Moving Beyond Bystanding

Maranda Ward, EdD ’17, MPH, explains the role of the bystander as a disruptive force against racism
Authored by
Dr. Maranda Ward posing for a portrait on the GW campus

The George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) Office of Diversity and Inclusion is hosting a bystander training event, as part of the GW SMHS Anti-Racism Coalition (ARC) Education Series. The training on Feb. 17, from noon to 1:30 pm, titled “Moving Beyond Bystanding … to Disrupting Racism,” features Olanrewaju “Lanre” O. Falusi, MD, FAA, medical director of advocacy education for Child Health Advocacy Institute and assistant professor of pediatrics at SMHS and Children’s National Hospital, and Maranda Ward, EdD ’17, MPH, assistant professor of clinical research and leadership at SMHS and co-lead for the education and evaluation arm of the ARC as the SMHS Emerging Scholars Fellow in Antiracism and Health Equity.

Ward, who also is an Emerging Scholars Fellow and serves as the program lead for the Health Careers Opportunity Program Ambassadors, shares some insight into what means to be a bystander in the context of anti-racism.

Where did the idea of bystander training come from, and what is the goal of this kind of educational program?

Ward: If you look in the literature, you will actually find that bystander training is highly used to address sexual assault. It’s the whole “see something, say something” approach to support those who are harassed and victimized. That approach has been expanded to also include racial bias and microaggressions. The training that Dr. Falusi and I are co-facilitating is aptly titled, “Moving Beyond Bystanding ... to Disrupting Racism.” We will discuss why the bystander approach falls flat in addressing racism, especially its institutionalized forms.

What does it mean to be a bystander in the context of anti-racism?

Ward: Not to steal our own thunder, but one of the things we will discuss is how bystanding generally maintains racial inequities. You may wonder, “How is that possible?” Well, because the bystander is a person who holds their own racial biases. And, if we are relying on bystanders to stand up for justice, it requires that bystanders are critically aware of their own world views and are prepared to take risks that are uncomfortable or that threaten their own privilege. The way that bystander models are currently shared, they don’t account for these blind spots. In fact, the communication tools published as guides, with scripts to practice bystanding, don’t allow for any introspection. The biggest oversight of many bystander models is its overreliance on individual racist attitudes and beliefs. Racism extends beyond interpersonal relationships and dynamics. We will propose a new model that allows for us to consider GW’s newly expressed commitment to being an antiracist institution — which extends beyond individual attitudes to include institutional culture and systemic change.    

How have positions of power and privilege in the workplace historically sustained a culture of racism and injustice despite federal and state regulations, such as EEO standards, designed to make workplaces safer and more just spaces?

Ward: I love this question! Our new D.I.S.R.U.P.T.or model (you’ll have to attend the training to find out what that stands for) addresses the role of power and privilege. In fact, we have designed our training to include some cases so that attendees can work in small groups to practice what it looks like to redistribute power while engaging in change that is inconvenient, hard, and time-consuming. This will take some un-learning, including processes that have previously gone unquestioned for the sake of preserving tradition, routines, and efficiency.   

What are the expectations for bystanders? Interjecting themselves in a situation? Reporting racist behavior?

Ward: Bystanders address individual feelings — and the personal impact — in the moment. But, what happens if the bystander does not recognize a comment as a microaggression or a decision as reflecting racial bias? Nothing changes. But even if they do recognize and report it, the systems that currently exist largely produce, if not maintain, racism. In the training session we will give examples of what this looks like. We are calling for disruptors who will address institutional values alongside personal ones to change racist culture, policies, and practices. 

What about acts, such as microaggressions, that are sometimes tough to spot and harder to prove? How should a bystander respond in those situations?

Ward: What’s useful about being a disruptor is that you don’t have to rely on your own values alone to spot a microaggression. As a disruptor, you are relying on GW’s social mission to meet the needs of historically marginalized populations through a commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. And, this requires for us to also recognize how biases show up in admission criteria, hiring practices, hospital algorithms, and research questions. There is no such thing as race neutral policy. It is either producing racial inequity or advancing racial equity. Much in the same way, the GW medical enterprise has articulated that we do see race, the impact of racism, and actively choose to be antiracist. You can find the ARC’s strategic plan on the coalition website. People can also join these efforts by emailing

Why do you think people are sometimes hesitant to involve themselves in racist confrontations, even when they believe the behavior they’re witnessing is wrong?

Ward: Bystander models actually do explain why people have reservations with standing up. There are some of us who think someone else will do it. Or, think that someone may be better equipped to do it — especially if you believe you could make it worse by not knowing what to say. Others may think that, “well, no one else is saying anything, so I guess I am overthinking it.” We will discuss these deterrents and more, to intervening in the face of racism. We will also share, and practice, why it is important to weaponize your privilege and get in good, necessary trouble, as the legacy of Rep. John Lewis reminds us.

Other upcoming events during Black History Month In addition to the bystander training, the ARC Educational Series will host a movie screening of “Black Men in White Coats,” a 2021 film aimed at addressing falling numbers of Black men applying to medical school. The screening will be held Thursday, Feb. 25 at 7 pm.

The GW Multicultural Student Services Center is also offering a full slate of virtual events for its Black Heritage Celebration.

GW ARC Initiatives and Achievements Submission Form The success of the GW ARC initiative depends on the contributions of all members of the SMHS, GW Hospital, Children’s National Hospital, and GW Medical Faculty Associates communities. If you, your department, or organization has an achievement or initiative that promotes the ideals of the Anti-Racism Coalition. Submit that information on the GW ARC website.

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