by Yomi Adegoke

Photo from Tumblr
Photo from Tumblr

Yesterday morning, model Mahaneela Choudhury-Reid fell victim to an unprovoked and racially motivated attack at Regents Park Tube station. She described the ordeal via Twitter, recalling how on entering a lift, she was repeatedly pushed by a white, stocky middle aged man. When she turned to face him, he continued to push her in full view of 15 or so bystanders who, taking the nomenclature too literally, chose to simply stand by.

Mahaneela and her assailant left the lift and carrying on the abuse, he proceeded to kick her as she attempted to exit through the barriers. She asked him what his problem was, to which he replied, “You’re my problem” and when she told him he was acting like a child, he told her she was a “fucking nigger”.

The two had passed commuters, ticket inspectors and even a pair of soldiers- all of whom did nothing to prevent the offence or diffuse the situation.

The story was met with retweets en-masse, legions of support and the rebuking of both the attacker and the stoic onlookers. But if even a fraction of the impassioned indignation and solidarity expressed through twitter had been present in that elevator yesterday morning, Mahaneela’s attacker wouldn’t have had the chance to shove her a second time, let alone kick her in the shin.

She cited ‘the bystander effect’ as cause for the mute throng; most felt no need to act as they believed someone else would step in. Combined passivity, fear and a mind-your-own mentality is what allows a young woman to be shoved repeatedly in full view of a crowded elevator. It smacks of the harrowing Nigella Lawson incident last year, when a public throttling by her then spouse was ignored whilst simultaneously photographed- as with Mahaneela, the outrage was saved for sites comment sections. Nigella’s case sparked debate on intervention, and so must Mahaneela’s- we must note that such a dispassionate display towards a racist attack is downright chilling.

Apathy towards racism has been slowly on the rise, with any mention on the dreaded R word being met with eye rolls and a post-racial diatribe. Racism just isn’t sexy anymore- what saw people up in arms a few years back will be lucky to elicit a shrug from an entirely indifferent general public.

A hate crime not involving bodily harm can be easily stripped of any racial dimension or brushed off as an isolated incident from those who tire easily when race is factored into any equation. Even slurs can be construed as political correctness gone mad if the surrounding context can prove ‘banter’, legitimising society’s inaction when even friends make sweeping, racist generalisations or drop casual N bombs. If you had told us years back that in a few decades students would be donning what they deem harmless blackface for fancy dress and defending use of the N word in an allegedly non-racist sense, they’d have surely balked at a bigotry-legitimising dystopian future. In the past, racists were loud and proud, but with even far right groups hesitant to claim the label, racist actions have no willing claimants. When calling someone a black cunt isn’t deemed as racism, one truly has to wonder what is.

I’m in no doubt the many ex school mates I’ve deleted from Facebook for sharing inflammatory material via far right group ‘Britain First’s’ like page, do not identify as racist. Part of me wants to bet that Mahaneela’s aggressor doesn’t think he’s a bigot either. They’ll be a far-fetched explanation as to why his actions weren’t racist. He was quoting Kanye. He didn’t mean it in a ‘racial way’. Technically, she’s black right? They say it all the time, so what’s the problem? And they’ll be those who defend him, imploring us to not turn every single little thing into a race issue. But as uncomfortable as racial dialogue may make us (and yes, we minorities don’t like having to constantly labour and rehash the same points daily either), it would far more beneficial if instead of attempting to silence acts of racism, people simply stopped being racist.

When well meaning whites proudly declare colour-blind status it grates- what minorities [global majority] need is their experiences of prejudice, crude or structural in for example employment discrimination to be understood in reality- an ugly, frequent and painful reality. Declaring you can’t see race when so many of your peers can and choose to use it against us puts the onus on ethics to avoid being victims of racism, rather than the onus on perpetrators to stop their prejudice. As with the issue of domestic violence, we must stop racial abuse from being solely the issue of a few and make it an issue for us all.

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Yomi Adegoke is a recent law graduate and writer of Nigerian descent. She is founder and editor of Birthday Magazine, a publication aimed at providing representation for black teenage girls and writes about race, popular culture and intersectional feminism. You can find and follow her on Twitter: @sittingwitty.


5 thoughts on “‘The Bystander Effect’

  1. I’ve also noticed it’s often the case that people do little or nothing in support when a victim of racism blogs, tweets or FB’s their experience – until a white person ‘likes’ or shares; as if the testimony of a brown victim only has legitimacy when supported by a white liberal, most of the support thereafter being shown on the pages and spaces of the white liberal supporter rather than in the comments section of the original poster.


  2. Reblogged this on Nagara and commented:
    I very much like this piece by Yomi Adegoke. I’ve also noticed it’s also often the case that people do little or nothing in support when a victim of racism blogs, tweets or FB’s their experience – until a white person ‘likes’ or shares; as if the testimony of a brown victim only has legitimacy when supported by a white liberal, most of the support thereafter being shown on the pages and spaces of the white liberal supporter rather than in the comments section of the original poster.


  3. Well I have just discovered this blog. I just commented on the piece published a few years ago about the so-called public schools in Britain, and I’d like to refer readers to that comment.

    The episode described above is disgusting. Racism is disgusting, but I rather think the question of race is partly an excuse for what I put about the public school system. Elitist, bourgeois British people are intent on being better than others and will use all means to obtain circumstances from which they can be condescending and patronizing. Race helps them do that, but make no mistake, they will also be condescending and even hateful to people of their own race too.

    This is no excuse for racism, and I am not playing racism down. But racism is a sub-category of the ubiquitous British desire to get ahead, or at least be better off than others.

    I might just add that intervening in assaults is not thought proper – at least not in the south of England. I happened to board a train in Southampton some years ago, and to cut a long story short I had to be rough with a thug who was beating up a young man and his girlfriend. A fellow passenger said to me “hey steady on, we are supposed to stopping a fight!” The fact was however, there was no fight, just a beating in progress, and I was the only one to stop it happening.


  4. I heartily agree w/Mr Elcock’s POV and I am OUTRAGED a this behavior towards Ms Choudhury-Reid; outraged .. I feel certain that had I been present and in physical proximity, the outcome described in the article would be quite different and in her favor. —That said: it is well past time for Women in general and Women Of Colour in particular to forge past any misgivings they may have about (physical) confrontation with Men (& people in general) and learn how to protect/defend themselves from assault from a professional who teaches Real World Street Tactics and has a positive track record to back it up.

    Waiting/hoping for others to “come to the rescue” CLEARLY ain’t not cuttin’ it and still issues from a programmed victim mentality.

    Time To Stand Your GROUND.

    Said with the utmost Respect and Love.


  5. Brilliant article. Encapsulates well something I used to refer to as “ice-man -syndrome”. Basically, a detachment from the feelings of others. This can manifest itself in racial, cultural and often financial/class variations. The youth of today must forge solidarity in defiance of this alarming trend.


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