Review of CAE’s The Right to Be Safe: Upstander & Self Defense Response to Anti-Asian Harassment & Violence Workshop

By Jenny Silbiger

Aloha kākou,

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

A lifetime ago or so, the words “chink” and “gook” ringed in my ears, leveled at me by kids in my midwestern grade school classroom.  At the same time, they held the corners of their eyes back to make them “slanted” and shoved their faces into mine, apparently in a sense of teasing, good fun (for them) as elementary kids might do.  And while such incidents sprinkled my childhood and adolescence, they intermixed into my wide baking bowl batter of wonderful and challenging experiences in growing up, becoming long forgotten ingredients overwhelmed with flavors of successes and hardships and love and joy that developing into adulthood brings.  

But with the rise of cases and deaths worldwide due to COVID-19, and a former national leadership that coined the terms “Chinese Virus” and “Kung-flu,”  I am hearing about similar as well as much more escalated anti-Asian harassment, including physical beatings and targeted murders. So I’ve been keeping an eye out for my friends and family across the sea, as well as for my daughters here in my island home.  

In Hawaii, we live in a different cultural and racial environment than the US mainland, and I am sharing my interview about the nuances of living in a majority multi-racial and Asian & Pacific Islander community.  At the same time, the challenges and damage wrought by racial targeting can be felt regardless of which shore you happen to come across, so I’ve had the great fortune of attending educational opportunities around bystander and now upstander intervention training in response to anti-Asian harassment, including:  The Right to be Safe: An Upstander & Self Defense Response to Anti-Asian Harassment & Violence, an interactive workshop presented by the Center for Anti-Violence Education (CAE).  

Center for Anti-Violence Education (CAE)
Center for Anti-Violence Education (CAE)

The Center for Anti-Violence Education works to prevent, disrupt, and heal from hate violence in its communities through educational programs that center the experiences of people most marginalized. This program was brought to us by our AALLc colleagues, who received the Bloomberg Education grant, and was co-sponsored by RIPS-SIS and GLL-SIS.

The workshop presented a brief history of anti-Asian and xenophobic discrimination in the United States, followed by strategies to fight back against anti-Asian violence. Discussion included barriers to intervening, de-escalation strategies, as well as CAE’s Upstander approach, and strategies that can be deployed before, during, and after a harassment encounter, and also included physical self-defense techniques. 

One of the key takeaways that stuck with me out of this August training is this phrase:  “support not savior.”  If and when we think to intervene on behalf of a person experiencing harassment unfolding in front of us, the focus is and always is supporting that person. It is not about pushing ourselves into a central narrative of the protagonist’s savior role. It is about acting on what we can do to assist and support someone to help them escape safely from a harassment scenario, and the choice of action taken is centered on respect, dignity, and the needs of that person. 

Before diving into intervention techniques, CAE asked us to think about different zones of threat levels involved, which they described in a color-coded system: 

  • Green:  meaning you are in a safe zone.  
  • Yellow:  where there may need to be a verbal and/or non-verbal response, i.e. can include unwanted attention or physical contact.  
  • Orange: active aggression, which could lead to a verbal and/or physical technique response.
  • Red:  life threatening, where physical technique responses are necessary.

We had an open discussion on where and when someone would feel more comfortable stepping in, and what barriers there are to prevent assisting. Some of the main barriers that bubbled up were:  safety, fear of making things worse, feeling frozen—generally as applied to orange and red zone levels.  However, harassment happens on a continuum, and there were many folks who shared they felt more empowered in the yellow zone, and discussed verbally intervening and/or enlisting authorities (i.e. if someone was being harassed in their law library, or further, if there was an orange/red level threat).

CAE discussed intervening as an “Upstander” intervention, and they broke down strategies of how to approach and think about taking action before directly intervening, during an event, and after an event has occurred.

CAE describes the before Upstander intervention strategies as BAPP:

  • Breathe: take a moment to get some air into our brains before making any rash decisions.  Breathing can help calm ourselves down and slow our heart rate, and give us the time to think carefully on how to move forward.
  • Aware of your triggers: what is it that makes you react strongly—what makes you sad, angry, fearful?  This is useful to think about before taking action, to help ourselves take a step back and focus on the safety of the person you are supporting (vs personal triggers).
  • Positionality: think about how you are perceived by the world (race, gender, ability, age, etc) and how that can inform the tactics that are available to you.  Be aware of our own privileges and how they may impact the equation (i.e. white, able-bodied, cis-gender, male, etc).  
  • Position yourself for safety:  be aware of exits, be aware of your surroundings, stand firmly on two feet, keep your posture confident, hands free.

In sum, BAPP is helpful to think about before actively engaging, to not only to help the person you are hoping to help, but also to keep yourself safe.  

Next, here are some key takeaways about Upstander approaches during an intervention (no acronym provided; great ideas all the same):

  • Be an active witness:  record by watching, writing, or video documentation.  Also, this is helpful if someone is already taking active steps to intervene, as we can provide records of what is happening.
  • Involve others: if possible, if there are other folks witnessing or involved, you can ask them to help, support, or delegate tasks (someone, call 911!)
  • Support, not savior:  if possible, we can use our voice to help the person being harassed and help by getting them out of the situation.  Then, be supportive by checking in with the person after the harassment event is over to see if there is anything we can do for them.  All of these actions are rooted in support and about helping the person, not inserting ourselves into a narrative as the savior of the moment.  

Note: One of the discussion points brought up is that as an active witness, we may offer ourselves up to be a witness to authorities or help with reporting the incident for the person experiencing the harassment.  However, if that person does not want to make a report, for whatever reason—sometimes the reporting process itself can be a re-traumatizing event—then we as upstander interveners, must respect and be supportive of that choice.  We can offer our support and help, but forcing someone to make a report if they do not want to make one transforms the narrative from active supporter into insertion of ourselves as a savior.  It is crucial that we respect the agency of the person experiencing harassment.

  • Distract:  we can distract attention away from the harasser, the targeted person, or the situation itself.  The point is getting the harassment to stop and to get out of the situation.
  • Address the harasser:  in certain situations, and only if you feel comfortable, we can intervene by addressing the harasser directly, we could distract by asking random questions altogether, to get the harasser off topic and away, or if we personally know the harasser, rely on our personal connection by assuming they mean well and steering the conversation to a place of understanding. (This is obviously not easy, and this is based on our best judgment. Note: if it was easy, we would no longer have harassment problems based on race/gender/ability/age/sexual orientation/religion etc!).

The point of all of these strategies is to do everything we can in our power to help someone out of a harassment situation, while keeping their safety (and ours) in mind. 

At this point in the program, CAE provided some physical self-defense tips.  While I am not much of a fighter, one detail in particular stuck to me—about holding ourselves at a 45 degree angle from the harasser, because we become less of a target than when standing face-front. They went into other tips such as keeping our hands free, using whatever we might have in our pockets, a pen, or mini hairspray, but none of these small objects would be helpful without an element of surprise. For example, we might be walking down the road and if we think we’re being followed, opening up our water bottle and suddenly turning and throwing water in their face. That moment of surprise could be all that we need to run away. 

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

The biggest takeaway from the self defense portion was CAE stating this: we do 100% whatever we can to keep ourselves safe. 

Finally, CAE closed the program with Upstander Intervention strategies for after an event, which they acronymed with CARE:

C:  Care practices vs. coping —there are certain things that can help us in the moment, but investing in long-term care and healing is important.

A:  Allow whatever you feel to rise—allow ourselves to address any feelings that come up with witnessing or participating in an intervention.

R:  Return to breath (breathing, meditation).

E:  Engage in community organizing—being conscious of the bigger systems within which harassment exists.  Whether we see microagression or outright harassment in our spaces, we can think about what we can do within our communities to end these toxic behaviors and create a safer environment (i.e. work and align ourselves with like minded individuals, such as CAE) ?

Upstander intervention is about holding each other up and creating a safe place for one another. And I loved that CAE closed the workshop with this thoughtful action to think about:

What is the one thing that you will do to care for yourself or your loved ones this week?

My answer: to check in on my family members and make sure they know they are loved.  As for me, to take it easy as I just fractured my foot (long story), and I am on the healing journey.

Wishing you love, safety, and health in this crazy pandemic world!


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. Their essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.