The right to interrupt
Recently, a participant in a workshop asked an important question: doesn’t speaking up to interrupt bias as a bystander take away the agency of the person being harmed? Shouldn’t we ask their permission before interrupting?
Of course, we can ask them—but often we have only a few seconds to decide what role to play in an interaction. Maybe we know the person well enough to pick up on their cues, or give a signal quickly that we are looking to speak up.
But in most cases, things are happening so quickly that we must act without complete information. The risk of not saying anything is that the behavior will go unacknowledged by anyone, causing harm without accountability.
I got some perspective on this challenge several years ago. I was talking to a man about a project I was leading. Halfway through, we were joined by another man on my team. From that point forward, the first man turned to my male colleague and directed his comments to him. Even when I spoke or asked a question, he directed his attention at the other man. I found myself becoming more and more infuriated as he stopped making eye contact with me completely.
I wish I could say that I leveraged my decades of legal negotiation skills to ask him why he wasn’t looking at me, and/or applied my knowledge of DEI to calmly prompt him to reflect on his gender bias (or was it racial bias, or the intersectional identity?). But instead I drove on, making my point—but louder, harsher, and angrier.
I don’t see myself as someone who needs rescuing. But in that moment, I would have appreciated it if my colleague had spoken up. He could have simply said, “Marguerite is the one who is making this decision. You should be speaking to her, not me.”
This bystander had some key advantages. He was directly involved in the interaction. And he had privilege that I lacked. It would have been nice if he had used that privilege to speak up, and call out the fact that he noticed something wrong. Since the offender already indicated at least an unconscious bias toward him, an interruption from another white man might have been received more readily by the offender. What’s more, when we are in a place of privilege, and therefore not in the target group of a microaggression, it’s likely that we aren’t emotionally triggered in the moment and it will cost us less emotional energy to respond.
So why didn’t he speak up? The participant in the recent workshop made me wonder if my colleague might have hesitated out of respect for me. Could he have felt he was taking away my agency? When practicing allyship, you don’t want to see yourself as a knight in shining armor trying to right a wrong for someone who is unable to do it for themselves. And we should make a practice of taking direction from people with lived experiences. If that’s what he was thinking, I certainly respect that. And it’s likely that I sent him no cues seeking assistance; I knew I would resolve the issue on my own later (which I did).
Yet, I would have appreciated the intervention. If I were standing with a colleague who identifies as queer, and someone made a homophobic comment, I would feel perfectly comfortable saying, “That comment is offensive to me”—because it’s true. I don’t have to be a member of a marginalized group to see how toxic bias toward a group is, and how important it is for me to discourage it whenever I can.
So in response to the workshop participant’s question, I suggest interrupting a harmful thing because the thing needs interrupting. If you observe a microaggression, ask yourself if it offends you, whether or not the apparent target is taking action. Don't think about yourself interrupting on behalf of anyone.
This approach eliminates the rescue or savior mentality. It makes it clear to the offender that their actions are outside of acceptable norms for all of us, not just a sensitivity that some people have.
It’s wonderful that more people are recognizing nuances of practicing allyship. After all, if you’re doing something to make yourself look better, that’s the wrong approach. But some people tie themselves in knots trying to figure out if they should speak up. They look for the “best way,” and may end up doing nothing.
The bottom line is: you have agency too. We all do. Let’s use it to build a better community.