how Canadians would react when face-to-face with a verbally abusive confrontation on a downtown Toronto street.

Marketplace hired actors and gave them a script based on interviews with Muslim women. Hidden cameras captured people's reactions as a man yelled, "We don't support terrorists here. Why don't you go back to your own country!" at a woman in a hijab.

The scene was repeated five times. Each time, someone intervened in a matter of minutes.

Readers gave us their thoughts on the experiment during our latest CBC Forum — a live, hosted discussion about topics of national interest.

(Please note that user names are not necessarily the names of commenters. Some comments have been altered to correct spelling and to conform to CBC style. Click on the user name to see the full comment in the blog format.)

Many readers said it was vital that people always step in when they see discrimination.

"​At my kids' elementary school, the children are taught to be 'upstanders' not 'bystanders' and are given recognition for doing the right thing (e.g. coming to the aid of bullied fellow student, asking if they are OK, telling the bully to stop). Children are being taught this, so adults who don't 'stand up' for those who cannot stand up for themselves should go back to school." — Nell B

"Defending the dignity and rights of others is just as important as defending the rights of yourself, maybe even more important. Inaction against bigotry, prejudice, and racism is a demonstration of what we are willing to see as acceptable in our society." — rockman29

"​We must always intervene when we witness another person being subjected to discrimination (racial, gender, religious, sexual, or any other form). Yes, it takes courage and, yes, sometimes the situation may be dangerous but helping and protecting each other is the price and the privilege of living in community." — Shelagh

​Others shared their personal stories of facing discrimination.

"As a First Nation woman, at least once a day I will experience direct and indirect forms of discrimination. It is my hope people would intervene when witnessing an act of discrimination, but that is not the case. It is not just bystander effect that prevents intervention, but actually racism and privilege." — Alice Richard

Some said they wanted to help, but expressed concern about their safety.

"Those caught up in racial hatred are already in an irrational space. I have no interest in fighting police charges in the event that the person goes crazy on me and it gets physical." — William

"I really don't want a knife in the ribs or a gunshot to the head. I have a wife and kid to think about." — trevor999

Others offered tips on how the situation should be approached.

"One suggestion: instead of addressing the aggressor, speak directly to the target. Counter the verbal abuse calmly but directly. If need be, find a way to position yourself between the two with your back to the aggressor. You can also include other bystanders by speaking to them: 'Can you believe what this man/lady is saying?' Engage them and try to make allies." — JWAlex

"The person who is doing the harassing is posing a challenge not only to the person they are harassing but to the bystanders. The longer they are left unchallenged the bolder they will become. So it needs to be nipped in the bud as quickly as possible. If you are fortunate enough to be there try to say something. Often that is what other bystanders are waiting for in order to voice their support and jump in themselves." — The Open Niqabi

"It's good to reflect on what we can do, because usually I consider racists such hopeless losers [it's] better not to antagonize them (I'm a senior). But now I'm reminded to support the victim. Thanks for the reminder." — Anna

You can read the complete discussion below.

Can't see the forum? Click here.

With files from CBC Marketplace's Asha Tomlinson